The winter of our misconceptions: the discovery of Richard III

In a world that’s often frustrating/depressing/daunting, it’s nice to be reminded that there’s some amazing stuff happening too:

LONDON — A team of archaeologists confirmed Monday that ancient remains found under a parking lot belong to long-lost King Richard III, successfully ending a search that sparked a modern-day debate about the legacy of the reputed tyrant.

Details of the findings were released hours after DNA tests came in late Sunday. The 500-year-old remains were discovered five months ago, using ancient maps and records to uncover the ruins of the old friary where Richard III was laid to rest.

If you’ll pardon my French, holy shit. I was somehow unaware of the fact that Richard III’s remains had been lost for 500 freaking years — lost! The last Plantagenet king’s body actually lost, buried who knows where!

On the right, the reconstruction of Richard III's face. On the left, a living gentleman who I think might be Richard's descendant. WOW.

THEY RECONSTRUCTED HIS FACE. That is a guy who died 500 years ago! SCIENCE! Seriously, every time I look at this picture I freak out a little. It’s like time travel.

The historical Richard III and his time period is not my academic wheelhouse — I know much more about the Tudors — but the opportunities presented by this discovery for the Shakespearen community are almost as exciting as the opportunities it presents for the historical community.

Richard III is well known as one of Shakespeare’s most compelling villains, sharing the stage with Iago in Othello, Macbeth and Lady M in Macbeth, Angelo in Measure for Measure. He is a bald-faced villain, turning to the audience at the beginning of the play and telling them “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.” Just straight-up, “I’m going to be a villain — and you’re going to watch.” He breaks the fourth wall regularly, in the first half of the play in particular, making the audience a co-conspirator and accomplice as he rises to power through guile and violence. We watch in fascination as he goes from scorned and deformed younger son, to king, and at last to desperate, unhorsed soldier.

We love to hate him now, in America, where all we know about him is that he’s deliciously creepy. Imagine how its original audience in the 1590s must have felt. Ruling England was Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry VII, the man who killed Richard III and claimed the throne for the Tudors. Anyone watching Richard III would know the ending, and (assuming one liked the Tudors and Queen Elizabeth, which isn’t exactly a foregone conclusion) the play offers plenty of chances to boo the terrible House of York and cheer for the final victory of the House of Tudor, and therefore cheer for the current monarch.

In that way, Richard III is one of the most overtly politicized plays Shakespeare wrote. In fact it’s often called, with good reason, propaganda. Over and over it reminds the audience that Yorks = bad awful ew gross, and Tudors = noble righteous awesome yay! And as such, a lot of historians and critics have characterized Richard III as a hatchet job on the actual historical Richard III.

Perhaps the most significant way the discovery of Richard’s remains will tie in to the way we think about Shakespeare’s play is his hunchback. The play describes Richard as a “bunch-back’d toad” (twice, thanks Margaret), “deform’d, unfinish’d,” “foul deformity,” etc., and productions throughout the centuries have portrayed him with varying levels of hunch, from Anthony Sher with a hunch as big as his head and a pair of crutches, to Kevin Spacey’s severely twisted body, to Laurence Olivier’s downright athletic soldier of a king. (I’ll never forget watching Olivier’s performance and bursting out laughing when Richard jumps off a platform and slides down a rope in the throne room, because Olivier does not give a damn.) These remains tell us what Richard would have actually looked like: his spine had a “striking curvature” due to scoliosis, which would have made one shoulder higher than the other. (The right, if I’m interpreting the pictures correctly.)

My guess is that it’ll still take a long time for us to get it through our heads that Richard was no Quasimodo. 500 years of propaganda is hard to shake off. And Shakespeare’s Richard will always primarily be a villain; as flexible as Shakespeare’s texts can be, the fictional Richard strikes me as too charismatic, too powerful, too forthright to ever be erased or to deviate too far from his stated course.

But I think, with the success of things like The Tudors and The Hollow Crown, and this discovery, the time may just be ripe for a new Richard, and a new look at this son of York.

Here are a bunch of links that I think deserve to be highlighted:

One thought on “The winter of our misconceptions: the discovery of Richard III

  1. Interesting post!

    As a person with scoliosis, I’ve viewed the pictures of his spine with a different lens. He had a pretty drastic C curve, which would definitely have given one shoulder lift. I have an S curve, annnnd the angles of my curves are pretty drastic, esp. the top one… but if you work on posture, stay active, etc., you can hide the true nature of the deformity. I wonder about Richard – he must have had chronic pain, but he could probably ride a horse and even slide down a rope. On good days. Fascinating.

    It is like a time machine looking at the facial reconstruction. I love that they found him.

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