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Disability as Identity? Samuel Beardslee’s Class Summary for September 17, 2010

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After the double celebration of finding the dis/lit blog on the second page of the book of life held by the Internet god, Google, and the plans held by Dr. Foss for both that night and the following night, an occurrence that is rarer than the planetary conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Krypton, our class focused our attention on The Deformed Transformed by Lord Bryon, and comparing that with Shakespeare’s Richard III.  More specifically, we looked in depth at both Arnold (as well as Caesar) and Richard III (Gloucester), the roles that they play in their respective dramas, and how they handle themselves with regard to their disability (which are both physical in nature).  What we would find is an interesting juxtaposition of how one mentally approaches disability in life.  Richard III, who is always aware of the social power that his disability can achieve, uses his disability for his own gains, while Arnold, jumping at the first chance to rid himself of the disability, never frees himself from the disabled mentality that he has grown into.  Ultimately, disability (in this case) proves to be more than just a bodily defect, the effects of which are entirely dependent on the person’s mentality.

To begin our comparison, the openings of both plays were compared and contrasted.  Our group  found, based on the set up of both of these characters and with the knowledge of the outcome of these characters, that, while Richard tries to rouse feelings of sympathy, Arnold succeeds in gaining our empathy for his condition.  This is achieved by his interactions with his mother, who treats him very poorly because of his disability.  Richard, on the other hand, stands alone and is appealing to the audience.  Whatever little sympathy we have for Richard at the beginning of the play is destroyed as his motives become clearer not only through his actions, but what he says as well.

Meanwhile, Arnold, who has every right to hate humanity due to their treatment of him, does become manipulative or evil despite this.  On the contrary, Arnold is manipulated by The Stranger/Caesar after his introduction into the drama, oddly enough taking Arnold’s crippled body for his own to use (fulfilling Arnold’s wish to escape his own body into a perfect one).  Both Caesar and Richard III are using their disabilities in a way that makes these deformities seem enabling as opposed to crippling.  The social boundary usually set around those with disabilities cannot hold back either of these powerful charismatic characters.  Arnold escapes the social boundary by gaining a perfect body, and is thus not bound by the social boundaries of the disabled by default.  However, even after obtaining this body and seemingly escaping that aspect of his life, Arnold does not hold the same zeal as either Richard or Caesar.  He is still disabled in his mind; he is held back by his own inhibitions surrounding a disability that he suddenly doesn’t have any more.  Perhaps this is a commentary on class status?  That only the upper classes can deal with disability in a way that is socially considered ‘normal’.  This idea doesn’t hold much ground considering Arnold’s position in society is not made very clear; he starts off in a rustic lifestyle, but is clearly educated.

Lord Byron never truly finished The Deformed Transformed, but it is still clear that the progression of events ultimately makes Arnold a less sympathetic character, while Caesar retains his character throughout, not letting the disability affect his personality.  Richard III achieves the same result, not letting his deformities get the best of him even in the midst of battle.  What does this mean?  Is disability simply a prop or a mask, as Richard and Caesar seem to use them as?  Perhaps the case could be made with those two characters, but in Arnold’s case, disability is a bit more than a prop, even though he thinks he discards it like one.  Arnold’s disability has ingrained itself in his personality, leading him to be a rather unassertive and “boring” character.  In a sense, the body that Arnold gains is simply an Avatar; his mindset has not changed despite the freedom from his disability.  Disability, in this sense, has much more bearing to be considered an identity as opposed to a mask; an inner aspect as well as, but not necessarily including, the outer.

In other words, one can still be “disabled” simply by one’s life experience.  Arnold was rejected and shunned by society, and thus grew in this unforgiving environment.  While Richard’s disability seemed to be a manifestation of his evil nature, Arnold’s personality is very much a product of his disability and how other treated him because of it.  Disability may be a mask, but this is a mask that affects different people in different ways.  This mask gave Richard III a sort of super-ability in society, while it suffocated and stunted Arnold.  In this light, how disability affects someone is dependent on many factors, including how one is raised, one’s personality, and several others, and cannot simply be deemed as “disposable” or “integral.”

Written by Spyden

September 22nd, 2010 at 12:39 pm

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