Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 294

Like most other historical novels, The Black Arrow shows the influence of both history and literature, particularly in the characterization of Duke Richard. The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) was a sporadic conflict between the House of Lancaster (whose heraldic symbol was a red rose) and the House of York (a white rose). Essentially, it was a family quarrel blown out of proportion. All the claimants to the English throne were related to one another, as descendents of King Edward III (1327-1377); both sides had periods of victory and defeat. The cultural chaos in the novel shows Brackley’s traitorous nature and provides both a cause and a context for Shelton’s maturation.

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Robert Louis Stevenson was also influenced by the traditional representation of the historical figure of Richard Crookback as a violent brute. One of the first such treatments was in William Shakespeare’s play Richard III (1592), which purports to show Richard’s career as a murderous and grasping political intriguer who is eventually defeated in battle by the rightful king, Henry Tudor. Shakespeare’s play was written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry’s granddaughter, and thus was more a politically inspired fiction than an accurate portrayal. The Black Arrow makes use of some aspects of this portrait, representing the younger Duke Richard as energetic and ambitious, with an incipient mean streak. Young adults, reading the work, probably will not recognize the character, nor the irony of his involvement in the plot; Shelton’s success is made possible by this literary incarnation of ruthless violence. What the young adult reader should recognize more easily is that Shelton and Richard are parallel characters. Shelton’s rejection of violence makes him ultimately a sympathetic character; Richard’s cruelty leads to his downfall.

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