Richard III: Shakespeare Blew It
Written by Editor   
Thursday, June 05, 2014 07:32 AM

Shakespeare got almost everything wrong about Richard III's physical appearance.  An examination of the recently discovered skeleton of the ill-fated English king shows he had scoliosis, which is probably the root of the perception that he was a malformed -- and therefore malevolent -- hunchback.

But the scoliosis would have had only a slight effect on his appearance, so slight it could have been minimized by "a good tailor and custom-made armor."  His right shoulder was probably slightly higher than his left, but it's unlikely he limped.  Contrast that with the words Shakespeare puts into the future king's mouth in his opening speech in "Richard III": He describes himself as "rudely stamp'd ... deform'd, unfinish'd" -- so ugly, in fact, that he cannot "prove a lover" and therefore decides to be a villain.  Richard also says he was: "Sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up and that so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them."

After the skeleton was excavated in 2012, from the long-lost Greyfriars Minor Friary in Leicester, the investigators used CT imagery to create three-dimensional reconstructions of each bone.  Using that data, they created polymer replicas and built a model of the spine to study its alignment in life.

In pictures of the supine skeleton taken at the time of excavation, the Cobb angle appeared to be 75° from the upper border of T6 to the lower border of T11. Since clinical angles are taken standing, rather than supine, the researchers estimated Richard's Cobb angle to have been between 70° and 90° when he was alive.  But the curve was well balanced, with the cervical and lumbar spines "reasonably well aligned."

The estimated curve would not have reduced his lung function, giving him a normal exercise capacity.  There was no sign of structural spinal abnormalities, making it unlikely the condition was congenital, the researchers argued. In fact, "the subtle nature" of changes in vertebral anatomy hint at a diagnosis of what would today be called adolescent onset idiopathic scoliosis, they reported.  That probably started after Richard was 10. So much for being sent into the world "scarce half made up."

The structure, muscle markings, and cortical thickness of the legs and hips, were normal suggesting Richard had a normal gait.

"There is no evidence to suggest Richard would have walked with an overt limp, as his curve was well-balanced and the bones of the lower limbs symmetric and well-formed." 

Basically, the Bard blew it. Great poetry, lousy medicine.