In our class discussion on how norms are constructed through language, we all contributed titles of Bi-Co courses we had taken that seemed to reinforce such norms (for example, Abnormal Psych and Special Education). This got me thinking about how not only the titles but also the content of my other courses this semester might intra-act with our PPPP course. I realized that one class in particular, namely “Shakespeare: The Tragic and Beyond” with Professor Benston at Haverford, offered fertile ground for applying some of the gender and disability theory we’ve been studying so far. In particular, the character of the hunchbacked Richard III in Shakespeare’s Richard III seems to me to both reinforce some theories of disability – Clare’s notions of desexualization and the supercrip – while also subverting many of the tropes so often used in literary representations of disabled characters, as explored by scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson. As she puts it, “If we accept the convention that fiction has some mimetic relation to life, we grant it power to further shape our perceptions of the world” (Thomson 10). Having felt that the disability/sexuality analysis perspective was somewhat lacking in my English class discussion of the play, it seemed vital to me to use this context for such an exploration. I hope that my analysis will provide one small example of how we might carry the theoretical tools of this course into our other academic endeavors.
If you are not familiar with Richard III, the basic plot is that Richard, disabled brother of the King of England, decides he wants to be King and plans and carries out a variety of murderous plots to make it happen. In the end, he is defeated, but not without leaving quite a bloody path behind him. In his opening speech, Richard foregrounds his physical deformity (a hunchback) in setting up the events that will subsequently unfold, specifically focusing on how his deformity bars him from sexuality. Richard describes himself as “not shaped for sportive tricks” (I.1.14) “rudely stamped” (I.1.16), and “deformed, unfinished” (I.1.20). The moment upon which the speech hinges comes directly after this deluge of bodily self-description: “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain” (I.1.28-30). This inability to be perceived as a sexual – to “prove a lover” – because of a disabled body is something we learned about in Eli Clare’s work, where we are presented with wheelchair-bound Playboy model Ellen as an example of a person with a disability reclaiming the right to be perceived sexually. “Ellen…being seen and acknowledged as sexy, splashed in color across the pages of a sex magazine, represents an important fault line, a sudden and welcome recognition of disabled people…as sexual” (Clare 133). Understanding the relationship between Richard’s desexualization and his murderous plans is important, not just to understand the motivations of the character but to recognize how Richard’s frustrations exemplify a problem that Ellen, and many other people with disabled bodies face: society’s rejection of their bodies as appropriate for sexuality.
The concept of “supercrip” also seems useful in parsing out Richard’s motivations. The concept, explained (and then rejected) by Clare, is of the disabled person who manages to do incredible things despite all odds, ostensibly inspiring us all by overcoming the disability in some way. While the figure of the supercrip has been problematized in disability theory for “reinforc[ing] the superiority of the nondisabled body and mind” (Clare 2), it remains a powerful tool to describe a certain type of disability story, of which Richard’s is one. To me, Richard’s self-designed mission seems to be to defy all the odds that his misshapen appearance place on him, attempting to eventually rise to the top and prove to everyone, including himself, that no deformity can hold him back. Killing off those in the way of his path to the throne refigures the world so that he is no longer powerless, and instead feared and respected, an “excellent grand tyrant of the earth,” (IV.4.52) as Margaret calls him. Even as he is about to lose his battle, Richard reassures himself that “the king’s name is a tower of strength” (V.3.12), consciously applying metaphors of physical power to himself-as-King that do not match his actual disfigured body. Like the concept of desexualization, the concept of supercrip is useful here not only to understand Richard’s motivations but to see how Richard’s experience, however historically particular and violently extreme, has a lot in common with the experiences of many people with physical disabilities.
Rosemarie Garland Thomson is a key scholarly figure in the relatively recent push to infuse literary studies with disability studies, recognizing that the portrayals of disabled bodies in the canonical works of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, etc., both reflect and refract the ways in which our society views actual people with non-normative bodies. While she mostly looks at works of American literature (necessarily more recent than Shakespeare) and also focuses on female characters, I thought that her observations would likely still apply to Richard. What I discovered was surprising.
First, she finds that, “main characters almost never have physical disabilities” (Thomson 9). Richard is unquestionably the main character in this play, suggesting that he might not fit the mold she has created for disabled characters. Following this, she posits, “the disabled body is almost always a freakish spectacle presented by the mediating narrative voice” (Thomson 10). While Richard’s body may be seen as freakish, his assertion in the opening scene that he will “descant on mine deformity” (I.1.27) immediately alerts the reader to the fact that Richard himself will narrate his story. While there are many moments of dialogue that show us how other characters see him, including Margaret’s magnificent curses (“Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rotting hog” (I.3.228) is one of my favorites), the narrative passages always come from Richard, lending him an agency and access to self-representation Thomson generally sees as unavailable for disabled characters. Finally, Thomson finds that, following relegation to minor character status and interpretation via mediating narrator, the resulting disabled characters often get “stripped of normalizing contexts and engulfed by a single stigmatic trait” (Thomson 11). Their specific physical disabilities serving as synecdoche for their whole selves in a way that, while literarily useful, bears little relation to models of how we should be perceiving and treating actual human beings with disabilities. In the end, this accusation too is one that I do not see in Richard III. The central problem of the play is understanding Richard’s true character, despite a potentially unreliable narrator, twisted secret plots, way too many characters, and even a smattering of metaphysical elements (ghosts!) thrown in the mix. Far from a Tiny Tim, Richard, while disabled, represents a decidedly complicated tragic figure, one that does not seem to fall back on the tropes Thomson identifies.
