The first draft of history?

A news stand

Over the past week the news has been dominated by the killing of Osama Bin Laden. President Obama must have felt some satisfaction that he’d got an authoritative statement out before it was widely reported on Twitter and Facebook, though this report explains how the story began to break. Since then the handling of this major news story has taken on a life of its own.

 In the days following the President’s statement, and under severe pressure, Washington issued contradictory versions of events. Questions have continued to be asked and there are now demands for full disclosure.

 Veteran journalist Matthew Ingram expressed the difficulty back in February:

If there’s one aspect of the media business that has been disrupted more completely than any other, it’s the whole idea of “breaking news”. Just as television devalued the old front-page newspaper scoop, the web has turned breaking news into something that lasts a matter of minutes — or even seconds — rather than hours.

 Journalism used to be seen as “the first draft of history” but what we’re seeing now is rumours running wild through Twitter. Rumour has always arrived before the official or semi-official version of events. Even in Shakespeare’s time, before the advent of newspapers, it travelled quickly. In Henry IV Part 2, the figure of Rumour, the prologue to the play, is dressed in a gown “painted full of tongues”.

Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures

 Its inaccuracies are heard more loudly than the truth:

Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the Orient to the drooping West,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth.
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.

 How long will it be before we see a production of the play in which Rumour is represented by people Tweeting on their smartphones?

Even if a full inquiry is held, historians will continue to debate the death of Bin Laden, and  there will never be a single authoritative version. It was easier to arrive at an official version of history in Shakespeare’s day. Publishing was controlled, and although books were becoming more widely available during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, it was relatively easy to ensure that it was the Tudor version of history that was left for posterity. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, first published in 1577, then revised in 1587, demonized Richard III, the monarch immediately before Henry VII the first of the Tudors. We now know that Richard was not the embodiment of evil that Shakespeare, following Holinshed’s version of events, portrayed, but Holinshed’s version inspired what was to become Shakespeare’s favourite and most famous villain.

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11 Responses to The first draft of history?

  1. Mairi Macdonald says:

    I love the idea of Rumour as a series of tweets. It reminds me of the English Shakespeare Company production of Richard III when the death of Edward IV was announced by a newspaper vendor with headlines ‘Ed dead’. The problem, of course, is that you never entirely erase the initial false report from the public consciousness.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Hi, yes I’d forgotten that ESC moment – you can always rely on Michael Bogdanov to come up with really good visual jokes! And that’s a great observation about the false report always casting doubt on any subsequent attempt to put the record straight. I don’t have any particular fondness for politicians, but I do have some sympathy on occasions like this as it’s virtually impossible to get it right.

  2. Richard Morris says:

    You will have to try quite hard to find the first draft of history in modern journalism. The difference between good historical writing and journalism is that the historian should be trying arrive at something close to an objective truth; whereas sadly most modern journalism has been often reduced to the political bias of the newspaper owner and is prone to speculation and exaggeration.
    That isn’t to say that historicism is free of subjectivity, or even imaginative storytelling. Thucydides would not have been present for the speeches on which he reports, but he would have known the arguments. This was the kind of rhetorical argument in courtroom drama that Moelwyn Merchant was so fond of pointing up in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly The Merchant of Venice.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for these learned comments. I can’t say I’ve ever read Thucydides but Shakespeare would have learned about classical rhetoric in school.

  3. Jo Wilding says:

    Shakespeare derived his version of Richard III from both Holinshed and also Edward Hall’s earlier (1548) account “The Unyon of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York”. Both of these incorporate Sir Thomas More’s “History of King Richard III” which created the tradition of Richard as a monster – this was written half a century nearer to the historical events but it was still written by an author with allegiance to the Tudors.

    I like to think that something closer to an immediate and unrevised response to Richard’s death was that of the city of York who, on hearing the news, recorded the day after Bosworth that “King Richard, late lawfully reigning over us, was…piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city”. Richard’s power base was in the north and the people of York recorded what they felt despite the risk of upsetting the king who had brought about the regime change. In fact the council of York continued to defy Henry VII when he tried to impose his choice of men on them for various civic offices, and in 1489 there was a rebellion in Yorkshire caused by Henry raising taxes for war. Even Francis Bacon, a man who prospered under both Elizabeth I and James I, writing in 1622 in his “History of the Reign of Henry VII”, blamed the rebellion on the fact that in the north “the memory of King Richard was so strong that it lay like lees in the bottom of men’s hearts, and if the vessel was but stirred it would come up” (lees = yeast left after the fermentation of beer or wine).

    Paul Murray Kendall, Richard III’s great biographer, said that Richard “was buried beneath the black alluvial deposits of the Tudor historians”. I do think it is sad that, because of Shakespeare’s prodigious talent, over 500 years after Bosworth it is still this version which is the one that defines how most people see Richard.

    I wonder how Bin Laden’s death will be viewed 500 years from now.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks so much for filling in so much detail on the background to the Richard III myth. I quite agree with your sentiments about Richard’s reputation but it wasn’t Shakespeare’s fault!

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  6. Franklyn says:

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