“Shakespeare On Deformity”

Classical portrait of King Richard the Third

In 1623 when publishing the Shakespeare Folio, the publishers John Heminges and Henry Condell, wrote: “To the Great Variety of Readers”
“Whereas before you were abus’d with diuerse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of iniurious impostors, that expos’d them: euen those, that are now offer’d to your view cured, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceiued them.”

In the opening Sonnet Shakespeare makes it fairly clear what his thoughts are about natural procreation:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

There is indeed a great number of references in Shakespeare on physical deformity that is either shocking or ambiguous that are in need of clarification. The most well-known of which are references to “Richard Crouchback”, the Duke of Gloucester. The hunch-backed Richard first appears towards the end of Henry VIth, part two when Clifford first stigmatises him:
Heap of wrath, foul indigested lump,
As crooked in thy manners as thy shape!

Although Richard, is killed early on in Shakespeare’s historical play King Henry the Sixth, part three as Queen Margaret of Anjou’s forces rally against him, his sons, Edward and Richard continue their resistance with the aid of Edmund, Earl of Rutland and George, Duke of Clarence. When finally captured Edward, Henry’s son is killed in front of Queen Margaret presumably to ceremonially avenge the death of their father, Richard Duke of York who was killed in the first act. Although the entire action covers the events of some sixteen years (1455-1471), the narrative of the play compresses and in some cases distorts the historical timeline in favour of the dramatic narrative from the Battle of St Albans (1445) through to the Duke of York’s death (1450) when the future King Richard III was a mere three years old, living in exile abroad and clearly unable to take an active part in military and political strategy! Similarly, when Richard Duke of York is killed at the Battle of Wakefield, his younger son Richard was a mere seven years old even though Shakespeare depicts him as a full-grown man even taking part in the battle and vowing vengeance for his father’s death. Holinshed’s version of events is that Clifford taunted Richard before beheading him, in the play it is Queen Margaret and Clifford who torture and then both stab Richard to death on stage thereby consigning him to a commoner’s death. Furthermore, Margaret orders his severed head to be displayed on the gates of the City of York, again an act of humiliation as well as civic horror. However, many of these chronological and historical distortions are done purely for dramatic effect. Severing the bonds of loyalty between father and son is a theme that Shakespeare plays with in this play as well as natural and unnatural entitlement. At the beginning of the play the Yorkist faction appears united as a family and stake their claim without compromise, while Henry’s family appears weak, ambivalent and divided. However, when Rutland is killed at the Battle of Wakefield, his remaining three sons diverge from their initial family loyalties, the young Richard beholds a vision of three suns in the sky (a rare astronomical optical illusion), and then vows to use the emblem as a motif on his heraldic shield. Edward disgusts his follower Warwick by his wish to marry a commoner, Elizabeth Gray and George temporarily abandons his brother to join the Lancastrian cause and marry Warwick’s daughter. By the middle portion of the play Richard relentlessly stands by his wish to ascend to the English throne:

Coat of arms of Richard III, from a window with his motto “Loyaulte me lie”. Loyalty binds me; two boars argent around arms of Henry IV; quartered arms with three fleur de lys; gules three lions passant guardant in pale).

My ashes, as the phoenix, may bring forth
A bird that will revenge upon you all.

Towards the end of the play Richard is portrayed as “un-loved” and unlikely to find a wife or lover, partly because of his deformity or because he is incapable himself of wooing any woman. Just after he has murdered King Henry he soliloquises on his deformity:
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word ‘love,’ which graybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me: I am myself alone.

