In The Third Part of Henry the Sixth, we begin seeing more widely ranging descriptions of Richard Duke of Gloucester’s deformities.
yes, I know, these are not the first descriptions… The Second Part has three references: a stage direction mentioning his “crookback” (V.i.119 stage direction); Clifford calling him a “heap of wrath, foul indigested lump, // As crooked in (his) manners as (his) shape!” (V.i.155-156); and Young Clifford’s description of “Foul stigmatic” (V.i.134)
In the opening stage direction he is introduced as “Crookback Richard” (I.i s.d.).
In Act One, Scene Four, as Margaret mocks York before killing him, she calls Richard
that valiant crookback prodigy,
Dickie, your boy, that with his grumbling voice
Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies
Margaret begins by grudgingly admitting Richard’s military prowess (valiant: “bold, brave, courageous” [Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0)]), this despite the fact that Richard is 8 years old at this point in history.
or is she discussing his military bravery? Valiant also had the meaning of “sturdy” (OED), by which she could have been describing Richard’s hunchback; around the time of the play’s composition, the term was also taking on the meaning of “Strong in respect to smell” (OED)… so it very well could be an insult as well
She then goes on to refer to his hunchback (“crookback”) and calls him “something abnormal or monstrous” (OED, “prodigy”), dismissing him by using the diminutive version of his name (“Dickie”). Finally, she discusses Richard’s speaking voice which is “a low rumbling sound; a murmuring, a subdued utterance of discontent” (OED, “grumble”), a murmur of discontent that spurs his father (or anyone else who will listen) on to treason (“cheer his dad in mutinies”).
foreshadowing alert: tomorrow, we’re going to dive into this concept more deeply
In Act Two, Scene Two, Clifford won’t even do Richard the courtesy of referring to him by name, instead saying, “Ay, crookback” (II.ii.96), again referencing his hunchback. Later in that same scene, Margaret insults Richard,
But thou are neither like thy sire nor dam,
But like a foul misshapen stigmatic,
Marked by the destinies to be avoided,
As venom toads or lizards' dreadful stings.
Richard is not like either his father or mother in shape. Instead, he is “Grossly offensive to the senses, physically loathsome; primarily with reference to the odor or appearance indicative of putridity or corruption” or “Morally or spiritually polluted; abominable, detestable, wicked” or “Revolting, disgusting” (all OED, “foul”), a misshapen “profligate (or) villain” or “a person marked with some physical deformity or blemish” (both OED, “stigmatic”). She claims that Richard is to be avoided, as he is poisonous (“As venom toads or lizards”).
In Act Three, Scene Two, as Richard soliloquizes on his ambition for the crown (for the first time), he catalogs his deformities:
Why, love forswore me in my mother’s womb,
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe
To shrink mine arm up like a withered shrub,
To make an envious mountain on my back--
Where sits deformity to mock my body--
To shape my legs of an unequal size,
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlicked bear whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.
Why do we get this catalog from Richard himself? Why don’t we hear this from others? Is this perceived in his own mind, but in no one else’s eyes? Wouldn’t Margaret immediately pounce on these as objects of scorn? There’s something amiss here…
Here, we finally see that Richard has more deformities than just his hunchback: one arm short and weak (“shrink mine arm up like a withered shrub” instead of a full and strong limb), the hunchback (“envious mountain on my back”), “legs of an unequal size.” He is a mismatched mess, a “chaos” that looks nothing like his mother (just as Margaret claimed an act before).
Richard blames all of these physical faults on his mother, whom he claims “destroy(ed)” (OED, “corrupt”) nature with a bribe.
But why would she do this? We have yet to meet his mother, Cicely Neville, but we will in the next play.
In Act Five, Scene Five, after Richard implies that Margaret was more manly than Henry, Prince Edward uses an obscure classical reference to note Richard’s deformity: “Let Aesop fable in a winter’s night — // His currish riddles sorts not with this place” (V.v.25-26). Edward says that Richard can continue making up stories by saying “Let Aesop fable”… and this is also an off-hand reference to Aesop’s supposed ugliness and deformity. Edward then refers to Richard as dog-like (“currish”).
In Act Five, Scene Six, even the soft-spoken Henry describes Richard’s deformities:
To wit, an indigested and deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou camest to bite the world:
And, if the rest be true which I have heard,
Henry continues the discussion of the one element all outsiders have mentioned–the hunchback–but here he extends it to Richard’s entire body, a lump “without form or arrangement of parts; shapeless, unformed, chaotic” (OED, “indigested”). He then goes on to recount the legend of Richard being born with teeth “to bite the world,” but before Henry can recount any other rumors (“the rest…(he has) heard”), Richard cuts him off immediately (and literally). After dispatching the deposed King, Richard continues the list of his deformities:
I came into the world with my legs forward.
The midwife wondered, 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 crooked my mind to answer it.
Now Richard expands on the tooth rumor, giving us first-hand reportage (sorta) from the midwife and nurses. Yes, he was born with teeth, and now he will “snarl and bite and play the dog” (nicely tying in to what Prince Edward had said a scene earlier…).
isn’t it interesting that Richard expands on what others have said earlier? first with Margaret’s description of Richard looking nothing like his mother (a woman known for her beauty and from whom her son Edward took his good looks), and now with Edward’s dog comments… Is Richard being spurred on to exaggerate his own deformities?
He claims that the heavens (the “nature” his mother “corrupt[ed]”?) has misshaped his body, so “Let hell make crooked (his) mind to answer it.”
and isn’t the verb usage here interesting as well… hell hasn’t already made his mind crooked … he is now going to LET hell make his mind crooked … in other words, he’s not truly villainous YET, but he’s going to be… you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, ladies and germs (and really, we haven’t… both Prince Edward and Henry’s killings would have been seen more as politically expedient in a regime change than truly villainous)
Let’s jump back to the beginning of that final speech by Richard, though: his birth “with (his) legs forward”–a breech birth. And not just a typical “Frank” breech birth (with bottom forward), but a “kneeling” breech… extremely rare. What can cause such a breech birth? Fetal abnormalities… interesting. Also, one risk of a breech birth is loss of oxygen to the brain, causing neurological damage. Another risk is that the leading hip (as well as the genitalia) may be swollen and bruised; while this usually resolves itself, Richard is “usual” and what if it didn’t … what if Richard’s hip remained swollen… would this explain his “legs of unequal size” (III.ii.159)? Could the genital swelling have caused his anti-romance philosophy? Would that have then accentuated any emotional extensions of any neurological damage the oxygen deprivation during the breech birth may have caused?
sure, it could. except for one thing: all of his deformities were b.s…. part of the hatchet job on Richard, traceable from Shakespeare, to his sources Hall and Hollinshed, to his source Thomas More, a Tudor Chancellor
Can’t wait to see how Shakespeare buries the needle on the deformity meter in Richard the Third…