Academic Paper

Crouchback or Misunderstood? – The Disability of Richard III

by Lauren Jackson
Richard III has gone down in history as a crouchback, a monster, and a tyrant. He has been posthumously indicted for many evil deeds, but the most notorious of all is the murder of his two young nephews and heirs to the throne of England: the renowned Princes in the Tower. His lechery and crookedness have infiltrated history in a way that no other king’s ever has. The shadow of his legend, the specter of his horrors lingers over the English throne for a murder mystery that has never been solved. The skeletal finger of blame has forever been pointed at Richard III in a crooked manner. The rumors of his humped back and his withering arm have painted an image of a man that no place but hell could accept. His physical deformities have translated into disabilities that horrified minds and punctured hearts. Yet was this the truth? What was Richard’s true physicality, his true shape of mind and body? Has history been distorted through the lens of future monarchies?
To give Richard some flesh, he was the Duke of Gloucester, the youngest of three sons. This title was not given to him until his eldest brother Edward was able to defeat King Henry VI in battle and seize the throne of England for the Yorkist faction making him Edward IV. Richard’s second eldest brother was George, Duke of Clarence. Richard was to see a writhing hot bed of intrigue, rumor, politics, and upheaval during his brother’s reign. He witnessed the murder of an anointed monarch, a prince’s death, the exile of a queen, the ruling of factions, his brother’s execution, and Edward IV’s eventual death. Richard supposedly murdered Edward IV’s two young sons to seize the throne of England in an act of usurpation and tyranny. What truly happened to the princes shall forever remain unknown, although most historical and circumstantial evidence condemns Richard. It would appear that no one had as much to gain as he for their deaths.
During the reign of Richard’s usurper, Henry Tudor, the humanist scholar Thomas More was to write an historical account of Richard III. This historical account was considered a contemporary eyewitness chronicle due to the closeness with which More moved amongst the peoples of the time, the knowledge and documents with which More had access to, and the general witnessing of events that he lived through. Historian Alison Weir praises Thomas More and considers him an accurate source of information although historian Audrey Williamson condemns him on more than one occasion for his bias. Alison Weir rightly points out that Thomas More was so principled that during the reign of Henry Tudor’s son King Henry VIII, More lost his life as a martyr for not conforming his strong beliefs to match that of the young king. This alone would make More seem to be an accurate and unbiased chronicler, but Williamson believes that due to the work being commissioned by the Tudors that in no way could the account be trustworthy. Weir says plainly: “With More, the truth came first” (Weir, 9).
Weir also rightly points out that at the time; such chronicles were used to serve a moral purpose as well as an historical record. And she says what entirely sums up the meaning of this overview: “This was an accepted practice in an age when history and literature were almost indivisible” (italics added) (Weir, 9). Has history been marred by the supposed image of Richard? For Thomas More painted Richard as an evil man, the description of which Shakespeare entirely based his play Richard III on. In fact, Dan Breen’s article “Thomas More’s History of Richard III: Genre, Humanism, and Moral Education” says of this: “Shakespeare’s play serves to ‘reinforce’ More’s depiction of Richard as a tyrant, strengthening the edifice of More’s creation” (Breen, 2). And historian Audrey Williamson aptly quotes historian A.F. Pollard saying: “’If More’s Richard III is primarily dramatic, the question of its fidelity to historical fact hardly arises” (Williamson, 68). The theme of truth and fiction entwines itself ever further.
More’s hasn’t been the only Tudor chronicle to have depicted Richard as evil. John Rous was the earliest Tudor writer of note and Weir says of his chronicle: “…he portrays Richard III as a deformed monster and tyrant, likening him to the antichrist” (Weir, 5). Bernard Andre was another chronicler of the time that decided Richard would suffer posthumously as well, Weir’s book says: “He portrays Richard III as an utter villain and Henry VII as God’s messenger come to avenge his predecessor’s crimes” (Weir, 6). A stronger indication of evil we could not be given.
