The news that scientists identified the remains of English monarch Richard III is a reminder that Richard was, indeed, once a flesh-and-blood figure, and not merely a creature of William Shakespeare’s imagination.
Shakespeare immortalized Richard III in a play of the same name, which depicted the king as a conniving despot bent on achieving power at any price. Shakespeare’s drama proved enormously popular during the reign of Elizabeth I, who was a descendant of Henry VII, the rival who took the throne from Richard.
Shakespeare’s derogatory take on Richard benefited from being politically correct during the reign of Elizabeth, and the bard’s memorable writing has framed Richard III for centuries as one of the most famous villains in world literature.
More recent historians have suggested that Richard might not have been nearly as evil as the character created by Shakespeare. The discovery of Richard’s skeleton, buried beneath a site that had, in recent years, become a parking lot, promises to reignite debate about the monarch’s true character.
Last year, a team of scientists used some creative sleuthing through the historical record to find a skeleton suspected to be Richard’s remains. Subsequent DNA testing, along with other clues, helped scientists identify the remains as Richard’s.
The historical record aside, Shakespeare’s version of Richard III will probably continue to be the one that people think about when they consider the English monarch. The play inspired by Richard III reminds us that dramatists often have more power than historians in shaping our views of the past.
Just think of Shakespeare — or, for that matter, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone.