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  • Mary Shelley and the Many Perkins
  • Jena Al-Fuhaid

Mary Shelley's The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830) has attracted scholarly attention for what the novel indicates about her life and about her development as a writer.1 To show that Perkin Warbeck is also revelatory of Shelley's skill in literary adaptation, this article traces the ambiguities pervading the historical Perkin Warbeck as well as the literary treatments of him, beginning with Shakespeare's. I follow the heuristic of adaptation theorist Julie Sanders, who differentiates sources, or hypotexts, by designating the history as "factual hypotext" and the literary as "fictional hypotexts."2 While perhaps oversimplified, Sanders's terms are useful in mapping the Perkin Warbeck tradition's ambiguities. I then focus on three Perkin Warbeck hypertexts, or adaptations: Horace Walpole's Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III (1768),3 Shelley's Perkin Warbeck, and Alexander Campbell's Perkin Warbeck; or the Court of James the Fourth of Scotland (1830).4 I argue that these adaptations, consciously or unconsciously, project onto Shakespeare's Perkin Warbeck the anxieties aroused by political events contemporaneous with their time of composition.

The identity of the historical Perkin Warbeck with Richard, Duke of York—who, with his brother Edward V, was purportedly murdered by their uncle, Richard III—is now relatively uncontested among today's scholars.5 But his identity and his meaning [End Page 100] were fraught during his lifetime, due to his centrality in the resolution of the Wars of the Roses. The children of Elizabeth Woodville (c. 1437–1492), Queen consort, and King Edward IV, included princes Edward V and Richard, Duke of York (the famous "princes in the Tower") and Princess Elizabeth of York. On his deathbed, King Edward IV named his brother, Richard, the Lord Protector of England. Richard then seized the elder prince (Edward V) and executed the boy's maternal uncle and half-brother, prompting Elizabeth Woodville to flee into sanctuary with her daughters and the younger prince. Richard III installed young Edward V in the royal residence in the Tower of London, ostensibly in preparation for his coronation, and soon "convinced" Elizabeth to allow Prince Richard to stay with him. However, two months later, Parliament issued the Titulus Regius of 1484, a bill retroactively invalidating the deceased Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and thereby rendering their children legal bastards. With Prince Edward thus ineligible for succession, his uncle ascended to the throne as Richard III, and the princes disappeared from the Tower. The general consensus was that the princes were murdered under orders of Richard III. What became of the boys—murder or escape—will never be known, but rumors began circulating that the younger prince survived. The House of York's rule ended with Richard III's death in the 1485 Battle of Bosworth. The subsequent Tudor dynasty began with the new King Henry VII, who married Elizabeth of York, thus symbolically uniting the warring factions. He repealed the Titulus Regius and ordered that all copies of it be destroyed. Throughout Henry VII's reign, a man named Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, led multiple insurrections and invasions. Before his capture, Richard/Perkin married Katherine Gordon, but was then imprisoned in the Tower of London and was executed; his widow remained in Henry VII's court as his rumored mistress. History has since largely named Perkin Warbeck as a pretender, but dissenters remain. Throughout the 1490s, Perkin Warbeck was simultaneously rightful monarch and revolutionary imposter. As "rightful monarch," Warbeck was exploited by Charles VIII of France, James IV of Scotland, and Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, among others.6 [End Page 101] The ambiguity endured, nurturing various construals of Perkin Warbeck's meaning.7

Shakespeare originated the Perkin Warbeck literary tradition, chiefly in Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III.8 Shakespeare's vilification of Richard III indirectly discredits Perkin Warbeck. Shakespeare's clear documentation of the princes' murders nullifies Warbeck's claims, a prudent position for the playwright to take towards usurpers during Elizabeth I's increasingly intolerant reign. The Tudor myth emphasized Richard III's usurpation and tyranny, as well...


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