February 14, 2014

Shakespeare’s Richard III

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:02

John Lennard is a fan of William Shakespeare and it shows in this blog post:

The Imploding I

Shakespeare’s Richard III is the principal source of a figure still current in drama and cinema — the witty devil we love to hate. Fusing the role of the (aspiring) King with that of the Vice (the tempter in morality plays, who as a player of tricks and user of disguises was always more theatrically aware than his innocent victims), Shakespeare produced a role that from his first, mesmerising soliloquy, beginning the play, commands both amused and horrified attention. As witty as he is ruthless, and as witting about himself as about others, Richard dominates the stage whenever he is on it, and all his tricks come off marvellously — until they don’t.

I’ve just transcribed the Folio text of the play it calls The Tragedy of Richard the Third : with the Landing of Earle Richmond, and the Battell at Bosworth Field [...] and I was struck by how potently verse and punctuation record Richard’s force and his final implosion. Here’s that famous opening soliloquy:

Enter Richard Duke of Gloster, solus.

Now is the Winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke :
And all the clouds that lowr’d vpon our house
In the deepe bosome of the Ocean buried.
Now are our browes bound with Victorious Wreathes,
Our bruised armes hung vp for Monuments ;
Our sterne Alarums chang’d to merry Meetings ;
Our dreadfull Marches, to delightfull Measures.
Grim-visag’d Warre, hath smooth’d his wrinkled Front :
And now, in stead of mounting Barbed Steeds,
To fright the Soules of fearfull Aduersaries,
He capers nimbly in a Ladies Chamber,
To the lasciuious pleasing of a Lute.
But I, that am not shap’d for sportiue trickes,
Nor made to court an amorous Looking-glasse :
I, that am Rudely stampt, and want loues Maiesty,
To strut before a wonton ambling Nymph :
I, that am curtail’d of this faire Proportion,
Cheated of Feature by dissembling Nature,
Deform’d, vn-finish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing World, scarse halfe made vp,
And that so lamely and vnfashionable,
That dogges barke at me, as I halt by them.
Why I (in this weake piping time of Peace)
Haue no delight to passe away the time,
Vnlesse to see my Shadow in the Sunne,
And descant on mine owne Deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot proue a Louer,
To entertaine these faire well spoken dayes,
I am determined to proue a Villaine,
And hate the idle pleasures of these dayes.
Plots haue I laide, Inductions dangerous,
By drunken Prophesies, Libels, and Dreames,
To set my Brother Clarence and the King
In deadly hate, the one against the other :
And if King Edward be as true and iust,
As I am Subtle, False, and Treacherous,
The day should Clarence closely be mew’d vp :
About a Prophesie, which sayes that G,
Of Edwards heyres the murtherer shall be.
Diue thoughts downe to my soule, here Clarence comes.

Everything here serves to present Richard’s complete control, and it’s an excellent example of the Ciceronian style and balance that characterises much of Shakespeare’s most fluent and speakable verse. For all its dynamism the language is exceptionally balanced and structured, bracing opposites within lines (“Our sterne Alarums chang’d to merry Meetings”, “That dogges barke at me, as I halt by them”) ; within couplets (“Now is the Winter of our Discontent, / Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke”, “Vnlesse to see my Shadow in the Sunne, / And descant on mine owne Deformity”) ; and within the quatrains that dominate the grammatical structure (“And now, in stead of mounting Barbed Steeds, / To fright the Soules of fearfull Aduersaries, / He capers nimbly in a Ladies Chamber, / To the lasciuious pleasing of a Lute”). The whole flows as trippingly as commandingly from the tongue, as generations of great actors have found, and the language is so strong and clear that it can bear very different styles of presentation. The two best Richards I’ve had the luck to see on stage, Anthony Sher and Ian McKellen, could not have tackled the role more differently — Sher was seriously hunched and scuttling on calipers that became weapons, feelers, probes at will ; McKellen was a restrained and clipped army officer whose only visible deformity was a hand kept always in his pocket — but both could draw equal strength and suasion from the magnificent verse Shakespeare provided.

