[Below is part 2 of an essay I wrote a while back, but revised recently. I’m currently looking at the position and impact of the unusual body in contemporary poetry – this essay looks at the role of these bodies in fiction.]
Shakespeare was Freud before Freudianism, a psychologist of powerful poetic suggestion before it settled historically into a definitive diagnostic shape. In Richard III, Richard, jealous and ambitious, intensely sensitive to his deformity, plots through flattery and murder to take the throne of England.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous 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,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
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 my own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
The snowball-like trajectory of tragedy ensures we cannot (like Richard himself) see any other possibility. The exact fuel for Richard’s machinations is left unclear. The ugliness of his body could be a catalyst for his political and moral degeneracy, or a convenient excuse for it. At the very least, the play portrays physical deformity as psychological intensification. Richard is shut out from what he sees as his entitlement, grows increasingly resentful and determines to assert himself, to challenge the place assigned to him by nature.
Regardless of the measure of propaganda that influenced the transition of the historical story to the theatrical script, there is a familiar association hunching over Shakespeare’s version of Richard – the shadow of gendered power. Julio C Avalos Jr reminds us that the common conception of women at the time was that they were half-made men. Richard sees himself not just as unattractive in appearance, but as insufficiently male. Violence and usurpation present themselves to him as the sufficient proof of manhood. Tragic indeed.