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Last modified: Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Indiana University experts available to discuss discovery of Richard III's bones

Feb. 6, 2013

EDITORS: Earlier this week, a team of historians and archaeologists concluded on the basis of DNA and other evidence that skeletal remains found underneath a parking lot in England last fall were those of King Richard III, who died in 1485. Indiana University has several faculty experts who are available to comment on the discovery's impact on the long-dead king's place in history, his depiction by Shakespeare and the effect on actors.

Discovery of bones 'poison for character creation'
"The text of Shakespeare's 'Richard III' allows for a wide range of interpretations as to what is specifically wrong with the king's body," said Amy Cook, assistant professor of theater history, theory and literature in the Department of Theatre and Drama at Indiana University Bloomington's College of Arts and Sciences. "Such details weren't important to Shakespeare, whose writing instead uses the suggestion of an infirmity as a contextual marker of the king's interior evilness.

"How a culture codes 'evil' is both historically and socially contingent and, as such, multiple actors have brought their own interpretation to the role. Think of Antony Sher's famous bottled spider scuttling about on crutches, for example, or Ian McKellan's buttoned-up fascist with one arm discreetly unused. Audiences of the time react to what their idea of evil is, and can lead to creation of a character that is nuanced and richly 'other' in society.

"Shakespeare's Richard is based on propaganda meant to instill confidence in the Tudor reign. Richard had to be awful -- in body and mind -- in order to justify regicide. But now that we've unearthed these bones that have been identified as Richard's, we're presented with a conundrum. We have added information the play doesn't really want us to have, and we can't help but assume that the bones will have some relevant input for an actor creating the character. We now think we have the truth, which can be poison for character creation."

Cook's book "Shakespearean Neuroplay: Reinvigorating the Study of Dramatic Texts and Performance Through Cognitive Science" provides a methodology for applying cognitive science to the study of drama and performance. To reach her for interviews, call 812-855-0138 or email

Charnes, Linda

Alex Teschmacher

Linda Charnes

Print-Quality Photo

Discovery won't change Richard's image
"Thank goodness they found his skeleton. Otherwise, Richard III would have suffered the ignominious fate of being merely the title character in one of Shakespeare's most famous history plays," said Linda Charnes, a professor in the Department of English at Indiana University Bloomington's College of Arts and Sciences. "Known, as The New York Times article announcing the news put it, as 'the most reviled of English monarchs,' the confirmation of the identity of poor Richard's bones will do little, I fear, to rehabilitate his image. The skeleton reveals severe scoliosis and what must have been a fatal skull fracture sustained in the famous Battle of Bosworth. All of which suggests what Tudor historians and his own contemporaries noted about Richard: that he fought hard, and even valiantly at the end, to protect his hard-won throne.

"But about that throne. Alas, I'm afraid that members of The Richard III Society -- who aspire to rehabilitate what they believe is an unjustly tarnished, Tudor propagandized, image of Richard -- will not be able to use his bones to do so. Their mitochondrial DNA will tell us nothing about the young nephews who had to go missing or the brother who had to drown -- in a cask of sherry -- in order for Richard to attain the throne. His bones may reveal the dominance of meat protein in his royal diet, but the cloven skull will remain quite chop-fallen about Richard's ethics, beliefs, character and deeds.

"What the skeleton does prove is that there was a person known as King Richard III; that Thomas More's representation of him may have been fairly accurate (except for the withered arm perhaps); and that he fought, died and was unceremoniously buried pretty close to where experts predicted he would be. It would have been bigger news had his skeleton been found under a Harrod's parking lot in Knightsbridge.

"Still, as a Shakespeare scholar and historian, I will admit to feeling a thrill at seeing the misshapen spine, and some relief to know that Shakespeare was not just toeing the Tudor party line. At the same time, I am glad that Richard will not be interred anew in Westminster Abbey, with full traditional royal burial honors, as The Richard III Society had hoped. Because whatever else the skeleton has to tell us, it won't be that Richard legitimately inherited the throne by sitting back and waiting his turn in the line of York successors."

Charnes' research focuses on the use of Shakespeare in the arenas of mass culture, literature, film and contemporary international politics. The new Norton Critical Edition "Richard III" (2010) includes a lengthy excerpt from Charnes' book "Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare" (Harvard University Press, 1993). To reach Charnes for interviews, call 812-855-6643 or email

1996 mock trial resulted in not guilty verdict for Richard III
In a 1996 mock trial at Indiana University Bloomington, a celebrity panel of justices and law professors heard testimony concerning whether King Richard III murdered or conspired to murder his two nephews, Edward and Richard -- the so-called "Princes in the Tower" -- in 1483.

The case for the prosecution was argued by attorney James F. Fitzpatrick and a law student, while Richard III was represented by attorney John Walda and a law student. A three-judge panel heard the testimony: the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, IU law professor Susan Hoffman Williams and former Chief Justice of the State of Indiana Randall T. Shepard. Rehnquist and Williams sided with the defense, while Shepard sided with the prosecution.

The mock trial yielded a book, "The Trial of Richard III: The Honorable William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the United States, Presiding," that was edited by Maurer School of Law professors Fred H. Cate and David C. Williams.

"We got a fair amount of press coverage at the time, largely because it was so unusual for Chief Justice Rehnquist, who presided, to side with defendants in a trial," said Cate, who organized the trial. "The longer historical perspective is that we were part of a wave, which has since gained momentum, of arguing that Richard was done wrong by Tudor historians and by Shakespeare.

"The confirmation that the bones are Richard's raises this issue more acutely. Should they be given a state funeral? Is it politically correct to attend the internment of the bones? The trial was an early, scholarly legal voice in a mounting chorus calling for a reconsideration of Richard's reputation. The confirmation that the bones are those of the late king now makes that reconsideration a practical and urgent necessity. We hope people will consider the outcome of our landmark trial when weighing the fate of Richard III's remains."

The trial can be viewed in the C-SPAN video library.

Cate is also the director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research and the Center for Law, Ethics and Applies Research in Health Information. To reach him for interviews, call 812-855-1161 or email