No Country For Crippled Men: Disability Theory and the Patriarchal System in Richard III's Rise to Power

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Final essay for my Shakespearean Receptions course, 2nd year university

Submitted: December 02, 2011

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Submitted: December 02, 2011



The patriarchal system of early modern England set up idealized notions of men as ‘manly’ and women as ‘womanly.’ The division, in theory, was quite clear, but this tidy dichotomy of masculine/feminine left no place in societal functioning for the anomaly of the disfigured body. To maintain its hierarchal order- that is, to keep the men on top and the women subordinated- the patriarchy had to instill in men a paranoia surrounding their masculinity, because their masculinity was the only thing keeping them on top.  In Shakespeare’s Tragedy of King Richard III, the character of Richard subverts and defies the conventions of such a patriarchal system.  His physical deformity immediately marks him as a misfit in the world he inhabits; he is alienated from and at odds with his peers, a situation that is furthered by how the desexualization of his malformed body allows him to appropriate and effectively utilize both masculine and feminine traits to his advantage. As a disabled man, Richard’s masculinity becomes ambiguous, which, coupled with his devious nature and steely ambition, destabilizes the power structure of the patriarchy, and Richard is then able to take the crown. He is a character full of contradictions that stem from the fact that he is physically deformed.

Much of the textual description of the nature of Richard’s deformity comes from Richard himself; in fact, he foregrounds the play with a soliloquy in which he reflects upon his deformity, which is closely interrelated to his disdain for King Edward’s lascivious pastimes and Richard’s own ambition to be King.  This is significant because it sets up the importance of Richard’s deformed body, which continues throughout the play, and it shows Richard as possessing a social identity so strongly stigmatized that his own awareness of it has metamorphosed into self-loathing (Samuels 68).  In this soliloquy, Richard speaks of how Edward “…capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber/ To the lascivious pleasing of a lute” (I.i 12-13), and then describes himself as “…not shaped for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass.”  Edward is established as the ‘normate’ man, which Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes as “the veiled subject position of cultural self, the figure outlined by the array of deviant others whose marked bodies shore up the normate’s boundaries.” (McRuer 591). Richard, then, is the ‘deviant other,’ whose ‘marked body’ prevents him from ever being as accepted into the social world of his time as Edward, the womanizer, is accepted.  Thomson further explains the theoretical concept normate, which she coined during her work in disability studies, as a term that “…usefully designates the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings.” (McRuer 591) In this case, Edward is that social figure, and Richard feels that he can never be as loved as Edward (particularly by women); this feeling manifests as bitterness and as Richard’s inability to see himself as a ‘definitive human being.’ In fact, Richard sees himself and is repeatedly represented in the words of other characters as less than human, somehow sub-human. The first instance of this is seen within that crucial first soliloquy, with Richard lamenting that he was “cheated of feature by dissembling nature,/ Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time/ Into this breathing world scarce half made up.” (I.i 19-21)  It is also evident when Lady Anne, in her initial resistance to Richard’s wooing, calls him a “devilish slave” (I.ii 90) and “diffused infection of a man” (I.ii 78), and when Queen Margaret curses him as a devil, cacodemon, and “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog (I.iii 118, 144, 225).  All of these things indicate a fear and revulsion of Richard as an evil, freakish, and inhuman persona. 

This repulsive effect that Richard appears to have on the other characters in the play is a phenomena of deformity in literature that Garland-Thomson has noted- in her words, “the disabled body is almost always a freakish spectacle presented by the mediating narrative voice.” (anon. “Descanting…”) The fact that the narrating voice throughout a play is shared among the characters lends further significance to this observation, because almost all the characters profess some view of Richard as a vile character (including Richard himself), and those who do not, fall to the stipulations of Margaret’s prophecy of ruin, which implicates Richard as the cause of the ruination she predicts.  Margaret is not the first to cast Richard as a harbinger of destruction; his fate as a repulsive character was set when he was born prematurely, described in 3 Henry VI as “an indigested and deformed lump” ( 51); his birth was met with ill omens, and he was born with teeth “to signify [he came] to bite the world” ( 54). This is reflective of the inclination of early modern society in England to see the birth of deformed children as ‘portentous,’ and was often considered to be a warning against sin. Many broadside ballads from the later sixteenth century perpetuate this notion. One from 1568 was titled ‘The forme and shape of a monstrous Child, born at Maydstone in Kent: A warnying to England,’ and it interpreted each of the male child’s deformities as being representative of corruptions within the English nation (Moulton 262). Thomson’s observation of the portrayal of disabled bodies in literature as ‘freakish’ can therefore trace its relevance as far back as the 1500s, and Richard, as a result of that cultural fascination, was doomed from his birth to be set apart from all those, the able-bodied, around him. He becomes “a man looking into society from the outside,” but recognizes that being so out of sync with his society’s norms (the norms of the rest of the court) can in fact be turned to his advantage (Cerasano 621-2).

