"Descanting on Deformity:" A Gender/Disability Look at Shakespeare's Richard III
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.