This article examines Shakespeare's Richard III as an important example of staging disability in early modern drama. Although Richard's character is taken by theorists as emblematic of premodern notions of disability, this article reads Richard instead as a "dismodern" subject who employs rhetorical power and performative ability to compensate for a bodily form marked with negative associations. Richard foregrounds his deformed figure in ways that advance his political power, appealing to bodily deformity and the impotence he claims it entails to obscure his shrewd political maneuvers. Understanding the powerful ends to which Richard uses his disability allows us to think about disabled identity in the Renaissance as a complex negotiation of discourses of deformity and monstrosity as well as a relation to bodily contingency that reveals the instability of all bodies.

In William Shakespeare's play Richard III, the body of the king has always been at stake. The play, which features a protagonist with a famously distinctive body, charts Richard's rise to power and his brief tenure as king. Throughout the play, characters discuss and describe Richard's body in a number of ways: Richard describes himself as "cheated of feature," "deformed," and "unfinished;" Anne and Elizabeth deride him as "diffused infection of a man," "hedgehog," "bottled spider," and "foul bunch-backed toad," terms which all link insult to anomalous and inhuman body. While this language draws attention to Richard's bodily difference, the play ultimately remains ambiguous about his physical form, staging instead a frenzy of interpretive fervor about what Richard's body really means. This ambiguity extends throughout the history of the play's production, so that Richard's form "divides four hundred years of productions into two opposed camps: those who exaggerate his deformities in order to supply the play with an otherwise absent motivation; and those who downplay Richard's disabilities as an archaic characterization device and focus instead on the rhetoric of intrigue" (Mitchell and Snyder 103). This history of using Richard's body as a framing device for production — and the question of how to dramatize this body — makes the play particularly interesting for both work in the Renaissance and disability studies. Indeed, Richard III has been read productively by early modern literary scholars through the lens of his body, who see in his distinctive shape a relation to fractured and turbulent English history, a monstrous political figure who usurps the throne, and a demonstration of Renaissance beliefs about the continuity between inner morality and outward physical forms.1

In disability theory, Richard's character is often taken up as Shakespeare's clearest foregrounding and interpreting of physical difference.2 Here, I want to examine Richard's place in the accounts of disability studies to explore how his characterization in the play can expand current notions of "disability" in the Renaissance. Attention to the play in disability studies has made two key critical moves: critics conflate "disability" with the language of "deformity," which Richard himself deploys in the play to describe his distinctive body, and thus fail to distinguish between the plethora of characterizations of his body. 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. Resulting readings of Richard thus highlight his place in a trans-historical narrative of disability yet limit their claims about disability in the early modern period. This critical tendency results in "disability" signifying bodily impairment and not a more complex relationship between Richard's body and his audience within and outside the play.

To more fully probe the relationship between Richard's deformed body and notions of disability, I want to imagine Richard instead, with deliberate anachronism, as a "dismodern subject." I use Lennard Davis's term here to emphasize the extent to which Richard's dazzling rhetoric employs his distinctive body to signify an array of claims, and, likewise, works to destabilize all of the bodies in the play. Davis's notion of the dismodern subject suggests reading disability as a set of relations between the body and the world, relations in which physical difference may be aided by compensatory intervention and used for powerful effect.3 Davis argues for what he calls an "ethics of the dismodernist" that recognizes the ultimate instability and incompleteness of all bodies: "The dismodernist subject is in fact disabled, only completed by technology and interventions" (30). Davis's subject starts at a place of bodily incompleteness. In Richard III, Richard's ascent to power depends upon the manipulation of the body he marks, along with other characters in the play and critics alike, as insufficient, lacking, and deformed. By presenting his body along a continuum of ability, in which his physical difference becomes more or less apparent depending upon how he emphasizes it, Richard's use of his physical frame — a body that he initially decries — challenges the conceptual binary between able/disabled bodies. Although the play ultimately reinstates the fantasy of an ideal masculine body through Richmond's success in defeating and deposing Richard, understanding Richard as a dismodern subject in his astounding advance to power explores the possibility that bodily difference may actually be enabling.

