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Richard III: Shakespeare’s Villain And The Real King

Richard III, back from the dead. Out of the parking lot. We’ll look at history, Shakespeare, and the return of the king.

Undated photo made available by the University of Leicester, England, Monday Feb. 4 2013 of the remains found underneath a car park last September at the Grey Friars excavation in Leicester, which have been declared Monday "beyond reasonable doubt" to be the long lost remains of England's King Richard III, missing for 500 years. (AP)

Undated photo made available by the University of Leicester, England, Monday Feb. 4 2013 of the remains found underneath a car park last September at the Grey Friars excavation in Leicester, which have been declared Monday “beyond reasonable doubt” to be the long lost remains of England’s King Richard III, missing for 500 years. (AP)

He was the “son of hell,” as Shakespeare had it.  A “bunch-backed toad.”  Richard III.  The malformed king who cried “my kingdom for a horse!” and killed his way to the crown.  The great villain of English royalty.

And this week, remains dug up from under an English parking lot announced as his.  The very skeleton of Richard III.  Battered and bashed from battle and worse 528 years ago.

Identified with a DNA swab from a 17th generation descendant.  With a spine curved like a U-turn.  William Shakespeare made him the soul of infamy.

This hour, On Point:  history, villainy, and Richard III.

-Tom Ashbrook


John Ashdown Hill, historian and member of the Richard the Third Society. Author of “The Last Days of Richard III,” the book that inspired the search for Richard’s body. He was at the dig site when the bones of King Richard the Third were exhumed, and carried the King’s remains after they’d been packaged.

Michael Witmore, Shakespeare scholar, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. (@michaelwitmore)

From Tom’s Reading List

Time Magazine “For centuries, Richard III has skulked in the shadows of the English imagination, a debased villain guilty of the worst crimes. A whole complex of writers and poets sponsored by the ascendant Tudors, not least Shakespeare, acted as de facto propagandists, cementing a legend that has stuck of a gnarled, misbegotten, evil schemer.”

Associated Press “The discovery of King Richard III under a parking lot in the English city of Leicester thrilled history buffs around the world. But the news meant a winter of discontent for the rival city of York, and now the two are doing battle over the royal bones. Officials in Leicester say the monarch, who was unceremoniously buried without a coffin 528 years ago, will be re-interred with kingly dignity in the city’s cathedral.”

CNN “You may not find a saint, ‘but neither was he a criminal,’ Stone said. ‘All but one of the so-called crimes laid at his door can be refuted by the facts.’ That crime was the killing of the rival nephews, known in history as the ‘Princes in the Tower,’ he said.”

Richard III Gallery

Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Performing the play’s famous opening monologue (with a fake nose)


Sir Ian McKellen as Richard III

Seducing Lady Anne, whose husband he has killed


Excerpt: “The Last Days of Richard III”

Text and images excerpted with permission from The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA (The History Press, 2013).

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  • JobExperience

    Celebrity bones is a poor topic. How in heck do you do an hour on this? Next week you’ll be digging up Lincoln’s grave to avoid current issues.

    • osullivan11

      I thought it was an excellent show… very informative and entertaining. There is wayyyy too much talk of “current issues”…. it’s exhausting and frustrating….. nice tio hear something different. IMO.

  • 1Brett1

    Well, well, they’ve finally found the remains of Richard III, that humback who left a trail of bodies in his ascendency to the throne…

    Ground ‘ees bones into pulp and powder, and thrown him down a privy they should ‘ave!

    • 1Brett1

      Back story: meaning, this fictional English peasant woman, seemingly ready to be enamored of the new king (Henry VII) and to condemn the old king (Richard, the terrible), would one day probably offer the same sentiment toward the House of Tudor…”Long live the House of Stuart!”  

  • 1Brett1

    The photo of his skeletal remains shows the severity of his scoliosis; it’s a progressive condition and would have been quite painful at that stage…and here he died on the battlefield!

    • Nell Corkin

      As Phillipa Langley has said, it says a lot about the character of the man.

      • 1Brett1

        Yes, scoliosis at that stage would not only have been painful but quite debilitating. Even internal organ function would have been compromised. 

  • stephenreal

    Is there a case to made for King Richard III that he got bad press?

    The Richard III Foundation says the misunderstood monarch ”passed the most enlightened laws on record for the 15th century”, including ”justice for the poor as well as the rich”, the importation of books, the writing of laws in English instead of Latin and he started the bail system.

  • Michiganjf

    “A whole complex of writers and poets sponsored by the ascendant Tudors, not least Shakespeare, acted as de facto propagandists, cementing a legend that has stuck of a gnarled, misbegotten, evil schemer.”

    This excerpt from the TIME article is well worded.

    As we all know, history is often written by the victorious… initially.
    This hour of On Point will undoubtedly fill in a more rounded image of Richard III… I’m looking forward to it!

  • Coastghost

    Alternative subtitle to today’s program: “Shakespeare’s King and the Real Villain”. The Tudor Toad has earned his demotion as historian (true, he was obsequious also to the House of Stuart with his vilification of that certain Scottish king of reasonably noble mien). My departure from the orbit of Shakespeare began in adolescence with my reading of Josephine Tey’s novella “The Daughter of Time”, with Detective Inspector Grant doing a fine job (with assistance) of plumbing the depths from his hospital bed. (Frankly, I don’t think Kit Marlowe would’ve accepted the invitation to live in order to become Wm Shaxpur, he’d’ve strangled himself even attempting to write Tudor panegyrics.)

    • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

      Dag, man, that’s harsh!

      • Coastghost

        AND restrained!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1372851044 Constance Kilgore

    What was the Josephine Tey argument that Richard III was not responsible for the death of the boys in the tower? I read her book as a girl, so long ago now that I’ve forgotten the title, and the argument, but I found it quite compelling at the time.