Richard’s response to his disability is to defy his dismissal by society via domination, attempting to achieve supercrip status in response to rage about his desexualization, among other problems. We can argue about how successful he is, and therefore, perhaps, about the strength of the cultural norms he is working against, but what is important is that he definitely tries to fight them, resisting the easy tropes and simplifying characterizations Thomson sees assigned to most disabled literary figures. Perhaps we can look back on Richard as an early model of a more complicated and, in some ways, “realistic” textual representation of a disabled figure. This representational achievement points – as always, it seems – to the Bard’s subtle mastery of the nuances of human nature, and functions as an incredible example of such prowess that ought not to be overlooked in a course on Shakespeare. To do so is to miss not only another great example of Shakespeare’s prowess, but also an opportunity to think about how disabled characters in literature can help us understand disabled people in the society, and vice versa.
Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride. Cambridge: South End Press, 2009.
Shakespeare, William. Richard III. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Image credit: http://www.wearysloth.com/Gallery/ActorsO/13188-15979.gif_, from Laurence Olivier's 1955 film version of Richard III.
Richard Iii: Power of Language and Own VillainyGet Your
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Deformed in body and twisted in mind, Richard is in every way the dominant character of the play, to the extent that he is both the play’s protagonist and major villain. He is selfish, evil, corrupt, sadistic, and manipulative. His intelligence, political brilliance, and dazzling use of language keeps the audience fascinated and his subjects and rivals under his control. At the beginning of the play, it is made clear to the audience that Richard has no justification for seizing the throne.
This is because England is obviously not oppressed or subject to tyranny as the lengthy civil war has just ended, and Richard’s oldest brother, King Edward IV, now sits on the throne. Richard himself, states that ‘All the clouds that loured upon our house’ (1. 1, 3), the house of York, has been dispelled by the ‘son of York’ (1. 1, 2), King Edward IV. However, Richard intends to upset the kingdom by seizing power for himself. He says that ‘since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain’ (1. , 28). This simply means that since Richard was not made to be a lover, he has no use for peace, and will happily destroy peace with his crimes. This shows Richard’s unabashed enjoyment of his own villainy as he can so blithely toss aside all of the things that the rest of humanity cherishes. Richard III is an intense exploration of the psychology of evil, and that exploration is centred on the workings of Richard’s mind and the methods he uses to manipulate, control, and injure others for his own gain.
Perhaps more than any other play by Shakespeare, the audience of Richard III experiences a complex, indefinite, and highly erratic relationship with the main character. Richard is clearly a villain as he declares outright in his very first speech that he intends to stop at nothing to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming king. However, despite his open allegiance to evil, he has such a charismatic and fascinating personality that, for much of the play, we are likely to sympathize with him, or are at least impressed by him.
In this way, our relationship with Richard reflects the other characters’ relationships with him, conveying a powerful sense of the force of his personality. Even characters such as Lady Anne, who have an explicit knowledge of his wickedness, overlook his dishonesty and violent behaviour and allow themselves to be seduced by his brilliant wordplay, his skilful argumentation, and his relentless pursuit of his selfish desires. Richard’s long, fascinating soliloquys, in which he outlines his plans and gleefully confesses all his evil thoughts, are central to the audience’s experience of Richard.
Shakespeare uses these soliloquys brilliantly to control the audience’s impression of Richard, enabling this manipulative protagonist to work his charm on the audience. In Act I, scene i, for example, Richard offers a pretext for his villainy towards others by pointing out that he is unloved, and that he is unloved because of his physical deformity. Richard himself is brutally honest about his appearance. He admits to being imperfectly shaped and blames premature birth for his condition. He knows that he is ‘not shaped for sportive tricks’ (1. 1, 14) and while others delight in ‘an amorous looking glass’ (1. , 14), his misshapen body creates a ‘shadow in the sun’ (1. 1, 26) that alienates him from others. Hence, Lady Anne calls Richard a ‘lump of foul deformity’ (1. 2, 57) in Act I, scene ii. This proves that Richard’s claim not only makes the other characters of the play seem like the villains for punishing him for his appearance, but also makes it easy for the audience to sympathize with Richard during the first scenes of the play and even hope that he will succeed despite his obvious villainy. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Richard simply uses his deformity as a tool to gain the sympathy of others, including the audience.
This is already noticeable in his very first speech as Richard seems to take a deliberate perverse delight in his outward shape. He chooses words such as, ‘cheated’, ‘deformed’, ‘unfinished’, ‘half made up’, ‘dogs bark’ at him as he passes by because of his ‘deformity’ to describe himself. Richard’s unabashed villainy is a much more natural part of his character than simple bitterness about his ugly body. Nevertheless, he still manages to use speech to win our trust, and he repeats this throughout his struggle to be crowned king.
An interesting secondary theme of Richard III is the power of language, or the importance of language in achieving political power. Language may not always be a necessary instrument of power, but for Richard, it is a crucial weapon. As we have seen, it is with his extraordinary skills with words that allows him to ridicule, insult, taunt and deceive all who stand in his way to power. Richard’s skill with language and argument is what enables him to woo Lady Anne, have Clarence thrown in prison and blame the king for Clarence’s death, all at very little risk to himself.
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In conclusion, I feel Richard III’s unabashed enjoyment of both the power of language and his own villainy makes him a character worthy of both respect and admiration, and therefore I completely agree with this statement. This is because Richard’s unabashed power of language shows off the ingenious wit and intellectual cleverness of the character, actor and playwright, while his own villainy makes the play all the more fascinating and entertaining as his heinous acts become more chilling.
Author: Brandon Johnson
Richard Iii: Power of Language and Own Villainy
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