THE DEFORMED VILLAINOUS RICHARD III vs.
GOOD KING RICHARD
We read the play in high school and watched Laurence Olivier drag his lame foot across the movie set, limping in choreographed precision with his uneven shoulders, from which the right one hung a withered arm. “dogs bark at me as I halt by them” (Richard III, 1.i). He sneers, thin-lipped, under a blue-black wig and turns in profile to showcase the pointy putty nose. In Henry VI, 3.ii Richard claims that Nature has conspired to “shape my legs of an unequal size; / To disproportion me in every part”.
Since August 22, 1485, this was the Richard we saw, filtered through the imaginations of paid Tudor propagandists such as Thomas More and the imagination of the Bard to amuse and possibly appease his royal theatergoer and monarch, Elizabeth I. Shakespeare sure knew his audience, namely the granddaughter of Henry, Earl of Richmond, the Welsh pretender whose brave men at arms (Henry stayed horsed at a safe distance) pummeled Richard III off his mount and his throne to begin the Tudor dynasty.
The new King Henry VII paid historians such as Sir Thomas More to drag Richard’s name through the mud as they dragged his body, in order to lend more credibility to his tenuous claim to the throne.
Literary critic Stephen Greenblatt says Tudor’s smear campaign involved portraying Richard as a “monster of evil, a creature whose moral viciousness was vividly stamped on his twisted body.”
Having evolved over the centuries into the "Tudor myth," Richard’s purported reign of terror became the go-to “historical record” taught in schools and perpetuated by playwrights such as the Bard, novelists and Hollywood.
These myths, or lies, depending on your degree of Ricardian loyalty, thrived because: a) history is written by the victors, b) everyone loves to hate a villain, and c) no one bothered to refute Richard’s reputation as a twisted crookbacked monster. Until 1924 when a Liverpool surgeon, Saxon Barton and a small group of friends created the Richard III Society.
But his alleged bodily flaws aren’t what kept his reputation mired in that Tudor mud. Richard’s piety remained in doubt mainly because there is no record as to what happened to his nephews, one of whom was to become Edward V, after they disappeared during Richard’s short reign. Known as ‘the Princes in the Tower,’ the boys vanished after Dr. Shaa at St. Paul’s Cross declared them illegitimate in a sermon. In 1674, workers discovered a small box containing bones under a staircase of the White Tower. The bones were placed in an urn in Westminster Abbey where they remain today. In 1933 forensic scientists determined the bones belonged to two males of ages 12 and 10, the ages of the Princes when they vanished. But the studies could not determine their identity.
Despite the Richard III Society’s ongoing efforts to proclaim his innocence, there is still no proof as to whether he did away with his nephews.
But we now have proof that Richard wasn’t the mangled withered-armed humpback of Bard lore—and that proof is in another set of bones—those of Richard himself. In February, the announcement flew round the world that Richard’s body was unearthed under a car park in Leicester, at the site of the church where he’d been buried after his death at the Battle of Bosworth. DNA testing on a male descendant gave Ricardians the world over the match they’d been hoping for. Richard indeed suffered scoliosis, curvature of the spine, which decreased his height by four inches. But his condition did not render him a hunchback by any means. Nor did his arm bones show any signs of being mangled or withered. These findings, a long-awaited relief to Ricardians, dispelled all the 500-year-old theories, myths, fictionalizations, and yes, lies about Richard’s deformities. Therefore his dramatized villainy—some scholars believe Richard was a bad guy because of his deformity (giving him the feeling of rejection, inadequacy, and sense of being unloved)—was disproved.
But the historical record itself hasn’t given us believable evidence of his wicked ways, dragging a deformed body or not. He was by all accounts an energetic and benevolent king. His un-mangled, un-hunched remains and his reconstructed face tell us that he didn’t become a monster because of a deformity. If you’d care to learn of Richard’s good deeds you’ll see he left his kingdom a better place than he found it. We can take the Bard’s and Thomas More’s words as fiction, or at least with a pinch of salt, and Ricardians everywhere can rest assured that he was a good guy after all.
Visit the Richard III Society American branch.