Who Was Shakespeare’s King Richard III? The Tragedy and Disability

Please note that the historical figure King Richard III will be referred to as ‘Richard III’, and Shakespeare’s character Gloucester/King Richard as ‘Richard’ throughout these articles.

Disability in The Tragedy of Richard III has been discussed a great deal in both Ricardian writing and disability scholarship, but the media treatment of Richard III after the discovery of his grave in 2012 slipped under the radar. The stigma surrounding Richard III’s newly-discovered scoliosis was immediately apparent. This was evident in the obsessive attention paid to Richard’s skeleton, an image that was burned into the public’s imagination as it was splashed luridly across the internet and newspapers. Richard III’s remains were reduced to a scientific specimen, and unburdened by propriety, in the name of ‘science’, the frenzied speculation on whether Richard III’s scoliosis proved that Shakespeare was ‘right’ began. I have often wondered if they would be able to get away with this now, ten years later, but then, the dead are always easy targets. When the novelty of the scoliosis discovery wore off, the newspapers latched onto the discovery of intestinal parasites, resulting in headlines screaming that Richard was crawling with worms,1 conjuring up ghoulish images of corrupt flesh. A year later there was an attempt to claim scandal after the discovery of a paternity break in the mtDNA sequence,2 leading to screechy headlines about scandal and infidelity.3

In the eight year gap between Richard III’s lost grave being discovered and my beginning my research on the Tragedy, I developed a disabling chronic illness, followed by another. Revisiting the years immediately after the dig and the reinterment with a personal connection to disability was confronting. The microagressions towards Richard III were far more apparent. My personal experiences also gave me a new perspective on how Richard III’s reputation has been shaped around the stigma of disability. For centuries, many people had assumed that Richard III had a disability as depicted in the Tragedy. Because of a genuine lack of contemporary accounts, Ricardian writing countered this by claiming Shakespeare was writing Tudor propaganda, and suggesting that Shakespeare invented Richard III’s kyphosis, previously popularly referred to as a ‘hunchback’, a ‘withered’ arm and a limp to ‘reflect the medieval idea that an evil mind must dwell in a twisted body’.4. If this were the case, it would make the play unpalatable to a modern audience. Even Ian McKellan had no interest in playing Richard before 1990, writing that:

‘Before 1990, I had had no interest in playing Richard III. Indeed, I had long dismissed the play as not fit for modern consumption. Its sell-by date had surely expired, once modern psychology had questioned the cruel assumption of Shakespeare’s contemporaries that physical deformity was an outward expression of some inner moral turpitude. Studying the play reveals an opposite proposition – that Richard’s wickedness is an outcome of other people’s disaffection with his physique.’5

Richard’s disability plays an integral role in discovering empathy in the play. It is what sets Richard apart from his peers, but it also bonds him to the audience. In the second article in this series, the following questions discuss both the historical Richard III’s disability and how Shakespeare’s Richard’s disability is approached in the Tragedy.

Illustrations from the 1556 edition of Iranian physician Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine, demonstrating the Hippocratic method of treating spinal impairments.

Was the historical Richard III disabled?

By now Richard III’s scoliosis is well-established, and while there is not much resistance to the idea now, current prejudices when it comes to disability will ensure there is some. Richard III was indeed disabled, although he would not have considered himself ‘disabled’ in the way we understand disability now. Richard III suffered from a physical disability that was degenerative, and he would have understood he had a spinal impairment, as scoliosis was a known condition. Dr. Peter Stride, of Queensland University School of Medicine, has written that the extent and severity of Richard III’s curvature suggest serious discomfort would have developed had he lived longer, and that he would likely not have lived past his fourth or fifth decade.6

There has been a lot of discussion on what Richard III could do, and what it did not inhibit him from doing, and, as mentioned, the resistance to agree that he was disabled is based on both prejudice and genuine lack of understanding. People are always tempted to bring up public figures like Usain Bolt, who are completely irrelevant to Richard III’s situation. Bolt, who has scoliosis, also has a team of trainers and access to doctors who helped him adapt his running style, as he was injured frequently in his early career.7Richard III only had access to useless treatments like hot compresses and stretching. The desire to downplay Richard III’s disability is directly connected to the stigma that has surrounded it for centuries, and the assertion that Richard III’s scoliosis ‘proves’ that Shakespeare was ‘right’. Whether or not scoliosis is considered a disability now depends entirely on each individual’s situation, and blanket statements about physically debilitating conditions are neither accurate nor helpful.