The patriarchy of the early modern era was not a very stable power structure. Built upon a base of highly valued ‘masculine’ qualities, such as aggression, self-assertion, fashion, rhetorical skill and combat prowess, it cultivated an atmosphere of paranoia among men and led them to constantly wonder whether or not they were not ‘manly enough’ (Moulton 251). At the same time, the early modern culture was hyper-aware (perhaps to an exaggerated extent) of the power and insatiability of female carnal desire. It was therefore the duty of males, as upstanding patriarchal gentlemen, to keep women ‘in line.’ Men were considered “stronger and more able to beare and support the infirmities and weakenesses of their wives”— men were considered in control of their urges, whereas women were not. Sexuality, then, was defined in relation to configurations of power that kept the patriarchy in control (Reay 23, 6, 20). As a cripple, Richard throws a wrench into this system. Eli Clare, disabled activist for disability and queer studies, said in his lecture titled ‘Sex, Celebration, and Justice,’ that “…as crips, we are entirely desexualized… or viewed as incapable of sexual responsibility,” when speaking about stereotypes that the able-bodied attach to disabled persons. He explained that the body becomes almost inextricably entangled with the social perception of the person, and if that body is deformed, then the perception of the person is significantly affected ( Richard, the hunchback, is, as Eli says, completely desexualized in the minds of the people around him; Richard cannot even see himself as a sexual being, another point underscored in his opening soliloquy when he says, “…I cannot prove a lover” (I.i 28). The patriarchy painstakingly built up its definitions of sexuality as they related to power configurations in society- women as weak, as ‘leaky vessels,’ the subordinate sex; men as strong, ‘solid vessels,’ the dominant sex- these definitions maintained the stability of patriarchal order. Richard, however, does not fit into either definition: because he is deformed, he can neither be sexed as a man or as a woman. This allows him to freely make use of both masculine and feminine qualities as he sees fit in order to achieve his political ends, without threatening his own sexual identity, because he does not have a fixed sexual identity. Freed from patriarchal enforcement of masculinity on men through the use of paranoia, Richard becomes a threat to the patriarchy’s traditional power structure, because he refuses to subjugate himself to it (Moulton 255).

Richard’s defiance of patriarchal expectations can be best seen in his wooing of Lady Anne. In this scene, Richard uses language full of sexual desire and physical obsession to convince Lady Anne of his devotion to her; he claims that it was her beauty which drove him to kill her father and husband, so that he might have her. “Your beauty was the cause of that effect—/ Your beauty that did haunt me in my sleep/ To undertake the death of all the world/ So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.” This declaration, though false, suggests a man who is highly sexually intemperate- one who is willing to kill in order to achieve the object of his lust- and therefore a man who is not masculine, according to the value system of the patriarchy.  Yet, at the same time, Richard is very skillfully employing rhetoric- the art of persuasive discourse- which was a trait valued by the masculine men of society. In the Short Oxford History of the British Isles, Patrick Collinson explains that “the form of any discourse is important, for those both uttering and on the receiving end, as content and rhetorical forms must be understood before one can hope to penetrate the intentions of the speaker…” (11). In this instance, Lady Anne cannot penetrate the true intentions behind Richard’s words because he assails her with rhetoric, a skill that was not valued- indeed, was discouraged- among the feminine ladies of the court, because a woman was supposed to “carry herselfe as inferiour” to a man, and remain quiet, not engage in intellectual discourse (Reay 20). Richard stages his wooing of Lady Anne as a gender-bending game in which only he can be victorious, because, as a desexualized and deformed character, he is not constrained by the rules of either one gender or the other. He presents himself to her as an effeminized, sexually intemperate man, but he does so by utilizing his masculine mastery of rhetoric, thereby incorporating traits of both genders without ‘endangering’ his own identity. He exemplifies the performativity of the self, a concept which Paul Withington explicates in his book on early modern society in England:

“…companies were a primary setting for the performance of the self, or at least the public personas that the self was capable of presenting… They might be performances which, whether subtly or violently, subverted and dissented from expectations- especially when asymmetries of power and/or ideological conflict were involved.” (199-200).