Richard III and Disability Studies

For disability studies, the emergence of what we might strictly call "disability" occurs later than the Renaissance and in tandem with a medicalizing discourse that classifies, regulates, and constructs bodies as "normal" or "abnormal."4 A narrative of disability as an identity category produced by the scientific classification of modernity thus interpolates Richard as a figure whose deformity emblematizes pre-modern interpretations of bodily difference. As we will see, 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."5 This insistence on the specifics of pre-modern disability as bodies which do not yet signify within the post-eighteenth-century discourse of medicalized bodies attempts to avoid an easy assimilation of Renaissance figures into contemporary constructions of disability and preserve a historicist distinction of disability based on developments from the eighteenth-century forward.

Crucially, though, accounts of Richard in disability theory often conflate deformity with disability in the play, referring to his multiple signs of bodily difference variously but interchangeably with "disability." Rather than opening up the category of disability in the play, this conflation limits the reading of disability to Richard's deformed body by focusing only on his multiple impairments. For example, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder read Richard as a character who is given a "misshapen" form by nature, and they accord him agency through manipulation of the meanings of his form. Although they reject critical conceptions that read deformity as malignant motivation or moral failing, they nonetheless take Richard's physical anomalies as the site of disability in the play: "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" (103).6 While Mitchell and Snyder describe Richard's deformity as disability, they also differentiate the kind of early modern disability Richard displays from contemporary discourses of disability. Positioning the play at the "threshold" of scientific attention to disabled bodies in the eighteenth century, they describe the play as "a Renaissance version of late medieval attitudes toward deformity" (102). Their focus attempts both to preserve "disability" as an identity category that occurs later than the early modern period and to provide a trans-historical account of its emergence as identity. However, the oscillation of "disability" (Richard's deformity is disability, yet his character is not quite "disabled" in the contemporary sense) remains unclear about the contours of Renaissance disability and the variety of representations of distinctive bodies in the period.

Certainly, understanding Richard as a threshold figure is helpful for a sense of the unintelligibility of his form, as it emphasizes the negativity the play attaches to his body and alludes to dramatic tradition (the Vice figure) as well as influences of the source texts from which Shakespeare borrows.7 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.2 For example, when Ato Quayson discusses Richard, he briefly notes that, "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" (27). For Quayson, disability is deformity operating in a moral register; the disabled body is one in which physical difference is overlaid with negative implications because of what it suggests about the moral character of the person who displays bodily difference. Yet although the play emphasizes Richard's disability from the beginning, it problematizes the relationship between his body and his actions by underscoring Richard's performative abilities as well as the multiplicity of viewpoints voiced by his onstage audience. How, then, do we read disability in Richard III?

Understanding Richard as a "dismodern" subject demonstrates that disability functions in the text as much more than physical deformity. Dismodern subjectivity allows us to think about the multiple ways in which bodily difference is negotiated throughout the text and the degree to which all of the bodies in the play, from the dying king at the beginning to the figural, bleeding body of the nation at the end, are unstable. 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. Recognizing the contingent and constructed elements of reality rather than relying on a natural sufficiency or a natural independence, "the dismodernist subject sees that metanarratives are only 'socially created' and accepts them as that, gaining help and relying on legislation, law, and technology" (Davis 30). The dismodern subject thus "acknowledges the social and technological to arrive at functionality" (30). Although Richard's body appears singularly deficient among the other characters in the play, he relies upon the multiple significations of his deformities as a technology of performance to aid his bid for power, not impede it.9

Moreover, though Richard's rhetorical performance of a deformed and lacking body for audiences on and off the stage seems to suggest that physical difference would leave him politically disabled, upon closer examination, nothing about Richard's actions are dis-abled, at least in the sense of operative insufficiencies that hinder his political goals. His rhetoric emphasizes or diminishes his physical distinctiveness according to how usefully his body can be displayed. Throughout the play, Richard's encounters with the other characters begin by foregrounding his body and end with Richard securing consent, evading proclamations of unity, and decrying witchcraft. It is precisely this display, manipulation, and rhetorical embellishment of his distinctive body that enables his bid for the throne. Because of the interpretation it invites, his body distracts Richard's audience from his political machinations. This anachronistic reading of Richard as a dismodern figure suggests that — though he suffers ultimate defeat — the variety of ways in which he displays his body, bolsters it with props, and employs its signifying power reveals a surprising congruity between pre-modern and post-modern conceptions of disability and perhaps even challenges our formulations of the kind of disability modernity produces.

