With the splashy discovery of the supposed remains of Richard III by archaeologists from the University of Leicester, the old question of Shakespeare’s Richard demands review. Sarah Knight and Mary Ann Lund summarize the contemporary testimonies to Richard’s physical appearance, including Shakespeare’s innovations:

“If Shakespeare can be absolved of inventing the ‘bunchbacked’ Richard through deliberate manipulation of his sources, it is doubtless true that he exaggerates physical details. Early chroniclers such as Polydore Vergil had emphasized that Richard lived with a ‘misshapen’ body ( corpore deformi ) but in Shakespeare the imagined hump becomes a “mountain”. Other details which increase the Shakespearean Richard’s monstrosity have received less attention . . . .

“Whereas John Rous reports that Richard was retained in his mother’s womb for two years ( biennio matris utero tentus ), Shakespeare has him born prematurely, ‘Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up’ (Richard III, 1.i). Where More’s Richard is ‘ill fetured of limmes’ (in the more discursive Latin, inaequalibus atque informibus membris – with unequal and unformed limbs), Shakespeare’s Richard claims that Nature has conspired to ‘shape my legs of an unequal size; / To disproportion me in every part’ (3 Henry VI, 3.ii). Presumably these unequal legs cause the limp – ‘dogs bark at me as I halt by them’ (Richard III, 1.i) – which seems to be original to Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare’s Richard doesn’t match the skeleton: “There is nothing in the skeleton at Grey Friars to suggest such a ‘disproportion.’ Nor is there evidence of the withered arm which, according to posthumous accounts, Richard showed at a council meeting, accusing Elizabeth Woodville (and in More’s account, Jane Shore) of using witchcraft against him, when ‘no man was there present, but wel knew that his harme was euer such since his birth’ (More).”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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