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Richard III: Was he really that bad?

Richard III's skeleton was recently discovered in a parking lot in England. Shakespearean expert Peter Saccio dissects the myth of  "the murderous monarch."

By Randy Dotinga / February 6, 2013

A CT scan of Richard III's skeleton was used to create a reproduction of what the king's features may have looked like.

Andrew Winning/Reuters


"Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb;
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd 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 unlick'd bear-whelp
That carries no impression like the dam."
Shakespeare really knew how to knock a guy down to size.

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That's his description, in "Henry VI, Part 3," of King Richard III. Shakespeare would devote an entire play to the doomed king, creating perhaps the greatest villain in the history of the stage.

Was Richard III really a deformed monster? Now we know at least part of the answer thanks to the discovery, confirmed this week, of his skeleton under a parking lot in the British city of Leicester. Yes, he had a severely curved spine, although there's no evidence he bore a "mountain" – a hump – on his back.

Next question: Was Richard III really a monster as a human being? Historians continue to battle over that one. His reputation is scarred most by two things. One is his decision to throw his two young nephews into the Tower of London, where they're thought to have been murdered so they couldn't threaten his bid for the crown. The other is Shakespeare's "Richard III."

Few Shakespearean scholars understand his plays about royals more than Peter Saccio, a professor at Dartmouth College and author of Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama. I asked him to put Shakespeare's villainous creation into perspective.
 Q: What is Shakespeare getting at in describing the physical deformity of Richard III?
 A: He makes the physical deformity the embodiment, and I mean that as fully as I can, of his moral deformity." Love forswore me": He means love as the power that makes and sustains the world, the spirit of God. In Richard's case, love corrupted nature. He was deformed in the womb, and he came out shaped like a chaos, with the bodily parts so disorganized.

That's the basis of the characterizations: I am the worst man that ever was, and God meant me to be. It's a brilliant theatrical role that every actor wants to play and the lasting image of Richard III.
 Q: Shakespeare has certainly not heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act, has he?
 A: Certainly not.

In "Richard III," he's writing the last play in a series of four about the War of the Roses. Richard III is the evilest man in the lot. They have been killing each other, deposing each other, and Shakespeare makes Richard wickeder than all of them, so that after his death there does not need to be further retribution. It will wipe the slate clean.
Q: Is he fair to Richard III?
 A: He's writing the end of a dramatic saga of medieval English history, and being fair is not on his mind.


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