Richard III: Science Trumps Shakespeare

Titles of Two RichardsEver since archaeologists excavated King Richard III’s remains from a parking lot in Leicester, England in 2012, researchers have been working hard to uncover his 500-year-old secrets.* They have confirmed the ruler’s identity through mitochondrial DNA testing, discovered he had roundworms (but no other parasites) in his intestines, and have now learned that his spinal curvature wasn’t extreme enough to warrant the physical description Shakespeare gave him in the eponymous play, Richard III (1592).

Most of us know of Richard III through Shakespeare, who portrays the controversial last Plantagenet King as a villain responsible for the murders of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, among other deaths. Shakespeare connects Richard III’s treacherous behavior to his physical appearance, describing him as “deform’d,” “unfinish’d,” and as a “bunch-back’d toad.”

As it turns out, though, Shakespeare’s description of Richard III wasn’t exactly right. In The Lancet (May 31, 2014), Dr. Jo Appleby et al. concluded that:

The physical disfigurement from Richard’s scoliosis was probably slight since he had a well balanced curve. His trunk would have been short relative to the length of his limbs, and his right shoulder a little higher than the left. However, a good tailor and custom-made armour could have minimised the visual impact of this… we identified no evidence that Richard would have walked with an overt limp.**

Richard III had scoliosis, but it was not severe enough to match Shakespeare’s Tudor-influenced description. The Tudors defeated Richard III in 1485, and still reigned when Richard III was written.

Not everyone has agreed with Tudor descriptions of Richard III’s behavior or appearance. For example, in Josephine Tey’s 1951 historical detective novel, The Daughter of Time, Inspector Alan Grant investigates the mystery at the heart of Richard III’s bad reputation—the alleged murder of his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower.  As he gazes at the portrait of the reviled ruler, Grant wonders how “the author of the most revolting crime in history” could “have the face of a great judge, a great administrator”? Grant decides to clear Richard III’s name, starting with primary historical sources.

I highly recommend reading Tey’s novel, which encourages us to look at historical facts with a critical eye. As I said in Unearthing Historical Truths: Richard III in Fiction and in the Flesh (well, Bones),

Whether or not you agree with Grant’s alternate theory of what happened to the princes, it is hard to dismiss his application of the historical method. It reminds me of my college days as a history major when my papers were built upon the details contained in diaries, personal letters, and other primary sources. Each is a piece of evidence, which a historian, like a juror in a trial, must weigh for credibility to reach a verdict on “the truth.” It’s the only way to root out “Tonypandy,” Grant’s term for historical bullshit.

We also have the scientific method to thank for rooting out tonypandy. Today, through empirical evidence, we know that Richard III’s “disfigurement… was probably slight.” Someday, new scientific and historical discoveries might give us a better idea of what actually happened to the princes. We can’t rely on fiction to figure it out for us.

*He was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, which is actually 529 years ago.

**I’ve been battling with Word’s autocorrect over the British spellings in this quote. I’m very annoyed at my American computer right now.

33 thoughts on “Richard III: Science Trumps Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: Did I Treat Louis XVI Unfairly? | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. Interesting. I guess history is often written by the victors or those with an agenda and the truth may be hidden amongst it. By the way, you should try being English and battling with American autocorrects all the time. We really are countries divided by a common language 🙂

    1. Yeah, history is written by the victors, making it hard to know the line between truth and fiction. I can’t even imagine how frustrating the American autocorrects must be for you!

  3. Dude, this is fascinating stuff. It’s rather amusing to think how much creative license Shakespeare took in portraying Richard III… Then again, the Tudors were a bit ax happy, so maybe it was a smart move to placate them…

  4. Darn American computers 😉 I saw a piece on this somewhere but didn’t take the time to read it. I’m glad you posted about it! I don’t know why it is but I find British history incredibly fascinating. Maybe because they have so much more of it than we do? Anyway, it seems that Bill S. was exaggerating a bit, lol.

    1. I’ve always found British history fascinating, too, though I only took two courses on it in college (neither dealt with Richard III). I should’ve taken more! I’m loving the scientific perspective on Richard III, too. There’s nothing better than a mystery with DNA and archaeological evidence!

  5. I always wonder how writers record history. Research, first hand accounts, hearsay, vengeance on an individual, to herald those not deserving? I was thinking about this yesterday, how much can we believe of recorded history? Time changes perceptions into stories different than what likely occurred. I have been recently interested in the Tudor period, but wonder what is real and what was recorded to ruin reputations. Richard III sounds like an interesting character, even more so how he was portrayed.

    1. Yes, the mystery surrounding Richard III is fascinating, and it’s even better now thanks to the DNA and archaeological evidence. What I love most about Josephine Tey’s novel (which certainly has its bias!) is its application of the historical method and its focus on primary resources. So much of what we’ve been taught as history is more fiction than fact. It’s important that we read it all with a critical eye.

  6. What an interesting post! I’m always wary when reading historical fiction because I think it is oh so easy to read a novel and accept its premise as fact or its characters as representative.

  7. It always amazes me that something seemingly so minuscule in the grand scheme of things still has such a mesmerizing power over us hundreds of years later. It’s a topic that I don’t doubt will always be intriguing, and I can’t help but wonder if Shakespeare, even though he wasn’t accurate (as he usually wasn’t- he was a fiction writer after all), if he planted the seed for our interest today. Insightful read as always!

    1. Yeah, I’m sure that Shakespeare has a lot to do with why so many of us are fascinated by Richard III today. It’s a 500-year-old mystery plus the modern additions of DNA and archaeological evidence. What could be more fun than that?! Thanks for the comment!

    1. Richard III and the latest scientific developments really are fascinating (even 529 years after Richard’s death!). I’m glad it was an interesting post.

    1. Thanks! The controversy surrounding Richard III really is fascinating. I can see why it’s still such a hot topic more than 500 years later! I hope you enjoyed Tey’s book. It’s detective fiction that truly deserves to be a classic.

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