In Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” the king was described as a hunchback with a withered arm, who murdered his own nephews in his climb to the throne.
Who can forget Sir Laurence Olivier’s version of the Shakespearean drama, in which Olivier, playing the murderous king, cries out as he faces his certain death?
History says he met his demise in the Battle of Bosworth, in 1485.
Now, after scientists announced they’ve found and identified Richard III’s bones, new questions are emerging about the king and his true nature.
Anchor Marco Werman speaks with novelist Anne Easter Smith about the differing views of King Richard III.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston. Researchers in Britain say they’ve solved a 500-year-old mystery. They say the bones they unearthed from beneath a parking lot in the English city of Leicester are those of King Richard III. The medieval monarch died in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. He was known to be buried in Leicester, though the exact location was lost to history. But some dogged research led to the skeleton and DNA from a very distant living relative of the king led to a positive ID. Now a lot of what we think we know about the old king comes from Shakespeare. His Richard III was a hunchbacked, scheming, brutal tyrant. To refresh our memory, here’s Adam Long, a founding member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, with a now updated version of the play.
Adam Long: Here’s the greatest story you ever heard,
About a king named Richard the Third,
An ugly hunchback with stature diminished,
Rudely stamped, deformed and unfinished.
Started out as a prince who was almost unknown,
Not even hardly in line for the throne,
And a big-headed brother made poor Richard glummer,
Turning discontented winter into glorious summer.
Little Richard was bitter and fuming and steaming,
The poisonous hunchback was plotting and scheming
And seething and ready to pop his cork.
He would steal the throne from that son of York.
And so in pursuit of satisfaction
Richard put his murderous plan into action,
Sent Clarence to the Tower quite easily
With a misunderstanding over the letter G.
Then he wooed Lady Anne, Warwick’s youngest daughter,
Though he’d killed her husband and killed her father.
Two murderers carried out Richard’s wishes,
Killed Clarence, who dreamed of jewels, skulls, pearls, and fishes.
The crown was so close he could reach out and pluck it.
Then old King Edward the Fourth kicked the bucket.
And soon poor Edward the Fifth was dead.
That sneaky old Richard just lopped off his head.
He beheaded Lord Rivers, Sir Thomas, Lord Grey,
Heads were flying every which way.
He killed Lord Hastings I forgot to mention,
When Hastings objected to his ascension.
Then they made Richard king and he was feeling groovy.
It was worse than a Quentin Tarantino movie,
He was killing children, killing all day,
Lord Buckingham fled but got killed anyway.
Somebody had to stop that hellion.
Richmond invaded and led the rebellion
With his shining armor and his battle cry.
Some ghosts told Richard, “Despair and die!”
Richard fought like a fiend in the face of that force
And he called for a horse, his kingdom for a horse.
But Richmond was mighty and killed Richard Three,
And that is the fate of all tyrants, you see.
Richard lost his crown and his throne and his jester,
And wound up buried in a car park in Leicester.
Thus Richard spent his winter of discontent
Buried beneath three feet of cement.
Werman: Very good. Remember the story now? That was Adam Long of the Reduced Shakespeare Company updating his version of Richard III. The discovery of the king’s bones beneath that car park in Leicester could spark some historians to rethink his story. Anne Easter Smith is a novelist and self-proclaimed Ricardian. Richard III has appeared as a character in many of her novels. She says how he came to be buried in Leicester was quite dramatic.
Anne Easter Smith: After the Battle of Bosworth he was flung over a horse and taken back to Leicester stark naked, all his wounds showing, and Henry gave him over to the monks of this church, and then they buried him. And then the monastery was destroyed so we lost track of where Richard was really buried.
Werman: Now most of us know Richard III from Shakespeare’s drama, where he’s described as a hunchback with a withered arm who murders his nephews to usurp the throne. Is that a fair depiction of the king?
Smith: Absolutely not. Shakespeare was writing for the Tudors and he was borrowing Tudor historiansâ€™ accounts of Richard, who had necessarily written them to denigrate the king, because Henry VII had really come in and taken his crown. They said he had been two years in his mother’s womb and come out with a full head of hair and full head of teeth, and Shakespeare put that in his play.
Werman: So you see Shakespeare’s writing as kind of revisionist history.
Smith: It’s propaganda for the Tudors, is what it is.
Werman: The murders of the nephews, though, that’s still unsolved, correct?
Smith: Yes, and unfortunately finding his bones is not going to help that in any way. We have no idea what happened to them, if they were murdered, or if they were spirited away somewhere, we really don’t know.
Werman: So the skeleton seems to indicate that he actually had quite a severe case of scoliosis, so that kind of takes the hunchback thing away, but he still probably walked with a pretty substantial bent, right?
Smith: What they’re saying is that it would mean that he had one shoulder higher than the other, but that he was not deformed, because a lot of people were writing about him and there was nothing mentioned about deformities. He was apparently quite good looking, not very tall, looked like his father, gray eyes and dark brown hair. And in fact, a portrait that was done of Richard round the end of the 15th century, today, when they were going to be restoring it, they were x-raying it to see where exactly lines were and things to restore it, and they found that somebody had painted on a hunchback. The original did not have one.
Werman: So is that kind of the visual artist’s version of Shakespeare, working again for the Tudors, kind of propaganda?
Smith: That’s right. And of course, you know, Shakespeare was like our TV today, our TV and movies. People flocked to see the plays and they just believed what they saw. It would be like somebody who’d never read anything about JFK’s death going to see Oliver Stone’s JFK and thinking, oh, this is truth.
Werman: For you, Anne, what kind of King was Richard III? Not in Shakespeare’s view, but what kind of king was he?
Smith: He reigned for only two years but he was very concerned about the justice system, and he enacted a couple of statutes that still stand today, one of them to do with improving bail, for people who didn’t have a lot of money. And he also took away taxes that Edward had brought in to fill his war chest.
Werman: So now his bones can be laid to rest. Do you know where that’s going to be, and will be get Catholic last rites? He was a Catholic king.
Smith: I think he’s going to be buried in Leicester Cathedral and I would think he would be given a Church of England burial. I just don’t know that they would give him a Catholic burial there.
Werman: Novelist Anne Easter Smith telling us about Richard III, her favorite obsession. Anne’s upcoming novel, Royal Mistress, featuring King Richard comes out in May. Anne, thanks very much.
Smith: Very much my pleasure. Thank you, Marco.
Werman: We have pictures and video of Richard III’s bones and the parking lot excavation. Check those out, plus listen again to Adam Long’s Reduced Shakespeare version of Richard III. That’s all at TheWorld.org.
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