Reading the Dismodern Richard

The play foregrounds Richard's body from the beginning as Richard's rhetoric constructs his dramatic character as one obsessively vested in a temporal register that determines his deformity, and therefore, his actions. However, his appeal to bodily deformity and the impotence it entails obscures the plasticity with which he is forming a history to shape his own ends and shrewd political maneuvers. Famously, he begins his first speech with an imperative "Now," only to repeat it four and six lines later to emphasize how out-of-step he is with the current political and social situation:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
And now — instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries —
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute. (1.1.1-13)

Richard's insistence upon the present moment begins by setting up expectations for the time of peace the nation is finally experiencing. His language of change invokes a natural order in which a victorious ruler brings an end to political conflict just as surely as summer follows winter. Richard's emphasis on time suggests its social effects: war becomes peace, and warriors become lovers, setting the standard for social norms of action and bodily comportment.

As the language of time continues throughout the speech, Richard focuses instead upon his body and its unsuitability to pursue these norms:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks
Nor made to court an amourous looking-glass,
I that am rudely stamped and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph,
I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up — (19-21)

He casts his physical body too as a result of time, arguing that nature has been too brief in forming him and suggesting the inevitability of his bodily lack. In fact, this bodily difference seems to exclude him from joining the present social time:

Why, I in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity. (24-27)

Richard seems here to believe that his role is pre-determined. Because he cannot alter his physical state, he has no alternative but to play out the moral logic of his body and because of his deformity, he must reject his social community. His rhetoric of time creates the impression of lack of agency over political power, historical turbulence, and his own body, and directs attention to his limitations and impotence.

Within the same first speech, however, Richard also presents a very different experience of time, one in which he remains firmly in control. As it turns out, Richard has been busy at some point in the past, working to set his brother (and rival) Clarence and the king at odds: "As I am subtle, false, and treacherous, / This day should Clarence closely be mewed up" (37-38). In the present, he stakes his moral corruption on the immediacy of revenge, claiming that both the plots and his present-day assurances are based on future, projected misfortunes. Richard's actions demonstrate a progression: working in the past, he projected a false future that has turned the king against Clarence and secured his present action. This chain of substitutive logic accomplishes a reversal of Richard's previous musings on time as something that determines him. Despite his best efforts in the opening speech to show off his lack of control over time-as-nature, inspire the sympathy of the audience at his unfitness for the time of peace, entice the audience with his apparent intent to read his body as motivation, and suggest his utter lack of agency, Richard has already been politically active by the play's beginning, working on his own time.

Richard's manipulation of audience response to his form continues as he presents his body as a kind of prop to his actions. His rhetoric about his body inevitably leads to performing the kind of body he deems useful. In other words, although characters in the play repeatedly anatomize his form, the materiality of his form remains unclear until Richard highlights his shape — positively or negatively — with his rhetoric for specific purposes. For example, determined to make a politically expedient marriage, he woos Anne, the wife of a noble Richard himself killed, and proclaims jubilantly that against all odds — his crimes, her grief and hatred — he has used his "foul" form to overcome her, for she consents to marry him: "And I no friends to back my suit withal / But the plain devil and dissembling looks — / And yet to win her, all the world to nothing? Ha!" (1.2.223-5). His glee here at her acquiescence emphasizes how his capacity to perform makes up for his social lack and past actions. The soliloquy that follows turns again to his body to relish how his rhetorical skill can compensate for his form to the extent that Anne would accept him:

On me, whose all not equals Edward's moiety?
On me, that halts and am misshapen thus?
My dukedom to a beggarly denier,
I do mistake my person all this while.
Upon my life she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marv'lous proper man
I'll be at charges for a looking-glass
And entertain a score or two of tailors
To study fashions to adorn my body. (236-244)

Richard's successful wooing only increases his confidence that he can employ his body to distract from the logic of his actions; in fact, he imagines his capacity to adorn himself and fit the social image of the "proper man" that he previously denied. Turning to accoutrements to emphasize the now-"marv'lous" body whose only descant was deformity, Richard enacts the possibilities of clothing to accent his fitness for public view.

