Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Deformity and Performance in "Richard III"

Chapter four of Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse addresses representations of Richard’s deformity in film, tracking historical interpretations of Richard’s disability and finally examining various film versions of the play. David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder assert that film as a representational medium relies on “external deformities and visible ticks of character” in order to communicate the character’s psychological state (97). Comparing Richard’s quest for vengeance and need to compensate for “built-in defects” to the cyborgs in Bladerunner, the authors state that Richard’s disability “[underlines] his own metaphysical unfitness to govern” and would have been recognized by an Elizabethan audience as a traditional representation of Vice (99-100). However, the authors also suggest that when viewed in the context of changing contemporary attitudes towards disability and self-fashioning, Richard’s deformity becomes part of his performance and a narrative device. Richard wields his disability as a weapon, “[reclaiming] the myriad of associations placed upon his form to his own advantage even while divulging his tactics to an audience that thereby becomes an accomplice to his own treachery” (104). Mitchell and Snyder ultimately argue that “Richard III is Shakespeare’s first depiction of the modern subject,” who “conceives of the world as a stage” and “yields the very stuff that individuality is made of—the multitude of psychic ‘depths’ alluded to by disability” (108). The chapter ends with a brief discussion of various film versions of Richard III, some which only reaffirm the naturalized connection between physiology and psychology while others take advantage of the unfixed meanings of Richard’s deformed physique.

This essay provides a basis for understanding Richard’s deformity in a non-traditional way, opening up his deformity to interpretation by the director, the actor and the audience while also revealing how Richard’s disability can humanize his often caricature-like character. Rather than a fixed character trait that must be worked around by the production and the actor, Richard’s deformity becomes a powerful tool that helps to drive the action of the play, such as the scene where Richard craftily uses his disability dispatch Hastings. If Richard’s disability is a narrative device and a tool, then the nature of his physical difference is mutable, potentially enhancing, and no longer predetermined by the text. This reading of Richard’s deformity also asks the audience to question their own naturalized perceptions of disability and psychology, making the play a story about physicality, performance and personal identity. If Richard’s deformity is no longer trapped within the medieval conception of disability and psychological depravity, then Richard is a fuller, more modern, and more threatening protagonist and the play’s traditional performances destabilized.


Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. The University of Michigan Press. 2003.


  1. Wow, this is great! I'm attempting to write a research paper about Richard III's disability and how it has been portrayed though performances and the deeper meanings behind Shakespeare's choice to give him a disability. Any suggestions?

  2. Hi I'm also writing a PhD about Richard III in performance and it reception in last years in Spain. If you need any info just write me.