There are two reasons we call Richard III, and Shakespeare’s Richard, disabled. First, disability does not preclude ability. Just because Richard III was capable of physical activities that does not mean he didn’t deal with physical limitations or chronic pain. Second, as Sonya Freeman Loftis writes, unless there is a compelling reason to use outdated terms, scholars should use the terms preferred by minority groups, and not become ‘so caught up in textual debates about terminology that they replicate modern oppressions in their scholarship’.8

 

Does the discovery of Richard III’s scoliosis ‘vindicate’ Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard?

Shakespeare’s Richard would once have been described as ‘deformed’, a term now considered pejorative, although it is how Richard describes himself. There is only one contemporary mention of Richard III’s scoliosis; a man in York was accused of saying Richard III had been ‘an hypocrite, a crook back and buried in a ditch like a dog’.9 As mentioned, the lack of contemporary descriptions led to much debate over whether Richard III had a disability, and why Shakespeare depicted him as having one. Many critics of Richard III maintained Shakespeare must have been right, and cited Tudor histories; only those histories never actually described Richard III as having a ‘hunch-back’, only that he had uneven shoulders. When Richard III’s scoliosis was discovered, it had the rather surprising (surprising, if you have common-sense, that is) effect in that suddenly both academic and amateur historians were claiming that Tudor writing was vindicated by the discovery of Richard III’s scoliosis.

In the wake of the discovery, even the most questionable Tudor accounts were trundled out as ‘evidence’, such as John Rous’ Historia regum Angliae. In the obviously least reliable account, Rous, who had written ‘fulsomely’ of Richard III before his death, ‘altered his story, claiming that Richard III was born with a full set of teeth and hair to his shoulders after two years in his mother’s womb.10 It is incredible to suggest that Rous’ account is a ‘pragmatic description of an anomalous birth’,11 or that Richard III’s scoliosis is ‘perfectly consistent’12 with the account. Or that Edward Hall’s account serves of a ‘precise marker’13 of Richard’s health when Hall’s was lifted directly from Thomas More.

Another concerning result was the writing that attempted to exaggerate Richard III’s scoliosis. There was no mention of hunching or forward curving in the original report released by the University of Leicester, and no limb impairments.14 So, there was no evidence that Richard III had the disabilities Shakespeare gave Richard. Yet one historian took the opportunity to update their 30 year-old biography, writing that ‘this new, revised edition reflects what has been learned from Richard [III]’s skeleton – that he was indeed a hunchback and how he died.’15 Another biography claims that ‘he may have slightly dragged a leg owing to his scoliosis’.16 a creative interpretation clearly referencing Shakespeare’s Richard’s limp. Citing the University of Leicester’s report, another popular history claims that Richard III’s scoliosis ‘caused him to walk with his right shoulder raised and his back hunched, and may have given him pain and shortness of breath.’17 The feeling was that ‘proving that some Tudor propaganda is true will rehabilitate other Tudor evidence.’18 Even in the latest Ricardian Bulletin, it was asked ‘How much can we rely on Shakespeare as a source today considering there is evidence to show that he was correct in his portrayal in a physical way?’ 19

The idea that Richard III’s scoliosis somehow makes Shakespeare’s fiction a reality is a difficult one to shake, although it should be pointed out that maintaining this idea makes it more convenient to continue to use questionable sources and exploit disability prejudice in favour of Richard III being a ‘tyrant’. Shakespeare did not depict his Richard as having scoliosis. Shakespeare depicted him as being ‘deformed’, as the early modern mind may have seen him. Richard’s physical form was not a reference to the chronicles, or the historical Richard III, but to a living public figure. Proof of Richard III’s scoliosis does not ‘vindicate’ Tudor writing one bit.

Healing of the Blind Man. A fresco in Optina Monastery. Photo: Pravoslavie.ru

Was Shakespeare reflecting the ‘medieval idea that an evil mind must dwell in a twisted body’?

This question is slightly complicated. First, there’s no real evidence that medieval people had especial superstitions towards disabilities, or that they equated any physical impairments with sin. Second, Shakespeare’s world had a very different view the world than the medieval one, and Shakespeare tended to present stereotypes in way in which he was able to subvert them.