February 6, 2013

English accents, circa 1483

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

I’m afraid the coverage of the discovery and identification of the remains of Richard III have done bad things to the newspapers. We’re starting to see articles like this posted:

King Richard III was ‘a brummie’
King Richard III would have spoken with a Birmingham accent, according to a language expert.

Dr Philip Shaw, from the University of Leicester’s School of English, used two letters penned by the last king of the Plantagenet line more than 500 years ago to try to piece together what the monarch would have sounded like.

He studied the king’s use of grammar and spelling in postscripts on the letters.

The university has now released a recording of Dr Shaw mimicking King Richard reading extracts from those letters.

Despite being the patriarch of the House of York, the king’s accent “could probably associate more or less with the West Midlands” than from Yorkshire or the North of England, said Dr Shaw.

Wow. This must have been a long, painstaking effort to pin down the linguistic “tics” that help indicate a person’s natural speaking habits. What were the key elements that indicated Good King Richard was a “Brummie”?

“… there is also at least one spelling he employs that may suggest a West Midlands accent.”

That’s it? One spelling variation that “suggests” he would pronounce that one word in a similar manner to the modern Birmingham style? Gah!

February 5, 2013

What did King Richard III look like?

Filed under: Britain, History, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:33

A facial reconstruction based on the skull of Richard III:

A facial reconstruction based on the skull of Richard III has revealed how the English king may have looked.

The king’s skeleton was found under a car park in Leicester during an archaeological dig.

The reconstructed face has a slightly arched nose and prominent chin, similar to features shown in portraits of Richard III painted after his death.

Historian and author John Ashdown-Hill said seeing it was “almost like being face to face with a real person”.

The development comes after archaeologists from the University of Leicester confirmed the skeleton found last year was the 15th Century king’s, with DNA from the bones having matched that of descendants of the monarch’s family.

I was unable to find an image of the reconstruction that is okay to use, but you can see various pictures on Google Image Search.

February 4, 2013

University of Leicester confirms that the remains are those of King Richard III

Filed under: Britain, History, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:16

BBC News rounds up the details:

A skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park has been confirmed as that of English king Richard III.

Experts from the University of Leicester said DNA from the bones matched that of descendants of the monarch’s family.

Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, from the University of Leicester, told a press conference to applause: “Beyond reasonable doubt it’s Richard.”

Richard, killed in battle in 1485, will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral.

Mr Buckley said the bones had been subjected to “rigorous academic study” and had been carbon dated to a period from 1455-1540.

Dr Jo Appleby, an osteo-archaeologist from the university’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, revealed the bones were of a man in his late 20s or early 30s. Richard was 32 when he died.

Battle wounds

His skeleton had suffered 10 injuries, including eight to the skull, at around the time of death. Two of the skull wounds were potentially fatal.

One was a “slice” removing a flap of bone, the other caused by bladed weapon which went through and hit the opposite side of the skull, a depth of more than 10cms (4ins).

Dr Appleby said: “Both of these injuries would have caused an almost instant loss of consciousness and death would have followed quickly afterwards.

“In the case of the larger wound, if the blade had penetrated 7cm into the brain, which we cannot determine from the bones, death would have been instantaneous.”

Other wounds included slashes or stabs to the face and the side of the head.

Update: New Scientist still has concerns that the trail of evidence is not strong enough to constitute proof of identity:

Mitochondrial DNA is passed down the maternal line and has 16,000 base pairs in total. Typically, you might expect to get 50 to 150 fragments from a 500-year-old skeleton, says Ian Barnes at Royal Holloway, University of London, who was not involved in the research. “You’d want to get sequences from lots of those fragments,” he says. “There’s a possibility of mitochondrial mutations arising in the line from Richard III.”

“It’s intriguing to be sure,” says Mark Thomas at University College London. It is right that they used mitochondrial DNA based on the maternal line, he says, since genealogical evidence for the paternal lineage cannot be trusted.