P.W. Hammond goes so far as to say that Shakespeare’s play: “is the final culmination of the Tudor picture of the man who was Richard III” and “…the view of Richard which prevailed generally for the next 200 years” (Breen, 2). It is interesting to accept the fact that for the past two centuries we have based our entire view of an English monarch on the opinion of mostly one scholar and one playwright. Shakespeare borrowed heavily from Thomas More exclusively. In Joel Slotkin’s article “Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Shakespeare’s Richard III” it is emphasized that: “The fascination with evil is central to the construction of Shakespeare’s Richard III” (Slotkin, 2). What is interesting is that he even says that this embodiment of evil “…become part of the literary tradition” (Slotkin, 3). It is again an intertwining of literature and history to form a new history that cannot be detangled from one another. The lines are blurred and what is truth and what is fiction becomes relative as it is all accepted as one. Smudges of ink on a Shakespearean document may be considered the perfect truth, yet what it means cannot be known for history cannot be relived.
Richard came to be known as a Crouchback, deformed, with a humped back and unequal shoulders. The descriptions of Richard have often been conflicting, some chroniclers making no mention of deformity, others describing feebleness or small stature; while others stating outright that he was deformed. It is clear that Richard was not a golden haired handsome man like his brother Edward IV, but rather dark and slight. Weir says that “To contemporary eyes, physical deformity was the outward manifestation of evil character” (Weir, 32). An outward manifestation of evil was closely linked with deformity and disability in the Renaissance and early modern time periods. The conflation of deformity with disability, which are not in actuality one and the same, further led to different ideas about Richard. According to Katherine Schapp Williams’ article “Enabling Richard: The Rhetoric of Disability in Richard III”, we see this confirmed: “Yet the conflation of deformity and disability also obscures the complexity of Richard’s bodily signification by assuming a unified discourse of deformity that maps onto physical disability” (Williams 4). And further we can see this idea of demonizing Richard III’s disability versus morality and bodily significance with: “…a demonstration of Renaissance beliefs about the continuity between inner morality and outward physical forms” (Williams 2). What is interesting is the dichotomy surrounding such discourse. We have two paradigms that view Richard as a deformed monster – Tudor propagandists/Shakespeare versus historians/contemporaries. Each have their own reasons for thinking of Richard as deformed or not. Some historians perpetuate unbiased ideas of Richard’s appearance due to conflicting accounts, but some hone in on Richard’s posthumous stripping down by Tudor propagandists seeking to justify Henry VII’s ascension to the throne. Shakespeare wrote his play Richard III during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of Henry VII. It seems unlikely that Shakespeare would diverge from the tradition of Richard passed down as deformed when writing a play for a Tudor monarch. If Richard’s deformities transformed into disabilities were signs of moral depravity then he had no right to be a king, and therefore his usurpation was the moral thing to do. Williams’ article reinforces this notion by stating: “At the same time, critics read Richard’s relation to his body through the lens of a pre-modern notion of disability that construes bodily deformity as the visible sign of moral evil” (Williams 2). And despite this lens of viewing deformity and disability as a sign of evil, we should not lose that this was the discourse of the time and that even though we continue to support this notion through productions of Shakespeare’s play, we understand now what Richard’s supposed handicapped actually was: “…readings of Richard tend to emphasize the relation between his moral depravity and his body as indicative of Renaissance attitudes toward bodies that we would, in contemporary discourse, call ‘disabled’” (Williams 3). This was not only true of Richard III, but when Anne Boleyn would ascend the throne as Henry VIII’s second wife; we would see contemporary critics citing moles on her body as signs of witchcraft. Rumors percolate during this time period of any bodily anomalies or abnormalities as being signs of evil, although in what manifestation it varies. Some concerns of the time are formulated in Williams’ article: “Although Richard distances his distinctive body from its associations, they insist that he is monstrous, a term that recalls a range of early modern English anxieties: the monster as portent of divine wrath, as symbol of political upheaval, or the monstrous birth as evidence of female lasciviousness and impressionability” (Williams 9). It seems that not only could Richard be blamed for his physical differences, but his mother could be condemned for lascivious behavior to even beget such a child. In this case, evil continues to perpetuate itself through generations of malformed individuals who can bring nothing but baseness and crude behavior into the world. These beliefs are repeated by Ato Quayson who says: “’…the disability is placed at the foreground of the action from the beginning and brings together various threads that serve to focalize the question of whether Richard’s deformity is an insignia of or indeed the cause of his villainy’” (Williams 4), and Williams herself summarizes: “For Quayson, disability is deformity operating in a moral register” (Williams 4).
