A THOUSAND FEARFUL WRECKS OF MEMORY

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The Life and Death of Richard III

by William Shakespeare

Scene IV.

Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower,

And was embark`d to cross to Burgundy;

And, in my company, my brother Gloucester;

Who from my cabin tempted me to walk

Upon the hatches: thence we looked towards England,

And cited up a thousand fearful times,

During the wars of York and Lancaster

That had befall`n us. As we paced along

Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,

Methought that Gloucester stumbled; and, in falling,

Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard,

Into the tumbling billows of the main.

Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!

What dreadful noise of waters in thine ears!

What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!

Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;

Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw`d upon;

Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,

Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,

All scatter`d in the bottom of the sea:

Some lay in dead men`s skulls; and, in those holes

Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,

As `twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,

Which woo`d the slimy bottom of the deep,

And mock`d the dead bones that lay scatter`d by.

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As always when Shakespeare is on the top of his game, it`s virtually impossible to distinguish between great prose or poetry. It`s just writing on another level, entire unto itself, which seperates the great from the truly celestial. Richard III has to be acknowledged as a tremendous piece of Tudor propaganda aginst a fallen king from a rival dynasty. A Tudor queen sits atop the English throne, and in order to keep in with the current administration, curry favour, and replenish the cash registers by the monarch`s nod of approval, our man writes a scathing, riotous, defamatory, and entirely perverted version of the truth. Such is a writer`s lot in all totalitarian states; because make no mistake, 16th century monarchy was utterly oppressive in it`s view of the social order, so if you didn`t agree with the way the elite were running things for their own benefit……Well, you just didn`t, if you had any sense of personal and financial survival. In that day and age, principles were considered to be reserved for martyrs and lunatics. Written history reflects the prevailing attitudes of the day; it may not be fact, or be in any way near the truth, but is more often than not a concoction of half-truth, innuendo, supposition, redacting the original storyline, or just plain, good old fashion lies. The Tudors were good at re-writing their backstory; turning a bunch of illegitimate, minor dynastic outcasts into the chosen people, given God`s blessing to eliminate those nasty Plantagenet Yorkists, and replace them with morally upright Tudor stock.

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They conveniently shunt into the sidings the fact that by 1485, no one could claim the moral high ground; the aristocracy had virtually wiped itself out in what has become known as the Wars of the Roses, and which were basically an inter-family punch up. Henry Tudor simply became the last man standing in a conflict that had originally been about royal legitimacy, and ironically ended with a man who had absolutely no legitimacy to the crown at all. It was an age of gold, turned into one of rust. Shakespeare in the passage above gives us a Clarence who at first thinks he has been hard done by; he is meek and gentle, unworldly almost. Trusting of his brothers, and a faithful and loving husband without personal ambition.  This portrait could not be further from the truth, Clarence is deceiving himself however; even Shakespeare relents,  as later in the same scene he pulls the curtain apart to reveal the true nature of this brother. Even if Clarence was a conniving, deceitful, multi-faced man of restless ambition, he claimed to have done it entirely for his brother Edward. False, fleeting, perjured Clarence has been undone by his own weak character, and finally repents of his sins in the Tower; but it`s all to no avail, because brother Richard will have his way of things, and Clarence has not only reached the end of his many misdeeds, but he stands in the way of the crown. So, Shakespeare puts a speech of gut wrenching, self pitying emotion into the mouth of this master of serial familial misbehaviour, as Clarence tries to work out where the weave of his ambition started to unravel, and finally realizes that all is vanity. What are all the gold, jewels. pearls and treasure of inestimable value worth, if ambition blinds you to the truth of the matter……….Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
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