But mitochondrial DNA is not especially good for pinpointing identity. “I could have the same mitochondrial DNA as Richard III and not be related to him,” says Thomas.

The researchers used the two living descendents to “triangulate” the DNA results. The evidence will rest on whether Ibsen and his cousin have sufficiently rare mtDNA to make it unlikely that they both match the dead king by chance.

January 20, 2013

A petition for Richard III to be reburied at York Minster

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:20

Elizabeth linked to this petition which might be of interest to Ricardians:

Joe Ann Ricca, Founder and Chief Executive of The Richard III Foundation, Inc., said: “Richard obviously had no choice after he was killed as to where his remains were taken, but today we have the opportunity to right the many wrongs that have been done to this unjustly maligned king, by correcting the distorted picture that has been painted of Richard over the centuries, and by bringing his remains home to Yorkshire, and to York Minster as he wanted.”

Richard, who was the last Plantagenet king, and the last English monarch to die in battle, had strong connections with the City of York and the County of Yorkshire. He spent much of his youth at Middleham Castle and for 12 years he ruled the North of England on behalf of his elder brother, King Edward IV, earning a widespread reputation for fair-mindedness and justice. After becoming king, he visited York several times and was showered with gifts each time. His son, Edward, was crowned Prince of Wales whilst in York.

Although entitled to be buried at Westminster Abbey alongside other kings and queens of England, Richard III announced his intention to be buried at York, and in 1483 set in motion plans for a new chantry chapel at York Minster. Indeed, so strongly was Richard linked to York that the City authorities greeted the news of his death at the Battle of Bosworth with these words: “King Richard, late mercifully reigning over us, was, through great treason, piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city.”

November 29, 2012

Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:20

In History Today, Paul Lay talks about the power of well-written historical fiction to raise interest in real history:

The case of Richard III was long ago examined in a historical novel, which has come to recent public prominence due to its championing by the High Tory journalist Peter Hitchens and the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, an incongruous pairing if ever there was one. The subject of their mutual admiration is Josephine Tey’s 1951 thriller, her last, The Daughter of Time. It takes its title from Francis Bacon’s adage — ‘Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority’ — and features Tey’s fictional detective, Inspector Alan Grant. At the start of the novel he has broken his leg and is recuperating in hospital. There he is handed a reproduction of a contemporary portrayal of Richard III. Grant fancies himself as a great judge of character and is convinced that the king he sees before him is a kindly and wise character, the very opposite of the Shakespearean monster. With his leg on the mend, Grant heads off to the British Museum to research the truth about the king’s life.

Grant’s conclusion makes The Daughter of Time a firm favourite with members of the Richard III Society, apostles of the last Plantagenet, for the inspector convinces himself that Richard III is indeed a victim of the Tudor propaganda machine. We can believe that or not, but what makes The Daughter of Time such a compelling read is not its rather flimsy conclusion but its extraordinary depiction of process, for few books have so vividly brought to life the historian’s quest, the desire to reveal exactly what happened in the past and the methods used to discover that truth. That’s why historians love it. Beard found it an inspiring work: it ‘partly made me a historian’, she claims; while Hitchens praises Tey’s ‘clarity of mind’; her ‘loathing of fakes and propaganda are like pure, cold spring water in a weary land’.

November 26, 2012

“[W]e must rewrite the history distorted by that, ahem, writer from Stratford”

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:24

More on the project to determine if the remains discovered in Leicester are those of Richard III:

Whether the bones prove to be Richard’s or not, the discovery in September has already set academic journals, websites, university lecture circuits and the mainstream media abuzz across Britain, sparking intense and occasionally impolite exchanges. On the floor of the House of Commons, members of Parliament are eloquently clashing, with representatives from York — for whom Richard was the last hope against rival Lancastrians in the War of the Roses — demanding the restoration of his tarnished image. One organization of die-hard Richard III supporters (there are at least two) is running a national ad campaign to clear the king’s name.