Richard’s performance completely subverts the ideology of the patriarchy- he renders it unnecessary by playing both sides of the masculine/feminine dichotomy. Playing the part of the helplessly love-struck suitor, he offers Anne his sword- the ultimate symbol of phallic power- and tells her to kill him with it if she will not accept him as her new husband.  By doing so, Richard places himself into a position of feminine weakness, thereby forcing Anne to also subvert patriarchal order and assume the masculine role in this exchange in order to get her revenge; however, confined by the edifices of femininity, Anne cannot do it. Eventually she accepts Richard’s suit because she does not have the wherewithal to refute it. Had Richard been an able-bodied, fully masculine man, this ploy would not have worked.

This desexualization of the disabled body in the minds of able-bodied persons becomes Richard’s greatest weapon. The ambiguity of his sexual identity allows him topresent ‘public personas’ of himself that fit his needs of the moment, which are often personas that the patriarchy’s masculine adherents could not allow themselves to present. Richard uses this to manipulate expectations and reactions: his calculated gender-reversed wooing of Lady Anne is the first example of this, and he does it again in his coup to take the crown. Richard sends Buckingham to the Guildhall to speak to the Mayor, instructing him to “infer the bastardry of Edward’s children” and remind the council men of Edward’s “bestial appetite in change of lust, which stretched unto their servants, daughters, wives” (III.vii 73, 79-80). The goal of this scheme is to convince the Mayor that the crown should be bestowed upon Richard, not the late king’s son and rightful heir- Richard wants to be king, and will do whatever it takes to get there. So, what he does is stage another gender-bending game to hoodwink the Mayor and council into giving him the crown. Once again, this is a game that only Richard has the ability to win- the council is restrained within the masculine boundaries of the patriarchal gender dichotomy, whereas Richard is able to play the feminine side as well as the masculine against them. Right away, he positions himself as feminine by sending his right-hand man to do the talking- this stages Buckingham as the masculine presence, engaging the council in rhetorical discourse to convince them that Richard deserves the crown, while Richard himself keeps a demure, feminine silence and distance during those proceedings. By emphasizing Edward’s voracious sexuality, Richard, through Buckingham, casts the previous king as sexually insatiable, and therefore, in a sense, feminine, anticipating that the council would not want to put the potentially illegitimate son of an effeminized king on the throne.

In the final stage of the coup, Richard and the Mayor speak face-to-face. Richard again takes the feminine role, as Buckingham advises him to “Play the maid’s part: still answer ‘nay’—and take it” (III.vii 51). This echoes the ‘rape script’ of the early modern era- the mode of thinking in which a woman’s protests against a man’s sexual advances could and ought to be ignored, because when she said ‘no’, she actually meant ‘yes.’ The belief was that if the man persisted, the woman’s body would respond to him (Reay 25). Richard really does want the crown, but he mustn’t admit to that too readily ere he seem suspicious, and so he ‘plays the maid’s part’ and feigns reluctance. Richard and Buckingham know that this is a performance- a persona that Richard has put on- but the Mayor does not know and is taken in by the ploy. He does not suspect that Richard would subjugate himself to such a metaphorically feminine position, although that is exactly what Richard has done, which gives Richard the upper hand and allows the coup to succeed.  The mayor is completely blind to the performed feminine sexuality implicit in the relations of power between himself and Richard during their exchange because he does not see Richard as a sexual human being; he sees him only as a deformed man.

The early modern patriarchy developed definitions of what it meant to be masculine or feminine, and categorized specific traits along this division- the dominant masculine males were self-disciplined, fashion-forward, and rhetorically accomplished; the subordinate feminine females were weak-willed, sexually insatiable, and intellectually inferior to men.  People with visible disabilities or deformities, however, such as Richard III, did not fit neatly into either one of these categories, because deformed persons were social misfits, stigmatized, and consequently not acknowledged by the able-bodied as sexual beings.  This left the sexual identity of a deformed person ‘up in the air,’ so to speak, and the patriarchal system of power relations based on sexual identity and difference made no provision to accommodate for this.  In Shakespeare’s play, Richard becomes the antithesis of the patriarchy. As the embodiment of a social stigma, Richard is an outsider looking in on the society in which his peers participate; he understands the machinations of their thinking and is able to subvert the patriarchal power structure to deceive and defeat his adversaries and achieve his political goals.  Richard is able to side-step the paranoia-enforced rule of masculine supremacy by utilizing feminine modes through masculine means that true adherents to the patriarchal system simply do not comprehend, because they are unable to see past Richard’s malformed body to the sexual human being that he truly is.



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