The play ends leaving the audience with a hint of what will transpire in effect hanging over the precipitous events that are to unravel with the advent of the Duke of Gloucester becoming King Richard the Third. This portrayal of Richard surely matches Christopher Marlowe’s own Machiavellian portrayal of Tamburlaine but in the majestic and dramatic style only Shakespeare could achieve with impunity. To draw upon any analogous parallels with our contemporary views on disabilities would in the final analysis be somewhat misleading. In fact this is the first use in English literature of what is known as “dramatic stigma” which reaches its hiatus in the “Tempest” with the introduction of the oft maligned and misunderstood character of Caliban. Monstrous beasts and chimeras were certainly a feature of Miracle and Mummers Plays at an earlier date than the 16th century. The Elizabethan mindset towards physical deformity was without doubt superstitious as anyone with an abnormality would be regarded as inferior and tainted with inherent evil. But in dramatic or narrative terms it is akin to “Beauty & the Beast”, the “Elephant Man”, the “Princess & the Frog”, the “Phantom of the Opera”, the “Gangster Scar-face”, “Godzilla”, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and perhaps even “Shrek”. These characters embody or reflect our own personal prejudices towards those physically deformed or those who do not represent the conventional or classical view of beauty in human form, the most monstrous! Indeed, it seems that Great Nature can give birth to the grotesque and the beautiful as witnessed with the birth of pigs with six limbs, two heads, conjoined twins and six fingers. Plays that featured the mystical and magical thesis that blessings may become curses or that weaknesses can become strengths, or that vices can become virtues and virtues can become vices were part of the dramatic characterisation and moral narrative accessible to an Elizabethan audience. This is analogous in many ways to our contemporary views about the moral suitability of America’s President Donald Trump, who despite his immoral proclivities and right-wing views was still able to garner a great deal of populist support from the marginalised white Republican electorate.
Similarly, the new English King, “Richard Crookback” courted popularity with some considerable success. He actively promoted English interests abroad and involved himself fully in domestic reform. Following the death of the young princes, however, public favour turned away from Richard and toward Henry, Earl of Richmond, who was the head of the rival House of Lancaster. On his second attempt to invade England on August 7, 1485, Henry landed at Milford Haven, Wales, collecting allies as he advanced toward England. Richard hastened to meet him, and the hostile armies faced each other on Bosworth Field. Richard fought valiantly but in vain and was defeated and slain, and the Earl of Richmond became Henry the Sixth, the first Tudor King of England. Although Richard, the last King of the House of York, did usurp the throne, little doubt exists that his unscrupulousness has been over-emphasised by his enemies and by Tudor historians seeking to strengthen the Lancastrian position. In actual fact recent evidence suggests that, in order to gain favour with the Tudor dynasty, Shakespeare depicted him in a rather poor light. For example, he was characterised as a severe hunchback by birth and his intercession with Henry’s claim to the throne was based on some family insight unbeknown to many people at the time. In Act One, scene 4, Queen Margaret inquires of the Duke of Northumberland:

Where are your mess of sons to back you now?
The wanton Edward, and the lusty George?
And where’s that valiant crook-back prodigy,
Dicky your boy, that with his grumbling voice
Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?

Other signs or omens of his “otherness” are noted that he was born with his feet forward and, like Napoleon was born with teeth:

Duke of Gloucester:
For this, amongst the rest, was I ordain’d….
Indeed, ’tis true that Henry told me of;
For I have often heard my mother say
I came into the world with my legs forward:
Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste,
And seek their ruin that usurp’d our right?
The midwife wonder’d and the women cried
‘O, Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth!’
And so I was; which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.

Elsewhere in the play the Lancastrians cast disparaging remarks towards Richard’s deformity for example: “Ay, crook-back, here I stand to answer thee, /Or any he the proudest of thy sort.” And further on:
Prince Edward:
Nay, take away this scolding crookback rather.

King Edward IV:
Peace, wilful boy, or I will charm your tongue.
Untutor’d lad, thou art too malapert.

Prince Edward:
I know my duty; you are all undutiful:
Lascivious Edward, and thou perjured George,
And thou mis-shapen Dick, I tell ye all
I am your better, traitors as ye are:
And thou usurp’st my father’s right and mine.

King Edward IV:
Take that, thou likeness of this railer here.
(Stabs him)

It seems that Henry the Seventh was not of royal blood at all but a base-born son of Queen Margaret conceived in France while King Henry the Sixth was campaigning in England. This was why he then had to legitimise his claim to the throne by marrying Richard’s niece Elizabeth of York. Little did he realise that this was to no avail given his wife’s father’s true lineage. The incidence of scoliosis has a genetic component to Richard’s dynastic line as Mildred Russell (through the de la Pole line), who came to wed William Cecil, Lord Burghley (she was the sister of Elizabeth Russell, the Countess of Southampton whose involvement in the theatrical closures at the Blackfriar’s is brought to light in “Shakespeare’s Nemesis”). Lord Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil it seems also suffered from the same genetic deformity of which the play appears to demean and denigrate in this Shakespeare play when Margaret of Anjou rebukes Elizabeth of York for her false loyalties:

Queen Margaret:
Poor painted queen, vain flourish of my fortune!
Why strew’st thou sugar on that bottled spider,
Whose deadly web ensnareth thee about?
Fool, fool! Thou whet’st a knife to kill thyself.
The time will come when thou shalt wish for me
To help thee curse that poisonous bunchback’d toad.

