In his essay “The Unruly Masculinity of Richard III,” Ian Frederick Moulton writes that Shakespeare’s first four history plays not only address wars of the fifteenth century, but “concerns and anxieties provoked by the contemporary war with Spain,” addressing “the dangers of feminine rule [and] uncertain succession of the crown, the threat of foreign invaders, and the excesses of unruly or self-serving captains” (254). A play about “masculine disorder,” Richard III features the inversion of traditional gender values, women appear as strong, masculine usurpers while men appear weakened (255). Moulton argues that, “in the absence of strong masculine royal authority, English manhood…turns to devour itself” (258). The deformed Richard is the personification of this “destructive masculine force,” represented by his emblem the boar and contrasted by his successor Richmond (259). Moulton also points out that Richard’s reference to his inability to cry over the death of his father suggests his “excess of masculine heat” and imbalance of the humors (260-61). Richard’s disregard for the order of patriarchy and the bonds of male warriors is what makes his viciousness, ambition and skill in battle makes him monstrous and dangerous to the state rather than a military asset (262). Moulton also describes the way in which deformity was perceived in the sixteenth century as connected to sin, eroticism, female imagination during childbirth and was considered threatening to the nation (262-3). Moulton concludes by explaining how Richard’s wooing of Anne demonstrates his need for women within the patriarchal order of reproduction despite his mysogeny, demonstrating his inability to see gender as non-essential (268).
Moulton’s essay not only makes a clear case for Richard III as a complex narrative of gender roles and patriarchal order as well as situating the play’s themes within historical events and ideology. While Richard appears to be a problematic figure in gendered terms, situated between masculine power and feminine weakness represented by his deformity, this essay shows how these two gender identities can coexist. Richard’s need to assert his masculinity in the form of ambitious and cruel political scheming may be understood as the consequence of his physical deformity, not as an Elizabethan manifestation of “sin” and warped eroticism, but a psychological response. Moulton’s essay provides insight into the complicated role of women in the play relative to anxieties about Elizabeth I as both strong leader and “usurping woman,” demonstrating how they can at once act outside of accepted social roles to confront a male authority and become victims of a usurper themselves. Moutlon’s essay ultimately provides a way of understanding Richard III not only as part of a historical study of gender roles and nation-building, but also reveals its potential as a modern critique of patriarchy, revealing its inadequacy in the face of individual agency and non-traditional gender roles.References:
Moulton, Ian Frederick. “’A Monster Great Deformed’: The Unruly Masculinity of Richard III.” Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 47, No. 3. Autumn. Folger Shakespeare Library. 1996. Pp. 251-268.