Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

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

From Laurence Oliver's 1955 film "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.



Works Cited

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:, from Laurence Olivier's 1955 film version of Richard III.


Comments's picture

MORE descanting on deformity...

Anne, thanks for clarifying your understanding of my thoughts and your questions about them. It's nice to hear how one's writing is being understood.

Starting with the "alice" question -- my initial reaction was kind of dismissive, as I felt (and still feel) that I chose the username and avatar without much thought. I had seen the movie (the version from which the image comes) a few weeks before and she was the first movie character that came to mind when we did those getting-to-know-you activities on the first day. However, I see your point about how a broader internet audience might hone in on such details - some of the only clues to the identity of the writer - as significant, which makes them worth thinking about. As far as I know, Alice is a pretty gender-unambiguous character, so I think it's fair to assume the writer identifies as a woman, or at least is trying to project that identity - a correct assumption in this case. (Although I guess the girl vs. woman age distinction might be I infantilizing myself??)

Thinking about other aspects of Alice's bodily experience in wonderland, though...the motif of growing alternately larger and smaller is one that's always stuck with me about her story. Alice's potion-drinking and cake-eating physically alter her body to make her more or less capable of navigating the strange world she finds herself in. I might argue that in Richard's world, where no such "magic fixes" exist, he responds to his body's inadequacy by distorting/destroying the world around him instead...  As to inserting understandings of my body as abled/disabled, I definitely didn't make a point of talking about that in my essay. I consider myself (temporarily at least) pretty able-bodied. I think if I had personal experiences to offer in terms of disability, I (like Garland-Thomson) would likely have offered them, if they could have enriched my discussion. But, as I said in an earlier blog post about Clare's work, I think the degree of "invisibility" textual representations offer an author have the potential to be liberating - so I think it's not only ok, but potentially really cool if you can't necessarily tell my physical abilities from reading my writing.

In terms of the bigger questions -- reclassifying Richard's genre and delving deeper into how disabled characters affect disabled people, I would need more time than I have right now to think through it all...maybe I'll come back to it in a future piece of writing for this class. In brief, though, I guess I have trouble taking Richard completely out of a literary context of tragedy -- it's not a happy ending, after all. But if there exists a spectrum of ways of depicting disabled characters, I would argue that a central character given so much agency on the way to his eventual demise is preferable to one who is relegated to side-character status for it from the start. Would a happy ending for Richard be "optimal"? Not necessarily. (He killed a lot of people!) But getting to actually see him struggle through it all gives the readers/audience the chance to decide for themselves at the end who should get blame -- Richard, or the way his society understood him (or perhaps a more-realistic combination of the two). Which I think leads into the potential politics of such literary efforts -- the effects they can have on readers and audiences can be profound (and lasting, especially in the case of Shakespeare!). Thinking through these various ideas - both theoretically and via more personal stories, be they real (Clare) or imagined (Richard - well, he was a real person too, but we learned in my Shakespeare class that it isn't even agreed-upon that Richard-the-historical-figure actually WAS physically disabled, and in any case my essay is about this distinctively Shakespearean version of him) definitely made me more willing to see disability much more as a social problem with the way people perceive rather than a physical problem with individual bodies. I guess that's an obvious/easy answer, but it's true! And if pairing Clare and Richard (among others) produced such a strong reaction in me, maybe that's part of a broader argument for more interdisciplinary work, for inserting a bit more Richard into Gen/Sex/Dis classes and some more Gen/Sex/Dis thinking into Shakespeare classes.

Anne Dalke's picture

seeing a theme

Am I seeing a pattern here? A month later you're reflecting on gay-themed children's literature, and so considering once again "the potential politics of such literary efforts -- the effects they can have on readers and audiences."

Anne Dalke's picture

Richard III as Supercrip

It's very exciting for me to see you applying some of the perspectives from disability studies, which we've introduced into our gender and sexuality course, to the infamously disabled Shakespearean character of Richard III; your doing so both expands both the fields of Shakespeare studies (in the challenge to how RIII is handled in class) and of disability studies (in the challenges you pose to Rosemarie G-T's readings of disability in lit). Especially acute, for our purposes in PPPP, is the "bringing together" of sexuality and disability in RIII's famous declaration, "since I cannot prove a lover….I am determined to prove a villain." That passage, and the other close readings you offer here, really stir up some deep questions about nature-and-culture, as you show how someone discriminated against, because of a "deformed" body, cultivates a "deformed soul." Your reading of RIII's turning himself into an "an “excellent grand tyrant," in particular, gives quite the interesting turn of the screw to "supercripdom"!

So: that's some of what I learned, gratefully, as I read through what you've done. And here are some of my questions:

What message is your user-name is sending your audience? What does "" signal about who you are, how-and-why you should be listened to? How do you locate yourself as author in this text? You are clearly a member of this class, and of another one on Shakespeare; and/but where-and-how is your body located on the spectrum of the disabled about which you are writing? (I'm sitting here, looking @ the avatar of Alice in Wonderland, juxtaposed w/ the image of Lawrence Olivier as Richard III, and wondering about their relationship w/ one another….) My third question is also a literary one: some of your most interesting observations here have to do w/ what it means that Richard III narrates most of his own story. You say that this makes him a "decidedly complicated tragic figure, one that does not seem to fall back on the tropes Thomson identifies." In an essay called 'Seeing the Disabled," R G-T lists "four visual rhetorics"-- the "wondrous," the "sentimental," and the "exotic," now more often (though not often enough) replaced by "the realistic." I'm wondering if Richard III's "self-representation," which you highlight here, might allow us to read/view him differently, too, not as tragic, but….? in what genre?? (For some other interesting explorations of self-representation, see chelseam's claiming the stare," a study of Jes Sachse's "body image/language" project,  and Gavi's Voicing Rhetorics of Beauty ).

Which I guess leads into my really big question; and this has to do with the ultimate aim of your paper. I see you offering your reading of Richard III both as "one small example of how we might carry the theoretical tools of this course into our other academic endeavors," and as a correction to some of the claims that one of the leaders in this field, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, makes about the role of disability in literature. But I also see you making two much larger, extra-disciplinary claims, both that Richard III's experience "has a lot in common with the experiences of many people with physical disabilities," and that it gives us an "opportunity to think about how disabled characters in literature can help us understand disabled people in the society." So of course that's where I'd really be interested to hear you "think further" (and I invite you to do so in the comment space here):  how do you "understand disabled people in society" differently now, through the increasingly refracted (diffracted?) lenses provided by  Clare-> Thomson->Shakespeare-> Alice in Wonderland?? (For an interestingly like-and-different exploration of the ways in which theater might inform politics, see Shlomo's exploration of A Modern-Day Lysistrata).