There are even calls for a state funeral, giving the medieval king a send-off steeped in the pomp and circumstance of contemporary Britain.

“I suppose we won’t dash off to the Folger Library in Washington and destroy the First Folio, but we must rewrite the history distorted by that, ahem, writer from Stratford,” Hugh Bayley, a member of Parliament from York, said with tongue only partly planted in cheek. “The fact that a Mr. Shakespeare decided to write some play about a hunchback shouldn’t blacken the name of a fine, upstanding defender of country.”

Yet if the remains are indeed those of the long-lost sovereign — something archaeologists call extremely likely — it also raises a conundrum: Where to bury one of England’s most demonized characters?

Under Church of England protocol, the bones, should they prove to be Richard’s, appear destined to end up in the cathedral at Leicester, the city where the remains were found. But many insist they should instead go to the Anglican cathedral in York, the city where history suggests that he wanted to rest. Still others question whether burial should be in an Anglican cathedral at all, as he died a Roman Catholic, reigning by the grace of God and the pope.

September 20, 2012

Over-hyping the importance of the Richard III archaeological dig

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:50

At the History Today blog, Linda Porter points out that some of the breathless claims about the historical significance of the Leicester archaeological dig are rather overblown:

Major finds don’t come along very often and this would certainly be one of the most significant in the last hundred years. But the huge claims being made for it are not the sort that sit well with most historians. Assertions that, if DNA tests prove positive, this discovery ‘has the potential to rewrite history’ and is of ‘global importance’ make me sigh.

Historians have long known that the Tudor narratives on Richard III are propaganda. Shakespeare’s compelling villain may still resonate with the man on the street but has nothing to do with a measured analysis of the past and anyone with even a general interest in the late fifteenth century will be aware of this. And ‘global significance’? Cross the Channel and I’d be surprised if you found anyone outside the academic world who knew about Richard III and the saga of the Princes in the Tower. Those involved in the project, which appears to have been rigorously conducted from the archaeological perspective, clearly want headlines. As someone who has worked in public relations herself I congratulate them on a successful communications campaign — it has to be acknowledged that the Richard III Society is very good at this kind of thing — but wearing my historian’s hat extravagant claims make me uncomfortable.

September 15, 2012

The Richard III debate moves to “where should we bury him this time”

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:33

In the Telegraph, Dan Hodges calls for giving Richard III “a last, glorious summer”:

It’s a brilliant idea. Seriously. Think of where Richard stands. At the centre of our history, our art, our education, our national identity. What a staggering opportunity this represents.

Let’s give him a full, no-holds-barred state funeral. Everyone’s been banging on about preserving the Olympic spirit; well here — DNA tests permitting — is our chance. This is a once in a generation opportunity. In fact, it’s a once in about 20 generations opportunity. Let’s bring our history alive.

Just imagine the crowds that would gather for the chance of watching a 21st century ceremonial to a Plantagenet king. And not just an English king, but thanks to Shakespeare, a global monarch.

Picture the moment. A silent Mall. A slow drum beat. An honor guard, heads bowed in tribute to their leader who fell 500 years before. Richard, making his last journey, laid upon a ceremonial gun carriage, draped in the flag of the kingdom he died fighting for. And ahead of him walks a riderless horse. The horse that in his last moments, he would have swapped that kingdom for.

Bloody hell, I’d miss an episode of Strictly for that. And I bet a few million others would as well.

Okay, there’s the slightly unfortunate business of the Princes and the Tower. But we’ve all made the odd mistake. Plus, if you read Josephine Tay’s the Daughter of Time, it was a fit up anyway.

If there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past couple of months it’s that — to borrow a phrase from another high profile if much maligned senior statesman — we are at our best when at our boldest. Or more accurately, when we say “damn it, let’s do it”.

Now is one of those moments. Damn it. Let’s give Richard III one last, glorious summer.

September 12, 2012

Richard III’s remains may have been found in Leicester

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:17

Fascinating announcement today from the dig site:

11.12: He says one skeleton and other human remains have been found and a barbed metal arrowhead was found between vertebrae of the skeleton’s upper back. The arrow was near the spine, but not embedded in the bones.

