Finding Richard

A guest post by Philip Schwyzer, University of Exeter

What has the discovery of the remains of Richard III in Leicester told us that was not already known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries? In one sense, very little. The main points confirmed by osteoarchaeological analysis are ones about which the main Tudor chroniclers were in agreement: that one of Richard’s shoulders was higher than the other, that his body was the subject of grievous violence both before and after death, and that he was buried in the choir of the Greyfriars.

Archaeologist Jon Coward excavates an area of disturbed ground, possibly the south wall of the church.

Archaeologist Jon Coward excavates an area of disturbed ground, possibly the south wall of the church.

As was already obvious to readers of Holinshed and Hall, Shakespeare in Richard III greatly exaggerated Richard’s deformity. He also omitted any reference to the king’s posthumous fate, though the particulars given in the chronicles are as clear as they are depressing. At the end of the play, Richard’s corpse is still on stage; orders are given for the interment of others, but nothing is said about the disposal of the tyrant’s remains. (King Lear aside, in how many other plays are the burial arrangements of the title character left so uncertain?) The archaeologists who broke ground in Leicester last summer were seeking answers to a question first raised —if only implicitly— in Shakespeare’s play.

Richard III’s skull was propped up awkwardly in the grave because it had been dug too short for him.

Richard III’s skull was propped up awkwardly in the grave because it had been dug too short for him.

In the reporting of the Greyfriars discovery, Shakespeare has figured mainly as the fabling foil for archaeological truth. Countless commentators have drawn the contrast between Shakespeare’s grotesque stage villain and the “real” king in the car park. The skeleton, which shows evidence of adolescent-onset scoliosis but neither a hunchback nor a withered arm, has been hailed as disproving Shakespeare’s portrait of a congenitally deformed monster. Of course, analysis of the remains can tell us precisely nothing about such matters as Richard’s role in the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. Nonetheless, in the prevailing media discourse, the bones stand for blunt material fact as opposed to —and trumping— Shakespeare’s beguiling, immaterial fiction.

The complete skeleton. The curve of the spine is highly visible.

The complete skeleton. The curve of the spine is highly visible.

In all the excitement, we should not lose sight of the fact that Shakespeare’s play is itself the record and product of a profound engagement with the remains of Richard III. The world in which he lived and wrote was shot through with material (and cultural, institutional, and mnemonic) traces of Richard’s late fifteenth-century milieu. Recently in Shakespeare Quarterly (63 [2012], 297–327), I explored the unlikely survival of some of Richard’s (real or reputed) personal effects, including his prayer book, his dagger, his crown, and his bed: objects which would find a second, proxy afterlife as properties on Shakespeare’s stage. Rather than proffering “false” props in the place of “real” things, I argued there, “Richard III invites us to consider how much and how little separates the dramatic property from the genuine article, and in doing so to gauge both the proximity and the distance between Shakespeare’s time and the late medieval world of Richard III.”

A second potentially fatal injury, visible in the same photograph, is a jagged hole at the top of the image (i.e. the right side of the skull). A sword or similar bladed weapon has been thrust through the bone. Close examination of the interior of the skull revealed a mark opposite this wound, showing that the blade penetrated to a depth of 10.5cm.

A second potentially fatal injury, visible in the same photograph, is a jagged hole at the top of the image (i.e. the right side of the skull). A sword or similar bladed weapon has been thrust through the bone. Close examination of the interior of the skull revealed a mark opposite this wound, showing that the blade penetrated to a depth of 10.5cm.

Shakespeare’s play did more than imbibe and reflect the multitemporal material world out of which it was produced— it had material consequences of its own, summoning new objects into being. The early seventeenth century saw the emergence of a range of competing traditions regarding the fate of Richard’s body, each associated with different samples of material “evidence.” One prominent citizen of Leicester erected a monument in his garden declaring that it marked the resting place of Richard III. An alternative tradition held that his body had been exhumed and thrown in the river; a Leicester tavern proudly displayed what was said to have been his sarcophagus (recycled as a trough for horses). These objects would probably never have existed were it not for the success of Richard III, and the mysteries it set in motion. It is only an extension of the same argument to identify the skeleton unearthed in 2012 as yet another (untimely) birth of Shakespeare’s play. Without Shakespeare, who would ever have gone looking for Richard?

The skull showing the wound to the right cheek.

The skull showing the wound to the right cheek.

Shakespeare and archaeology are not altogether strangers to each other in contemporary scholarship. There has been some highly fruitful collaboration around the excavation of the Rose Theatre, for instance. Yet the opportunities are almost certainly far greater and more various than practitioners on either side of the disciplinary divide have yet realized. Could the Greyfriars dig and the public discussions resulting from it help Shakespeare studies and archaeology to become something more than “better strangers”? What interdisciplinary opportunities are now becoming imaginable? Where should we dig next?

Philip Schwyzer
University of Exeter

Philip Schwyzer is Professor of Renaissance Literature at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature (2007) and Literature, Nationalism, and Memory in Early Modern England and Wales (2004). Shakespeare and the Remains of Richard III is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

To see more pictures of the excavation, view the University of Leicester’s Flickr album here.