Despite these arguments of the Renaissance focusing on the disability versus immorality of Richard, some find that this is a wholly obtuse and unfair assessment of Richard and that it ignores too much of his personhood. Julio Avalos’ article “The Unfinished Self: Richard’s Gender, Deformity, and Personhood in 3 Henry VI and Richard III” says: “Shakespeare’s treatment of Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s physical deformity is often used by literary scholars as a point of departure for the asking of some fundamental metaphysical questions: Is his deformity a sign of his innate inward corruption, or is it the cause of his evil? Although important, this question takes for granted the presupposition that Richard’s deformity has only moral implications” (Avalos 1). We see that we ignore importance, according to Avalos, and we only link immoral behavior and physical deformity through a: “marginalization and obscuring of the link between physical imperfection and gender identity, missing entirely the implications that Richard’s deformities have upon his sexuality and conception of personhood” (Avalos 1). Avalos attempts to right the wrongs of this by delving into Shakespeare’s Richard with a framework or ideology of gender and identity of the time and flesh out a more human Richard. The argument has been by Richard’s contemporaries and Tudor propagandists exactly as Avalos relays it: “Regardless of whether one places his crooked back in the role of cause or effect, it is taken as self-evident that the deformity must in some way be directly linked to his absent morality” (Avalos 1).
Yet all of these ideas swirling around Richard’s deformity wholly ignore the issue of deformity and disability and what it means both socially and culturally. We find that at least in Shakespeare’s Richard III, his deformities seem to enhance his character and political power. He utilizes his body, manipulating others into his power plays. There is a certain rhetoric involved in this positioning inherently within the text. This is especially evident in Williams’ article when she quotes David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder saying of Shakespeare’s Richard: “’Richard’s character fashions disability, then, as a full-blown narrative device that accrues force for his own machinations. He sets to work performing deformity’” (Williams 3). Mitchell and Snyder reject entirely the readings of Richard involving moral depravity, and assign him power and agency through his natural disability which most characters in the play view as a disadvantage or weakness.
What Shakespeare does even further is seem to suggest that Richard is powerful in alignment with modern concepts of what it means to be disabled. In this respect it appears Shakespeare was somewhat ahead of his time or thinking; although he does not embrace Richard’s deformities, he does utilize them, and at times he appears to go so far as to understand them. Perhaps Shakespeare felt pangs of sympathy for this ill-treated monarch. Williams’ article states: “This anachronistic reading of Richard as a dismodern figure suggest that – though he suffers ultimate defeat – the variety of ways in which he displays his body, bolsters it with props, and employs the signifying power reveals a surprising congruity between pre-modern and post-modern conceptions of disability and perhaps even challenge our formulations of the kind of disability modernity produces” (Williams 5).
Williams’ article points to this term – dismodern – as embodying what Richard is – a dismodern subject. Williams says: “The dismodern subject challenges a binary of able/disabled bodies by assuming that every body starts from a position of disability, thus dispensing with the narrative of modernity that insists upon an idealized, able-bodied subject whose full independence suggests perfectability” (Williams 4). To further understand how the dismodern subject challenges this binary and how they can deduce that all start from the same position in life, Williams explains further the tools and weapons wielded to perform battle: “’the dismodernist subject sees that metanarratives are only ‘socially created’ and accepts them as that, gaining help and relying on legislation, law, and technology’”, and concludes that the subject therefore: “’acknowledges the social and technological to arrive at functionality’” (Williams 4). Through advances, one can actually use and wield their deformity or disability which Richard most assuredly does. He relies upon his disability through the context of the Shakespeare plays, and manipulates others to do his bidding or fall into his traps through this strain. Richard seems to be a natural subject to suggest dismodernity for, most especially via Shakespeare.