11.15: Mr Taylor says that an articulated skeleton has been found that is of significant interest to us. Scientists have also found a set of “disarticulated human remains” but because they are female and therefore not Richard III.

The skeleton shows signs of “near death trauma” that “appears to be consistent with injury from battle”. Scientists now hope to extract DNA from the bones.

He added:

“It also has spinal abnormalities and an individual form of spinal curvature, which makes his right shoulder visibly higher than his left shoulder. We believe the individual would have had severe scoliosis. The skeleton was not a hunchback.”

It is consistent with other accounts of Richard III.”

It is now at an undisclosed laboratory where it is going through “rigorous” testing.

August 31, 2012

The search for the burial place of Richard III

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:40

Elizabeth sent me another link on the ongoing archaeological search for the burial place of King Richard III:

A high-profile search for the gravesite of the 15th-century monarch King Richard III — begun Saturday beneath a parking lot in the English city of Leicester — has a remarkable connection to a Canadian family whose members hold the genetic key to solving one of British history’s most enduring mysteries: Where is Richard III’s body?

The London, Ont.-based Ibsen family, recently proven to be descended from King Richard’s maternal line, has provided DNA samples aimed at confirming the regal identity of any human remains found during the unprecedented dig, which continues this week at the former site of a medieval church where — 527 years ago — the violently overthrown monarch was buried.

The University of Leicester-led archeological project was launched after the discovery that the maternal bloodline of the last Plantagenet king — killed in 1485 in the climactic battle of the War of the Roses — survived into the 21st century through Joy Ibsen, a British-born woman who immigrated to Canada after the Second World War and raised a family in southwestern Ontario.

If nothing else, the media coverage of this dig may generate lots of new members for the Richard III Society (Canadian branch, American branch).

August 24, 2012

Digging up a municipal car park … to find the body of a king

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:51

An interesting story on the search for the lost burial place of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England:

Archaeologists are hoping to find the lost grave of a medieval monarch in a dig that is due to get underway today.

In what is believed to be the first-ever archaeological search for the lost grave of an anointed King of England, experts from the University of Leicester are set to begin their quest to find the site of a church where it is believed King Richard III was buried in the city more than 500 years ago.

It is thought the site of the church may be on land currently being used as a car park for council offices in the city.

King Richard III, the last Plantagenet, ruled England from 1483 until he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The most famous battle of the War of the Roses was fought on August 22, 1485, and famously saw the death of Richard III.

The battle ended decades of civil war and was won by the Lancastrians.

It paved the way for Henry Tudor to become the first English monarch of the Tudor dynasty.

The battle also inspired the scene from Shakespeare’s play Richard III when the defeated hunchback king declares: ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’.

H/T to Elizabeth for the link.

August 5, 2012

Angers still pushing for compensation for Plantagenet murder in 1499

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Law — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:22

I mentioned this amusing little issue last month. The city of Angers is still trying to get the British crown jewels as compensation for Henry VII’s judicial murder of the last legitimate male Plantagenet claimant to the English throne. Lowering The Bar has more:

What’s the connection between these French people and the English throne? It looks like the first connection that mattered was between Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I, and Geoffrey of Anjou (the county in which Angers was located). Their oldest son became Henry II of England in 1154. After 331 years of exciting adventures, the ruling line ended with Richard III, who was killed in battle by the forces of Henry Tudor (Henry VII). (Since history is written by the victors, Richard III now appears in plays as a murderous hunchback and the Tudors got their own miniseries on Showtime.)

But Angers doesn’t appear to care about any of those guys (especially the hunchback), only about Edward, Earl of Warwick. He had a claim to the throne (he was Richard III’s nephew, or something), but was only 10 in 1485, and judging from this portrait was so poor that he could not even afford to be drawn from the neck down. But Henry threw him in the Tower of London anyway and kept him there until he was old enough to kill, basically, which happened in 1499. He was the last legitimate male Plantagenet.

