Richard III is one of William Shakespeare's most deliciously vile characters, so rotten that even dogs were repelled by him. His hunch-backed, "rudely stamp'd body," as the bard put it, was the physical manifestation of Richard's sheer malevolence.

In his quest for the crown, Shakespeare's "bottled spider" is smooth enough to seduce the wife of the prince he has butchered, Henry VI's son. Richard is an entertaining devil who delights in toying with his victims, presenting himself as earnestly loyal while plotting their destruction.

At one point, Richard lovingly embraces his brother, the Duke of Clarence, knowing full well that Clarence is to be drowned in a cask of wine.

To strengthen his claim to the crown, Richard declares his mother an adulteress, concluding that his late brother, Edward IV, was a bastard and had no right to rule. Without blinking, Richard has many of his brother Edward's in-laws murdered.

But the most most damning crime committed by Shakespeare's "abortive, rooting hog" is the murder of his two nephews, the storied princes in the Tower who were sons of Edward IV.

The elder, 13, was proclaimed King Edward V upon his father's death in 1483, and the younger, Richard, became Duke of York. Edward was never crowned. In Shakespeare's account, he was killed with his brother in the Tower of London on their uncle's orders, after he had them declared bastards.

Sir Thomas More, whom Shakespeare used as the source for his play, described the murders:

The killers, under orders from Richard, "about midnight (the innocent children lying in their beds) came into the chamber and suddenly lapped them up among the clothes -- so bewrapped them and entangled them, keeping down by force the featherbed and pillows hard into their mouths, that within a while, smothered and stifled, their breath failing, they gave up to God their innocent souls into the joys of heaven, leaving to their tormentors their bodies dead in the bed."

Partisans of Richard III say More and Shakespeare maligned the king, noting that both wrote during the Tudor dynasty established by Richard's vanquisher, Henry VII. It would be in their best interests to make Richard appear to be, as the play refers to him, "Hell's Black Intelligencer," the partisans say.

They argue further that More and Shakespeare ignore all accomplishments of Richard's brief reign and the loyalty he had shown his brother, Edward IV, during the Wars of the Roses. The real criminal, they say, was Henry VII, who had much to gain by the murder of the princes.

Most historians, however, blame Richard. Acknowledging that the hunched back and withered arm were simply dramatic Shakespearean devices to manifest evil, most agree that he was guilty of most crimes of which he was accused, including the murder of his nephews.

It was Richard who benefited by declaring the boys bastards and imprisoning them in the tower. After all, he became king. And there is little dispute that the deposed Edward V and his younger brother vanished during Richard's reign, never to be seen.

Perhaps the most devastating evidence against him, though, is the fact that the English people believed him to be the killer. The usurping king could never quell their outrage by producing the boys, historians contend, because they were dead.

"The hatred which Richard's crime had roused against him throughout the land remained sullen and quenchless," Winston Churchill wrote in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, "and no benefits bestowed, no sagacious measures adopted, no administrative successes achieved, could avail the guilty monarch."