Shakespeare Had It Wrong: Richard III Was No Hunchback

Thursday, 29 May 2014 07:12 PM


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William Shakespeare excoriated Richard III, the last king of England to die in battle more than 500 years ago, with vibrant verbiage: a "foul bunch-back'd toad," "deformed, unfinish'd" and a hunchback so ugly that dogs barked as he passed by.

But the bard seems to have missed the mark, scientists said on Thursday. Their comprehensive analysis of the king's remains, including a 3-D reconstruction of his spine, confirmed that Richard was not really a hunchback but instead suffered from scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine.

Scientists spotted the spinal abnormality that looked like scoliosis when Richard's skeleton — replete with a cleaved skull - was dug up in the English city of Leicester in 2012 in one of the most important archaeological finds in recent English history.

Researchers who created a plastic 3-D model of the slain king's spine based on scans of the bones provided the first complete account of Richard's condition in a study published in the Lancet medical journal.

"It's pretty typical idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis," University of Leicester forensic radiologist Bruno Morgan said.

Richard's spine had a pronounced rightward curve of between 65 and 85 degrees and some twisting that yielded a spiral shape. Such a person today probably would be offered surgery to address it, the researchers said.

His right shoulder was higher than his left, and his torso relatively short compared to his limbs, they added.

"Shakespeare was right that he did have a spinal deformity. He was wrong with the kind of deformity that he had. He wasn't a hunchback," University of Cambridge biological anthropologist Piers Mitchell said.

"Shakespeare also said that he had a withered arm and a limp. But looking at the bones, everything is very symmetrical. There are no signs of a withered arm. And both legs are perfectly well formed. There is no sign of him having a limp," Mitchell added.

Richard was killed at age 32 as he fought to keep his crown at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. His death ended the Plantagenet dynasty and ushered in the Tudors under Henry VII.

"On the one hand, we want to say, 'This is nowhere near as bad as Shakespeare said it was.' But we don't want to trivialize somebody who has got a 70 degree scoliosis because they are going to have pain and discomfort," Morgan said.

"But there is no doubt that Richard III could put on a suit of armor and go to battle and fight," Morgan added.

In "Richard III," Shakespeare cast him as a tyrant who murdered two princes in the Tower of London and died in battle crying out: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Richard's supporters argue his reputation was tarnished intentionally to cement Tudor rule.

While Shakespeare provides Richard's best known description, it came more than a century after the king died. "It was colorful, but Shakespeare was basically writing a play to entertain people," Mitchell added.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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