“The Tragedy of King Richard the Third” was acted on stages in Vermont last year.
The history of King Richard III achieved a remarkable coda in recent days in Leicester, England, when the skeletal remains of the actual Richard were discovered buried beneath a parking lot.
Richard III died in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 after a brief bloody reign that was the culmination of the long dynastic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster, known as the War of the Roses. He was succeeded by Henry, the earl of Richmond, who became Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs who included Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
The discovery of Richard’s remains is a bracing reminder that the story told in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” was based on an actual Richard III. The whereabouts of his grave were unknown during these many centuries, though a historian writing shortly after his death had written Richard had been buried in the corner of a priory in Leicester. Other accounts said the crowd had thrown his body into the nearby river.
The remains uncovered in Leicester have been identified by DNA linking two living Englishmen to Anne of York, Richard’s sister, 16 generations ago. Tellingly, the remains also display a distinct curvature of the spine, which would account for the depiction by Shakespeare of Richard as a deformed and hideous hunchback, or a “poisonous bunch-backed toad,” as he is described by Margaret, widow of Henry VI. (He is also called “an elvish-marked, abortive rooting hog” and a “hedgehog,” among other things.)
Also tellingly, the remains in Leicester showed a gash in the skull that could have been caused by a blow in battle, as well as other gashes about the head that could have been caused by knife blows inflicted on the corpse as it was trundled by horseback into Leicester.
The historical Richard has long been overshadowed by the Shakespearean Richard, which was the creation of a playwright with an interest in celebrating the Tudor line. Shakespeare’s creation was a vividly malevolent villain who displayed the kind of warped psychology more richly described in later plays, such as Macbeth, and re-enacted in real life by an unending catalog of tyrants. (See: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Saddam, Gadhafi.)
In England, plans are afoot to inter the bones of Richard in the nearby cathedral with the dignity befitting a king. It appears that under the House of Windsor, the sins of the Plantagenets can be, if not forgiven, at least put into context.
That context is something we continually try to imagine in the histories and the historic plays and movies that we read and watch. It is hard to know what degree of nobility to ascribe to the nobility of bygone eras. Those who rose to the level of king often had to be tested in actual battle, wielding swords in fierce combat, killing at close quarters. Our leaders today don’t go in for that sort of thing. In the violent environment of the late medieval world, the continual battle among the armies of clans and warlords must have seemed like a world dominated by the gangs with the fastest horses and the most brutal fighters.
The remains in Leicester connect us to that world. But it is the lasting contribution of Shakespeare that he infused that world with something else: humanity. Within the self-contained world of Shakespeare’s monarchies, he explored the ways that human beings may act with treachery, self-deception and pride or with humility, nobility and compassion. He asked continually: What makes a great king? The answer: what makes a great person.
Richard III, who slaughtered his own nephews, among many others, was not a great person, as far as we know, except in that he was a great villain, and Shakespeare made sure we knew that. Historians tell us he did some good things as king. No doubt. But his short unhappy reign and that gaping hole in his skull, not to mention the historical legacy shaped by the Tudor propagandist from Stratford, suggest a man beset by many enemies, mostly of his own making.
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