Shakespeare’s Deformed Richard III Disputed by Scientists

The complete skeleton showing the curve of King Richard III's spine. Courtesy University of Leicester Close

The complete skeleton showing the curve of King Richard III's spine. Courtesy University of Leicester

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The complete skeleton showing the curve of King Richard III's spine. Courtesy University of Leicester

The slings and arrows of literary insults aimed at King Richard III grossly embellish the deformities of the supposed hunchback whose villainy endures thanks to William Shakespeare.

That’s the conclusion of scientists who used 3D printing to reconstruct the spine of the last English ruler before the Tudors, after his remains were immodestly discovered under a parking lot. The findings may overturn centuries of maltreatment by the Bard and other writers.

Richard III, who died offering to trade his kingdom for a horse in Shakespeare’s version of his life, had scoliosis that wasn’t severe enough to warrant the hunchback depiction, scientists at the University of Cambridge and the University of Leicester said in a paper published in the Lancet journal. No evidence was found of a withered arm or uneven legs that would have caused him to limp.

“If you took Richard’s clothes off, you could see that his spine had a big curve in it, but if he was clothed, scoliosis is much less obvious,” Piers Mitchell, a paleopathologist at Cambridge, said in a phone interview. “Shakespeare wrote his play over a century after Richard III died. Clearly, he was writing the play based on what he had heard, without seeing the evidence himself.”

Richard III's complete spine. The width of the curve is correct, but the gaps between the vertebrae have been increased so that they do not touch each other and get damaged. This makes this spine look longer than it would have been in life. Courtesy University of Leicester Close

Richard III's complete spine. The width of the curve is correct, but the gaps between... Read More

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Richard III's complete spine. The width of the curve is correct, but the gaps between the vertebrae have been increased so that they do not touch each other and get damaged. This makes this spine look longer than it would have been in life. Courtesy University of Leicester

The researchers used CT scans to create 3D reconstructions of each bone in the spine. While the alignment of the joints resulted in a curvature that matched what was clearly seen when the real bones were unearthed last year, the effect on Richard’s outward appearance was “probably slight” and easily obscured by custom-made armor, they said.

‘Wither’d Up’

In the eponymous play dating to about 1593, Shakespeare used characterizations such as “deform’d” and “unfinish’d” in the first scene of the opening act to describe Richard, who was killed in battle in 1485. In the third act, the king says, “behold mine arm is, like a blasted sapling, wither’d up.”

Shakespeare may have been drawing from writers such as the historian John Rous, who described “unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower,” in painting Richard as a hunchback. Thomas More, who served under Henry VIII as lord chancellor, also referred to him as “ill-fetured of limmes, croke-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right.”

The latest scientific analysis may help set the record straight, Cambridge’s Mitchell said. Richard III has been “unjustly maligned, initially by Tudor historians and in perpetuity by the plays of William Shakespeare,” according to the Richard III Society, which originated the search for his remains.

DNA Comparison

The skeleton was found in 2012 in the ruins of an English church covered by a parking lot in Leicester. Archaeologists confirmed the remains as Richard III’s in February 2013 after comparing DNA to two relatives from the king’s maternal line.

Richard III’s demise ended Britain’s Plantagenet dynasty and inspired one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, with the title role performed by Kevin Spacey at London’s Old Vic a year before the bones were unearthed.

His death also may have inspired some to malign the king to give legitimacy to the succeeding Tudor dynasty. The exaggeration of physical defects may obscure the truth about the supposed villainy of the monarch, according to some scholars.

Richard III is sometimes accused of having arranged the killing of two young princes, the sons of the previous king, Edward IV. His death marked the end of the Wars of the Roses and he was succeeded by Henry VII.

Wounds were discovered on the skeleton that were consistent with dying in battle, scientists said at the time, and the corpse was probably “subjected to humiliation injuries, including a sword through the right buttock.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Makiko Kitamura in London at mkitamura1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Phil Serafino at pserafino@bloomberg.net David Risser, Kristen Hallam

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