Teaching Shakespeare!

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Richard III: Science class meets history class meets English class

Until earlier this fall, I was clearly the one in love with words, literature, classrooms, teachers’ lounges, theatre.  Math and science not so much.  OK, so my grade in Biology as a college freshman was D.  Not so interested in photosynthesis. Still not the least bit interested in photosynthesis, but now I am crazily interested in archaeology and genetics.  I still am in love with words, literature, theatre, and classrooms.

But my world has gotten a lot wider and more wonderful.  And I have been brought to this place by the divinely cramped up and misshapen corpse of that devilish king, Richard III.

In August 2012, the University of Leicester (in central England) began one of the most ambitious archaeological projects ever attempted:  a search for the lost grave of Richard III, the last English king to die in battle.

Image Credit: University of Leicester
Image Credit: University of Leicester

Here at the Folger, we have just had the great honor and huge pleasure of hosting Dr. Turi King and Dr. Mathew Morris, the geneticist and archaeologist who respectively made the DNA match and led the dig.

Their story is thrilling—intense, historical, modern, gut hunches, scientific data. It’s also a story about smart people doing smart, smart work against the odds. Turi says that at the beginning, it was a little like a missing person’s story: King Richard is missing and we’re putting together all that is known now, so we can go off to find him. She also says that, at the outset, they felt their chances of finding him were past slim.

Their sense that Richard was buried in Leicester’s Grey Friars Friary was strong, even though the story for centuries in Leicester was that, after his death in Bosworth Field, his body was thrown into the River Soar. So they figured if they found the Friary and located some of its different parts, they would have done well.

Incredibly, Mathew’s excavation uncovered Grey Friars and a battle-scarred skeleton with a pronounced spinal curvature.  Turi took over the long-odds job of working out the DNA possibilities. She worked with genealogists to find possible living matches;  they located two descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. She compared mitochondrial DNA extracted from the skeleton with theirs . . . and she was able to prove that the skeleton was indeed that of Richard III.

Image Credit: University of Leicester
Image Credit: University of Leicester

Learn more about all of this amazing stuff at https://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/. And share it with your history-teaching and science-teaching colleagues.

1485 meets CSI! Hard science meets the clearly hasty—“minimally reverent” as Mathew says—burial of an unpopular king.  Shakespeare meets history.  Popular colloquial history meets scientific fact.

Science class meets history class meets English class! Now we’re talkin’!

Peggy O’Brien is the Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Follow her on Twitter at @obrienfolger or send her an email at pobrien@folger.edu.

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