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Richard's Deformity

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

"Lump of foul deformity."

"Elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!"

"Poisonous bunchback'd toad."

"Slander of thy mother's heavy womb."

"Bottled spider."

Dang, this play sure makes a big, nasty deal out Richard's physical "deformity." It seems like every time we turn around some character is ragging on Richard's physical appearance. What's more, the play goes out of its way to tell us that our villain's "deformity" is directly related to his wicked behavior.

What's up with that?

Well, part of this has to do with the way Richard is portrayed in the sources Shakespeare used when writing his play. Like we've said, Richard III wasn't actually a "hunchback" (or even a "bunchback"). Actually, he probably wasn't even that bad of a guy, but that's how some historians, like Sir Thomas More, portrayed him. Check out how More described Richard in The History of King Richard the Third (c. 1513):

[…] little of statue, ill featured of limbs, crook-backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favoured of visage [...] he was malicious, wrathful, envious and from his birth ever froward.

As we can see, Shakespeare is following in More's footsteps when he makes his character a physically "deformed" villain.

In the play's opening speech, Richard tells us he was born "deformed, unfinish'd" and was "sent before [his] time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up" (1.1.1). The idea is that Richard was born prematurely, before he could fully develop. More important, Richard also claims that his "lameness" is the reason no woman wants anything to do with him, which is why he is "determined" to be a "villain." Check it out:

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

In other words, Richard says he's decided to be a bad guy because of his deformity. Should we believe him? Some scholars do; they say that Richard's villainy is the result of his feeling rejected, inadequate, and unloved. On the other hand, some scholars say that Richard has just found a very convenient excuse for being bad. In fact, literary critic Stephen Greenblatt argues that "Richard's deformity is less the cause of his evil nature than its sign."

So what do you think? Is Richard's deformity the cause of his wickedness, or is his deformity a reflection or a sign of his wicked ways?

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