It’s very difficult to generalise about entire cultures, but medieval culture is one that is always subject to rather imaginative condescension. In thinking about medieval attitudes towards disability we might look at the bible, but as Irina Metzler points out in her study on disability in medieval Europe, biblical references to disability are not of a uniform nature. Metzler also notes that the misconceptions of modern writers perpetuate the notion, that ‘treatment of the disabled in virtually all societies other than the present was linked to religious notions of sin.’20 In Christian bible, John: 9 tells us:

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

Obviously we cannot say that no medieval person ever equated sin with physical impairment, they probably did, people then were no less foolish than they are now, but for some reason we think they were more foolish. The first two years of this decade should have proven that wrong. And we also cannot say medieval people did not discriminate against people with disabilities, they did, they were usually barred from entering the church, for example. But the idea that people thought sin caused disability is incorrectly associated with medieval culture as a whole. Certainly people who knew people with disabilities, particularly families, would have dismissed those sort of notions. And an interesting point to consider is, that in the Tragedy, Richard’s family never join in the cruel jests at Richard’s expense, or even comment on his appearance at all. This only happens after he arranges the murder of his nephews. Prior to that, only Richard’s enemies such as Margaret used his disability against him. This is obviously a deliberate choice on Shakespeare’s part.

That disability leads to sin is an early modern idea. Francis Bacon’s essay, Of Deformity, tells us that ‘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.’21 Bacon was writing a little later than Shakespeare, but we can ask, was Shakespeare trying to say that Richard’s disability drove him to evil? This actually seems correct when you view a performance of the Tragedy in which Richard is the star player and most of the historical context has been stripped away. In this context, Richard’s vengefulness seems directly connected to his disability. But the Tragedy is almost always cut in half for performance. The Tragedy employs a framework of ‘Nemesis’, in which the entire cast of characters is implicated in the crimes of England; that is Clarence, Edward IV, Elizabeth Wydeville and her ‘kin’, Hastings and Buckingham. This actually shifts the focus away from Richard, as much as it can do, for he is such a dominating character. But is also makes it more apparent that Richard’s physical shape does not mirror his own soul, and that it mirrors the corruption in the court. True evil in the Tragedy comes, not from Richard himself, but the history he shares with his peers, a story that begins in Henry VI.

 

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury

So why did Shakespeare exaggerate Richard III’s disability?

The historical sources available to Shakespeare did not describe a man as severely disabled as his creation of Richard. Thomas More, in the most influential description, described Richard III’s body as ‘little of stature, ill fetured of limes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right, hard fauoured of visage.’22There is only one contemporary description of Richard III’s scoliosis, and it probably was not available to Shakespeare. As such, for decades, maybe even centuries, it has been supposed that Shakespeare exaggerated Richard III’s disability in order to denigrate him, and make that connection between ‘deformity’ and evil. However, the full text of the play, makes it apparent that this is not the case.

It is, in fact, made apparent in at least one point in the play, that the disabilities Shakespeare give Richard are not historically accurate. In Act 3, Scene 7, in which Buckingham, having told the citizens of London that Edward IV was illegitimate, proclaims that Richard’s resemblance to his father was strong: ‘Withal, I did infer your lineaments/Being the right idea of your father,/Both in your form and nobleness of mind;’.23 ‘Lineaments’ means ‘distinctive features’, ‘right idea’ means ‘true image’, and ‘form’ seems to mean body, or overall appearance, as it is mentioned as distinct from ‘lineaments’. Buckingham’s speech is based on the actual historical event in which Ralph Shaa performed a sermon declaring Edward IV himself, as well as his marriage and his children, illegitimate. Shaa appears in the play as Doctor Shaw, but does not deliver the sermon. In historical records of the sermon, Polydore Vergil made body and face distinct when discussing Edward IV. Vergil wrote that ‘Edward was neither in physiognomy nor shape of body unto Richard the father[…]no man could doubt Richard, now in place, was the Duke’s true son’.24 It was Thomas More who later wrote that Richard ‘in lineaments and favour of visage, represented the very face of the noble Duke his father.’25 More’s account is probably embellished, but it is the one Shakespeare used. Perhaps by adding ‘form’ to Buckingham’s speech, to mean ‘body’, Shakespeare was alluding to the fact that the historical Richard III was not at all ‘deformed’ as he was being presented. There is, perhaps, another hint at the end of Act 1, Scene 2, where Richard is awed that Anne finds him a ‘marvellous proper (handsome) man’, although he cannot.26

