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Shakespeare and the controversy over Richard III’s remains

More than a year after Richard III’s bones were unearthed in Leicester, the last Plantagenet king is still waiting for a resting place. Controversy reigns over location and design of the tomb. 

All this public squabbling over royal bones is part of a venerable tradition where for more than five hundred years people have been arguing about Richard III’s remains, according to a new book by University of Exeter, Professor Philip Schwyzer. His book ‘Shakespeare and the remains of Richard III’ published by Oxford University Press, focuses on Shakespeare’s awareness of the questions and controversies swirling around the fate of Richard’s remains. Shakespeare’s play Richard III is about the difficulty of laying the dead to rest. The playwright has the victorious Henry give explicit commands regarding the burial of other combatants, but nothing said about Richard whose deformed corpse is left on stage at the end of the play. In Shakespeare’s day it was rumoured that Richard’s exhumed corpse had been dragged through the streets by a jubilant mob and thrown into the River Soar. 

It is thought that, after the Battle of Bosworth, Richard’s naked body had been placed on display in a Leicester church, then days later buried in a hastily dug grave in a humble priory of the Greyfriars. The priory was dissolved a few decades later, and the king’s body disappeared, apparently forever. 

Shakespeare’s Richard III is suffused with genuine fragments and traces of Richard’s era, according to Professor Schwyzer. He said:“Much as the stones of the dissolved Greyfriars were used to repair and expand the nearby church that became Leicester Cathedral; the play gathers up stray piece of language, memories and customs and assembles them in a new context. This includes the comments recorded from a fight in York, six years after the Battle of Bosworth in 1491 where a schoolmaster was struck for declaring that Richard was “a hypocrite, a crouchback and was buried like a dog.” In the play this insult is echoed as Richard is repeatedly likened by his enemies to a dead dog.”

He added:“Richard’s modern admirers are apt to condemn Shakespeare for his depiction of the king as a hunchbacked psychopath. Yet if Shakespeare created a monster, he is also largely responsible for our enduring fascination with the figure of Richard III. The modern world is shot through with traces of his troubled times, some of them preserved in Shakespeare’s play, some in the unresolved legacy of conflict between north and south, some in the very legal system to which we turn to decide what to do with his remains.”

As part of the Ilkely Literature Festival on 16 October, Professor Schwyzer will be giving a talk based on his book – ‘Shakespeare and the remains of Richard III’.

Date: 16 October 2013

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