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A Novel Way to Rehabilitate a King : Author Dumke Champions That 'Foul Toad,' Richard III

August 17, 1986|PATRICK MOTT

He is, by almost any yardstick, a thoroughly poisonous human being.

He sees to the killing of his brother, two nephews, at least three opponents, his elderly former boss, his wife's ex-husband and one of his own staunchest supporters. He blatantly propositions the daughter-in-law of his former boss during the man's funeral, marries her, and after her death, tries to marry his own niece. He is known by such endearments as "foul toad," "minister of hell," "infection of a man" and "lump of foul deformity"--and all these by just his wife.

Killed With Battle Ax

But, nearly 500 years after his head was split open with a battle ax to the supposed delight of everybody, Richard III, Shakespeare's nastiest villain, has found a literary ally in Glenn Dumke.

Dumke, chancellor emeritus of the California State University system, a former professor of history and the author of four historical novels, thinks Richard has gotten a bad rap. The English king who Shakespeare portrays as a scheming, bloodthirsty, murderous, hunchbacked traitor was, Dumke says, actually a democratic, fair-minded, intelligent, loyal and beloved leader led astray by ambition.

Dumke was fascinated enough with the centuries-old controversy surrounding the reign and character of Richard that he decided to construct his fifth and newest historical novel, "King's Ransom," around him. In the book--written under the pseudonym Glenn Pierce--Richard emerges as an honorable man often victimized by the treachery of his contemporaries and who, partly as a result of their frequent treason, is beguiled by power and overwhelmed by a lust for it.

"As a person, he was a mixture of good and bad, with the good probably outweighing the bad," said Dumke, who maintains homes in the hills of Encino and on Lido Isle in Newport Beach, where most of the book was written. "His good nature slipped when he usurped the throne, but he was one of the few serious-minded noblemen of his time. He was an excellent military strategist and a good administrator. Also, while all sorts of intrigues were going on at his brother's (King Edward IV) court in London (before Richard became king), he stayed in Yorkshire, away from it all, and was very popular there."

To read "King's Ransom" against Shakespeare's tragedy, "Richard III," is to witness a series of points and counterpoints concerning Richard's supposed evil deeds, or the lack of them.

Conspired With Thugs

Shakespeare, for instance, writes that Richard conspired with a pair of thugs, ordering them to kill his brother, the Duke of Clarence, held prisoner in the Tower of London. They go to the Tower, stab him, then drown him in a butt of Malmsey--a large vat filled with wine.

Pleaded for Life

Dumke's book, however, finds Richard pleading with the king for the life of the treasonous Clarence and, failing that, is granted the favor of allowing Clarence to choose his own method of execution. Clarence, a drunkard, decides to underline that vice and chooses to be drowned in the Malmsey butt. And he is drowned, but by executioners--and with Richard's great regrets.

Shakespeare also writes of Richard killing--or seeing to the killing of--the elderly and good-natured Lancaster King Henry VI and Henry's son Edward, the first husband of Richard's wife, Anne. Dumke writes that Richard merely witnessed Henry's killing (a summary execution, actually, on King Edward's orders), opposed it and was deeply troubled by it. Edward, Dumke asserts, was killed in battle--not by Richard but by the vicious Duke of Clarence, Richard's brother.

Dumke's story is told through the eyes of Godfrey of Westminster, a fictional squire to Richard, who later becomes a lay Cistercian monk and writes a biographical history of Richard, which is sealed with Godfrey in his tomb. Dumke, writing fictionally in the person of Glenn Pierce, discovers the tomb and Godfrey's writings in 1986.

Richard's bloodthirsty nature and lust for power, so prominent throughout accounts written by Shakespeare, Sir Thomas More (chancellor of England under Henry VIII) and others, doesn't show itself until almost the final third of Dumke's novel. In chapters before that point, the devoted Godfrey quotes Richard as saying:

-- Why is it that men deal in falsehood and lies and calumny and betrayal? Why is there so much viciousness?

--I have no . . . desire to rule other men. When I find myself in a situation where I must, then I shall do so. But I would not slay or betray to give myself a throne. . . .

--I will not be called a usurper. I will not seize what is not given freely by the people.

These contrast sharply with excerpts of Richard's speeches from the first scene of Shakespeare's play:

--I am determined to prove a

villain, And hate the idle pleasures of

these days. -- . . . I am subtle, false and

treacherous . . . --I'll in, to urge his hatred more to

Clarence, With lies well steel'd with weighty

arguments; And, if I fail not in my deep intent,

Clarence hath not another day to

live.

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