Angers is sponsoring a petition drive about this 513-year-old outrage and will send the official results to Queen Elizabeth II (House of Windsor) in September. This will coincidentally coincide with Angers’s annual cultural festival. A spokesperson for the city admitted that the petition “had little chance of success” (the original crown jewels were done away with by Oliver Cromwell anyway), but said that the crime against the Plantagenets was worth remembering. According to the report, he also “encouraged British people to visit Angers, which has medieval buildings including a magnificent castle which recalls the glory days of the Plantagenets.”

December 23, 2011

Correcting Shakespeare’s sources: the real Richard III

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:37

Robert Fripp talks about the historical Richard III and the vicious caricatures that Shakespeare drew upon to produce his famous play:

In 1983, I was working a high-stress job pulling together CBC TV’s weekly investigative program The Fifth Estate. I still ask myself: Why, on top of that, did I spend my nights and weekends imitating a long-dead playwright? My labour of love was a play called Dark Sovereign, which I wrote in the four-century-old English of William Shakespeare and his 17th-century contemporaries.

The same year, 1983, also happened to be the 500th anniversary of King Richard III’s accession to the English throne. Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, is widely believed to have murdered his two nephews in the Tower of London, usurping the elder boy’s crown and reigning just 25 months before the upstart Henry Tudor (Henry VII) killed Richard in battle in 1485 and displayed his body for three days.

King Henry went on to inflict judicial murder on many whose claim to the throne was better than his. Nearly 20 existing portraits of Richard III were disfigured after his death to show humps painted onto the subject’s back. Writers, principally Sir Thomas More and Raphael Holinshed, gave the dead king a hostile press.

Then Shakespeare borrowed from Holinshed to write The Tragedy of Richard III. (It may be significant that the first edition’s title omits the word “King.”) Shakespeare wrote his character assassination around 1591. It was probably performed first for the Court of Queen Elizabeth I shortly thereafter. Tudor monarchs had been ruling for more than a century by then, but their tenuous claim to the throne still seemed to trouble them. Having denied Richard a decent burial a century earlier, they still had need to heap dirt on his reputation.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I portrayed the Earl of Northumberland in the 1983 re-enactment of the coronation of Richard III (at the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto) on local TV, and I portrayed the Earl of Lincoln in the (non-televised) version on the actual anniversary date. You could say I’m biased in favour of the revisionist view of the character of good King Richard.

March 26, 2011

550th anniversary of the bloodiest battle in English history

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:07

Unless you were paying close attention in your history classes, you probably wouldn’t recognize the name:

It was one of the biggest and probably the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil. Such was its ferocity almost 1 per cent of the English population was wiped out in a single day. Yet mention the Battle of Towton to most people and you would probably get a blank stare.

Next week marks the 550th anniversary of the engagement that changed the course of the Wars of the Roses. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 80,000 soldiers took part in the battle in 1461 between the Houses of York and Lancaster for control of the English throne. An estimated 28,000 men are said to have lost their lives.

But this bloody conflict is unlikely to remain forgotten for much longer. Archaeologists believe they will unearth what is likely to be Britain’s largest mass grave this summer.

Work is to begin in June, at a site 12 miles south of York between the villages of Saxton and Towton where the battle took place in snowy March weather. The locations of the graves were discovered by archaeologists using geophysical imagery and now, with funding in place, they are able to begin excavating.

And why is such a major battle so little-known? Perhaps because the “wrong” side won:

Very few records of the battle survive, which is one reason that so little is known about it. Historians believe this could be due to an early propaganda campaign by the Tudors.

Author and historian George Goodwin, who this month publishes a new book: Fatal Colours: Towton, 1461 — England’s Most Brutal Battle, said: “The Tudors did a tremendously good propaganda job in making Bosworth the key battle because that was the battle which ended the Wars of the Roses. They were the winners and they got to write the history books. Because Towton was a Yorkist victory that wasn’t really very useful to them.”

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