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Re-reading Richard III

Dr Jitka Štollová is a Junior Research Fellow in English at Trinity. Here she tells us about her life at the College.

What is your research about?

I am interested in how writers and artists in early modern England thought about the past. Specifically, I explore the representations of Richard III in the century following the publication of Shakespeare’s eponymous play in 1597. I don’t examine the historical figure, but rather the story that he had become.

Richard III, unknown artist, oil on panel, late 16th century. © The National Portrait Gallery

During the Tudor period, Richard III was associated with the worst excesses of royal power: tyranny, usurpation and murder. This makes him an extremely useful case study for understanding how people defined unacceptable behaviour in a monarch.

However, the tumultuous events in the seventeenth century – a new dynasty, protracted conflicts between Stuart kings and Parliament, and of course the Civil Wars – forced many to reconsider these issues in a fresh light.

The perception of Richard III changed: it became more subtle and balanced. It was not the case that the ‘black legend’ suddenly became the ‘white legend’, but his legislation banning arbitrary taxation, for instance, gained new appreciation in the light of grievances against the taxation policy of the Stuart kings. The representations of Richard III reveal a paradox of possibilities: he could simultaneously be seen as a usurper, a king elected by parliament, a cynical tyrant, and a monarch arguing against the abuse of taxation.

It also shows that Shakespeare’s play, despite its powerful, mesmerising quality, did not fix Richard’s portrayal permanently but formed, instead, just one part of a complex and fluid system of reputation and representation.

How are you spending your time at Trinity?

The First Folio, © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge

I am very much a College creature and I enjoy participating in College life, be it talks, dinners, or informal meetings with students. I find that having to explain my research to scholars from very different disciplines is one of the most useful ways of honing my own research thinking; it forces me to articulate why it matters.

Trinity offers wonderful opportunities for interacting with people from different research areas. This makes the College environment a unique space within the University, and complements the subject-specialized communities at faculties and departments.

Additionally, as Senior Treasurer of the Cambridge University Czech and Slovak Society, I help to organize events that promote the Czech and Slovak cultures within the University, while seeking to connect the society with other expat communities in the UK.

What does the Junior Research Fellowship mean to you?

Early career academics are under great pressure to conduct research while also gaining teaching experience, and the fellowship gives me a precious opportunity to strike the right balance between the two. It enables me to pursue my various interests, ranging from early modern literature to the writings of the Czech President and playwright Václav Havel. I am grateful that I can be part of the vibrant and formidable research community at Trinity.

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