Minds and Faces: the Excavation of Richard III

The recently discovered skeleton of Richard III

The recently discovered skeleton of Richard III, courtesy of the University of Leicester.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
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.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams.

Richard III, 1.1.16–35

So speaks Richard III, the character Shakespeare made so villainously charming, an ugly, murderous version of the modern Dr. House, perhaps, or a quasi- vegetarian version of Hannibal Lecter. Shakespeare took his descriptions of Richard III pretty directly from Sir Thomas More, who described the real-life Richard as “little of stature, ill featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favored of visage […] he was malicious, wrathful, envious and from his birth ever froward.” But last week, from underneath a carport in England, Richard’s bones were dug up, and his skull has been reconstructed to show a comely face, quite as unfairly maligned as was, many now argue, his reputation.

The unfavorable way in which Shakespeare’s Richard depicts his own body – which, he implies, has provided a malignant template for his mind  – is underscored throughout the play by how other characters emotionally color him: a “lump of foul deformity,” a “poisonous bunchback’d toad,” an “elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog!” But it seems that Richard’s major problem was his misaligned shoulders, which intensified the appearance of a hunch. I believe that it is quite possible, indeed, that the real-life Richard suffered from a genetic condition called Sheuemann’s Kyphosis (which 30 per cent of people have, usually in a very mild form), or from a leg length discrepancy, which gives the shoulders a correspondingly unequal height. Any thoughts on this from the medical doctors or archeologists amongst our patrons?

Richard III was England’s monarch between 1483 and 1485, just two short years within which, it seems, his physiognomy rather than his conduct inspired the monstrous reputation that Shakespeare consolidated for him a century later. During Richard’s reign, the Wars of the Roses, the two houses of the Plantagenet dynasty battled each other (often to the death), and it was after the end of this decades-long war that it was forbidden by the laws of both Church and State to take revenge into one’s own hands. Richard instigated many liberal reforms, and yet he has gone down in history as a scheming, though humorous, devil.

“There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face,” says Duncan in Macbeth. Well, the first thing that the investigative team has done is to reconstruct the face. Let’s see how they inspire us now to reconstruct the mind behind it.

What do you think of the recent discovery? Let us know in the comments below. And now that we know what one of Shakespeare’s characters really looked like, be sure and subscribe to our 2013 season so you can get a better idea what his characters feel.

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7 Responses to Minds and Faces: the Excavation of Richard III

  1. Tom Lederer says:

    The discovery of RIII’s skeleton may be interesting and valuable for anthropologists, historians, and archaeologists, and it may be amusing for lovers of Shakespeare and mildly useful for designers of productions. In the end, however, it may serve as a disservice in terms of understanding the play. allowing people to hide behind historical and anatomical trivia instead of looking at what the playwright has created in terms of themes of evilness, power, seduction, relationships, justice, vengeance, and a few other human conditions. Richard may have been crippled, but the way he responds to that with the language created by Shakespeare is what is important to understand for appreciation. History is relatively unimportant for understanding the plays, as Shakespeare is not a good resource for study of the times. Shakespeare was no Hilary Mantel, trying to create an accurate picture of times or people; rather he uses times and people to lead us into ourselves. Looking at skeletons instead of poetry keeps us from such introspection.

  2. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Tom,
    Let me throw it back to you another way. I agree that Shakespeare was not trying to create an accurate picture of the times – but his portrait of Richard has helped cement the historical reputation of Richard III. So a discovery of the ‘real’ body/face/character of Richard wouldn’t stall or reduce the magic of the dramatic engine of Shakespeare’s play, it might indeed compel people to re-examine this historical figure.

  3. Tom Lederer says:

    Agreed, Philippa! An awareness of such a royal personage, especially for non-Brits, is interesting if it leads to other study apart from the drama. However, explaining what happens in that play or in any other by Shakespeare that uses historical plots and names–British, Roman, or otherwise–in terms of the actual events leads us away from the art and poetry. Too often have I heard people criticize the play in terms of its accuracy. It is in reality 100% accurate–as any work of art is–as a reflection of the poet’s perception of human interactions. Likewise, it would be a mistake to explain the historical RIII in relation to the character created by Shakespeare. It may well be–if there is to be any historical/political significance–that such considerations are only in relation to satisfying the Tudor court of Shakespeare’s own days by making a Plantagenet look terrible under the Tudor “sun.”
    History and newly found skeletons do not allow us to be swept away by the paradoxical wonder and musical beauty of an opening metaphor such as, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” “Facts” keep us from being seduced along with Ann, keep us from being awed by Richard’s on-going powers over others.

  4. philippa kelly says:

    Well said, Tom!!

  5. Kelvin Doo says:

    It really is about Shakespeare’s use of language rather than scenery, costumes and makeup. Do we balk at Ian McKellan because he didn’t portray RIII as if played by John Merrick? Particularly in today’s theatre, we are all too often caught up in the “rings and things and fine array” rather than the substance of the script. I blame Andrew Lloyd Weber and Disney!

  6. philippa kelly says:

    And yet – were the plays experienced by language alone, then they’d remain on the page and often by ingested somewhat medicinally. It’s the staging – the costumes, scenery and makeup – that gives a particular life and being to the language.

  7. gene kahane says:

    Richard’s Remains

    Examine my bones pulled from the earth,
    And see why seldom I walked with mirth,
    Asymmetrical, by nature torqued,
    From the beginning wickedness lurked,
    Eye to eye I could not stand,
    My wretched body refused command,
    I saw the world with marked slant,
    Yet from my pain I did not rant,
    But bit the lip and gripped the cane,
    And o’er the years my heart did drain,
    The blood instead rose to my head,
    And made me keen and cruel instead,
    Of cheerful or benevolent,
    My soul grew as my frame was bent,
    The name, I know, you’ve surely heard,
    Behold what’s left of Richard, Third.

    -gene kahane

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