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Katherine Sullivan’s Class Period Summary of September 13th: Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III”

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In our September 13th meeting of Professor Foss’ Disability and Literature course, our class examined and discussed Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III” through Act III, Scene iii. The meeting began with a brief, somewhat confusing lecture and diagram detailing the history of the royal English Bloodline, the War of the Roses, and more than a few Edwards and Henrys.  The large group discussion then functioned to prime for our small group activity by presenting the idea that disability may function with a text as a binary characteristic: either as an insignia, or marker of a character’s corruption, or as a causation of that fundamental corruption.  Each small group examined a short passage using this binary theoretical framework.

After the small groups were assigned their beginning passages, the groups discussed, argued, and recorded their findings regarding how each passage fit within the binary framework of insignia and causation. At the end of each singular passage discussion, the records were swapped between groups so that, by the end of class, every group was able to examine every textual passage with their own ideas as well as with the notes of every other preceding group.  The small groups worked with four passages from “The Tragedy of King Richard III”: Gloucester’s opening speech in Act I Scene I, Anne’s opening soliloquy of Act I Scene II, Gloucester’s ending soliloquy of Act I Scene II, and Gloucester and Margaret’s interaction in Act I, Scene III.

My small group generally agreed with findings of the other groups.  We identified Gloucester’s opening speech in Act I Scene I as an instance of disability being presented as a cause of Richard’s III evil nature that he uses as an excuse to gain sympathy from his peers, as well as the audience.  He also uses the pity and sympathy created in his community – by what Quayson would describe as “aesthetic nervousness” – to manipulate the other characters.  Anne’s opening soliloquy in Act I Scene II mournfully curses the unknown murderer of Henry VI, and damns the killer that their offspring may carry an “ugly and unnatural aspect” (1.2.23) as marker of his evilness, thus rendering this passage as an example of disability serving as an insignia in “The Tragedy of King Richard III”.  Gloucester’s ending soliloquy of Act I Scene II also identifies Richard’s III disability as an insignia due to the normalization that results from Anne’s loss of aversion towards him. “I do mistake my person all this while: / Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot, / myself to be a marvelous proper man.” (1.2.254) Essentially, Richard III validates his disability by asserting the he must be “normal” for her to desire him. Further, this scene develops Richard’s III apathy for his disability as well as his vanity.  Lastly, Gloucester and Margaret’s interaction in Act I, Scene III is a very clear example of disability’s presentation as insignia within this text: “The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul, … Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog! / Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity / the slave of nature and the son of hell! / Thou slander of thy mother’s heavy womb! / Thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins! / Thou rag of honour!” (1.3.222, 1.3.228-233).  Overall, the small group discussions rendered the conclusion that disability was frequently used as an insignia of Richard’s III evilness except in his opening scene which served to cultivate sympathy from the audience.  Further, as Richard III emotionally and politically manipulates each character, he takes advantage of his disability and utilizes it as an empowering façade of self-pity.

After the small group discussions were completed and our large group was reconvened, we learned that because this play was first performed in the 1500’s, the audiences’ perception of disability may have varied slightly from the perceptions of the characters. While the characters may have simply assumed that a deformity was a hateful act of God, the slightly more modern audiences of the play’s first performances may have regarded Richard’s III disability as either a demonological portrayal of corruption, or as part of the natural order of variation in the world. Also in large concluding group, we were reminded to check Blackboard for Class Meeting Documents that would accompany our readings and large group discussions of the latter half of “The Tragedy of King Richard III” on Wednesday.  In conclusion, the class meeting of Monday, September 13th examined and discussed Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III” under the binary theoretical framework of the presentation of disability as either a marking insignia of corruption, or as a causation of that corruption.  The format of this discussion was transformed from a large group that gave a brief historical background, into four smaller subgroups that each talked about and shared their observations, and then again transformed back into the large group to conclude our discussion.

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I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received any unauthorized help on this work.  Katherine Sullivan

Written by Katherine Sullivan

September 17th, 2010 at 10:45 am

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