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Thursday, February 07, 2013

The teeth of Richard III

The owl shriek'd at thy birth,—an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl'd, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook'd her on the chimney's top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
Thy mother felt more than a mother's pain,
And, yet brought forth less than a mother's hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou camest to bite the world...


The midwife wonder'd, and the women cried
"Oh! Jesus bless us! he is born with teeth!"
And so I was: which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite, and play the dog.
        Shakespeare, History of Henry VI, Part III


Then forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hellhound that doth hunt us all to death—
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,
To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood.
        Shakespeare, Richard III

The battle at the end of a long game of hide and seek has begun. Richard III has his adherents who claim that he was unjustly maligned--that he was a good and pious king distorted in the view of history by being the last of the House of Plantagenet. Thomas More and Shakespeare (in Richard III, particularly) and others suggested that a twisted body was an outward and visible sign of a twisted soul, though Francis Bacon praised him as a lawmaker.

I was interested to see that his supposed birth with teeth noted in comments on novelist Elizabeth Hand's facebook page this morning. Folklore extends its long hand...

Oddly, my husband had just been reading to me about that little matter of folk beliefs and birth teeth. Recently he has read me startling bits from a book by that extremely odd personage, Montague Summers. Our daughter brought home a copy of The Vampire, picked up at Willis Monie's, our used bookstore, and he dips into its curiosities now and then. Here is Summers on what it means to be born with teeth, and how that might "signify thou camest to bite the world":
Since the vampire bites his prey with sharp teeth and greedily sucks forth the blood it is not surprising to find that those who are born with teeth in their heads are considered to be already marked down as vampires. Even in countries where the vampire belief was lost this circumstance was considered of the unluckiest, and in Chapman and Shirley's Chabot, Admiral of France, V, 2, Master Advocate exposing the villainies of the Chancellor declares: "He was born with teeth in his head, by an affidavit of his midwife, to note his devouring, and hath one toe on his left foot crooked, and in the form of an eagle's talon, to foretel his rapacity. What shall I say? branded, marked, and designed in his birth for shame and obloquy, which appeareth further, by a mole under his right ear, with only three witch's hairs in it; strange and ominous predictions of nature!" [Summers quotes from George Chapman and James Shirley's The Tragedie of Chabot Admirall of France: As it was presented by her Majesties Servants, at the private House in Drury Lane. Licensed by the Master of the Revels on 29 April, 1635.]
Historian John Rous praised Richard III while living under his rule, but was quick to jump to Tudor propaganda under his successor. Suddenly Richard is described as ill-favored, the sinister shoulder rising higher than the right (due to his scoliosis) and marked by ominous birth signs--teeth and shoulder-length hair, said to be caused by having stayed in the womb for two years. The Montague Summers quote suggests how neatly teeth in the head and bodily distortion went together as signs of the demonic:  "It is evident that the old physical characteristics which mark a creature of demoniacal propensities had been remembered as of ill-omen and horror when exactly what they portended and betrayed had been lost in the mists of ancient lore."

Shakespeare comes very close to declaring the king a vampire: "thou camest to bite the world." However, looking at the various portrayals, it seems that the teeth are more those of the bad dog who hurts the lambs (the princes in the Tower and others.) It seems that "old physical characteristics" of the vampire are recalled as "ill-omen and horror."

Clearly the preferred Tudor vision of Richard III was that of a monster. We no longer believe that a child born with teeth or who grows into a "slantdicular" shape is demonic, but the war over whether Richard III came to "bite the world" or not is now renewed with the finding of his crooked bones.


  1. An amazing event, whatever its meaning. The thing about real life is that it is just so mysterious and leaves itself open to many interpretations.

  2. You are its interpreter! (As the rest of us are, each in his or her own manner.)

  3. All this dentation lately...

    Marly, have you read Parson Woodforde ("The Diary of a Country Parson?") While less sinister, your quote from Summers gives a similar pleasure.

  4. I have not read Parson Woodforde, though I have thought about it. Perhaps I shall!

    Dentation here too.

    My daughter keeps dreaming about teeth. Her 4th wisdom tooth is trying to make an appearance. I'm thinking about teeth because I coughed and sneezed so much during the flu that my tmj plus teeth on one side are sore. Bit weird. Teeth are best when requiring no notice!

    Oh, saw you looked "slantdicular." It's an old North Carolina mountains word, brought there by settlers.

  5. Indeed a lot of interpretations, depending on who is doing it. Shakespeare - probably stretching the truth for the sake of a story. The Tudors following - to raise their own esteem. It was a time of superstitions about birth defects. What I find astounding is that the confirming DNA came from a Canadian whose roots are traced back to Richard - really - how can you be sure there's no mistake in that tracing?

    Anyway, makes for lots of press and great stories.

  6. Interesting, too, that he was the last possible person to confirm the identity, since the genetic marker was carried through the female line.

    Since it was women transmitting the marker only, it's a wonder the line was not broken before now. Also, that prevented uncertainty about paternity and a broken line.

  7. Teeth are elemental. Exposed bones. When I was going through a bad patch during my undergrad years I had horrible nightmares about my own teeth & mouth. Usually falling out or being smashed out. The hollow holes left, blood filling my mouth, the sound of them dropping on the ground. Pulled up for sure from some black well of unconscious. Makes sense that teeth in baby would put fear of God & devil in historical people.

  8. I think so, too.

    Your dreams need to talk to my daughter's dreams.

    Plus, how horrible it must have been to have bad teeth without dentistry! It is bad enough with it...

    And so many folk beliefs have to do with things being in the "wrong" place.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.