It’s difficult to tease one Richard out of another. History’s Richard seems to merge seamlessly with Shakespeare’s however impossible and inaccurate such intertwining is. The meaning behind Richard’s shape defined back and forth between Richard’s own self-deprecating nature in Shakespeare’s play, and others demonizing his features into evil in its rawest form; the truth of history lies somewhere in between. Richard most certainly had some type of deformity that has remained for so long nearly as uncertain as Shakespeare’s renderings: “…obscure what Richard’s body is and what it means” (Williams 9).
Portraits of Richard III have long been a source of consternation to historians and portraits painted during Richard’s lifetime were altered in later years to give him deformities based off of what people now believed he looked like. An original portrait painted during Richard’s lifetime shows no deformity, and is therefore believed to be most accurate. Although, an artist would want to be flattering to his patron and not paint an obvious deformity unless willing to risk life and limb in the offensive process. In a portrait in the Royal Gallery, x-rays reveal that a humped shoulder was painted over an original shoulder years later. A portrait in the Society of Antiquaries shows the same when x-rayed – a raised shoulder and withered arm. Rous and Vergil stated at the time that he was ‘hard featured of visage’ and had a ‘short and soured countenance’ but what was the truth of his deformities? Weir says on the matter: “It would appear that he did have some slight deformity which eyewitnesses either did not notice or were too tactful to refer to overtly” (Weir, 33). Most obviously, Richard’s appearance has been grossly exaggerated and Shakespeare’s portrayal of him as a gross and vile man has been perpetrated throughout history as known fact. Williamson says of the paintings: “It is well established on contemporary evidence that the only ‘deformity’ ever attributed to Richard, even by his bitter enemies such as Rous was that one shoulder was slightly higher than the other: this is suggested in the nearest contemporary portrait and the hump that appeared on some versions of it later has been proved, by modern infra-red photography, as Dr. Pamela Tudor-Craig the art historian has recorded, to be a deliberate ‘fake’ painted on the original, in Tudor times” (Williamson, 68). And not only does Williamson feel that Richard bore no true deformity, but that Thomas More himself was responsible for this portrayal: “More, we must remember was writing a humanist ‘morality’ on the theme of tyranny, for which the Tudor portrait of the defeated enemy, Richard III, provided the ideal central figure” (Williamson, 68). It would appear that Williamson believes More’s account is nothing more than mere Tudor propaganda and the rest mere myth.
This humpbacked monster has been described as an aesthetic that ends up soothing and pleasing audiences purely for its grotesqueness. Slotkin says of Shakespeare’s hideous Richard III: “In his deformity, which the other characters take as a sign of his hellish nature, Richard epitomizes the union of outer appearances and inner truths” (Slotkin, 2). Slotkin glorifies the hideous nature of Shakespeare’s Richard III, stating again and again it is an aesthetic, although evil, that draws the audience in, because of the ugly rather than in spite of it. He interestingly goes on to say: “Richard is attractive because he is evil – and even because he is ugly” (Slotkin, 3).
In Breen’s article we are given a different idea about Richard: “Still other critics identify Richard III as a moral exemplum; a play; a political history; and a biography” (Breen, 2). Indeed Richard III can span multiple genres and provide intelligence into many areas of history and psychology, being quite an exemplary idea and example of many things. Breen also claims that Richard III holds a literary tradition steeped in history, yet believes it to not be quite entirely accurate as no histories were taken during Richard’s life or reign. Therefore reinforcing that this ‘crookedbacked’ king may not have been all that ‘crooked’.
