The disabled body of Richard III, a historical English king and one of Shakespeare’s most iconic villains, is the focus of a recent book by Jeffrey R. Wilson, a teacher-scholar at Harvard University.
“By branding the most crucial question of the play onto Richard’s body, Shakespeare created more problems than he solved: the play now requires a theory of disability,” writes Wilson in Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity: Shakespeare and Disability History, published in fall 2022 by Temple University Press. “Our interpretation of the entire play follows from what we decide to do with Richard’s body, which is why Shakespeare put it first.”
Read the full excerpt below.
If the start of Richard III is a well-wrought monster, its prodigious head is the main clause of the long opening sentence, Richard’s chilling “I am determinèd to prove a villain” (1.1.30). The meaning of Richard’s entire address, arguably Shakespeare’s entire play, hinges on this line—on who or what is the agent of determination. You might make God or nature or society the agent: I was destined to be a villain. Or you might make Richard himself the agent: I have resolved to be a villain. As Richard later gloats, in the second-most-important line of the play, he can “moralize two meanings in one word” (3.1.83). Richard “moraliz[ing]” meanings turns linguistic ambiguity into an ethical concern. The verbal phrase “I am determinèd” brings with it the imprecision inherent to the passive voice, giving audiences the responsibility of assigning grammatical agency, announcing a perennial problem of moral agency. Entailed in this routine grammatical decision are competing modes of tragedy. Is the play governed by a fate that lords over the protagonist (I was destined . . .) or by the protagonist’s desire for revenge (I have resolved . . .)? It would be reductive to say that Renaissance dramatists took the theme of fate from the Greeks and that of revenge from the Romans, but this formulation focuses the central concerns of the two classical traditions of tragedy. Are the bodies that pile up in Richard III the result of the title character’s attempt to avoid his destiny (as symbolized by his body), or is he revenging the injustices committed against him (and his body) by nature and society? He may “moralize two meanings in one word,” but Shakespeare upstaged Richard by moralizing two entire traditions of tragedy in the word “determinèd.”
Shakespeare strung “I am determinèd” to the conditional “since I cannot prove a lover” (1.1.28), driving the core question of the play back to the cause of Richard’s sexual frustration. Richard blames it on his body—in the words of another play published soon after Richard III, “Loue and deformitie cannot agree”—but why would disability exclude one from the joys of love? By branding the most crucial question of the play onto Richard’s body, Shakespeare created more problems than he solved: the play now requires a theory of disability. Our interpretation of the entire play follows from what we decide to do with Richard’s body, which is why Shakespeare put it first. “Richard’s body—and the various processes used to diagnose that body—always take center stage,” Allison Hobgood observes. And Richard III has remained central to modern culture because it presents the fragility of the human body as a starting point for reflection on the tragic—that in life which makes us sad—extending this consideration to a series of problems that cut to the core of modern thought, including the tension between appearance and reality, the conflict between individual will and external forces of nature and culture, the possibility of upward social mobility, and social interaction between self and other, including questions of stigma, discrimination, prejudice, hatred, oppression, power, and justice.
Encountering Richard’s disability, audiences become literary detectives, seeking, like Polonius in Hamlet, to “find out the cause of this effect / Or rather say the cause of this defect, / For this effect defective comes by cause” (2.2.100–103). All Shakespearean tragedy asks audiences the same question. It’s the question Benvolio asks about his cousin’s melancholy at the start of Romeo and Juliet: “Do you know the cause?” (1.1.138). Shakespearean tragedy is fundamentally about etiology—the study of causes. It’s about what determines the course of events, the circumstances that shape individuals and their decisions about meaning and action. And at the end of Shakespearean tragedy, audiences must say what one citizen says at the end of Romeo and Juliet: “We see the ground whereon these woes do lie, / But the true ground of all these piteous woes / We cannot without circumstance descry” (5.3.179–181). An ironic drama like Shakespeare’s, moralizing many meanings at once, authorizing none, invites an audience to supply the “ground[s]” of interpretation, which are contingent upon the “circumstance[s]” of a given audience, predicated on its situation in time. Like its title character, the play Richard III is “unfinished” because its words only acquire meaning when placed in time. Like Richard, this play was “sent before [its] time . . . scarce half made up” because meaning, although it ought to reside in the author’s intent and thus be stable, is flexible and does not come into existence until after the text enters the world. The notion of meaning based on authorial intent is not invalidated but is seriously complicated by an ironic author like Shakespeare, who intends for different audiences to have different experiences when responding to the same text.
Richard proceeds to murder his way through family, friends, and enemies. We know the outcome, but “do you know the cause”? As epitomized by the ambiguity in Richard’s “I am determinèd,” the origin of Richard’s villainy is anything but determined. Yes, all literature is open to interpretation. Some texts embrace that openness, and some resist it. Richard III obsesses over it, thematizes it, and depends upon it for its artistic effect because Shakespeare paired the ambiguity in his representation of Richard’s disability with a certain density of implications. I can think of no other moment in Renaissance literature that calls upon as many contexts of interpretation—artistic, historical, theological, philosophical, ethical, psychological, sociological, scientific—as Richard’s body. Its contingency combined with a certain implicativity makes Richard’s body simultaneously inscrutable, malleable, visceral, and consequential.
“Disability, Tragedy, and Etiology” from Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity: Shakespeare and Disability History by Jeffrey R. Wilson, pages 8-10. Used by permission of Temple University Press. © 2023 by Temple University. All Rights Reserved.
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