Posted By Roger Stritmatter on December 1, 2012
In pursuit of an ongoing study of the Senecan sources of Shakespearean plays I’ve had recent opportunity to reread Richard III — one of the most “Senecan” (along with Titus Andronicus and, somewhat surprisingly, Midsummer Night’s Dream) of the plays.
In act 3, scene 1 there is a highly intriguing exchange between Prince Edward (whose father has just died, making him the immediate heir to the throne), Richard, and the Duke of Buckingham, about the historical question of whether or not Julius Caesar built the tower of London.
The discussion ensues from the menacing suggestion of Richard Duke of Gloucester, the once and future Richard III, that the prince should take up lodgings in the tower of London — which was, of course, used as a jail to imprison competing dynasts before executing them, and is shortly to become the place where the young royal heir will be murdered on Richard’s command.
Here is the entire exchange:
Rich…..If I may counsel you, some day or two
Your Highness shall repose you at the Tower,
Then where you please and shall be thought most fit
For your best health and recreation.
Prince. I do not like the Tower, of any place.
Did Julius Caesar build that place, my lord?
Buck. He did, my gracious lord, begin that place.
Which since, succeeding ages have re-edified.
Prince. Is it upon record, or else reported
Successively from age to age, he built it?
Buck. Upon record, my gracious lord.
Prince. But say, my lord, if it were not register’d,
Methinks the truth should live from age to age,
As ’twere retail’d to all posterity,
Even to the general all-ending day.
Rich. [Aside] So wise so young, they say, do never live long.
Most intriguingly, Arden editor Hammond remarks that “there is no precedent [for this dialogue] in the sources,” and surmises that serves three functions. The first two functions are characterological: 1) it “establishes the prince’s royal nature and potential; 2) it “also reveals his critical intellect…in his concern for the historical truth of traditions.” The third reason seems to be not only dramatic but philosophic in scope: it “ventilates the issue of historical ‘record’….and this dialogue is part of another historical structure which will live from age to age — the play itself, also founded upon ‘record which was however based largely upon report and rumor” (214).
In fact, it seems to me, the argument of the martyred prince is even more sophisticated than Hammond admits. The prince makes a clear distinction between evidence with is “on record” — preserved in records contemporaneous with the event — and that which has been “reported successively from age to age” — i.e., recorded in a series of historical documents each one taking witness from the last in an unbroken chain of historical custody and therefore constituting a kind of proof (assuming the original was not in error) even in the absence of records contemporaneous with the event. Indeed, the passage “establishes the critical intellect” of the about-to-be-murdered prince and actually points us to certain unresolved problems in modern Shakespearean scholarship.
Close readers of the play will notice that the idea expressed in this exchange, of enduring truth, while here somewhat more carefully elaborated and explicitly linked to the problem of the the telling of history, is found elsewhere in Shakespeare, for example in the 5th act exchange between Isabella and the Duke in Measure:
Is. Truth is truth to the end of reckoning. (5.4.45)
Duke. Poor soul, she speaks this in the infirmity of sense. (5.1.48)
In both texts, the character articulating the principle of the durability of the truth is mocked as being either doomed to imminent death or else marked by certifiable madness.
Being the assiduous student of the Oxford heresy that I am, I could not help being intrigued by this fairly extensive commentary. I haven’t studied the history of the passage in any detail and don’t know whether or how other editors have remarked on it, but I do know one thing: the thought expressed by the young prince in Richard III and by Isabella in Measure bears an uncanny similarity that found in the Earl of Oxford’s Jan. 1603 Danvers Escheat Letter to Robert Cecil:
“I hope truth is subject to no prescription. For truth is truth, though never so old, and time cannot make that false which once was true” (Fowler 771; my emphasis).
In his commentary on this passage Fowler, in his masterful Shakespeare Revealed in Oxford’s Letters identifies nine parallels of the phrase “truth is truth” in the Shakespeare canon, including Isabel’s, and 24 instances of Oxford’s use of “true” and “false” in coordinated antithesis.
But because he was focused largely on lexical comparisons between actual words, and not the underlying thought, Fowler missed the remarkable parallelism in idea between the 1603 letter and the Richard III passage.
Had “Shakespeare” been reading Oxford’s letters?
Alas, we all know that Richard III was written — whenever it was written — long before 1603.
So perhaps the explanation must lie in Oxford’s know enthusiasm for the theatre. Maybe he composed the Escheat letter shortly after rereading Richard III and being struck by the wisdom of the young prince that “truth should be as ’twere retailed to all posterity…even to the general all-ending day.”
He seems to have known, also, that this should was destined to be hemmed in on every side by the forces of ignorance and self interest — even the benevolent Duke in Measure, confronted with the same idealistic thought in the mouth of Isabella, can only reply: “poor soul, she speaks this in the infirmity of sense.”