Rewriting the Bard

Early in the spring of 1983 I began writing Dark Sovereign. It takes the form of a play crafted precisely in English as our language stood in the year 1626, a decade after Shakespeare’s death. I must have been crazy.

My day job at the time was producing CBC’s the fifth estate, assembling the full television package ready for broadcast each Tuesday evening. It was a high-stress job; so high-stress that I sought some other activity to ease the strain. That was when I began to craft Dark Sovereign.

In 1983, Canadian newspapers were running stories from Britain marking the 500th year since the accession of King Richard III. King Richard, you may recall, is widely believed to have murdered his nephews before claiming the throne and reigning for 26 months before dying in battle on Bosworth Field. That’s all I learned about Richard III in British schools.

In 1983, the ever-simmering argument over the king’s ethics and actions came to the boil again. In England, this argument is regional: in the south, Richard is usually seen as a rogue; in the north, as a northerner and a fair king who assisted working men to attain a modicum of dignity.

Robert Fripp
Robert Fripp

I consider Shakespeare’s play, King Richard III, to be parody, a propaganda screed written to justify the seizure of power by the House of Tudor.

While striving for truth in journalism at CBC Current Affairs, the notion of writing a more accurate play than Shakespeare about Richard III struck me as a golden opportunity to relieve the stress of bringing the fifth estate to air every Tuesday.

My son, Will, recalls the sweltering afternoon in Manhattan when he carried around the two giant volumes of our newly purchased Oxford English Dictionary.

My task took longer: I had to research the provenance of every word and phrase in my most recent draft to ensure that I was using vocabulary the way it had been used prior to 1626. (For example, “salt tears”: both these words are ancient, but had they been combined to form that phrase in English before 1626? Answer: Yes.) Remember, Dark Sovereign is the product of pre-Internet days.

Dark Sovereign Cover

Here’s a sample: The widowed Queen Elizabeth Woodville mourns the death of King Edward IV:

“When day droops into night, who then can light a brand
So great ’twill show the hórizont? Nay, my lord.
The face, the breath, the voice, the touch of hands,
The quick — the very certain countenance of life
Rebuke our fond-imagin’d vizard of eternity.
Had heaven wept good measure of my grief,
The earth had wash’d away.”

Dark Sovereign evolved at a snail’s pace. I put in 45 hours a week for four years researching the language as well as the characters’ probable histories — meanwhile assembling the fifth estate for broadcast each week.

In time my words mounted up. Somewhere in Act 4 Dark Sovereign outruns the length of the Bard’s Richard III; somewhere in Act 5 it runs past Hamlet, making it the longest single-part play in Renaissance English to have come down to us.

Of course, Hamlet is seldom played at full length. Nor is Dark Sovereign intended to be. Still, it’s not bad for a piece of literature written in a Leaside cellar.

Robert Fripp spends a lot of time at Sovereign (the page includes excerpts and reviews).

Dark Sovereign, with an Arden-style glossary, is available from:,, (US)

Leaside is full of authors we don’t hear much about, but would probably like to. If you have recently had a new book published, get in touch: .

Article written by Robert Fripp.