Earlier this week, a study of the bones found buried beneath a Leicester car park rocked conventional Shakespeare scholarship. The DNA tests performed by the University of Leicester confirmed every early modernist’s darkest fears that Richard III was, indeed, the hunchback William Shakespeare depicted. As Randal Overtree, professor of early modern literature at the University of North-North-West New Hampshire State puts it, “I’m absolutely shocked. Dumbfounded, really. For years I’ve taught my students that Shakespeare promoted an unrealistic caricature of Richard, popularizing Tutor propaganda. What do I tell them now?” Dr. Overtree is not alone in his woes as a majority of English literature faculty had offered students the narrative that Shakespeare followed fictionalized accounts that helped legitimize and prop up the Tudor monarchy.
Now, while scholars still reel from the news about Richard, early modernists must brace themselves for new archeological news, this time out of Dover. As it turns out, Richard III’s are not the only freshly discovered bones with the potential to have paradigm shattering consequences for Bardolaters and Shakespeare scholars. Just about the time The Richard III Society’s Phillipa Langley was getting “strange sensations” in a Leicester car park, Jack Swink, Dover backhoe operator, was having strange sensations of his own.
As Swink recalls, “There I was, right, trenching the sewage ditch for the new Starbucks, and I had to have a wee. So I hop down and I figure, ‘It’s a sewage ditch after all.’” It is a fortunate thing he did since Jack’s micturition led to a startling discovery. Two unusual looking skulls emerged from the dirt at the power of his evacuation. As Swink explained, “there was the biggest, darkest pool of piss formed, and there was this tempest. It really was like some Shakespearean scene. The tempest ended as the bones appeared.” Swink, thinking he had discovered a murdered body, engaged the help of his foreman and best mate, Henry Boil. Swink remembers that his first words to Boil as they looked down into the trench were “looks like a couple of birds.”
As the recently released photos, taken by Swink and Boil before archeologists arrived, reveal, Jack was not simply being misogynist with his initial outburst, even if it was later determined that he had discovered the bodies of two women.
Clearing the dirt from the bodies discovered two skeletons with combined human and animal features. When asked why he and Boil took it upon themselves to clear away the dirt without waiting for trained archeologists, a fiery Swink scolded, “you don’t think you can trust me with bones, but you want to trust some Cambridge or Oxford student with a mattock and spade? That’s how egghead skulls are split open.” The perfectly intact and properly extracted and preserved skulls Swink uncovered both have beak-like protrusions, and the upper torsos of both human skeletons are attached to what resembles the body and the legs of a horse.
Initial reports by forensic investigators reveal that Jack was more correct with his outburst than he intended. The forensic team declared the pair biological sisters, and local amateur paleontologist, Sarah Westlake, identified the facial protrusions as resembling the beaks of the modern pelican’s dinosaur ancestors. Reginald Highbrow, a professor of mythological forensics, has identified the lover half of the skeleton as that of a horse. In a statement released this morning, Highbrow declared, “from the waist down they are all centaurs.” When asked to clarify his comments, since if the bodies are horses from the waist down they would be all centaur, Highbrow declined.
These recent developments in Dover have given already embattled Shakespeare scholars yet another cause for alarm. Two sisters, with pelican-like beaked faces, and horse bodies sounds, to some, alarmingly reminiscent of historical figures from yet another of Shakespeare’s plays, King Lear. The eldest daughters of the kingdom-splitting monarch, Lear, Shakespeare’s Lear describes his eldest daughters with animalistic imagery, significantly calling them both “pelican daughters” and claiming “Down from the waist they are centaurs, though women all above.”
For decades, Shakespeare critics have lectured about and argued that Lear’s outbursts reveal his misogyny. Psychoanalytic and feminist critics often stress Shakespeare’s absent mothers and Lear’s demonization of women partially through the verbal lashings he gives them. As it turns out, however, Swink’s discovery reveals how Shakespeare downplayed the deformities of Lear’s two eldest daughters. Far from mischaracterizing them through language, Lear merely described their appearance as they were historically. No one knew, however, that Shakespeare meant those words to be taken literally until now.
Dr. Overtree expressed his concerns about these recent revelations, saying,
“Christ, man. At least before I only had to rewrite two or three minutes of my Richard the Third lecture, but this. This presents a real problem for my three lectures on Lear. It’s going to mean a complete overhaul! I don’t even want to begin thinking about what this will do to my Teaching Assistants. They typically spend ninety-five percent of the time in section discussing the play’s representation of women. This is a fucking catastrophe!”
Other professors who only agreed to speak with us on condition of anonymity expressed similar concerns, and several worried, “Now that one can turn to science to understand the truly great mysteries of literature, who needs literary and cultural studies?” One thing is certain, Shakespeare scholarship will never be the same.
When asked by media why Swink’s discovery has not been more widely reported and why it has not had the fanfare associated with the discovery of Richard III’s body, lead researcher on the Regan and Goneril Discovery Project (RGDP) bluntly and somewhat sharply fired back,
“Well, the bloody Channel 4 film crews were already engaged with that Richard business, and we’re still raising funds to hold press conferences and to make documentaries. And although we lack funding currently, we also want to finish the lifelike full-sized animatronic replicas of the sisters before we release the full details. We also need a few costumed actors to perform during the photo-op. I’ve been told that medieval knights aren’t historically accurate. I don’t know. Maybe we’ll get some people dressed as Celts. You know, so that we could divulge our findings with the gravity and seriousness that it deserves.”
I, for one, hope they receive ample funding soon.
While Shakespeareans may be shaking at the emerging details about this find, they are not the only ones who feel like they have taken a spear to the heart. Pricilla Mountebank, head of the Society of Regan and Gonerilists (SRG), an organization dedicated combating what they argue are Shakespeare’s distortions of Lear’s eldest daughters, tellingly responded to my request for an interview with a terse, “Oh, fuck off. I, Pricilla Mountebank, am a Regan and Gonerilist.”
This story deserves more attention and time, but it looks like I’m now off to Bermuda where locals report having found the body of a half-man, half-fish.