Richard III's Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity: Shakespeare and Disability History


Skeleton in a parking lot. Inspiration for House of Cards. Metaphor for Donald Trump. Locus classicus of Disability Studies. Why is Richard III so prominent in modern life? Historians have shown how the myth of this medieval king was made, disability scholars how his body bore its weight. Bridging these traditions, this book shows Shakespeare’s treatment of Richard’s deformity becoming an index for some of modernity’s central concerns.

In a quintessentially Shakespearean exchange, the playwright’s dramatic mode, both tragic and ironic, calls upon some of life’s biggest questions (because it is tragic), but defers answers to the audience (because it is ironic), leaving Richard’s body open to interpretation in different ages embracing different attitudes toward stigma. The changing meaning of physical deformity repeatedly re-contextualized through shifting perspectives and circumstances in Shakespeare's first tetralogy has thus prompted and sustained 400 years of changing interpretations of Richard, his body, his behavior, and his status as either the villain or victim of Tudor history. Making this case, readings range from the rhetoric of early English chronicles, x-rays of sixteenth-century paintings, and Shakespeare’s soliloquies to modern adaptations, critical disputes, and performance on stage and screen. Key moments include Thomas More establishing the figural paradigm that sees Richard’s deformed birth as an omen of his villainous life; Shakespeare disputing the figural paradigm by seeing deformity as the cause rather than the sign of villainy; the suppression of the Shakespearean anomaly until the rise of the causal paradigm in the hands of Samuel Johnson and his colleagues; the size of Richard’s hump shrinking down to nothing on the nineteenth-century stage, then growing back up; the recent shift to casting actors with disabilities; and the erasure of Richard’s body in global and digital appropriations. This multi-century story is then theorized into a new approach called the “anthropology of audience,” which marries the historicism and presentism currently at odds in Shakespeare studies.