Shakespeare, More and more

Sarah Knight and Mary Ann Lund from the University of Leicester’s School of English consider here some of the early literary sources for research into Richard’s life and times. Read ‘Richard Crookback’, Sarah and Mary Ann’s commentary article on historical and literary accounts of Richard III’s body, published in the Times Literary Supplement on 8th February 2013.

History vs literature

Sir Philip Sidney, one of Elizabeth I’s leading courtiers, wrote that historians were ‘bound to tell things as things were’. Poets, on the other hand, were not. They could invent details to create more compelling and memorable examples, good or bad, and embellish and improve upon real events. Shakespeare’s history play The Tragedy of Richard III, probably written in the early 1590s, is a virtuoso example of how history and drama can vividly overlap. The discovery of Richard III’s body at Greyfriars changes the way we read these versions of his life, and transforms our understanding of how these stories come to be told.

Shakespeare used as one of his sources Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), which drew heavily from earlier Tudor historians such as Thomas More and Polydore Vergil. Holinshed’s Richard was ‘small and little of stature’, ‘of bodie greatlie deformed; the one shoulder higher than the other; his face was small, but his countenance cruell, and such, that at the first aspect a man would judge it to savour and smell of malice, fraud, and deceit.’

We can see that this account had some basis in fact, but that historians were not necessarily ‘bound to tell things as things were’, being keen to connect their descriptions of his body to their claims of his moral wickedness. Shakespeare amplifies the chronicle accounts of the king’s body, and Richard himself makes much of his physical appearance: right at the start he tells the audience that he is ‘not shaped for sportive tricks’ and ‘curtailed of this fair proportion’. He also openly admits (to the audience at least) that he is ‘determined to prove a villain’. Holinshed shows us how Tudor historians use literary and rhetorical techniques to animate their chronicles – often at the expense of truth – and Shakespeare’s play demonstrates how a great poet dramatises a historical account as a compelling, if fictionalised, portrait of charismatic villainy.

It is remarkable how much attention ‘Richard Crookback’, as he was commonly known, received from writers, both literary and historical, in the century after his death. The Tudor historians shaped him as a larger-than-life figure of deformed evil, and the fascination with this character continued long after Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne needed emphatic consolidation.

Pre-Shakespeare versions, and the fate of the king

Shakespeare was not the first to put him on stage: at least one earlier English and one Latin play exist. Thomas Legge’s Richardus Tertius (1579), performed by Cambridge students, staged his body being brought in on a horse after the Battle of Bosworth, but Shakespeare does not attempt to dramatise the king’s fate after death. After his despairing cry, ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!’, Richard is given no dying speech. Instead, Henry announces that ‘the bloody dog is dead’.

The Tudor historical accounts tally with the horrendous post-mortem injuries inflicted on the skeleton. In Holinshed’s words, ‘his body was naked and dyspoiled to the skin, and nothing left about him, not so much as a clowte to couer hys privie members, and was trussed ... like a Hog or Calfe, the head and armes hanging on the one side of the horse, and the legs on the other side, and all besprinckled with mire & bloude was broughte to the gray Friers Churche within the Towne, & there lay like a miserable spectacle’.

But Shakespeare makes no mention of what will happen to Richard’s body. He leaves us with a warrior king who ‘enacts more wonders than a man,/ Daring an opposite to every danger’, an anti-hero whose physical body we are not allowed to forget, but whose final humiliation we are not permitted to witness.

The authors

Sarah Knight teaches Richard III every year to first-year students taking the Renaissance Drama module in the School of English. She has edited, translated and written about a number of Renaissance works, and is particularly interested in education and Latin writing. Mary Ann Lund is Lecturer in Renaissance literature. She teaches Richard III to undergraduates, and has a research interest in the history of medicine and treatments of the body in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Act III, Scene 8 of Shakespeare’s Richard III, from an edition of 1743. From the University of Leicester Library Special Collections

Act III, Scene 8 of Shakespeare’s Richard III, from an edition of 1743. From the University of Leicester Library Special Collections

Mr Smith in the character of Richard III’, from an edition of 1774. From the University of Leicester Library Special Collections

'Mr Smith in the character of Richard III’, from an edition of 1774. From the University of Leicester Library Special Collections

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