Richard III: Shakespearean Hit Job?

STC 22314, title page

First page of the first edition of William Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”

England’s King Richard III has been experiencing a bit of  renaissance lately after his remains were discovered underneath a carpark (a.k.a. parking lot) in Leicester, UK last year.  Of particular interest has been the debate over whether or not Shakespeare’s portrayal of the late king in his famous play Richard III is historically accurate.  Scholars had suspected for some time that the villainous, deformed version of Richard that appears in the Bard’s script could have been a clever form of Tudor-era propaganda – the Tudors being the English royal dynasty that unseated Richard III and would have been keen to emphasize his illegitimacy as king.

The discovery of Richard III’s skeleton has now proved that at least two details in Shakespeare’s play were incorrect: the king did not have a withered hand, and while he did suffer from scoliosis (side-to-side curvature of the spine), descriptions of a hideous hunchback were exaggerated.  As for the many crimes that Shakespeare alleges – murdering his two nephews and a brother while manipulating his way to the throne – the Richard III Society offers a spirited defense for him.

In addition, a mock trial at Indiana University’s law school  in 1996, presided over by former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist and other legal experts, found Richard III not guilty of murdering the two princes.  Taking all of this into consideration, and remembering that the play was written more than a century after Richard’s death, it seems quite likely that at least part of Shakespeare’s tale was invention. Continue reading