dis/lit

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Sarah Smethurst’s Formal Post on Shakespeare’s Richard III (pt 1)

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“Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell,
Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb,
Thou loathèd issue of thy father’s loins,
Thou rag of honor, thou detested—…
The day will come that thou shalt wish for me
To help thee curse that poisonous bunch-backed toad.”
–Queen Margaret, Act 1, Scene 3
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It was at this point that I looked up at one of my apartment-mates and remarked, “People are MEAN in Richard III.” But I digress…
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The major question for me was what Shakespeare was trying to say (or trying not to say, or not trying to say) about Richard’s disability. To me there seem to be two options:   one is that he is disabled because he is evil, and the other is that he is evil because he is disabled.
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The first option is that Shakespeare, in keeping with the popular opinions of the time, wrote Richard as disabled because he is an evil, dissembling man and ergo it is permissible to judge a book by his cover.   Though obviously not politically correct at the time, there is evidence to suggest that (some or most) people believed that physical or mental defects were the outward reflection of some sin or inner defect of the disabled person. Sometimes it was a matter of the mistakes of one’s parents, and sometimes it was one’s own mistakes, but either way many believed that if you were deformed or otherwise abnormal in some way that it was a punishment. Queen Margaret’s quotation (see above) demonstrates this kind of viewpoint, when she ties in Richard’s evil nature with his deformed appearance purposefully. In most performances, by the way, Richard does have a hunchback, as she describes, but he is also sometimes played with a lame leg or bum arm, depending on the actor/director. Not only is there historical controversy over whether or not Richard III actually was as bad as W.S. wrote him, but I also could find very little information about any actual deformities, leading me to believe that it could be a narrative prosthesis.
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The second option is that Richard is a product of his disability in that the challenges he faced malformed his character, as well. Richard himself sets us up for this idea in the initial opening monologue, where he talks about the lack of love and companionship that his disabled state has guaranteed. If you read the lines of his mother closely enough, there are a few comments that suggest that she favors him less than his brothers because of his deformity.
Just to make things a little more hazy, however, we get another Richard soliloquy at the end of Act 1, Scene 2 where he  preens over the fact that Anne may find him attractive, completely reversing his previous opinion of himself, based on dubious “praise” from a woman on whom he’s pulling the long con. Barring some extreme sarcasm, it’s too much of a change for me to swallow, and leads me to believe that Shakespeare didn’t really understand the nature of disability or the reality of life for disabled persons. This, in turn, makes me side with the first option, that of the deformity of Richard III being a narrative prosthesis, a tool used to show his inner deformity of the soul, if you will.
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What do you think? Is that a good enough explanation? Are there other factors at play here that I haven’t considered? Am I missing some larger historical context? Is mine too simple a conclusion?
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Sarah Smethurst

Written by sarahsmile

September 13th, 2010 at 3:15 am

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