A few days ago historians of the university of Leicester claimed that they discovered a skeleton that there is certain evidence that the bones are the remains of King Richard III.
Richard III reigned England from 1481 until his defeat in 1483, when he lost the battle of Bosworth Field as the last Plantagenet king, giving way to the rise of a new dynasty: the Tudors.
Although Richard III’s reign was short, his entry in history books is usually quite extensive which is due to his prominent portrayal by England’s national playwright, William Shakespeare.
In the third part of Shakespeare’s Henry VI and the sequel Richard III, Richard of Gloucester is depicted as a cruel, yet seductive, machiavellian monarch, whose cunning and plotting brings him both crown and the audience’s fascination. While most of the other history plays engage with a large ensemble of characters, Richard III focuses on the development of the eponymous hero. The role of Richard III was a true star vehicle and is sometimes compared to the Joker in Batman. Actors wanted to play the role because it is a challenging endeavor to be mean but eerily seducing and whoever succeeded – such as Laurence Olivier in 1955 or Ian McKellen 40 years later – went down in acting history.
In Shakespeare’s time there was a strong belief that physical appearance and character coincided, which was the reason for Shakespeare to deviate from his historical sources and to transform his Richard III in the notorious hunchback that he came to be known as. Whereas Shakespeare’s sources also focus on Richard’s body and describe it as “ill-featured” and mention that the left shoulder is “much higher than the right”, Shakespeare exaggerated this deformity and clearly marked it as the reason for Richard’s wickedness and vice:
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
Shakespeare’s portrayal of a bloodthirsty, hunchbacked king has shaped our perception of Richard III and is repeatedly reiterated on stage, as Kevin Spacey’s recent production for the Old Vic shows.
Yet, the skeleton found beneath a parking lot in Leicester does not show signs of a hunchback but is only marked by a curved spine. Does this mean that the bones do not belong to Richard III? Does it mean that Leicester university was wrong?
No, I think it shows how gravely literature and the arts in general can manipulate our perception of history. For us, Richard III is a hunchbacked dictator.
Shakespeare had his reasons to exaggerate the deformity and monstrosity of Richard of Gloucester. Richard III was written under the reign of Elizabeth I, direct descendant of Henry VII who defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field and thereby ended the Wars of the Roses, a period of cruel and bloody fights for the crown between the Houses of York and Lancaster. As homo oeconomicus – that Shakespeare undoubtedly was – he also wanted to draw profits from his plays. After all, writing plays in the Renaissance was more business than art. And how to make more money than to glorify your reigning monarch’s dynasty. Shakespeare engaged in the formation of the Tudor Myth and the fashioning of the Tudor reign as a Golden Age of England which put an end to a series of greedy, unruly monarchs culminating in the monstrous reign of Richard III, the hunchbacked tyrant.