Even today this startling revelation is a contentious factor among historians and genealogists of the royal line. It seems that the Plantagenet line, which continues to this day, now has more claim to the English throne than the current House of Windsor because Edward the Fourth, Elizabeth’s father, himself was not of royal blood.

But both the House of York and that of Lancaster can trace their dynastic origins back to the Plantagenet line of Edward the Third so this constitutes a very complex and alternative genealogical strand that is still contested by many academics and genealogists today. The recent discovery of Richard’s body underneath a car park in Leicester has brought the expertise of modern DNA and RNA specialists into investigating just how pertinent Richard’s claim to kingship really was through that particular line and how dubious Henry’s claim was (see The Richard III Project). Despite all these interconnected and complicated aristocratic relationships Richard decided to fight for his brother, later King Edward the Fourth, under the Yorkist banner during the Wars of the Roses perhaps on the basis that this would draw his legitimacy even closer to the throne of England. There were however several more obstacles in his path. On the death of Edward in 1483, Richard took over the care of Edward’s young heir, King Edward Vth, and the administration of the Kingdom. Richard soon overthrew the unpopular party of the Woodvilles, relatives of the Queen mother, who aimed to control the government to their advantage. Parliament then declared that Richard was the rightful King, on the grounds that the marriage of Edward IVth with Elizabeth Woodville had been illegal because he had contracted earlier to marry another woman. Subsequently, the cunning Richard, to ensure his position as King, confined Edward and his brother Richard to the Tower of London. Or so the popular story goes. In their imprisonment, and for some time afterward, both nephews were apparently and secretly put to death. Except for a later supposition (James Tyrell), no substantial evidence exists that Richard himself actually had them assassinated. There are theories and conjectures that someone else was secretly charged with this gruesome task.

Duke of Gloucester:
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, 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 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 the light of this knowledge perhaps it is understandable that Richard wanted to prevent Henry from gaining the throne and moreover why he would have felt no remorse when he supposedly disposed of the two princes in the Tower. Primarily, because as sons of Edward the Fourth the young princes, Edward and Richard themselves were not really legitimate heirs to the English throne. However, Richard himself was a genuine member of the Plantagenet line, which included John of Gaunt and the monarch Edward the Third that originally stems from the French Angevin dynasty that was descended from Queen Matilda and Geoffrey Martel, the Count of Anjou.

The “Round Table” as it was later conceived showing the Tudor Rose

The first Plantagenet King of England was Henry the Second, the son of the third Norman King Henry Ist (Youngest son of William the Conqueror), who married Eleanor of Aquitaine and was the father of Richard the Lionheart, a supporter of the Third Crusade. The family is descended from the Angevins (founded by Fulke I, who died 938) by way of Geoffrey Martel, Count D’Anjou who married Henry Ist’s daughter Matilda. Their combined territories then extended from the Tweed in N. England to the Pyrenees in N. Spain. However, this vast acquisition was subsequently broken up by King Phillip the Second of France. The other Angevin line was founded by King Louis the Eighth’s brother, Charles (later Charles Ist) in 1246 whose own empire then extended to Naples, Italy and the island of Sicily. The name Plantagenet was adopted in the 15th century because he wore a sprig of yellow broom (Spartium junceum), as an heraldic mascot in his cap (See “A Rose By Any Other Name”). King Richard the Third, from the newly named Royal House of York, was therefore the last of the French Plantagenets to lay claim to the English throne.

The last of the Plantagenet monarchs, King Richard the Third is the concluding chronological sequence of the History of Henry the Sixth (itself produced dramatically in 3 parts). It was first published under the title of “The Tragedie of King Richard the Third”, although elsewhere it is also known as “The Life and Death of King Richard the Third”. It was probably written almost immediately after Henry Sixth part 3 that is sometime around 1591-92. It has become accepted that the play is historically incorrect and that it was for whatever reason a blatant piece of Tudor propaganda intended to diminish or demean Richard and his claim to kingship. The literary source for the play derives from the humanist Thomas More’s account (King Richard the Third-1513) and later renditions by the 16th century historians notably Edward Hall (The Union of the Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre And York-1548) and Raphael Hollinshed’s“The Chronicle of England, Scotland and Ireland” (1577, revised 1587). The latter observed many of the historical events that Thomas More related and described in the character of Richard. However, an important element of these chronicles was to convey moral or religious allegory and not specifically the facts and Shakespeare likewise employed a great deal of artistic licence purely for dramatic effect. However, there are a great number of glaring anomalies. For example Lady Anne had been betrothed to King Henry’s son Edward not actually married to him and Richard’s unsuccessful attempt to invade England in 1483 is conflated with his second successful invasion in 1485. He also introduces the old Queen Margaret, who was absent through most of the events depicted in the play. Moreover the depiction of Richard as a hunchback and devilish Machiavellian antagonist is a pure fiction. In Shakespeare’s “Venus & Adonis” reference is made to “ugliness” as a reason to reject the advances of a suitor:

