This series of posts has focused on the different deformities in Shakespeare’s plays Richard III, Othello, King Lear, and Twelfth Night. We have examined the possibility that Shakespeare makes these deformities ambiguous in order to complicate what it actually means to be deformed. The deformities we have discussed 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 these specific plays 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.
OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY
Shakespeare’s plays Richard III, Othello, King Lear, and Twelfth Night all share common strands in regard to deformity. Each of these plays has a specific commentary on deformity, alluding to Shakespeare’s possible intention to complicate the idea of what it actually means to be deformed.
Examples of the common strands in these plays include:
- The relation between the perspective of the dogs and Lady Anne in Richard III
- The similarity between Lady Anne and Othello’s perspective of external markers for inner deformities
- How Othello and Albany view Iago or Regan as the incarnate devil—and therefore, deformed
- Lady Anne, the dogs, Othello, Albany, and Antoinio’s fascination with inner versus external beauty, or rather deformity
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’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?
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 – Richard III, 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—other than her use of the word “lump” which could mean she thinks Richard III’s body is a “lump of foul deformity” or she is addressing a “lump” Richard has as his deformity. Regardless, 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 the dogs view him because they may be perceptive to his thoughts or actions like she is. If Richard is physically deformed, both the dogs and Lady Anne seem to allude to how any physical malformation Richard III has implies a greater inner deformity of his mind. Specifically, 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.
When Othello realizes that he has been tricked by Iago into thinking that his loyal wife, Desdemona, was unfaithful to him, he looks down at Iago’s feet:
I look down towards his feet, but that’s a fable.
(To Iago) If thou beest a devil I cannot kill thee.
(He wounds Iago).
The Norton Shakespeare – Othello, 5.2.292-293
Because the devil has hoofed feet, Othello interprets Iago’s feet as the devil’s—and, therefore, Iago as the incarnate devil. Othello says he cannot kill Iago because the devil cannot be killed—Othello sees Iago as an embodiment of the devil. Even if Iago is not physically malformed, Othello sees him that way.
This is similar to Richard III, where any physical malformation Richard III has implies a greater inner deformity of his mind because, in Othello’s eyes, Iago has an external marker for his inner deformity. Here, Othello also relates to the dogs and Lady Anne in Richard III, because, for Othello, any physical malformation Iago has implies a greater inner deformity of his mind.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Albany compares Goneril’s mind to that of the devil’s:
See thyself, devil!
Proper deformity shows not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman.
The Norton Shakespeare – King Lear 4.2.60-63
Some productions’ interpretations of this verse include Albany holding a mirror to Goneril’s face so she can “see herself” as the devil which she has become. In these productions, Albany is attempting to show Goneril her inner deformity, regardless of her exterior appearance. If Goneril did not have the appearance of a virtuous woman, Albany would treat her as the devil should be treated. Albany is not only comparing Goneril’s mind to that of the devil, but he hurls the insult that she is the devil incarnate—therefore, she is deformed.
This is similar to how Othello also views Iago as the incarnate devil in OTHELLO. Both Othello and Albany view Iago or Goneril as the incarnate devil—and therefore, deformed. The main difference between Othello and Albany’s perspectives is that Othello sees an external marking of deformity—hoofed feet—on Iago, while Albany is perplexed because Goneril has no such identification. Lady Anne and the dogs in Richard III, also relate to Albany’s perspective because Richard III may or may not have an external maker of malformation, but they are still able to percieve an internal deformity of his mind. Moreover, Antonio has a similar experience to Albany in Twelfth Night because he is perplexed by a seeming inner deformity in Cessario (Viola) with no external marker of such a deformity.
In Twelfth Night, in a case of mistaken identity of twins, Viola and Sebastian, Antonio feels betrayed. Antonio has been the inseparable friend of Sebastian for several months and now feels as though Sebastian has forgotten him. However, Antonio addresses Sebastian’s twin, Viola, dressed as a man, and she has no idea who he is:
But O, how vile an ideal proves this god!
Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame.
In nature there’s no blemish but the mind;
None can be called deformed but the unkind.
Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil
Are empty trunks o’er-flourished by the devil.
The Norton Shakespeare – Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, 3.4.329-334
Antonio also alludes to a similar fascination with inner and outer beauty—or deformity—like Lady Anne and the dogs in Richard III, Albany in KING LEAR, and Othello in OTHELLO. Antonio describes how Sebastian still looks the same, but has become devious internally—because Antonio is really speaking to Sebastian’s twin, Viola, dressed as Cesario.
This divisiveness causes Antonio to call Cesario (Viola) beautiful on the outside, but, essentially, deformed on the inside—relating her to an empty box constructed by the devil. That is, Antonio believes Sebastian to be perfect on the outside and the devil incarnate on the inside because Cesario (Viola) does not know who Antonio is. This relates to OTHELLO and KING LEAR, where Othello and Albany also view Iago or Goneril as the incarnate devil.
Each of these common strands of deformity in Richard III, Othello, King Lear, and Twelfth Night function as a larger commentary on how Shakespeare’s intention could have been to complicate deformity and what it means to actually be deformed. This series has ranged from deformities of the body, mind, and text and has allowed us to realize their ambiguity. The connections between each of these plays and their ambiguous deformities has proven that the definition of deformity, provided by the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY, is complex and not singularly applicable.