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.