Shakespeare lived during the 16th and 17th century when medicine was nowhere near as advanced as it is today. Religion dominated most aspects of society during this time period and people often turned to it to explain the unknown. It was a common belief that deformities were a sign of evil or a bad omen. People who were born with these abnormalities were thought to have some kind of corruption inside of them. Today thanks to science, we know these notions to be inaccurate, instead of being a genetic malfunction or an environmental problem affecting the fetus in the womb.
The play depicts Richard as an egotist with a hunchback and withered arm, and he uses this deformity as an excuse to commit a series of heinous crimes later in the play. In the opening scene of the play, he gives us his famous soliloquy where he reveals his true intentions to the audience. He cares only for himself and will let nothing and no one stand between him and the throne to the extent of even committing murder. Throughout his soliloquy, the first person pronouns “I” and “my” are repeated frequently. His choice of words subconsciously shows that he is his main concern. Richard shows clear signs of sociopathic behavior with his lack of a conscience, and absence of empathy.
He shows no remorse for his actions and even takes unnecessary measures to ensure his claim to the throne. He does this by having the young princes killed in the tower, and also by having his wife killed in order to arrange another marriage to the young Elizabeth in order to secure his crown. There was no reason to murder the princes, for he had already positioned himself to be the sole heir by causing their legitimacy to be questioned. These actions speak directly to his continuing option to do wrong only to hurt everyone he associates with.
In his soliloquy, he also explains: “And therefore since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain and hate the idle pleasures of these days.” He claims that he cannot win a romantic partner to entertain himself during this time of peace, and therefore he will be a villain. Yet this is clearly untrue as we see him win the favor of Lady Anne in the very next scene, in difficult circumstances. He is able to win her hand even though she resents him for killing her husband and her father-in-law.
The wooing of Lady Anne shows that Richard is capable of manipulating others to obtain what he wants. He is able to convince a woman who despises the very sight of him into marrying him. In a grand gesture he gives her his sword and giving her the option to either forgive him or to kill him by telling her: “If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive, lo here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword; Which if thou please to hide in this true breast And let the soul forth that adoreth thee I lay it naked to the deadly stroke, And humbly beg the death upon my knee.”
He knows that Lady Anne is a virtuous woman and uses these traits against her, making them her weakness. This skill even allows him to manipulate the audience, and draw sympathy and admiration from them. He uses repeatedly mentions his deformity and identifies it as the source of his corruption to acquire compassion from his audience. Richard gets sympathy from the audience, but it fades when it is realized that his evil stems from far more than his deformity. The audience is drawn to him because he has a certain charisma that makes him almost likable. He uses speeches to gain our trust and make us commiserate with him. Richard insists that he has been forced to play the villain, but in fact, he seems to be enjoying himself.
At one point he states: “But then I sigh;, and, with a piece of scripture, tell them that God bids us do good for evil: and thus I clothe my naked villainy with old odd ends stolen out of holy writ and seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Richard finds pleasure in plotting and outwitting those around him and brags about it to the audience. He is amused by how much more clever he appears to be than the others and enjoys watching his scheme play out. He even able to joke and smile when learning of his younger brother’s death, joking that he was “new-christened.” The Richard III that Shakespeare presents to us is historically inaccurate.
His body was discovered recently and showed no hunchback or withered arm. The only disfigurement his skeleton showed was scoliosis, which could easily have been hidden under his clothing. With this knowledge, we can speculate that it would not have much negative impact on his relationships. It was common for playwrights to modify characters and historical events to please the monarch on the throne, and the nobility that hired them. Knowing this it is likely that Shakespeare did this to gain favor by showcasing the ruling family in a favorable light while depicting previous rulers in a negative fashion. This practice is still common today in the media when reporting upon prominent society figures.
The reigning monarch when Shakespeare was writing was Queen Elizabeth, who was a descendant of the house of Tudor. She was the granddaughter of Richmond, who was crowned King Henry VII after defeating Richard III in battle. Shakespeare wanted to depict Richard as evil in nature and decided to reflect this in his outer appearance. Since they believed that congenital defects were a sign of evil or a bad omen from God himself, he added this to Richard’s physical features to make him seem even more malevolent to his audience. Shakespeare intended for the deformity to indicate a malicious presence inside Richard which with the historical information we know, ultimately becomes apparent by the end of the play.
In conclusion, Richard’s deformity can be seen as a reflection of his own immoral actions committed over the course of the play. He makes an effort to use his deformity to justify his atrocious actions, but it becomes clear that this cannot be the sole reason behind them. He manipulates everyone, even the audience in order for the plots he has concocted to come to fruition. Richard even enjoys the conspiring and boasts about his cleverness, as if it is amusing to him. Shakespeare added more deformities to Richard III description to emulate the malicious character he wished to portray. Richard III continued to perpetuate that his deplorable actions were of his own choosing, for his own pleasure and not the result of his internalization of the treatment from others.