    • Coastghost

      I think ’twas the argument adduced by Mr Hill earlier, that the princes were adjudged illegitimate and thus posed no challenge to RIII’s crown. 

  • Nell Corkin

    I have been a “Ricardian” for over 50 years, since reading Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time” as a teeneager. Those of us who believe Richard to have been essentially a good man who did quite a number of very good things during his short reign, owe John Ashdown Hill and Phillipa Langley an inestimable debt of gratitude. They have made the discovery and identification of Richard’s remains possible, and the interest that has been generated by the find can only help to encourage peole to take another look at Richard’s life and achievements.

  • MWReagan

    Wish the show focused more on the known facts from the archelogical and historical records and less on Shakespeare’s fiction.

  • Nell Corkin

    Yes. it was, Constance.

  • Nell Corkin

    I would like to add that no reasonable person should equate entertainment with history.

  • Michiganjf

    I wonder if the distorted truth about Richard III in Shakespeare’s play will eventually see the play supplanted as one of the favorites in Shakespeare’s canon?

    • Michiganjf

        Thanks for the quick response!

      • Michiganjf

        … and yet, some of Shakespeare’s “histories” are considered somewhat authoritative.

        • BostonDad

          While the others were great too, give the Bard a break !
          History, from the French, “Histoire” = “story”

  • Coastghost

    Distinctly odd that NO ONE mentioned Josephine Tey or “The Daughter of Time” on air, even though her account is one of the more popular upendings of Shakespeare’s slander.

    • KateRobart

       I thought perhaps I’d missed someone’s comment, as I tuned in partway through. Thoroughly agree it’s odd that none of the broadcasts I’ve heard have referred to Tey’s lively, well-written book, even if to tout their own more up-to-date knowledge. It’s still a good read, isn’t it?
        For anyone interested in a somewhat heftier read there is Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard III from 1955. Anyone seeing the portraits of Richard and then those of the Henry Tudors (VI and VII) will find it very hard not to conclude that part of the mighty effort the Tudors made to discredit the last Plantagenet came out of the fact that Richard is handsome, energetic and just plain healthy looking compared to the wizened, clerkish, thinlipped Tudors.

  • bobnolte

    I wonder what your experts think about Josephine Tey’s wonderful novel The Daughter of Time–a forensic excursion through portraits brought to a recuperating detective in hospital, leading to quite a different view of Richard and of the revisionist history that was created after his death and the succession of Henry to the throne?

  • 1Brett1

    We’re all aware of the complex and complicated nature of loyalties. 

    Folks grow tired of one house; it falls out of favor, their sympathies shift…out with the old and in with the “new,” as it were (“raise up your glass…”). That is until the “new” house goes by way of the old house…(of course, those Tudors’ reputation was above reproach). 

    I suppose I also understand the dismissal of Shakespeare, too, as tired and pedestrian as that may very well be. Hold him to a standard of historian and documentarian and discount him as inferior on those merits, but don’t judge him as poet and pop playwright, as much as he was, then ’tis easy then to condemn his mixture of fact, fiction, truth and exaggeration for the purposes of entertainment…is that about right?

    • Coastghost

      Kinda sorta, I guess. No one’s about to displace WS utterly but it might be nice to witness at least his partial eclipse for several decades so that other luminaries of the era (Marlowe, Jonson, Webster, et al.) might shine.
      Also: apart from the Bard’s role as Tudor/Stuart apologist, something might be made of subsequent Crown interests in enhancing Shakespeare’s reputation at the expense of his contemporaries (esp. Marlowe). I mean, let’s give WS the credit he deserves for his farcically ghoulish “Titus Andronicus” (I WOULD enjoy a Grand-Guignol production of the latter, it would come off as a grand sequel to choice episodes of “Celebrity Death Match”). 

      • 1Brett1

        Just because he knew where his bread would be buttered, so to speak, doesn’t make him more to be judged as historian and documentarian; however, I do agree with you that he was beholden to, shall we say, certain interests. I also agree that it is a shame he overshadows dramatists Marlowe, Jonson and Webster. Any dolt can at least say something of fact and fondness about Shakespeare, but I doubt the same would be true of the others.  

  • jefe68

    Of course there is also the view of Richard III as portraid in Blackadder:


  • miacwhite

    Enjoyed the show and always am struck with additional slices into it afterwards.. I called into the show (I’m caller “Mia”, with scoliosis) and think about these issues, ie., the ways that we understand people as being co-constituted by their physicality and their actions.  I see that co-costitutive process as basically impossible to really disaggregate, despite our best intentions.  In fact, I have a job interview coming up (assistant professor position) and I have been debating about whether or not to take my cane, bc of this very thing.  Anyway — glad to participate!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QMDZ3LH5U2B4GAT7J2HS4TCP6E Jim

    the victors write history. the defeated party must bear humiliation in eternity,…….. until now.

  • osullivan11

    great show. Been waiting for this all week! Thanks On Point!
    The other show I’m waiting for is Lawrence Wright to talk about Scientology….  but that may bring the risk of litigation….. :(

  • Satwa

    Excellent and informative show.

  • Laurel

    As a Ricardian for many years, might I recommend the book Good King Richard by Jeremy Potter to any who might want a non-Tudor look at this “most famous Prince of blessed memory” (citing the City of York’s records in 1485). Excellent book which lays out the achievements of his reign, including the principle of innocent until proven guilty…..

  • Laurel

    Jeremy Potter also wrote a novel called Trail of Blood which offered an interesting theory on the Princes.

  • J__o__h__n

    WBUR should not have interrupted this show.  News updates are sufficient for the storm’s progress.  We don’t need live coverage of press conferences that say the same thing they always do.  We don’t need hype and coverage from the bunker, etc. 

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