Richard III and disability: Excerpt – “Unfixable Forms” by Katherine Schaap Williams

What did Richard III and his disability represent to Shakespeare’s original audiences? And how has this Shakespeare villain shaped the field of early modern disability studies today?

Katherine Schaap Williams takes a closer look at these questions in the below excerpt from her recently published book, Unfixable Forms: Disability, Performance, and the Early Modern English Theater (Cornell University Press). Williams is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toronto.


Early modern disability studies began with William Shakespeare’s Richard III and has not yet been able to leave the play behind. This staying power is partly due to Richard III’s prominence in foundational formulations of disability theory, which found “Richard” to be shorthand for “Shakespeare,” who in turn is shorthand for Renaissance ideas about disability—namely, the idea that physical deformity is a powerful metaphor for moral evil. Reading through the lens of Shakespeare’s villain, early work in critical disability studies understood deformity as visible evidence of depravity rather than as disabled identity. Shakespeare’s Richard Gloucester “is a hunchback, but his disability represents deceitfulness and lust for power,” Tobin Siebers observes, and, noting that because disability “acts as a metaphor to mark anomalous social states,” Ato Quayson suggests that the play foregrounds “the question of whether Richard’s deformity is an insignia of or indeed the cause of his villainy.” Disability operates as a powerful, if negative, sign that invites spectators to interpret the distinctive body and extrapolate to the person. Richard offers an “almost, but not yet” example of disability, emblematizing a prior historical moment, a “Renaissance version of late medieval attitudes toward deformity,” in which Shakespeare’s play is exemplary because he “initiates a host of many other mutable and social meanings for disability.” Richard’s distinctive hunchback formation anticipates our modern understanding of disability because, in Shakespeare’s play, he seems aware of the social implications of his form. The social model of disability distinguishes between the impaired body and the environment that disables the body: disability is not a fixed property of a body but the product of encounter with a world not shaped to accommodate that body. Critics emphasize the “modern” in readings of Richard that stress the mutable significance of his form, and the “early” in readings that identify Richard’s deformity as precursor to the development of disability as an identity category. Richard is prior to the moment when techniques of biopower and industrialized labor in modernity produce a quantifiably “normal” body against which other bodies may be deemed “abnormal” and selected for correction. He is crucial to the stories we tell about the history of disability, but infamously so, an archaic example of the past that generates the stereotype of disabled revenger that still reverberates today.

Richard III has proven to be a sticking point for early modern scholars too. A long critical history has tracked the political, theological, moral, and dramaturgical lessons that the play’s title figure provides. These readings often stake their claims on assumptions about the significance of visible disability. Scholars assert, for example, that the play’s early modern audiences “would immediately have recognized Richard’s physical deformity and moral depravity as a synecdoche for the state” and, seeing his physical appearance, would have understood Richard as the “vehicle for the doctrine that villainy in the soul was predicated by a correspondent deformity in the body.” Critics have also been quick to describe what exactly the Richard of Shakespeare’s play looks like: “A twisted mind in a twisted shape, Richard, the crippled figure, has an unbalanced and unfinished body, a hump, a limp, and perhaps . . . even acquires a withered or shortened arm by the middle of the play.” The body is incontrovertible proof of his character’s motivations: “In acting the body—hunched, limping, and creeping in the margins—the actor will automatically enact mind, manner, and motive.” The “deformed Richard Crookback” thus becomes an example of a whole class of dramatic characters whose “sheer physique is so extraordinary that their very bodies make a continuous implicit contribution on their own account, as powerful cultural signs, to the dramatic narrative.” These familiar interpretations demonstrate how easily we assume we know what “deformity” looks like, and therefore what Richard emblematizes, as we move from his deformed body to claims about the early modern period and back again: Richard’s body seems to speak for itself, revealing evil, and his actions prove the stereotype his body evokes.

The field of early modern disability studies that has grown up around Richard III has challenged the moral interpretation of disability that moves so easily from appearance to evil. Richard has been read as a “dismodern” figure who wields his deformity as a performative technology of power. He offers an important “nascent medical model of disability,” heightening the diagnostic scrutiny his form invites. Given the multiple significations of monsters in cultural discourse, his figure creates “interpretive indeterminacy” about the portent he offers. His theatrical prosthetics figure the props of the state and threaten reproductive futurity by performing a kind of “genealogical disablement.” As a disabled character, he nonetheless dissembles his own disability by employing the stereotype of a rogue as part of a “counterfeit-disability tradition.” His bustling movement is the engine of the play’s theatrical work with history, as his shifting form figures the relation between texts as a “degree of difference” between source and play, between quarto and folio, and between actor and character. These critical arguments model generative possibilities: disability theory opens up Shakespeare’s play to new perceptions of early modern ideas about embodiment, and Shakespeare’s play complicates reductive assumptions about disability in the past.

And we are still talking about Richard. Although this book makes the case for moving beyond Richard III, beyond Richard III, and beyond Shakespeare, I begin with the conviction that there is still more to say. Work in disability studies has productively questioned why an early modern play would “find it necessary for Richard to be impaired in order to make the point the text is trying to make.” In this chapter, I ask instead: How have we already codified the “point” of the text when we associate a stable discourse of deformity with Richard III? And, what exactly does Richard Gloucester’s body look like on the stage? Asking these questions, I do not mean to recenter Richard III, which, as Siebers rightly points out, risks continuing to orient disability studies around the “embrace [of] standard-bearers who represent power.” Yet I argue here that we have not read Richard’s body closely enough, moving swiftly into an “allegory of interpretation” rather than attending to the creaky joints and dazzling dexterity that define the actor’s body in the act of deforming the role. Over the course of this argument, I revisit Shakespeare’s Richard, among other dramatic representations, and then consider libels on the death of Robert Cecil, and Francis Bacon’s essay on deformity, which cement the association of deformity with evil into fixity. The knotted discourses of theatrical performance and political history, which thrive on the stereotype of his distinctive shape, point us to a richer concept of “deformity,” the term that Shakespeare’s Richard uses to describe his figure. By constructing physical difference through presentational action in time, theatrical performance of disability torques the relationship between the body of the actor and the body of the character.


Reprinted from Unfixable Forms: Disability, Performance, and the Early Modern English Theater, by Katherine Schaap Williams. Copyright © 2021 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.

One Comment



Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)