What are the odds of parking your vehicle a few feet above a historical figure’s last resting place?
Shakespeare fans learnt recently that the skeleton found underneath a parking lot in England on September 12 could be of King Richard III. And Shakespeare experts at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) say that, if the identity is confirmed, the discovery will go far towards correcting the literary and the historical image, if not the record, of the controversial monarch.
According to the BBC’s website, scientists and archaeologists in the Leicester area began an excavation of Richard III’s last resting place in late August. Their digging in the parking lot uncovered the remains of the church in which he was allegedly buried. Excavations in the church’s choir turned up a skeleton with both (according to Leicester University’s Richard Taylor) a wound to the skull and — fascinatingly — signs of spinal curvature reminiscent of the deformity attributed to Richard III by some historical sources, and made into a hunchback by Shakespeare in his play.
Experts are warning not to jump to conclusions just yet. Laboratory tests, including the DNA test, are yet to be completed.
“We are not saying that we have found Richard III,” Taylor cautioned reporters. “What we are saying is that the search for Richard III has entered a new phase. Our focus is shifting from the archaeological excavation to laboratory analysis.”
Even though the DNA results are not out yet, Shakespeare enthusiasts who have learnt of the discovery are staying up to date with any news.
AUS’s Professor Dr Judith Caesar, who teaches courses in Shakespeare, said that while the discovery of the skeleton may be of more interest to historians than literary scholars, it was still every bit as intriguing.
“The discovery of the skeleton,” she said, “if it proves to be Richard’s, would suggest that there was a slight abnormality which Tudor historians then exaggerated for propaganda purposes, but that they did not make up the story entirely.”
Caesar explained that some medieval people believed physical disfigurement signalled moral deformity. “Thus, by claiming that Richard was a hunchback, Tudor historians found it easier to suggest that he was guilty of crimes such as the murder of his two young nephews, the older of whom had a legitimate claim to the throne,” she said.
She added that the Tudor historians (those of the dynasty established by Henry VII after Richard’s death) wanted to make Richard look as corrupt as possible to justify Henry VII’s claim to the throne. “If Richard were an evil, troll-like creature, then Henry VII could seem justified in invading England and killing Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field …,” she said. “Of course, this has nothing to do with whether or not Richard killed his nephews.”
Caesar said that even some modern historians have suggested that Richard is unlikely to have killed his nephews, and that the children were probably killed by Henry VII so that they could not threaten his claim to the throne. “They also assert that contemporary portraits of Richard (those painted in the 15th century) do not suggest any physical abnormality,” she said.
Regarding how this affects the teaching of Shakespeare’s play, Caesar said that scholars have always classified the historical Richard and Shakespeare’s Richard as two completely different people. She said that Shakespeare’s “Richard III” is a study of a sociopath’s rise to power and the effects of a ruthless and immoral leader on the country he ruled. The character from the play may be accurate about the nature of power and those who seek it, she added, without being an actual representation of the person.
Caesar said the one consequence of the discovery is that it may change the way Richard is physically portrayed on stage. Simply put, if a director wants the character to be closer in appearance to the real Richard, they may have him as only slightly (rather than severely) crippled.
Shakespeare aligned his portrayal of Richard with the Tudor propaganda for excellent reasons, noted Dr Fawwaz Jumean, head of AUS’s Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Sciences Department. The playwright wanted to endear himself to Queen Elizabeth Tudor and ensure the continuation of her favours, he said.
“Shakespeare has done it more than once; he was a practical man and a very gifted poet,” said Jumean, a Shakespeare enthusiast who played the Porter in the AUS production “Macbeth Arabia” last year. “What better strategy to curry favour with the queen than to demonise the person who was defeated in battle by her ancestors — in this case, Richard? He was demonised not just physically, but also morally. In the play he is portrayed as devoid of any moral scruples.”
Jumean said that if the remains are indeed of Richard III, many historians, who assert that Richard was a (physically) normal person and not a “monster” as Shakespeare’s play depicts him, would be proven right. Jumean noted how in Act I, Scene I of the play, Richard attributes his devious nature to his physical unattractiveness, which prevents him from being loved by women and causes even dogs to bark at him.
The discovery of Richard III’s skeleton, Jumean said, “will demolish some [conventional] perspectives and redeem [Richard] in the eyes of people”. He pointed out that Richard is not the only historical character Shakespeare exaggerated or caricatured. In “Macbeth”, he noted, King Duncan is shown to be gracious and noble, Macbeth a treacherous and criminal host and Lady Macbeth, manipulative and spiteful. In reality, he said, Duncan was a weak king, Macbeth a noble warrior and king and Lady Macbeth, perfectly decent. Altering such details about real people is unfair, Jumean said, but was necessary for Shakespeare to make his plays memorable. In demonising Macbeth, he wanted to endear himself to King James I, who succeeded Elizabeth I and was a descendant of King Duncan.
The technique also emphasises the “power of the pen …”, Jumean added. “Especially when you have Shakespeare’s pen; he can rewrite history.”
Bushra Alfaraj is a journalism student at the American University of Sharjah.