Richard III’s skeleton – what does it mean for Shakespeare?

Antony Sher, Ian McKellen, Kevin Spacey and Mark Rylance portraying Richard III. Photos: Reg Wilson/Tristram Kenton
Antony Sher, Ian McKellen, Kevin Spacey and Mark Rylance portraying Richard III. Photos: Reg Wilson/Tristram Kenton
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Though Shakespeare was not mentioned, there was a manifest and contrived theatricality about the press conference announcing that the skeleton unearthed in a Leicester car park was indeed that of King Richard III.

Not that anyone could have doubted what the conclusion would be. How could the University of Leicester, clearly pulling all the stops out to assert its academic excellence, possibly have gone to such lengths if all it had had to say was ‘no, it isn't’, or even 'well, it could be'?

But the event was skilfully stage managed, with a succession of academics from a variety of departments – archaeological, historical, medical, but not, I noticed, literary or dramatic, standing on a podium and gently swaying their way through a succession of prepared statements, illustrating their points with documents and graphs, and mounting gradually to the climactic revelation of the results of DNA tests. And there was a nice element of cloak and dagger too. Who was the mystery man or woman whose DNA helped to clinch the case but who preferred to remain completely anonymous? Could it have been . . . a living personage of royal blood?

[pullquote]Richard III is the most charismatic of Shakespeare's villains[/pullquote]

It was all thoroughly convincing and certainly achieved its purpose so far as the University was concerned. As a contribution to scientific, and perhaps to historical research it is doubtless a significant achievement. But is it in any degree relevant to Shakespeare buffs? Richard III is the most charismatic of Shakespeare's villains. A great ironist, he limps his way through his play with ferocious intelligence only to discover finally that his apparent self-knowledge conceals a vast and tragic moral emptiness.

Shakespeare had adumbrated him in the character of Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece. And later in his career he was to develop him into another, less ironic, more deeply tragic murderer and child-killer, Macbeth. Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard as a hunchback may seem to be a piece of dramatic symbolism, and loses none of its power even though it is now vindicated by the gruesome evidence of the mutilated skeleton, damaged both by wounds inflicted in battle and, it would seem, by others designed to humiliate the defenceless corpse.

It has inspired a succession of great performances from the time of its first impersonator, Richard Burbage, onwards. David Garrick, Edmund Kean, G. F. Cooke, J. P. Kemble, W. C.  Macready, Henry Irving, Laurence Olivier, Antony Sher, Ian Mckellen, Simon Russell Beale, and Kevin Spacey are only a few of those who have triumphed in the role. The play has often been given in spectacular stagings with elaborate, historically based settings, as for example in Bill Alexander’s RSC production of 1984, which had a magnificent coronation scene. And both the role and its interpreters have been burlesqued, parodied and sent up mercilessly by amateurs as well as by professionals.

What will happen now?  Will the discovery and identification of the dead king's bones, along with the confirmation that he was indeed physically as well as morally deformed, have any impact upon Shakespeare's play in performance? Will the upcoming production at the Bristol Tobacco Factory make any attempt to capitalize on it? Is John Mackay quaking in his leather boots in the thought that they may try to replicate the site of the blows that killed the King? Good luck to them if they can make anything of it, but how they might do so is a task for the theatrical, not for the academic imagination.

O, and by the way, Leicester means Lear's city. Another Shakespeare connection. Maybe the university should take another look at that car park.



  1. Richard Eyre put it rather well on Newsnight, Stanley – good news for the university, probably less so for the Richard III Society.
    Will the bones impact on the stage interpretations? Unlikely, as we’re talking there about Shakespeare’s literary creation, not the actual king (about whom no two historians agree anyway).
    Of course, having seen the photos, literal-minded directors might dispense with Richard’s hump and withered arm in favour of a sideways twist to the spine. That said, there was always evidence ‘Crookback’ wasn’t nearly so disabled as supposed: At Bosworth he galloped full pelt on a powerful steed while dressed in heavy armour and promptly decapitated Henry’s much larger standard bearer, Sir William Brandon. Quite a feat if he had one arm and a hunchback!

  2. I saw no confirmation that “he was indeed …morally deformed” in last night’s television programme about ‘The King in the Car Park’ – surely he was a king of his time, perhaps no better or worse than any other? Or did I miss something?

  3. Of course Shakespeare would have exaggerated the physical defects of his villain – it makes him much more interesting than someone with just a bit of back ache. I had medium to severe scoliosis (now much improved through 35 years of regular treatment) and was still a keen member of my local pony club (sword wielding not really encouraged)… although, it was also jolly handy in excusing me from the more violent participatory school sports. A good friend of mine has it severely and does Suzuki theatre – surely more extreme than most battlefields.

  4. Professor Wells might wish to correct this article, since Shakespeare was indeed mentioned at the University of Leicester’s press conference on Monday. My colleague Sarah Knight and I, who both teach Renaissance Literature in the School of English, spoke about Richard III in Tudor historical sources and in Shakespeare. I am not sure whether we gently swayed or not. Readers may be interested to read our piece on the subject on the University of Leicester website; I have posted a link here, which also contains a further link to our Commentary article in this week’s TLS on ‘Richard Crookback’.

  5. Having watched the programme on Channel 4, and seeing the extent of the so-called “deformity” I am baffled. You would hardly notice it, when the King was clothed. As to his “character” he was no better and no worse for blood thirstyness than any King of his time. The over the top nonesence of him being evil has to come to an end. Tudor propaganda. He was a man of his time. We seem to have forgotten the knack of understanding that Society and people change, and we judge everyone by our standards.

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