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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: May 2011

8 - More on tyranny: The History of King Richard the Third

from Part II - Five Major Works

Written around the time of Utopia, The History of King Richard the Third is More’s other great political work, an account of the events of four tumultuous months in England from the death of King Edward IV, on 9 April 1483, through the several stages of the usurpation of the throne by his younger brother Richard. At the heart of both books is More’s deep understanding of – and scathing contempt for – immoral, self-serving rulers and their enablers, his profound sympathy for their victims and his passionate desire to expose their machinations and depredations, in the (faint) hope of encouraging reforms that, in the final words of Utopia, he ‘would wish rather than expect to see’ (CU 249). Both books deploy in this effort all the resources of More’s splendid literary gift, including narrative verve, dramatic immediacy, wit, irony, satire and, occasionally, pathos. Both are also supreme achievements of Renaissance humanism, imbued with their author’s broad classical learning, participating in classical generic traditions and applying ancient paradigms in the attempt to elicit or confirm timeless lessons from observations of the present.

The History differs from Utopia, however, in two important respects. First, although More wrote a version of it in the simulated classical Latin of humanism (the language of Utopia), he also wrote an English version. Second, he did not complete either version. The Latin one breaks off immediately after a sour account of Richard’s assumption of the kingship, on 26 June, and his formal coronation eleven days later. The English version continues past the chronological endpoint of the Latin to narrate the supposed murder of Edward’s two young sons (the rightful heirs to the throne); promises that we shall later hear Richard ‘slain in the field, hacked and hewed’, in just requital for his ‘dispiteous cruelty’ (R3 101–2); but then, a few pages later, stops abruptly in the middle of an episode narrating the defection (several weeks after Richard’s coronation) of his principal ally, the duke of Buckingham.

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The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More
  • Online ISBN: 9780511976148
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