Tracing Deformity in Shakespeare 1.0: Richard III

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This series focuses on the deformities found in some of Shakespeare’s plays and we examine the possibility that Shakespeare makes these deformities ambiguous in order to complicate what it actually means to be deformed. The deformities we discuss in this series range from physical and mental deformities to deformities of language. It is recommended that readers have read or have a grasp of the specific play before reading this analytical series. Direct quotes of the text come from the Second Edition of The Norton Shakespeare, unless otherwise noted.

1a. n. The quality or condition of being marred or disfigured in appearance; disfigurement; unsightliness, ugliness.
4a. figurative. Moral disfigurement, ugliness, or crookedness.
5. Misused for deformity, n., difference or diversity of form; want of uniformity or conformity.




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William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy follows the bloody path of the “rudely stamped” Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who uses his murderous guile to achieve the throne of England. —GOODREADS


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Screen Shot 2019-04-06 at 12.07.42 PM.pngIn Shakespeare’s Richard III, the word “deform” is used ambiguously in Act I, in its different forms, to present the multiplicity of Richard III’s villainous nature. Though “deformity” could reference Richard III’s physical form, Shakespeare suggests that it could be one of Richard III’s mind and the way he views himself, specifically through his shadow. As a result of this ambiguity, interpretations are specifically polarizing; Richard III is mentally or physically deformed, or both. In a broad view, Shakespeare makes readers question what being deformed really means.

Line engraving of Richard III by Jodocus Hondius NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

When Richard III references his deformity in his opening monologue, he explains how he is bored in the time of peace because none of the ladies view him longingly:

Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up—
And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—
Why, I in this weak piping time of peace

Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
The Norton Shakespeare, 1.1.20-27

Richard III claims he is villainous because of his deformity, but whether the deformity is physical, mental, or both is unknown. Richard III’s reference to the way dogs view him alludes to a physical malformation; however, do the dogs he references bark at others while they pass too and he seems to think he is the only one? Or, is Shakespeare trying to show that animals are perceptive to much more than the human eye can see, such as a deformity of Richard III’s mind? While Richard III’s interpretation of his shadow also suggests a physical malformation, shadows are distorted outlines and do not show a complete image of what they cast. Another plausible interpretation is that Richard III’s perception of himself in a mirror could be skewed because he lacks self-confidence. Therefore, Richard III may perceive his reality incorrectly by thinking that the dogs only bark at him and that his shadow is an accurate outline of his body. If these interpretations are true, then the “deformity” could be a psychological one—pointing to what is today known as body dysmorphia.

Not only does Richard III refer to himself as “deformed,” but so does Lady Anne in Act I during their stichomythic dialogue. Lady Anne is upset with Richard III because he murdered her father-in-law and husband. As her father-in-law’s corpse lies next to her, she states:

O gentlemen, see, see! Dead Henry’s wounds
Ope their congealèd mouths and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,

For ’tis thy presence that ex-hales this blood
From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells.
The Norton Shakespeare, 1.2.55-60

Because Lady Anne is upset with Richard III, she could be calling him deformed out of spite. Another interpretation could be that she views his mind as deformed because she refers to his actions, rather than his physical figure. Therefore, Lady Anne could be referring to his psychopathic behavior—a deformity of his mind. If Richard III is not physically deformed, Lady Anne’s perspective could relate to the way dogs view him because they may be perceptive to his thoughts or actions like she is.

In the same dialogue, Lady Anne references bier right—a trial for presumed murderers which uses the bloodletting of a corpse when the murderer is near to prove their guilt. By calling Richard III deformed and then stating that his presence is causing the corpse to bleed, Lady Anne is implicating Richard III’s deformity with the murder. In these lines, it is ambiguous whether Richard III is a murderer who happens to be deformed, or if he is a murderer because he is deformed.

Referencing Richard III’s opening monologue, he believes his deformity is the murderer; he is only villainous because of his deformity—it is unclear whether Lady Anne believes this too. The use of bier right and Richard III’s deformity emphasize how Richard III is not only a murderer, but a deformed murderer. As a result, Shakespeare is analyzing what it means to be deformed and how it affects legal trials of the time, such as bier right.

Richard’s psychological interpretation of his deformity – the notion that his abnormal body caused his abnormal behavior to develop – as reasonable as it may sound from a modern perspective, is potentially the greatest deception of a master dissembler, a deception effected not on the other characters on stage, but on the audience, a deception that has been wildly successful in Shakespeare studies because it accords with and exploits the world as it is defined by modern thought, but a deception that is misleading if not mistaken. —JEFFREY R. WILSON – HARVARD UNIVERSITY

Lady Anne uses the word “lump” when she is describing Richard III. This could be taken to mean she regards Richard III himself as a “lump of foul deformity” or she is addressing a “lump” Richard has as his deformity. If the former were true, then she could be referring to Richard III’s deformed mind as embodied—where his entire being could just be a  “lump of foul deformity” in Lady Anne’s eyes. If the latter were true, then she could be recognizing a physical malformation.

Any physical malformation Richard III has implies a greater inner deformity of his mind. If Richard III does have a physical malformation, it could only lead to a further deformity of his mind through his low self-esteem. Here, Shakespeare makes the reader question what being deformed really means.

The form of the first tetralogy is deformed insofar as it is a history, obviously, but also a tragedy, as the play is titled in the quarto editions, and moreover it is a tragical history that involves many conventions of comedy and romance. —JEFFREY R. WILSON – HARVARD UNIVERSITY

Shakespeare’s use of the word “deform” in Richard III creates diverse interpretations of what it actually means to be deformed; Richard III is mentally or physically deformed, or both. The aforementioned evidence suggests that Richard III’s “deformity” could be psychological, rather than physical—specifically through how Richard III interprets his shadow or commits murder with a seemingly psychopathic behavior.

For Richard III, his deformity is the murderer and he is only villainous because of it—a very problematic perspective. Through Richard III’s deformity, Shakespeare creates new interpretations of what it really means to be deformed.

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