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Will the real Richard III stand up?

Artistic director of Bell Shakespeare company, John Bell, discusses whether the discovery of Richard III's remains will affect future portrayals.

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King Richard III: A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Catesby: Withdraw my lord; I'll help you to a horse.

King Richard III: Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,

And I will stand the hazard of the die:

I think there be six Richmonds in the field;

Five have I slain today instead of him.

A horse! a horse! My kingdom for a horse!

That's William Shakespeare depicting the last moments of the king's life upon the battlefield of Bosworth in 1485. Richard III did not get his horse. Instead, he received wounds to his head and body and public humiliation - including a knife in his backside - as his naked body, thrown across a horse, was taken back to Leicester.

What he also got was the heavy irony of history, for the last horse he rode was the carrier of his corpse. And then his body vanished into the mists of time and the mud of Leicestershire. Until now. Scientists have found his bones under a council car park, kept warm by tar and tyre.

Actor Simon Russell Beale, who has played Richard III, said: ''My first reaction was: That poor man. He didn't have a very happy life, and he ended up under a car park.''

This would be black humour indeed even if it were only a mere non-royal. But a king of England? Time has a way of making car parks of all things eventually. In the 21st century, Richard III got a Vauxhall to carry his bones.

What he has also got down the centuries is a bum rap. His reputation tarnished, say some, courtesy of Shakespeare's quill. It is not uncommon, of course, for art and history to diverge paths over the one subject. The film Zero Dark Thirty is the latest in a very long line of film, theatre and books to provoke debate about historical authenticity.

Richard III though has one redeeming feature: the language of genius. The play begins with one of the most enduring lines in the English canon - ''Now is the winter of our discontent'' - spoken by the future king of England while he was still just a disgruntled duke: ''Rudely stamped . . . cheated of feature by dissembling nature/deformed, unfinished''. His self-esteem is so low, his visage of himself so terrible that dogs would bark at him in the street. There is nothing for it but to be a villain.

After a murderous campaign to become king, he only sits on the throne for two years. He is dead at 32. A short, sharp and brutish life, to paraphrase the life view of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who was born a century after Richard III's death. Well, that's Shakespeare's version.

With the ascension of the Tudors, the fate of Richard III's location became sealed and lost. Franciscan monks had taken Richard's body and buried it, but the monastery at Greyfriars was dismantled by Henry VIII. All was forgotten.

But there is a counter view. The Richard III Foundation says the misunderstood monarch ''passed the most enlightened laws on record for the 15th century'', including ''justice for the poor as well as the rich'', the importation of books, the writing of laws in English instead of Latin and he started the bail system.

With that record, Shakespeare would have been hard-pressed to have made much of a play. Richard III, that boring goody-goody? No thanks. If you're going to bring to life the last king of a dynasty - the Plantagenets - then let's make it interesting. And the bad is always more interesting than the good.

Who knows, Shakespeare may be chuckling in his own bones now if he knew the fate of his ''deformed'' creation. Found under a place where commoners park? How exquisite. Justice well served, perhaps.

Still, no one would like to have their bones buried and forgotten for centuries under a council car park. If he only had got that damned horse, how might history have played out? How might he have been remembered? Shakespeare may not have felt moved to write anything about him, and we might not have had those two lines:

Now is the winter of our discontent and

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse.

Sorry Richard, it was all for the best.

Warwick McFadyen is a senior writer.

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