(For background information on the BBC series of seven Shakespeare historical plays included in The Hollow Crown, please see this post on the first play – Richard II.)
Richard III was William Shakespeare’s first great success as a playwright on the London stage. Written around 1592, it introduced to theater audiences a new type of character: the consummate political villain, bereft of any morals or noble sentiments, willing to use manipulation, deceit, flattery, and even murder to attain ultimate power. Shakespeare seemed to take three lessons from this success. First, he was quite capable of working alone as a playwright and no longer needed collaborators. Second, audiences wanted more of these historical plays, so he spent the rest of the decade writing dramas about the monarchs who came before Richard III. Third, audiences enjoyed characters whose inner thoughts revealed their true motivations; we today would describe these as characters with a distinct psychological profile.
It is this third point that became the enduring trademark of Shakespeare’s writing. Flawed individuals like Hamlet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Iago, Shylock, and others were not new to drama. Greek playwrights nearly two thousand years before had written about characters like Oedipus who were condemned to misery for some character trait – often hubris or overweening ambition. But the fates that awaited such characters were often ordained by the Gods, who actively intervened in the lives of these characters. There was no such divine intervention affecting Hamlet, Macbeth or others. Their flaws were their own – their particular way of responding to life, be it through jealousy, anger, ambition, coveting of wealth, or other weaknesses. They were correctible flaws, had the character been capable of introspection and seen their own errors of judgment and personality as others saw them.
Richard III does not quite fit into this mold. He knows what his flaws are, yet he cultivates them, and he gives us his reasons very clearly why he will embark on a career of villainy.
“Why, Love forswore me in my mother’s womb:
And, for [so that] I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail Nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a withered shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlicked bear-whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.”
Richard was malformed at birth, with a hideous hump on his back, a shriveled left arm, and a crippled leg. He saw in his future no love, no marriage, no family – nothing but the miserable life of an outcast, even though he carried the noble title of Duke of Gloucester, youngest brother to King Edward IV. This is how Shakespeare describes Richard III, through Richard’s own words, and because of the fame of this play, this is the popular image of this monarch. More to the point, Richard’s rampage of murder on his way to the throne, and his murderous attempts to keep the throne, are what we know of him.
Historians know a very different Richard III, and have long been involved in a scholarly discussion as to how evil this man really was. Until very recently, there was no evidence that he was deformed in any way. Then, in 2012 a skeleton was unearthed beneath a car park in Leicester, England of a man with a spinal deformity. Genetic testing matched the skeleton to two known descendants of Richard III’s nephew, one of them being in Canada. Dating of the bones put the skeleton within a time frame that included 1485, when the Battle of Bosworth Field occurred in which Richard III was killed. Eleven injuries to the body corresponded to those of a man who was armored, had fallen off his horse, had lost his helmet, and who was killed by a sharp blow to the head. His body was then mutilated with other blows and stabbings. The man’s diet in the years just before his death included egret, heron, and peacock – luxury fowl which were served at royal banquets only. He was buried next to a medieval church, about 12 miles from Bosworth Field, and Richard III’s body was reported to have been given over to monks for an anonymous Christian burial.
The body was beyond historical doubt that of Richard III. Here is an image of his skeleton.