Contrastingly, Richard also harnesses the performance possibilities of his distinctive body to the fullest negative effect over the course of the first act. When the dying king attempts to ensure peace in the kingdom, Richard enters the family meeting and immediately pronounces his deformed body a sign of inability to dissemble: "Because I cannot flatter and look fair, / Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive, and cog, / Duck with French nods and apish courtesy" (1.3.47-50). Like his initial speech about his bodily unfitness for a time of peace and the sociability it requires, Richard describes himself as corporeally motivated to break the bounds of decorum in order to speak the truth. In direct opposition to his initial boast about his ability to dissemble, Richard claims that his body prevents him from mustering social graces. He protests that he cannot "look fair," an ambiguous claim that confuses the subject looking and the object of view. His language unhinges the perspective of the audience and maps a rhetorical formulation of the body onto his behavior. Foregrounding his body as proof of his inability to lie, he proceeds to disentangle himself from the web of familial and social obligations for political expediency. Richard re-directs the focus to his misshapen body, which is to signify congruence between his person and his appearance; his deformity here "speaks" truth since it prevents him from fashioning himself. This unity of self is linked to a denial of kingship and a xenophobic character: his truth-telling body displays a lack of affinity for both the court ("apish courtesy") and its un-English associations ("French nods"). Although the audience of the play is well aware of Richard's plans and his ability to perform, his speech to the nobles here calls attention to his body as an explicit claim about both his bodily distinctiveness and the resulting integrity he wants to imply.

Richard's employment of his deformed body to distract from political maneuvers and project imaginary social behavior culminates in the bid for power he puts forth before his aristocratic rivals. To dispatch Hastings and secure the support of the nobles, Richard again draws attention to his body, telling his audience what to see and, crucially, what the sight should mean: "Then be your eyes the witness of their evil / Look how I am bewitched! Behold mine arm / Is like a blasted sapling withered up" (3.4.67-69). Using his arm as proof, Richard marshals the visible resources of his body for his pursuit of power. The shift of focus from Richard's body as somatic index of anomaly to proof of victimization in political service externalizes the destructive power of the rhetoric of deformity.10 The moment that relies on signification of the most explicitly revealed body is also the moment in which Richard's power is revealed most starkly. By this point in the play, it hardly matters whether Richard's arm is "withered" in exactly the way he has described or whether it has been deformed from the beginning. Richard has been telling his audience what to see in his body throughout, and he possesses such political power that they have no recourse but to accept his description of reality.

Enabling Disability in Richard III

For a dismodern subject, then, the measure of the able body is not visible conformity to expectations of a "proper man" but rather the ability to act, completed by external stabilizers such as rhetorical or symbolic power. Yet as Richard increasingly consolidates his power and turns to openly political maneuvers over the course of the play, his body becomes less prominent. As he reveals himself more and more through his actions, his need to distract attention diminishes — and so, likewise, do the epithets attached to his body. Thus, the slippery and swiftly changing characterizations of his body give way to the presence of other bodies as he shifts from producing his own body to producing the body of the state. By the third act of the play, Richard has so successfully shifted the focus of political sovereignty that Buckingham is able to plead his cause to the people of the realm without a single reference to the body Richard so displayed in the first act. In fact, the body Buckingham posits is, unlike a monstrous body born of woman, a reflection of Richard's patrilineage: "Withal, I did infer your lineaments, / Being the right idea of your father, / Both in your form and nobleness of mind' (3.7.12-14). Richard's form has thus been "straightened" with respect to the weight of history. Buckingham's description rejects the deterministic logic the monstrous birth attempts to imply and instead identifies Richard with his patriarchal lineage.

Most significantly, any resonance of Richard's deformed body is transferred to the nation of England as a whole, which is now situated as a precariously ailing body in need of virtuous intervention Richard himself will provide. Buckingham, playing the part of a citizen on Richard's orders, performs England's physical lack as he speaks to Richard publicly: "The noble isle doth want her proper limbs — / Her face defaced with scars of infamy" (125-26) and urges him

Your gracious self to take on you the charge
And kingly government of this your land —
Not as Protector, steward, substitute,
Or lowly factor for another's gain,
But as successively, from blood to blood,
Your right of birth, your empery, your own. (131-36)

The sum of Richard's production of himself is projected onto his audience as Buckingham reinscribes Richard's deformity upon the nation and casts Richard as the cure for its bodily lack.11 The notion of deformity as physical lack is finally severed from Richard's body to exist instead as a metaphysical label attached to other objects in order to justify political ends.

