Digging for Richard

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Photo by Christoph Manuel Mueller

Though Shakespeare was not mentioned, there was a manifest and contrived theatricality about the press conference announcing that the skeleton unearthed in a Leicester car park was indeed that of King Richard III. Not that anyone could have doubted what the conclusion would be. How could the University, clearly pulling all the stops out to assert its academic excellence, possibly have gone to such lengths if all it had had to say was ‘no, it isn’t’, or even ‘well, it could be’?

But the event was skilfully stage managed, with a succession of academics from a variety of departments – archaeological, historical, medical, but not, I noticed, literary or dramatic, standing on a podium and gently swaying their way through a succession of prepared statements, illustrating their points with documents and graphs, and mounting gradually to the climactic revelation of the results of DNA tests. And there was a nice element of cloak and dagger too. Who was the mystery man or woman whose DNA helped to clinch the case but who preferred to remain completely anonymous? Could it have been . . . a living personage of royal blood?

It was all thoroughly convincing and certainly achieved its purpose so far as the University was concerned. As a contribution to scientific, and perhaps to historical research it is doubtless a significant achievement. But is it in any degree relevant to Shakespeare buffs? Richard III is the most charismatic of Shakespeare’s villains. A great ironist, he limps his way through his play with ferocious intelligence only to discover finally that his apparent self-knowledge conceals a vast and tragic moral emptiness.

Shakespeare had adumbrated him in the character of Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece. And later in his career he was to develop him into another, less ironic, more deeply tragic murderer and child-killer, Macbeth. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a hunchback may seem to be a piece of dramatic symbolism, and loses none of its power even though it is now vindicated by the gruesome evidence of the mutilated skeleton, damaged both by wounds inflicted in battle and, it would seem, by others designed to humiliate the defenceless corpse. It has inspired a succession of great performances from the time of its first impersonator, Richard Burbage, onwards. David Garrick, Edmund Kean, G. F. Cooke, J. P. Kemble, W. C.  Macready, Henry Irving, Laurence Olivier, Antony Sher, Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale, and Kevin Spacey are only a few of those who have triumphed in the role. The play has often been given in spectacular stagings with elaborate, historically based settings, as for example in Bill Alexander’s R S C production of 1984, which had a magnificent coronation scene. Olivier’s film is a classic. And both the role and its interpreters have been burlesqued, parodied and sent up mercilessly by amateurs as well as by professionals.

What will happen now?  Will the discovery and identification of the dead King’s bones, along with the confirmation that he was indeed physically as well as morally deformed, have any impact upon Shakespeare’s play in performance? Will the upcoming production at the Bristol Tobacco Factory make any attempt to capitalize on it? Is John Mackay quaking in his leather boots in the thought that they may try to replicate the site of the blows that killed the King?

Good luck to them if they can make anything of it, but how they might do so is a task for the theatrical, not for the academic imagination.

O, and by the way, Leicester means Lear’s city. Another Shakespeare connection. Maybe the university should take another look at that car park.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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