Shakespeare’s King Richard III versus the real King Richard III

Or, as Shakespeare put it, “Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I”


Grace Ioppolo writes:

 Some very exciting news was announced today by a team of scientists and scholars at the University of Leicester! They used DNA tests and other forensic techniques to positively identify a set of bones, buried in what is now a car park in Leicester, as those of King Richard III. (


Richard III Olivier


Perhaps one of the most surprising bits of news is that the last descendant of Richard III is a furniture-maker and a Canadian, who kindly supplied his DNA for testing (however, he claims not to have inherited his ancestor’s fondness for politics):

Today’s news was illustrated with some surreal and gruesome images, including photographs of  Richard’s skeleton ( and his skull, which shows evidence of at least 8 wounds, possibly because he lost his helmet in the battle at Bosworth Field against an army comprised of his family members and previous supporters:

As the real Richard died in battle, it’s not unusual to see such wounds, although some of these wounds may have been made after his death as a form of desecration of his body by his many enemies. What is most interesting is that his skeleton shows that the real Richard did have a curvature of his spine (which had an arrowhead embedded in it) and showing evidence of scoliosis, the typical cause of such a curvature. But the real Richard apparently did not have the withered arm described by Shakespeare in Act 3, Scene 4, in which his Richard says:

See how I am bewitched; behold mine arm
Is, like a blasted sapling, withered up:
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.

In Shakespeare’s play, Richard’s other physical and emotional ailments, in addition to his hunchback, are cruelly described by his mother in Act 4, Scene 4:


A grievous burthen was thy birth to me;
Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;
Thy school-days frightful, desperate, wild, and furious,
Thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous,
Thy age confirmed, proud, subdued, bloody, treacherous,
More mild, but yet more harmful, kind in hatred:
What comfortable hour canst thou name,
That ever graced me in thy company?


But if the new discoveries in the Leicester car park make us reconsider whether Richard was as vile, manipulative, corrupt and murderous as Shakespeare depicts him (or if his mother hated him quite so much), should we really be blaming Shakespeare for ruining Richard’s reputation?


In writing his play of Richard III, Shakespeare used several sources, including Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III (c. 1513), as well as historical accounts such as A Mirror for Magistrates (1559) that drew on More’s account.  More had been King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor until More’s opposition to the annulment of Henry’s marriage to his first wife Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. More’s moral stance on that issue earned him an execution in 1535, and his last words on the scaffold were, ‘I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first’. His daughter supposedly reclaimed her father’s head, which had been displayed in London on a spike as a warning to others of the consequences of treason, and gave it a proper burial in her family church. For more on More, see Peter Ackroyd’s lively book The Life of Sir Thomas More (


However, Sir Thomas More seemed not to have been motivated by morality but political expedience in destroying the reputation of Richard III, the last of the line of Plantagenet kings, in order to build what some have called the ‘Tudor myth’ or ‘Tudor propaganda’.  Henry VIII’s father was King Henry VII, the first of the Tudor line of monarchs.  Henry VII’s battle, as Henry, Duke of Richmond, against Richard at Bosworth, as well as his lateral claim to the throne, put an end to the Plantagenet family’s claim to English monarchy. More was apparently motivated by his own, or more probably Henry VIII’s, desire to legitimize, finally, the Tudor claim to the throne.  In effect, Shakespeare dramatized what Thomas More had already written, thus presenting what would have been the account of Richard that was familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences.  Shakespeare is not the sole or the first but the most influential writer to have rewritten Richard III’s history.


A more interesting question to me is why Shakespeare never wrote a play about the rise and spectacular fall of Thomas More, most recently recounted by Hilary Mantel in her Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. In fact, Shakespeare did dramatize an episode in the life of Thomas More in the unproduced 1590s play Sir Thomas More, the manuscript of which survives at the British Library (and on which I’ve done a lot of work). This play was originally written by Antony Munday, but when the censor, the Master of the Revels, failed to approve it, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, Henry Chettle and Shakespeare were hired to rewrite it, although even their combined efforts never seemed to make it stage-worthy.  After doing research on the manuscript, I believe that three pages of this manuscript are in Shakespeare’s handwriting and thus currently constitute the only play-script, or portion of one, that survives in Shakespeare’s handwriting. You can see one of these pages at:


Shakespeare wasn’t the only playwright trying to dramatize Richard’s story. Ben Jonson was paid in the late 1590s to write a play called Richard Crookback (obviously drawing on More’s history) although he never completed it (and no trace of the play has been found). Another popular play of the age was Henry, Duke of Richmond, written by Robert Wilson. Both plays are recorded in Philip Henslowe’s Diary, which you can read about and see in manuscript form at:  &


In fact, Henslowe’s Diary helps to establish that, from 1588 and the defeat of the Spanish Armada and for the following ten years or so, English audiences especially wanted to see history plays that helped create a sense of English national identity and patriotism. Often these plays were performed in sequence on the same or the following days as a sort of multi-play history lesson. Many of these plays were especially written for the Queen’s Men actors who would perform them both in public theatres and privately at court for their patron Queen Elizabeth I.  She supposedly took great umbrage at the deposition of Richard II in Shakespeare’s play, but we have no record of her reaction to watching her grandfather effectively depose and slay Richard III and then claim, ‘The bloody dog is dead’ in Shakespeare’s other play.


You can decide for yourself if Thomas More or Shakespeare or both of them are responsible for rewriting Richard.


Read More’s life of Richard here:


Read Shakespeare’s play here:


In the meantime, we can join Shakespeare in saying, “Cry ‘God save Richard, England’s royal king!’”.


You can follow Grace Ioppolo on Twitter @ProfShakespeare

About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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