However, despite Richard's highly developed rhetoric, the play resists the radical contingency he accords to his body. Although Richard "performs" his body to accentuate or diminish his physical difference, he cannot control the play's staging of how other characters interpret him. Although my reading emphasizes Richard's ability to present his body strategically and the way in which he relies upon rhetoric to make explicit or disguise his body, the play also insists upon the variety of negative ways in which others view his body and attempt to employ its associations in their own struggles for political agency. The play offers viewpoints that anatomize and deprecate the body Richard performs, and it also problematizes his performativity as both highly suspicious and potentially disastrous. Yet the multiplicity of interpretations, in which characters attempt to offer definitive interpretations of Richard's shape, far from clarifying, only obscure what Richard's body is and what it means.

For example, the women in the play invoke features of the discourse of monstrosity to imply the negativity of Richard's form, indict his political power, and resist his rhetorical mobility. 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.12 Queen Margaret, for example, anatomizes Richard's body in distinctly bestial terms, suggesting both an affinity between his monstrous body and non-human creatures and a symptomatic reading of his bodily inferiority. She codes his body with a fantasy of monstrosity:

Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell,
Thou slander of thy heavy mother's womb,
Thou loathed issue of thy fathers loins,
Thou rag of honours, thou detested — (1.3.225-230)

Yet Richard resists this version of himself, for just as she is upon the verge of finishing her curse, he cuts her off and ends it for her: "Margaret" (231) just before Queen Margaret ends with his name: "Richard" (231). As his audience in the play notes, Richard's substitution of Margaret's name for his "puts the period" on her curse and causes it to redound on her, deflecting the litany of monstrosity she seeks to heap upon his head. Although others employ the language and all of its resonances to evaluate and condemn Richard's transgressive body, person, and status, Richard consistently rejects the essentializing rhetoric that would fix him in a monstrous body.13

Dismodern, Early Modern, and Disability

In this play, disability includes Richard's physical deformities and the women's slights against his monstrous body, but it also figures a wider relation between the body and the social world. In this regard, disability operates as a cultural influence in the way Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has noted: "first, it is a system for interpreting and disciplining bodily variations; second, it is a relationship between bodies and their environments; third, it is a set of practices that produce both the able-bodied and the disabled; fourth, it is a way of describing the inherent instability of the embodied self" (132).14 Reading disability as the practice of producing able/disabled bodies and with attention to the instability of embodiment, we see that disability indexes the stakes of a person's ability to harness rhetorical and symbolic power. Richard is shrewdly aware of his resources, arguing in act five that his cultural power of kingship matches the size of his army as a resource. Told the size of Richmond's army, he replies: "Why our battalia trebles that account. / Besides, the King's name is a tower of strength, / Which they upon the adverse faction want" (5.3.11-13). Although this scene displays the anxiety of his closest nobles about the fortunes of battle, Richard's accounting of his technologies of strength demonstrate his shift from sourcing power in his body to external sources, whether a concrete number of soldiers or the symbolic power of the king's rule.

Conversely, thinking of Richard as a dismodern subject heightens the tensions implicit in Davis' claim about the necessity of all bodies recognizing their starting point of incompleteness. Although dismodernism entails universal recognition that the condition of bodily contingency and incompleteness is foundational to subjectivity, the play reasserts the value of a completely self-sufficient, able body by displacing Richard's body in the end. For all of Richard's resourcefulness and strategies of compensation, and despite the way he manages the attention directed to his body for his own ends by producing deformity when it is to his advantage and shifting it to others when it is not, the play's ending suggests uncertainty about the possibilities of sustaining this disabled agency in a culture that prizes apparent ability as normative. Of all the bodies onstage at the end of the play, Richard's body is still the most clearly marked as deficient, and his manipulations of its negative associations does not finally dismiss them, even though he uses them to his advantage. The play ends with the figure of Richmond as the fantasy of the able body: he is a warrior who is properly integrated into his family structure and will produce rightful heirs for the throne. Richmond's final triumphant speech borrows from Richard's rhetoric about the body of the nation but implies that the healing power of his kingship will usher in a newly perfected body for the state:

O, now let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together,
And let their heirs, God, if Thy will be so,
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,
With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days.
Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord,
That would reduce these bloody days again
And make poor England weep forth streams of blood.
Let them not live to taste this land's increase,
That would with treason wound this fair land's peace.
Now civil wounds are stopped, peace lives again. (5.8.29-40)

Abrogating to himself the power of the king who can heal the national body, Richmond identifies his bodily power with peace and prosperity in the nation, and the image he depicts of bloody wounds of civil discord works to further an ideal of wholeness that Richard could not sustain.