Richard III’s skeleton was discovered under a car park in Leicester. After DNA testing and examinations of skeletal wounds, the bones were beyond a reasonable doubt, assigned to Richard III by scientists. The CNN report said: “Mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones was matched to Michael Ibsen, a Canadian cabinetmaker and direct descendant of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York, and a second distant relative, who wishes to remain anonymous” (CNN 1). The DNA results were reported to be nearly a carbon copy between that of Ibsen and Richard. What further reinforced the bones belonging to the long-deceased king was: “Experts say other evidence — including battle wounds and signs of scoliosis, or curvature of the spine — found during the search and the more than four months of tests since strongly support the DNA findings — and suggest that history’s view of the king as a hunchbacked villain may have to be rewritten” (CNN 1). Scoliosis has long been a theory presented by historians that may have been the cause of Richard’s disfigurement. Scoliosis is a purely medical condition that is manifested in a curved spine, making the affected appear bent or hunched. In this case, Richard was dubbed crooked and believed to be crooked in all dealings due to this appearance. But instead the good can be seen of how accomplished and successful Richard was despite any shortcomings or battles he had to fight physically within himself before facing the English for the throne. It seems to speak of Richard’s strength rather than his weakness, and perhaps Richard was a dismodern subject after all.
Richard’s disability and deformity do not make him a victim and do not portray him as weak. Although many contemporaries and historians have linked Renaissance ideas concerning deformities being an outward manifestation of evil, we have also seen arguments designed to erase those beliefs and form new ones about Richard’s overall character; both through the lens of Shakespeare and history. Shakespeare has truly molded how we view Richard III; rather it is accurate or not is an interpretation and set of beliefs only.
There is considerable evidence against Richard regarding his misdeeds as a duke and king; evil perpetrations that he may or may not have committed, the evidence lingering against him. Yet he was not the fire-breathing dragon that literature has described him wholeheartedly as. The Tudor tradition has distorted the truth of his image, making him into a far more powerful being than he could in reality have ever aspired to be. Richard’s name has been blotted from history in a smear of blackness as thick as the spilled blood of the monarchs who came before him, yet was it done rightly? Many more kings than just Richard had killed friend, family, and foe to reach the throne. Many more had committed atrocious deeds, usurpation, and acts of tyranny, yet none were dubbed Crouchback or cursed by Shakespeare. In this instance history was scrounged up into literature and a new life form blossomed. An excitingly evil character emerged from the ashes of the Plantagenet history as the Tudors reigned in the power. This figure would dominate and live on through literary and historical references for centuries to come. And Richard III would become not merely an aspiring tyrant, but a hunchbacked murderer with a twisted countenance. A disabled figure that perpetuated immorality. Yet the truth of what is and what was lingers on, a swirl of smoke curling, becoming nothing more than a shadow swallowed by the night.

Works Cited:
Avalos, Julio C. “The Unfinished Self: Richard’s Gender, Deformity, and Personhood in 3 Henry VI and Richard III.” PsyArt(2002). Web. 18 Apr. 2013. .
Breen, Dan. “Thomas More’s History of Richard III: Genre, Humanism, and Moral Education.” Studies in Philology 4.107 (2010): 465-92. Print.
Fields, Bertram. Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes. New York: Harper Collins, 1998. Print.
Jones, Bryony. Body found under parking lot is King Richard III, scientists prove. CNN, 5 Feb. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2013. .
Slotkin, Joel. “Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Shakespeare’s Richard III.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 1.7 (2007): 5-32. Print.
Weir, Alison. The Princes in the Tower. Great Britain: Mackays and Chatham, 1992. Print.
Williams, Katherine S. “Enabling Richard: The Rhetoric of Disability in Richard III.” Disabilities Studies Quarterly 29.4 (2009). Print.
Williamson, Audrey. The Mystery of the Princes: An Investigation into a Supposed Murder. New Jersey: Bowman and Littlefield, 1978. Print.

Permanent Link: Here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.