The news that the remains of England’s King Richard III have been positively identified in a car park in Leicester is a big deal for historians. It’s an even bigger deal for Shakespeareans.
A great Shakespeare character has been found! Richard III was one of the playwright’s most infamous villains, along with Iago and Edmund. The ancient rivalries between the House of Lancaster and the House of York are long forgotten, but the historical King Richard’s reputation has been completely sealed: he is the smarmy, sarcastic hunchback who hisses “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” to open his eponymous play. For centuries, Richard III has been one of the major Voldemorts of the popular imagination.
All Shakespeare’s villains had their humanity, and Richard was usually portrayed as a perversely charismatic villain, brave and cunning. Historians agree that he probably really did kill his two young nephews, the princes in the tower. Richard did not actually die shouting “My kingdom for a horse!”, but he did fall in battle at Bosworth, not far where his remains have now been found.
Many of Shakespeare’s greatest characters are based on historical figures. Imagine if they’ll someday find Prince Amletho petrified in a bog in Helsingor …
My favorite interpretation of Richard III is in the 1955 film by Laurence Olivier, pictured above. The opening scene can be seen here. “Now is the winter of our discontent …”