Were I hard-favor’d, foul, or wrinkled old,
Ill-nurtur’d, crooked, churlish, harsh in voice,
O’erworn, despised, rheumatic, and cold,
Thick-sighted, barren, lean, and lacking juice,
Then mightst thou pause, for then I were not for thee,
But having no defects, why dost abhor me?
(lines 133-38)

The character Caliban represents the black magic of his mother and initially appears to be bad, especially when judged by conventional civilized standards of the “noble savage”. Because Prospero has conquered or enslaved him, Caliban plots to murder Prospero in revenge. But in the end abandons him on the island. However, he is the bastard child of an evil witch and a devil. The Harvard professor Jeffrey R. Wilson writes about Shakespeare’s use of stigmatic drama, particularly in “The Tempest” with the character of Caliban:

Caliban performs a jig to the amusement of the mariners

“The dramatis personae of The Tempest casts Caliban as “a savage and deformed slave.” Interestingly, Shakespeare’s three deformed characters – Richard, Thersites, and Caliban – all serve a similar dramatic function: each is an irreverent clown and audience favorite who ends up trashed at the end of the play by some hero: the Earl of Richmond slaughters Richard III, Hector runs Thersites off the stage, and Prospero leaves Caliban alone on his island. But it is even more remarkable that Shakespeare extended his system for handling physical deformity to other kinds of stigma: he used the same dramatic strategy to represent characters with physical deformities, racial differences, bastard births, and mental deficiencies. In other words, Richard, Thersites, and Caliban perform the same dramatic function as Shylock, Edmund, and Bottom. If so, then Shakespeare was not representing deformity nor minority nor bastardy nor idiocy but stigma, discredited difference from cultural norms. And Caliban is Shakespeare’s final, and in some ways his fullest, stigmatized character: he is certainly physically deformed, potentially racially different, arguably mentally challenged, and allegedly a bastard child of the devil.”

What might have inspired the villainous caricature of Richard the Third, which is if we seriously consider that Edward de Vere was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays would have been the real-life figure of Robert Cecil, the son of Lord Burghley who we know suffered from a spinal deformity from birth. Alluding to Richard’s deformity De Vere would have had some resentment or malice towards Robert Cecil for several reasons. Whether, as others have argued he was prejudiced to those commoners with deformities or disability is actually unclear since popular beliefs support both views however bigoted and impartial. Robert Cecil was instrumental in conniving with Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton and paving the way for King James’s succession to the English throne. Henry Howard arranged for the hasty inquest and burial of Thomas Overbury who was secretly poisoned in the Tower. Reputed like James to be of a homosexual persuasion in 1608 he was greatly rewarded from the King’s favour and made Lord Privy Seal and High Steward of Oxford in 1609, and eventually the chancellor of Cambridge University in 1612. Despite its historical inaccuracies the play, largely because of its fantastical and stereotypical depiction of events, was very popular and went through five quarto versions before the final publication of the 1623 Folio. As in many other plays the integrity and authenticity of the various texts available in the absence of the original manuscript is questionable from the presence of several foul papers and bad quartos. It was listed at the Stationer’s Office in 1597 without the playwright’s name with a full title page, printed by Valentine Sims for Andrew Wise from Paul’s Church Yard at the Sign of the Angel. Its evolutionary history lists numerous omissions, corrections, and revisions up to its final completion by numerous academic editions. References to a noble line being deformed by nature’s hand can be found in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and in the poem “The Rape of Lucrece”:

Bottom is transformed into a monstrous Ass

Now, until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride-bed we,
Which by us shall blessed be;
And the issue, there create,
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be;
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand;
Never mole, hare lip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.

