Richard III’s Deformities

Richard III’s Deformities

  [Glou.]  But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Richard III, 1.1.14-31 

Richard III is the original site of stigma in English literature, beginning with the Tudor chroniclers who decried his villainy alongside his deformity (which, incidentally, the recent discovery of his scoliotic skeleton has confirmed as historical fact). Richard was also Shakespeare’s first study of stigma, and his most meticulous, stretched across three plays. Interpreting deformity in Shakespeare’s first tetralogy is no different than interpreting deformity in life, not because these plays are some exact copy of nature, for of course the opposite is true. These plays are filled with artifice. Stigma comes to us in Shakespeare’s first tetralogy as it comes to us in life because there are so many conflicting interpretations between us and the object of our attention, layers upon layers, each asking us to accept its claims about nature, that we have no pure, unfiltered experience with the thing we seek to understand. As such, Richard’s deformity implicates our methods of moral judgment: attempting to interpret it exposes the assumptions, motives, and operations of interpretation. And, as the variously configured origin of all the pain and suffering that occurs in Richard III, his deformity can be a way into moral philosophy, allowing us to see where our judgments come from and how they work.

“Crookbacke Richard” first appears in 2 Henry VI, where the Lancastrians brand him a “stigmatic,” someone marked by the heavens to be avoided, but Richard only becomes the character we remember – and Shakespeare’s first great character – in 3 Henry VI when he starts speaking to the audience directly in soliloquies and asides, giving voice to his inner-life: his torment, his anger, his ambition, his irreverence, and his plans to deceive, betray, and kill his own family. Because it was the first time anyone had ever suggested that someone treated as Richard is treated in the Tudor chronicles would suffer considerable anguish and have his own opinions about his body, it is probably fair to say that Richard’s soliloquy in Act III of 3 Henry VI is the first modern representation of physical deformity. In this speech, Richard sees himself as what Sigmund Freud would later call (with reference to Richard) an “exception” – someone who has been slighted by nature, has suffered an unfair congenital disadvantage, something he did not deserve and something he would use to excuse himself from the laws and morals that govern civil society – so, in a breathtaking conceptual slide, Richard vows to slash through his family and become the other kind of “exception” in early-modern England, the king. In 3 Henry VI, therefore, Shakespeare juxtaposed the Lancastrians’ theological model of stigma, which treats deformity as a God-given sign of villainy, with Richard’s own account of his body, which sees deformity as the cause rather than the sign of his villainy, a psychological model of stigma embraced by later essayists from Francis Bacon to Freud. This movement from sign to cause, from metaphor to metonymy, is traditionally seen as progress from medieval to modern ways of thinking, but Shakespeare actually satirized each model equally: the theological model by ascribing it to Richard’s mortal enemies, whose hatred infects their interpretation, and the psychological model by ascribing it to Richard himself, a habitual liar and homicidal maniac. As such, it is not deformity that achieves symbolic meaning in Shakespeare’s first tetralogy but the attempt to make sense of deformity – the theological model pointing back to some medieval misconceptions, the psychological model pointing forward to some modern foibles – leaving no authorized interpretation of stigma in 3 Henry VI other than the satire of specious thought, what might be called a sociological model. We could even say that Shakespeare fathered the sociological interpretation of stigma made famous centuries later by Erving Goffman, whose dramaturgical theory of social interaction was based on the Shakespearean conceit that “all the world’s a stage.”

In Richard III, Shakespeare outdid himself by deepening his study of stigma, Richard becoming both a perverse narcissist who takes pleasure in the image of his own deformity and a physiognomic revisionist who tries to transform the very meaning of that deformity. In this play, it delights Richard to descant upon his deformity as he dissembles its meaning. Usually, he does so by shifting attention from his body to his face and clothes, but Richard III rejects the physiognomy of affected or accidental appearances in favor of the physiognomy of natural or essential attributes. That is, according to the artistic design of RichardIII, the appearance of Richard at birth, his deformity, is in fact an accurate index of the villainy he executes and the tragedy that awaits him, as the theory of physiognomy would have it. At the same time, the appearances Richard controls himself, his face and clothes, are not reliable indicators of his nature, insofar as he makes himself appear humble, friendly, and munificent when really he is dangerous, treacherous, and deceitful. Thus, the characters in Shakespeare’s play who distrust Richard because they fix their physiognomic eyes on his deformity and stigmatize him (Anne at first, Margaret, Elizabeth, the Duchess, Stanley, and Richmond) accurately interpret his natural and naked villainy, and Shakespeare rewards them with life, but those that befriend Richard because they shift their attention to his face and clothes (Anne in the end, Clarence, Hastings, Buckingham, and Edward V) are deceived by his dissembling looks and die because they forget their physiognomy. In a drama drenched in death, the survival of the play’s most dutiful stigmatizers provides a shocking structural confirmation of the legitimacy of physiognomy in the world of Richard III, as does a dramatic ontology in which portents, prodigies, prophecies, demons, and ghosts are real, not dreams nor hallucinations, but real like the rocks and stars. From this perspective, Richard’s psychological interpretation of his deformity – the notion that his abnormal body caused his abnormal behavior to develop – as reasonable as it may sound from a modern perspective, is potentially the greatest deception of a master dissembler, a deception effected not on the other characters on stage, but on the audience, a deception that has been wildly successful in Shakespeare studies because it accords with and exploits the world as it is defined by modern thought, but a deception that is misleading if not mistaken given what counts as reality in Shakespeare's first tetralogy.

If we step back and take a broad view of Richard’s role in Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, we can see that Shakespeare raised the concept of deformity to the level of theme, making it both the content that motivates the action and the form that structures that action. The form of the first tetralogy is deformed insofar as it is a history, obviously, but also a tragedy, as the play is titled in the quarto editions, and moreover it is a tragical history that involves many conventions of comedy and romance. Even as Richard is both a historical personage and a tragic protagonist, he is also both a comic interlocutor with the audience and the antagonist that is overcome at the end of the play. In this regard, Shakespeare’s first tetralogy fully expresses, for the first time, a tradition that had been gestating for centuries in early English drama, a tradition I call the figure of stigma. The figure of stigma is the concurrence of abnormality, villainy, irony, and tragicomedy, elements corresponding to four of the Aristotelian parts of drama: spectacle, character, speech, and plot. In the figure of stigma, the spectacle of abnormality, the character of villainy, the speech of irony, and the plot of tragicomedy signify each other. For example, Richard’s abnormality – born with teeth, a crooked spine, a hunched back, a withered arm, and unequal legs – signifies his villainy –murdering his foes, friends, and family on his way to the English throne – but also his irony – his wickedly delightful equivocations and direct address to the audience – and eventually tragicomedy – vice punished and virtue rewarded in the form of Richard’s fall and Richmond’s rise. Perhaps it is only available in an epic production of the entire first tetralogy, but this configuration of abnormality, villainy, irony, and tragicomedy is arguably the first great artistic achievement of Shakespeare’s career, and it has never been noted as such: the spectacle of physical abnormality we see when Richard first enters at the end of 2 Henry VI signifies the villainous character who kills the king at the end of 3 Henry VI as well as the tragicomic plot that concludes at the end of Richard III, all in addition to Richard’s ironic interlocution with us in the audience in the scenes along the way. 


Richard III’s Deformities in Tudor Literature
Physical Deformity in the Renaissance
Monstrosity in the Elizabethan Age
Physical Deformity in the Elizabethan Age
Stigma in Early English Literature
Physical Deformity on the Elizabethan Stage
Physical Deformity in Shakespeare 


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