“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” Richard III may never have said these words, but a century after his death, they were immortalised on his behalf by William Shakespeare. In the play, he cries them out at the moment of his demise at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, when he had been King of England for two years. He is believed to have murdered his two nephews in pursuit of power, and Shakespeare’s representation of him is highly negative. But when his body was discovered under a car park in Leicester in 2012, some called for his reputation to be rehabilitated.
Shakespeare is believed to have written his play in 1592. The Queen at the time, Elizabeth I, was a descendant of Henry VII, who defeated Richard at Bosworth. The bard presented Richard as a murderer who schemed his way to the throne. But news presenter Jon Snow is one who now says that Richard was “a man of his age”. Should we re-evaluate the way we remember the past?
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Shakespeare presents Richard’s reign as one of terror, which isolated nobles and caused ordinary people to fear and hate him. Many of his nobles defected to support his rival, Henry. He founded the Tudor dynasty which lasted until 1603; it is often said that history is written by the winners.
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Analysis of Richard’s skeleton showed that he was slightly hunchbacked – he had a slight curvature of the spine which gave him uneven shoulders. Shakespeare highlighted this, and exaggerated it to make the King appear more villainous to his audience. Richard was treated with more suspicion as a result of his physical deformity.
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In the play, Richard’s pursuit of the throne is ruthless. According to Shakespeare – and many modern historians – he hired murderers to kill his nephews. Shakespeare also shows him manipulating a woman into marrying him after murdering her husband; having his brother, Clarence, executed, and passing the blame for the execution on to his other brother, King Edward, to hasten his death.
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The night before the battle that decides his fate, Richard has a dream. The ghosts of those he killed visit him: they curse him and tell him he will die the next day. Spirits make several appearances in Shakespeare’s plays – characters, such as the witches in Macbeth, and Ariel in The Tempest, show his fascination with the supernatural.
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