Students of English history have to be thrilled by the news that a skeleton found at an archeological dig in the city of Leicester may be the last remains of one of the greatest villains in literature as well as a great enigma: Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England. Richard III was immortalized in Shakespeare’s play of the same name as the hunchback evildoer who plots and murders his way to the throne only to be struck down by the forces of the righteous Henry Tudor. We know that although Shakespeare’s history plays are brilliant theater, they are far from being objective about their subjects. Shakespeare was, after all, determined to ingratiate himself with Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of the man who deposed Richard.
The revisionists have been busy for the past two hundred years seeking to rehabilitate Richard and portraying him as a modern, even liberal monarch who promoted justice and the welfare of his subjects. But whether you believe him to have been a 15th century version of Bobby Kennedy or not, the discovery of what may well be his bones will open up what should be an entertaining debate about the rights and wrongs of the last battles of England’s War of the Roses as well as about the role of historical myths in shaping a country’s national identity. Though Richard may have been nothing like Shakespeare’s portrait, it must be understood that the play’s contribution to the English — and by extension, American — belief that evil rulers should be overthrown played a part in the formation of a mindset that paved the way for modern democracy.