In the Tragedy, Richard’s disability references Robert Cecil, who was described contemporaneously as ‘slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature’.27 Although there are no English contemporary accounts of Robert Cecil’s disability, it has been written that Elizabeth called him ‘elf’ and James’ ‘little pygmy’ and ‘little beagle’. This makes it clear that there was a distinction between scoliosis and the more visible kyphosis. It was common practise to use historical allegory to comment on living or recently deceased public figures. It has long been thought that the exaggeration of Richard III’s physical disabilities were a reference to Elizabeth’s and James’s widely-hated minister, and there has been extensive scholarship on this topic. Margaret Hotine has examined the printing history of the quartos and suggested they coincide with historical events, demonstrating that the Tragedy had a continued topicality.28 It is, however, important to remember that Shakespeare’s plays are complex. Shakespeare’s Richard is still Richard III. He is not Robert Cecil, nor is the play about Cecil himself, but Shakespeare was using Cecil’s disability to create a connection between Cecil and corruption. Richard’s disability is also an allegory for a corrupt body politic. In Tudor thought, the king’s ‘natural body’, the mortal body, was separate from his ‘body politic’, the immortal body of the king that is the State.

The theatrical character of Vice as sometimes portrayed as a demonic figure, and perhaps ‘misshapen’. I don’t suggest that Vice releases directly to Richard’s disability, but it does relate to Richard’s bond with the audience, which Richard’s disability also plays a significant part in. Richard refers to himself as Vice, saying ‘Thus like the formal Vice, Iniquity,/I moralise two meanings in one word.’29 What does Richard mean by this? Richard is saying this ‘aside’, addressing the audience, as he often does, telling them that he makes a phrase have two meanings. He is Vice, a character who would normally lead the protagonist astray, a mischief maker causing chaos. But Richard leads the audience astray. The audience is privy to Richard’s plots and schemes from the beginning of the play, in his remarkable opening soliloquy, where Richard tells us that his disability has set him apart from his peers, demonstrating an inwardness that is only shared with the audience, and is capable of eliciting the audience’s sympathy. Because, up unto a point, Richard is only responsible for the deaths of adults who are as, if not more, reprehensible than himself, the audience’s sympathy is not necessarily shaken. Sigmund Freud wrote that Richard’s disability elicited ‘such sympathy can only be based on understanding or on a sense of a possible inner fellow-feeling for him.’30 Thus, I suggest that Shakespeare also exaggerated Richard III’s disability to stir empathy within and strengthen the bond between Richard and his audience. Perhaps it makes Richard’s betrayal of his audience all the more shattering.

What was the Tragedy trying to say about disability?

It was actually Othello saying ‘my perfect soul, shall manifest me rightly’ that thundered through my mind some years back, making an instant connection with the concept of Richard’s soul and how people viewed the Tragedy. Othello is not using the word soul in the same context as I was thinking, of course, he is saying that his conscious is clear in marrying Desdemona. But Othello is also saying, in this speech, that he is worthy of, and feels equal to the Christians. But the Christians do not view Othello as equal, they view him as beneath them, despite his achievements, because of his black skin. Richard’s enemies also view him as beneath them, because of his disability, or ‘deformity’ as they would have viewed it. It is important to note connections like this between the Tragedy and other plays, when we are considering authorial intent. Both Othello and Richard are discriminated against solely because they look different to the majority. Both of them feel their outsider status, despite their bravado, and it is what makes them vulnerable.  Othello is corrupted by Iago. Richard is corrupted by his enemies, by the trauma of the death of his brother and father, and by England itself.

Abdulla Al-Dabbagh dubs Shakespeare’s explorations of prejudice, in plays like Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and Merchant of Venice, a ‘reversal of stereotype’.31 It was these three plays in particular that made me think more about empathy in the Tragedy. Although I had never considered that the play was an attack on Richard III, thinking about Richard as one of Shakespeare’s ‘strangers’ has been the basis of my research. ‘Strangers’ or outsiders, in Shakespeare’s plays, are characters like Othello, Cleopatra and Shylock are marginalised by culture or religion, and many of his female characters. Shakespeare’s Richard is generally not included amongst these studies of outsiders. Richard often doesn’t elicit empathy in literary criticism because of his character’s villainy. He has even been called a ‘one dimensional villain’ who ‘offers us a negative experience with Other’. 32

However, when we consider that the ‘new’ thinking of Shakespeare’s world tried to connect ‘deformity’ with evil, or that disabled people were ‘vengeful’ by nature, it becomes clearer that this was another stereotype Shakespeare was tackling when he thought about Richard. Shakespeare treated Richard with the same care he gave to characters like Othello, Shylock, and Cleopatra. It is, admittedly, harder to see when Richard goes on a murder rampage. But it is there. The Tragedy subverts the early modern stereotype of disability, by using historical record to demonstrate the effects of a corrupt court, and a corrupt body politic, on society and the citizen.

