dis/lit

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Meg’s Class Summary: Wednesday, September 14, 2010

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Unfortunately, Reward Quizzes have not yet begun, and so Foss began class with several announcements involving their eagerly anticipated arrival. Following this, we continued our discussion on the latter half of Richard III, our first text after our theory unit. In Richard III, the disability of the title character causes the reader to look at Richard’s legitimacy as well as gender; generally, these are demeaning structures that could stabilize Richard as a villain and undermine his claim to the throne (thereby solidifying Henry VII’s). However, Richard defies these demeaning figures and instead becomes an empowered figure, utilizing his disability to outwit the rest of the cast.

After commenting on Foss’ new hair-do and subsequent new lease on life, we began with a large group discussion. Foss quoted Quayson, who asserted that disability serves as a metaphor to mark “anomalous social states such as those involving half-brothers and bastardy” (22). Because illegitimacy plays such a large role thematically, disability then shifts our understanding of that by becoming a marker of it; it is the possibility that whoever possess it was not capable to rule in the first. During discussion, Kathleen remarked that, “Both legitimacy and disability are tied up together; the two are both stigmas being placed against (Richard).” Because the opposition constantly calls attention to his disability, they are constantly calling into question his ability to rule. Because the audience at the time realizes that Richard is a “defused infection of a man” (I.ii.83) and a “foul bunch-backed toad” (IV.iv.81), they are constantly reminded of physical inability (and due to dramatic irony, this may be even more embellished); the audience must then question if that physical inability carries through to the ability to rule the throne. Because of Richard’s established villainy and his brief reign, an individual at the time could infer that these were all signs of Richard’s illegitimate hold on the throne and therefore believe in Henry VII’s (ancestor to the current Tudor line at the time and much more off the direct path to the throne than Richard himself) right to conquer.

Disability also plays a role within in gendering Richard and belittling him. Because most of the characters view Richard through his disability (Richard included), Richard does not utilize the straightforward, typically “masculine,” physical approach. Rather, Richard spends his time manipulating the affections of his family members and convincing others (such as Anne and the mayor) to bend to his will. This tactic is often seen as more typically “feminine.” Shakespeare and the characters even acknowledge the emasculation of Richard’s trickery, telling him to “play the maid’s part” (III.vii. 51) when he fools the mayor into believing he is religious and meek. The role that he plays with the mayor and citizens further engenders him because he boasts of his chastity, as opposed to Edward’s “lolling on a lewd day-bed” (III.vii. 2288). Chastity and purity are valued in women, whereas hyper-sexuality is a masculine merit. By the time he seizes the crown, he therefore seeks to legitimize himself in any way he can, aiming to secure his throne through marriage to Elizabeth, Edward’s daughter. Again, this is overtly feminine, as the only way women could secure and hold onto their fortunes at this period was to marry into a wealthy family. This feminization has a possibility of taking away from Richard’s legitimacy; not only is he disabled, but the means he must use through his disability also make him “less of a man;” Richard’s tactics and techniques are aligned with the various Queens; he spends more time talking with them than the men. Again, a reader at the time has a chance of ignoring Richard’s right to the throne; because he does not use physical means, he is not strong enough to rule the country.

We next moved to small groups where we were prompted to use Katherine Schaap Williams’ abstract as a jumping point: could we view Richard as an empowered example of a dismodern subject? We decided that despite the reductive effects of both disability and gender that had been previously discussed, Richard is able to become a fairly empowering figure. Through his use of rhetoric and diction, he uses these seemingly demeaning factors for his gain, letting his peers continually underestimate and ignore him—Richard outwits everyone, and it is only on the battlefield that he finally loses. In his first soliloquy, Richard laments that he has nothing to spend his time except:

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.
(I.i.25-31)

Here, Richard is acknowledging his disability; because of the way he is and the way he is treated, Richard has no other choice but to fight for his legitimacy. The others have backed him into a corner by not letting him be a “lover,” and not letting him work for some greater good. He has always been confined to the darkness (so as not to be horrified by the image of his “shadow”), so why should he stray from it now? Richard is a victim, illegitimate and forced into the only category that has been designed for him. However, Richard is not telling the audience (or himself, for that matter) the whole truth. He could be a lover. Clarence believes that he is a loving brother; Richard takes Anne as a wife and from that, could be a proper husband to her. Even so, Richard breaks these ties. What Richard does in this opening soliloquy is what he does throughout the play—continually convince his peers of his innocuousness. Here, he is even convincing the audience, and possibly himself, repeatedly drawing attention to what should be diminutive markers but are instead decoys for his immense strengths. Instead of condemning Richard for his actions, we either underestimate him, or, being more socially aware, pity him. Richard utilizes his disability as a smoke-screen, letting the rest pay attention to what should be his illegitimacy, while he uses his real strength, his mind, to secure a kingdom.

Although disability, gender, and illegitimacy all have the possibility of working with one another to undermine King Richard’s claim to the throne, Richard is an empowering figure. He allows himself to be underestimated, and instead triumphs over nearly every character in the play. If one follows this path, Richard transforms himself again and again. He goes from the innocuous disabled Duke of Gloucester to a conniving, strong king, and from a disabled, illegitimate villain, to a competent, fairly empowering figure.

Written by Meg

September 21st, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Posted in class summaries

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