Tenuous Connections

It was a day today for tenuous connections it seems. Most of my day yesterday was spent trawling letting websites and contacting estate agents. I know, I really know how to live! Admittedly I am actually looking for somewhere to live otherwise it would be both boring and quite frankly odd. But oddness aside, such property websites are full of somewhat tenuous connections, you search for a definite location and “yes” an advert announces “we have a connection” to said location but later it emerges that the property is several miles away. But that’s their business, no less than the creation of a shocker headline is the business of many a journalist.

Estate agents closed for the day, I decided to break for dinner after which we played Associations – the game of, you’re got it, connections. For those not in the know basically you begin with a word each and then write as many words which follow on from each other in a minute e.g. house-home-furniture-bed-room-space-stars-sky-TV etc, and then you pass it to the next person and so on until everyone has had a turn. But these connections can be from the sublime to the ridiculous, and mine were certainly sometimes tenuous.

Word Association

However, the tenuous connection I was least expecting appeared out of the blue, much like Richard III in the car park. In fact Richard III is one of the stars of the news story, the other is Benedict Cumberbatch, yes the man behind Sherlock and Smaug (cue swathes of screaming girls) and soon to be playing Richard III. The news story I’m referring to is the reported suggestion of a genealogist that claims, as the Daily Mail’s headline puts it:

“Benedict Cumberbatch is as closely related to Richard III as the QUEEN”

I think this is supposed to be shocking stuff, and it’s not the first time that connections between royalty and Shakespeare have been drawn, and no I don’t just mean the plays he wrote about them. There was speculation at the birth of Prince George that he was a distant relation to Shakespeare, but this is the first time that connections have been suggested between Benedict Cumberbath (whose followers I discovered several weeks ago – to my horror – are apparently referred to as Cumberbitches) and Shakespeare except when his upcoming performance as Hamlet in the play gained even more hype when tickets sold out faster than Beyoncé’s upcoming tour. The question is, is it Shakespeare or Sherlock that sells? There was equal excitement when it emerged that he is to play Richard III in the upcoming second instalment of the Hollow Crown – the Henry VI parts 1,2,3 and Richard III – it appears to be being billed primarily as the Richard III (plus the other bits) show, but I’m all for the Henry VI plays too which I think are sadly underrated so my excitement is less Cumberbatch focused more excitement at the production of more History plays. Either way it’s great news for these plays, to get so much hype for a Renaissance villain – in the case of Cumberbatch’s role as Richard – even if it’s only for the man behind the theatrical mask, is a remarkable feat.

According to the news story, Cumberbatch and Richard III are third cousins. They even kept the numbers simple, well not quite. They’re third cousins sixteen times removed, the small print declares.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard III are third cousins

Oh come on, you have to admit the similarities are striking! It’s all the gaze Waston. Elementary stuff.

I’m disappointed to see Cumberbatch has yet to adopt the same chapeau as Richard III, but then one doesn’t always resemble one’s relations. (Speaking of generations and links, Cumberbatch has of course been in the news today with news that he is to be a father, sparking the awkward and slightly bizarre hashtag on twitter #Cumberhatches). The genealogist, from the same University that brought you the body of Richard himself (the University of Leicester) did some digging into Cumberbatch’s past and discovered the connection. Although it might sound impressive at first sight, the following statistic may dispel the apparent unique connection. As the Telegraph reports, it is estimated that between one and seventeen million people in the UK alone have a connection with Richard III, not so impressive now eh Cumberbatch. And get tracing your family tree I say. If you dig far enough you might find a connection to a relative buried in a car-park. I wonder if anyone has thought to trace Shakespeare’s family tree to see if he happened to be connected to those royals he wrote about, or rather fictionalised. Not that it is of any great importance, I’m just curious.

But Cumberbatch has a pretty good claim, says the genealogist behind this story, Professor Kevin Schurer. Not many of us would be such close cousins, except perhaps the Queen.

He is more direct because he is a third cousin. Most other relatives would be much lower order cousins. I think the Queen would be a third cousin several times removed as well.

I think if nothing else this highlights that classic phrase from Henry V, “the king is but a man as I am” as did the humbling discovery of the monarch in a car-park, it also makes clear just how tenuous claims to the throne continue to be, with a history littered with usurpers, imported monarchs and a few healthy ones in between, the pure blooded appearance that it may seem monarchs give out (although this trend is changing as the emphasis on William marrying a non-royal woman and he was seen – in a good way – to be more a man of the people for doing so) is not always quite as accurate as the aristocratic royals might like you to think.

The line was traced from Edward III as this helpful little family tree indicates:

The line of descent

They’ve tapped into Cumberbatch’s ancestry before of course, with the discovery of a relation to a sugar plantation owner in Barbados and the more recent connection with another of his roles, Alan Turing – they share the 15th century ancestor (also a common ancestor incidentally) John Beaufort which makes them 17th cousins. Documentary evidence of this connection with Richard is however less easy to come by.

But the focus on these tenuous connections, whether as a way to make a sale, an effort to win a game (which I guess is also what estate agents are at – just less friendly), or even to make a quick link with an actor and the role they’re playing, seems to be at the heart of much of contemporary society (it’s back to that fame debate again) – and early modern studies are no exception. Not only do discussions on early modern playwrights often begin with their relationship with Shakespeare, but now we have begun searching the historical connections actors playing roles in Shakespeare’s plays. The question is, where with the search for tenuous (Shakespeare) connections take us next?


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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3 Responses to Tenuous Connections

  1. Pingback: Tenuous Connections | The Shakespeare Standard

  2. As I read this I was also making a “Fame” connection that you referred to in the final paragraph. We cannot blame Benedict Cumberbatch for being a fine actor and as you say, if it gets people to watch and experience Shakespeare then that is a good thing. What is truly bizarre is the projections made by others onto the person who becomes famous and The Daily Mail feeds on the desire of people to make such projections. Have you read Rene Girard on mimetic theory and scapegoating? He writes compellingly on the role of sacred kings and queens who carry the hopes and fears of the people and are both worshipped and killed depending on the need of the people. He relates this convincingly to the gospels as well.

    • Sarah Waters says:

      Absolutely I’m all for people seeing Shakespeare even if it’s only as a by-product of their desire to see a certain celebrity. I went to see The Tempest at The Globe a couple of years ago and Colin Morgan (the Merlin man) played Ariel and sure there were a few of his fangirls dotted about in the audience, but – motivation aside – they’d come to see a Shakespeare play. I’d like to say that Cumberbatch’s Hamlet demonstrates that Shakespeare outsells R&B or pop, but of course it’s not that simple (and is in fact a rather, um, tenuous connection). Yes, you capture the strategy of tabloids like the Mail very accurately. They remind me a little of leeches or a kind of parasite, feeding on the hunger they perceive (though more often create themselves) of the people. Less the people’s press, more what you didn’t ever need or want to know. Giving journalists a bad name and not pleasing many celebrities either. I must check out Girard his work that you mention sounds fascinating.

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