 

We use the Norton Critical Editions of Shakespeare’s texts.

Who Was Shakespeare’s King Richard III? 

Part One: The Tudor Propaganda Myth.

Part Three: History and the Tragedy.

 

 

  1. Note the reinforcement of ‘hunch’. D. Main, ‘Infected and Hunched: King Richard III Was Crawling With Roundworms’, Live Science, 4 September 2013.
  2. T. King et al., ‘Identification of the remains of King Richard III’, Nature Communications, 2014.
  3. For example: H. Devlin, ‘Richard III DNA test reveals royal sex scandal’ The Times, 4 Dec 2014,
    M. Fessenden ‘Richard III’s DNA Analysis Reveals Cuckoldry in the Family’ The Smithsonian, 2 Dec 2014
    T. Sykes, ‘The Sex Life of King Richard III’s Randy Great Great Great Grandfather’, The Daily Beast, 4 Dec 2014
  4. Richard III Society, ‘Appearance’, Richard III Society
  5. I. McKellen ‘Richard III Screenplay: Introduction Part 2’ Ian McKellen.
  6. P. Stride, A. Masoumiganjgah, C. Alexander, ‘The scoliosis of King Richard III’, Ricardian Bulletin, March 2014 (London: Richard III Society) 34-38.
  7. D. Howard, ‘Bolt: “I want to do wild things’”, ESPN, Nov 30 2011.
  8. S. Freeman Loftis, Shakespeare and Disability Studies, eBook (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2021) 39.
  9. A. Raine (ed), YAS Record Series Vol. 103: York civic records, vol ii 1478-1504, (York: Yorkshire Archaeological Society, 1941) 72.
  10. A. Hanham, Richard III and his Early Historians: 1483-1535, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975)105.
  11. A.P. Hobgood, ‘Teeth before Eyes: Impairment and Invisibility in Shakespeare’s Richard III’ in Disability, Health, and Happiness in the Shakespearean Body, (ed) Sujata Iyengar, (London: Routledge, 2014) 26.
  12. P. Maddern, ‘Bones of contention: why Richard III’s skeleton won’t change history’ The Conversation, Feb 6th 2013.
  13. Hobgood, Teeth Before Eyes, 26.
  14. R. Buckley et al., “The King in the Car Park: New Light on the Death and Burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars Church, Leicester in 1485”, Antiquity, 87 (2013), 519-538.
  15. My emphasis. D. Seward, Richard III: England’s Black Legend, eBook (London: Thistle Publishing 2013).
  16. T. Breverton, Richard III: The King in the Car Park, (Stroud: Amberley Publishing 2013). 254.
  17. My emphasis. D. Jones, The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, (New York: Viking, 2014) 396-7.
  18. M. Hicks The Family of Richard III (Stroud: Amberley 2015) 184.
  19. Richard III Society, ‘Richard III and Me: Interview with Helen Carr’, The Ricardian Bulletin: The Magazine of the Richard III Society, March 2022 (London: Richard III Society, 2022) 54
  20. I. Metzler, Disability in medieval Europe : thinking about physical impairment during the High Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400, (London: Routledge, 2006) 190.
  21. F. Bacon, Essays, eBook, (New Zealand: The Floating Press) 190-191.
  22. T. More The History of Richard III and Selections from the English and Latin Poems, ed. R.S Sylvester (New Haven: Yale University Press 1976) 7.
  23. W. Shakespeare, ‘The Tragedy of King Richard the Third’ in Richard III, ed. T. Cartelli, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 3.1.82-83.
  24. P. Vergil Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History ed. H. Ellis (London: Camden Society 1950) 184.
  25. More, History of Richard III, 67.
  26. Shakspeare, Tragedy, 2.1.254-55.
  27. J.L. Motley, History of the United Netherlands: From the Death of William the Silent to the Twelve Years’ Truce – 1609. Vol 4, digital edition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1867) 275.
  28. M. Hotine, ‘Richard III and Macbeth-Studies in Tudor Tyranny?” Notes and Queries, (December 1991) 480-86.
  29. Tragedy, 3.1.81-82.
  30. S. Freud, ‘Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work’ in ‘The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916)’, PEP Archive.
  31. A. Al-Dabbagh, Shakespeare, the Orient, and the Critics (New York: Peter Lang, 2010) 15-49.
  32. ‘Othering’ is to perceive another person as alien from oneself or wider society.
P. Marantz Cohen, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches us about Empathy, eBook, (London: Yale University Press, 2021), 9 & 16.