Thus, even as Richard manipulates the meanings of deformity that swirl around him, we must not lose sight of the complex relation between his distinctive body and power. In the effort to resist a translation of disability into images of negativity and characters without agency, my early goal in this essay was to call attention to the ways in which the language of deformity and disability are all too easily assimilated and to ask that we recognize that configurations of "disability" in the period include a variety of attitudes towards bodily difference. This emphasis, in turn, invites us to ask further questions: how might we conceive of the Renaissance stage as a potential place to locate the kind of bodily contingency we associate with more contemporary literary accounts of disability? Moreover, to what extent does an anachronistic reading of Richard reveal a much more fluid discourse of disability in the Renaissance, so that rather than a static understanding of attitudes toward bodies, it is the classifying impulses in modernity that close down a range of possibilities? In other words, does tracking the dismodern subject in an early modern text reveal fissures in an otherwise monolithic discourse of modernity's production of the disabled subject? Given Richard's emphasis on his deformed body and the shifting, multiple bodies he presents over the course of the play, critical work in disability studies is right to seize upon Richard as a central figure in Renaissance notions of distinctive bodies. Richard's position in the trajectory of disabled identity offers to Shakespeare studies a rich opportunity for new understanding of Richard III as a play about the power of the deformed body, even as careful attention to the play opens up new possibilities for thinking disability in the Renaissance.

I would like to express my gratitude to Allison Hobgood, David Houston Wood, Rachel Hile, Simone Chess, Emily Bartels, Jackie Miller, Colleen Rosenfeld, and Debapriya Sarkar for their insightful responses to this essay.

Works Cited

  • Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. 3. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. Reprint. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. Print.
  • Burnett, Mark Thornton. Constructing 'Monsters' in Shakespearean Drama and Early Modern Culture. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Print.
  • Charnes, Linda. Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1993. Print.
  • Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print.
  • Davis, Lennard J. Bending Over Backwards. New York and London: New York University Press, 2002. Print.
  • Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. Print.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. "Making Freaks: Visual Rhetorics and the Spectacle of Julia Pastrana." In Thinking the Limits of the Body, ed. Cohen and Weiss. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Print.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus, ed. The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. 2nd edition. Print.
  • Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Print.
  • --- . Cultural Locations of Disability. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.
  • Moulton, Ian Frederick. "'A Monster Great Deformed': The Unruly Masculinity of Richard III." Shakespeare Quarterly 47.3 (1996): 251-268. Print.
  • Quayson, Ato. Aesthetic Nervousness. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Print.
  • Shakespeare, William. Richard III. Ed. John Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
  • Stiker, Henri-Jacques. A History of Disability. Trans. William Sayers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Print.
  • Torrey, Michael. "'The plain devil and dissembling looks': Ambivalent Physiognomy and Shakespeare's Richard III." English Literary Renaissance 30.2 (2000): 123-153. Print.


  1. See Burnett, Garber, Greenblatt and Moulton as just a few examples of these productive readings of Richard's body.

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  2. As scholars such as Cohen and Torrey have shown, Shakespeare relies upon a variety of historical sources in his depiction of Richard's character but seems to choose those that emphasize Richard's physical lack. Cohen, in particular, takes Richard as an example of the "monster-making" effect of history: "The almost obsessive descanting on Richard…demonstrates the process of 'monster theory' at its most active: culture gives birth to a monster before our eyes, painting over the normally proportioned Richard who once lived, raising his shoulder to deform simultaneously person, cultural response, and the possibility of objectivity" (9).

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  3. See "The End of Identity Politics and the Beginning of Dismodernism: On Disability as an Unstable Category" in Davis (2002).

