[K. John.] Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature mark’d,
Quoted and sign’d to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind:
But taking note of thy abhorr’d aspect,
Finding thee fit for bloody villany,
Apt, liable to be employ’d in danger,
I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death.
King John, 4.2.220-27
It is sometimes said that Shakespeare invented the deformity of Richard III. In fact, Shakespeare only perfected a popular sixteenth-century representation But there is one character from English history that received a deformity entirely of Shakespeare’s own invention. It is in none of Shakespeare’s sources, but the monarch in King John describes his hitman, Hubert de Burgh, as “A fellow by the hand of nature mark’d, / Quoted and sign’d to do a deed of shame.” According to King John, Hubert’s deformity signifies his villainy - making Hubert into an echo of Richard III - yet in King John Hubert valiantly negotiates a peace between England and France at Angers, and he daringly averts the blinding of Prince Arthur at Falaise (this is the “deed of shame” to which John refers). In fact, Hubert seems to be one of the few unambiguously virtuous characters in Shakespeare’s history plays, making John’s reference to Hubert’s mark a shock to audiences familiar with the negative connotations of stigma in early English literature and culture. These connotations clearly do not apply to Hubert, so we can’t really fault the productions of King John that excise the monarch’s statement on Hubert’s deformity (as most of them do). The lines offer nothing significant to the main action of the play, and we must ask: what was Shakespeare up to when he wrote this passage? At the very least, Shakespeare's inclusion of so strange and distracting a detail creates an opportunity for us to consider his attitude toward stigma in the aftermath of Richard III. John’s speech is so forced that it could constitute Shakespeare’s self-referential reflection on the conventions of stigma he represented in Richard III.
With respect to the passage in question, there are three possible King Johns, one on the page and two on the stage. First, when reading the text of King John, Hubert’s deformity is a surprise in Act IV, where John’s comment occurs. Upon reading about Hubert's deformity, therefore, readers familiar with Shakespeare’s treatment of deformity in Richard III could use this stigma to reconsider their high esteem for Hubert: Is peace between England and France actually a bad thing? Should Arthur have been blinded after all? In fact, a theatrical performance of King John could prejudice its audience in just this way, as available in a second possibility. In performance, Hubert’s deformity would not be a surprise in Act IV; it would be an aspect of his costume evident from his very first appearance. In this case, the question is not, Is Hubert virtuous?, but, How is Hubert vicious given that he is deformed? Or, in a third possibility, a performance of King John could include no deformity for Hubert at all, only John’s speech about it. Here the treatment of deformity as an omen of evil would become the delusion of a medieval monarch voicing an outmoded interpretation.
However we handle John’s speech about Hubert’s deformity, the problems surrounding it suggest that the use of deformity as a sign of villainy in Richard III stuck with and haunted Shakespeare. Consequently, he went out of his way in an awkward passage stuffed into King John to register a breakdown in the conventions of stigma. By showing Shakespeare’s uneasy and possibly embarrassed reaction to his earlier exploitation of an inhumane literary and cultural tradition, King John may mark a turn in the development of Shakespeare’s attitude toward stigma.