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."

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

"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.

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.

What is on his mind is how we came to be the kingdom we are now. The play ends with Henry Tudor conquering Richard and promising to marry Richard's niece Elizabeth, so that Lancaster shall be joined with York and everything shall be happy.

Most of us would call it political propaganda.
Q: Why is this character so appealing even though he's a bad man?
 A: Richard III is amusing, he's funny. He's very entertaining on the stage – he has more soliloquies than Hamlet. This is not just a bad guy, but a guy we like to hate.

He leads the audience, if the actor is at all good, into being a silent co-conspirator with all his plots, which involves not only killing the princes. He kills his own brother, he woos the Lady Anne, he argues with old Queen Margaret, and he's so clever about doing it and explaining to the audience what he's going to do, then comments on his own performance after he's done it.

He is not only an actor, he's a playwright before and a critic afterward.
Q: Is he Shakespeare's most charming villain?
A: I guess so. The closest rival is Iago, and I don't find him that charming.
Q: What does the discovery of his skeleton tell us?
A: I'm glad that it's gotten settled that he did have a physical deformity. That is not visible from the surviving portraits, which are head-and-shoulders things. We didn't know whether that was just part of the Tudor slander of him. Turns out he did have this problem that wrenched his spine.
Q: What do you think we miss about the real King Richard III?
 A: There are a couple of good things he did, but he only had two years to be king.

The death of the prince was really fatal for him. Killing kids is bad not only in our time but in Richard's time, a thoroughly Christian era. The archetype for killing kids was King Herod in the Bible. That's really very bad.

The trouble for Richard's reputation is that too much else got attached to it during Tudor times. They loaded onto him previous royal deaths, and the heart of that Tudor interpretation was that he was scheming for the crown from the moment he could walk.

Historically, there's nothing that I can find wrong, evil, criminal about Richard until he was left as guardian of the two young princes.

I'm still of the belief that Richard, having usurped his nephews' crown, had to get rid of them. Whether he knew that was in the script from the start or a realization he came to slowly, he was still responsible. If you depose a king, even if he's 12, you've got to make sure he's gone permanently.
Q: So the ultimate slur on his character is true?
A: Yes, and it formed the basis on which a number of previously quarreling other people in the kingdom could get together and say "Anybody but Richard."
Q: And Shakespeare could define him?

He does so with the brilliance. The real addition he made that's lasting is that he made Richard an actor, as self-conscious player who says, "I'm going to do this, watch me. I'm going to do that, watch me. "That's what makes him irresistible. 

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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