Much ado about Richard III: Is Shakespeare to blame?

The notorious king's legend still looms large, as recent headlines about the discovery of his body attest. Experts say that Shakespeare's play is what sets him apart from other royalty.

Andrew Winning/Reuters
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III is displayed at a press conference to unveil the bust in London today. The reconstruction is based on a CT scan of human remains found in a council car park in Leicester, which are believed to belong to the last of the Plantagenet monarchs of Britain who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

What started out as a hopeful archaeological dig in a municipal parking lot has turned into one of the most talked-about stories of the year so far.

The discovery that a distorted skeleton in the English city of Leicester was Shakespeare’s villain King Richard III has sparked historical soul-searching and a possible re-appraisal of the 15th century monarch.

Richard died at the age of 32 at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, ending the Wars of the Roses and ushering in a new dynasty and king, Henry Tudor. On Monday, scientists at Leicester University confirmed after extensive tests on DNA samples from distant relatives of his sister that the skeletal body found last August was the king. The Richard III Society, which helped arrange and fund the research with the aim of improving the monarch’s notorious image, also commissioned a stunning 3D facial reconstruction of him which was unveiled today.

But why, nearly 500 years after his mere 26 months on the throne, have we become so fascinated by Richard?

Norman Housley of the School of Historical Studies at Leicester University says it mostly comes down to a certain Tudor playwright: “You can put 90 percent of that notoriety down to Shakespeare and his play, which portrayed him as such a conniving, bad man.

“There are plenty of medieval kings who are buried and would make an interesting dig and were on the throne far longer than Richard, but they’re not as well known. Look at Richard’s brother Edward IV: He was no less violent and brutal, but would he generate as much interest? No," he says. 

“If you look at how the story has been reported on television, they’ve used telling quips from Laurence Olivier, using Shakespeare’s immortal lines which we all know. It’s in our psyche, in our DNA, and I think a lot of that is down to William Shakespeare as well as the fact Richard had a hunchback. In the Middle Ages they would have thought people deserved the deformity and he was somehow evil. I think that sticks in people’s memory too.”

Today it was revealed that academics at the University of Winchester had applied to exhume bones from an unmarked grave at St. Bartholomew Church in the city to investigate if they are the legendary Saxon king Alfred the Great, who died in 899. However Professor Housley says while interesting, it wouldn’t be as captivating. “Alfred’s an interesting man but he’s not as well known, probably because he doesn’t have a famous play about him.”

Tiffany Jenkins, an independent sociologist and cultural commentator, agrees that Shakespeare played a role in the interest, but also says the British habit of backing an underdog was significant.

“The Richard III Society which played such a big part in this are trying to rewrite his character and portray him in a better light, even though there’s no reason to think he was better than what’s been written about him.”

Dr. Jenkins adds, “I think kings and queens have always captured our attention, particularly ones from hundreds of years ago. There’s a certain ‘whodunnit’ detective story around the discovery – there’s a body and we want to find out how he died and why."

“What’s crucial is that this is a human being who played an important part in our history. But in truth, we don’t really know too much about him which creates the opportunity to discuss him and put words in his mouth.”

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