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  4. Davis points out that "disability, as we know the concept, is really a socially driven relation to the body that became relatively organized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" (3). Moreover, Mitchell and Snyder argue that "disability has become the keystone in the edifice of bodily based inferiority rationales built up since the late eighteenth century" (2006, 61). See Stiker and Mitchell and Snyder (2006) for further attention to this history of "organization," including markers in cultural history: eugenic practices, institutions, corrective and remedial procedures applied through scrutiny and often without respect to the subjects of intervention.

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  5. Following Garland-Thomson, who argues that "disability is a broad term within which cluster ideological categories as varied as sick, deformed, ugly, etc…" (132), I would suggest that we pay greater attention to distinguishing between and among these ideological categories in Renaissance formulations. For example, deformity is just one of several words that describe physical disability in the period; the discourse of monstrosity recurs throughout the play as well as some discussion of Richard's body in terms of humoral discourse.

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  6. As such, they distance themselves from other readings of Richard, such as Kriegel's, for whom "Richard III represents an early example of stigmatizing cultural dictates to which even Shakespeare capitulated" (quoted in Mitchell and Snyder 18), pointing out, "The only critical certainty has been that in Richard's own 'distorted' features his character recognizes an avocation" (100). Mitchell and Snyder cite Richard as one of three figures that "continually surface as evidence" for the idea of disability as "a restrictive pattern of characterization that usually sacrificed the humanity of protagonists and villains alike" (17).

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  7. For a full study of the sources of Richard III, see Bullough. Torrey's study of physiognomic texts includes some discussion of how descriptions of Richard's body are inflected differently depending on the source texts.

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  8. To put it another way, even the discourse of deformity is imbricated with ambiguity, for as Charnes points out: "In early modern England physical deformity was not conceptualized solely in terms of the body. Rather, the 'tricks of Nature' that beset the human frame were articulated as part of a broader set of relationships between and among difference kinds of 'phenomena,' physical and metaphysical. The body was one signifier in an elaborate network of signification" (22).

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  9. I do not mean to diminish the extent to which the play makes his body distinctive: other characters in the play attempt to fix Richard's body in negative terms and invest it with symbolic evil just as he himself calls attention to its materiality (though this reality would presumably have been constructed via prosthesis, an unstable signifier attached to the body of an actor and changing accordingly).

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  10. Torrey argues that in this moment, just as in the wooing scene with Anne, Richard redefines his deformity: "Where it previously signified his dangerousness and evil, he now makes it the mark of his vulnerability to, and victimization by, the conspiratorial actions of others" (146). Likewise, Charnes argues convincingly that this scene represents the moment in which "If Richard cannot alter his body in reality, he can acquire enough political power to implement his politics of vision, a perspective based on preposterous revisionism — of history, of physiognomy, even of ontogeny" (53).

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  11. Charnes points out that Richard uses his bodily distinctiveness to engineer a substitution of his deformed body for the imaginary king's body: "Gaining the crown will enable him to effect a kind of trade in which he imagines that he exchange his misshapen half made-up body for the 'King's Body' and its divine perfection" (32), while Mitchell and Snyder make a similar claim that Richard "embodies that chaos of a moment in England's history, while his physical differences underline his own metaphysical fitness to govern" (102).

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  12. The Renaissance discourse of monstrosity was neither fixed nor unified, and Richard III's invocations of monstrosity are no exception. See Burnett for an extensive discussion of how monstrosity registers in the play: 'Monstrosity' is invoked in numerous senses, and Richard himself constitutes a confusing amalgam of single and multiple 'monstrous' features. Nor is Richard ever described as a 'monster': he is simply a composite of 'monstrous' markers and behaviours. This is an index, perhaps, of what happens to a discourse when politics appropriates it to meet a representational imperative" (93). Charnes has a useful overview of cultural attitudes toward monstrosity that are mapped onto Richard's body.

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  13. In fact, Charnes argues, Richard's relation to the women in the play is one of forced association that Richard tries to reject: "Like the female figures in the play, Richard is marked as other, as the antithesis of the 'marvellous proper man'" (55).

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  14. Tobin Siebers argues that we must re-think our claims about disability: as an identity category, he argues, it is never negative; as a condition of bodies and minds, it has positive and negative valences. Thus, he argues, "Shakespeare's Richard III is a hunchback, but his disability represent deceitfulness and lust for power, not a condition of his physical and complex embodiment" (48).

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