Carol Ann Duffy

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How does this poem provide insight into King Richard III and connect with themes in the play?

My bones, scripted in light, upon cold soil,
a human braille. My skull, scarred by a crown,
emptied of history. Describe my soul
as incense, votive, vanishing; your own
the same. Grant me the carving of my name.

These relics, bless. Imagine you re-tie
a broken string and on it thread a cross,
the symbol severed from me when I died.
The end of time – an unknown, unfelt loss –
unless the Resurrection of the Dead …

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

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"Richard" by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy commemorated the reburial of the bones of King Richard III in 2015. The fifteenth century king's remains were found below a parking lot in Leicester, England over 500 years after his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The poem is written with Richard III as narrator. Duffy's chastened and melancholy Richard is quite different from Shakespeare's Richard, who is an unapologetic, witty, and charismatic villain. Only just before the battle, and then on the battlefield, does the playwright show the king with some positive attributes such as courage, self-reflection, and leadership.

The poem first describes the skeletal remains of the king as they appeared as they were unearthed, and then his anticipated reburial with full honors, including the carving of his name on his tomb, honors which were denied to him after Bosworth. The melancholy, reflective tone of the poem resonates best with Shakespeare's Richard's night before Bosworth, where he was visited by ghosts of all of his victims.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

The poem's references to the king's faith, such as incense, votives, relics, cross, and resurrection, are less tied to the play; instead, the poem's Richard muses on the ephemeral quality of life and hints at a Christian hereafter. The poem's last lines affectingly describe Richard's dreams of people praying for his soul, and his sensing of his well-wishers "from the backstage of my death," language which also suggests Christian themes of eternal life.

This sad and reflective tone in the poem is in sharp contrast to the gleeful and glib villain in Shakespeare. Shakespeare's play fundamentally is about good and evil in high contrast, while Duffy's more subtle poem shows us a repentant and humble imagining of the king's spirit observing his rediscovery and reburial.

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