In America, we paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
In Britain, they put up a parking lot and paved over a king.
As my colleague Henry Chu reported:
More than 500 years after his death in battle, scientists announced Monday that they had definitively identified a skeleton unearthed in northern England last summer as that of Richard III, the medieval king portrayed by William Shakespeare as a homicidal tyrant who killed his two young nephews in order to ascend the throne.
DNA from the bones, found beneath the ruins of an old church, matches that of a living descendant of the monarch's sister, researchers said….
Working from old maps of Leicester, about 100 miles northwest of London, archaeologists from the local university had less than a month to dig in a small municipal parking lot -- one of the few spaces not built over in the crowded city center. The team stumbled on the ruins of the medieval priory where records say Richard was buried, then found the bones a few days later last September.
Great: Old bones. An old English king. Interesting detective story; Indiana Jones and all that. But why should those of us on this side of the pond care?
Well, uh, actually, there’s not much reason we should. After all, Richard reigned from 1483 to 1485; the American Colonies weren’t even a gleam in his eye. (Although this being Hollywood, there is this: His death in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485 snuffed out the Plantagenet dynasty, to be replaced by the Tudors -- yes, those Tudors, the ones you watched having sex and otherwise losing their heads on Showtime.)
But many of us do care. Why?
Ah, because of William Shakespeare, of course. You may never have heard of Richard III, but don’t tell me you’ve never heard this line:
“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!
Or this one:
“Now is the winter of our discontent…”
So those bones dug up from a parking lot aren’t just bones. Looking at the wounds on the skull, one imagines Richard’s final moments, cut down on the battlefield, just as Shakespeare so vividly portrayed. And looking at the spine, bent by scoliosis, who doesn’t think of the Bard’s famous description of Richard as a “deform'd, unfinish'd” man?
Shakespeare made Richard III famous. He also cast him forever as a villain -- unfairly so, many assert. Which is, perhaps, the other reason we should care about old King Richard.
Recall the recent controversy over “Zero Dark Thirty” and its portrayal of torture’s role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The filmmakers insist that this stuff is, you know, Hollywood. Artistic license. Not to be taken literally.
But tell that to Richard III. His admirers, as The Times article says, assert he was an “enlightened, capable ruler whose important social reforms included the presumption of innocence for defendants and the granting of bail, which remain pillars of the legal system in Britain and the U.S.”
Thanks mainly to a single play, though, that’s not the way most of us think of him.
And if Will Shakespeare could stamp a man as a villain, and have that image stick for more than 500 years after the man’s death, what does that say about the power and ability of today’s media to shape public opinion?
"All the world's a stage" indeed.