Shakespeare has a lot to answer for when it comes to the portrayal of English kings, whether heroes or villains – especially when interpreted by Laurence Olivier. The actor’s hyperbolic version of Henry V, screened recently at numerous celebrations – sorry, commemorations – of the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, is vivid in its verbosity, ramming home its theme of a Britain united across classes and nationalities. Prompted by Churchill, no less, and released in November 1944, it was the perfect propaganda salvo. There were, in reality, no glorious, rousing speeches at Agincourt: the warrior king led his men into battle with no more than a ‘Fellas, let’s go’. Yet it is the Will-and-Larry version that is our Harry, to the extent that the visitor centre at Agincourt employs the dialogue of the play to tell the story of the battle, rather than the words of eyewitnesses or modern historians.
And so with Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s vilest creations. According to David Horspool in this highly competent but ultimately unsatisfying study, Olivier’s treatment of Richard – all ‘exaggerated limp’ and ‘strangulated RSC tones’ – represents the ‘culmination of five centuries of … blackening’, which an enthusiastic and growing group