Then, for thy husband and thy children’s sake,
Tender my suit: bequeath not to their lot
The shame that from them no device can take,
The blemish that will never be forgot;
Worse than a slavish wipe or birth-hour’s blot:
For marks descried in men’s nativity
Are nature’s faults, not their own infamy.
(Rape of Lucrece: 533-39)

In effect it is the final part of a tetralogy culminating in the death of Richard Duke of York, and the three parts of King Henry the Sixth that describe the consequences of the Wars of the Roses. When Francis Bacon was imprisoned in the Tower for fraud and corruption he wrote the historical drama of Henry the Seventh thus filling in the historical vacuum left by the pseudonymous “Shakespeare”. This led some literary researchers to suggest that Sir Francis Bacon, known to be a prolific writer was secretly the real author of Shakespeare’s plays (see “The Shakespeare Enigma” by Peter Dawkins). The suggestion that Bacon was the author is covered and explored in the first Part of my book “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” in the chapter headed The Shakespeare Controversy. What may be of interest in a contemporary social sense is the period’s understanding on disability or more pertinently deformity in the royal line. There was a common view that any impediment or visual mark on a monarch was a sign of their inability to rule wisely. Reference to physical abnormality is made in King John:

If thou, that bid’st me be content, wert grim,
Ugly and slanderous to thy mother’s womb,
Full of unpleasing blots and sightless stains,
Lame, foolish, crooked, swart, prodigious,
Patch’d with foul moles and eye-offending marks,
I would not care, I then would be content,
For then I should not love thee, no, nor thou
Become thy great birth nor deserve a crown.
But thou art fair, and at thy birth, dear boy,
Nature and Fortune join’d to make thee great.

King John:
Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature mark’d,
Quoted and sign’d to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind:
But taking note of thy abhorr’d aspect,
Finding thee fit for bloody villany,
Apt, liable to be employ’d in danger,
I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death.

Sir Francis Bacon’s views on deformity, although not particularly widespread or popular among academics and scholars, are of some interest when examining the prevailing attitudes of the time:

Of Deformity:

From Manuscripts 1612, 1625 by Francis Bacon:

Deformed persons are commonly even with nature: for as nature hath done ill by them, so do they by nature, being for the most part (as the Scripture saith) void of natural affection; and so they have their revenge of nature. Certainly there is a consent between the body and the mind, and where nature erreth in the one, she ventureth in the other: Ubipeccat in uno, periclitatur in altero.(1)

But because there is in man an election touching the frame of his mind, and a necessity in the frame of his body, the stars of natural inclination are sometimes obscured by the sun of discipline and virtue. Therefore it is good to consider of deformity, not as a sign, which is more deceivable, but as a cause, which seldom faileth of the effect. Whosoever hath anything fixed in his person that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself to rescue and deliver himself from scorn. Therefore all deformed persons are extreme bold — first, as in their own defence, as being exposed to scorn, but in process of time, by a general habit. Also, it stirreth in them industry, and especially of this kind, to watch and observe the weakness of others, that they may have somewhat to repay. Again, in their superiors, it quencheth jealousy towards them, as persons that they think they may at pleasure despise; and it layeth their competitors and emulators asleep, as never believing they should be in possibility of advancement, till they see them in possession. So that upon the matter, in a great wit deformity is an advantage to rising. Kings in ancient times (and at this present in some countries) were wont to put great trust in eunuchs, because they that are envious towards all are more obnoxious and officious towards one. But yet their trust towards them hath rather been as to good spies and good whisperers than good magistrates and officers. And much like is the reason of deformed persons. Still the ground is, they will, if they be of spirit, seek to free themselves from scorn, which must be either by virtue or malice. And therefore let it not be marvelled if sometimes they prove excellent persons; as was Agesilaus, Zanger the son of Solyman, Aesop, Gasca, President of Peru; and Socrates may go likewise amongst them, with others.

What might have inspired the caricature and devilish motivations eloquently portrayed in Richard the Third was perhaps the ideas of the character found in Nicolo Machiavelli’s Book, “The Prince”. This was translated by Sir Thomas Hoby with a foreword by Thomas Sackville and dedicated to Sir Henry Hastings in 1561 under the new title “The Courtier”. This book reflected the harsh reality of politics and the tough decisions that many reformers needed to make to avoid sinking back into mob rule when monarchic institutions had been displaced by violent revolution and then stabilised by some element of democratic rule.

The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,