Representations of disability in Richard III
Updated: Nov 16
This essay started its life as degree coursework and has since been adapted for public reading. Bold As Bard's 2020 production was unfortunately postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. All opinions are my own except where appropriately cited to their sources.
This article analyses depictions of physical disability in Shakespeare’s Richard III to illustrate ways in which Western theatre reinforces negative representation of disability and ways in which crip artists might resist. I focus on the 1984 RSC production of Richard III alongside Coventry community theatre company Bold as Bard’s 2019-20 production in which all performers identify as disabled. I will use Carrie Sandahl’s crip theory to frame my enquiry, which defines disability as ‘a viable identity liable to be recognised, acknowledged and celebrated’ (Sandahl, 2018). Reclaiming the pejorative ‘cripple’, it positions disability as ‘a positive, substantive, authentic alternative to able-bodiedness’ (McRuer in Menon, 2011, p296). By using Sandahl’s definition, I reject the medical model in which impairments are ‘corrected’ to conform to normative values.
Since theatre’s origin in ancient Greece, disability has been represented onstage in many forms, from depictions of "madness" in Sophoclean tragedy to the exhibition of Bedlam inpatients as public entertainment in the 1720s. When discussing how theatre represents disability, it is worth considering what representation itself entails. Rosemarie Garland Thomson suggests that representations of disability ‘frequently obscure…complexities in favour of the rhetorical or symbolic potential of the prototypical disabled figure.’ (Thomson in Kuppers, 2017, p13). In this context, much Western theatre could be said to misrepresent disability, exploiting its metaphoric potential as an inversion of able-bodiedness rather than accurately representing it as a ‘viable identity’ in its own right.
Across Western theatre, physical disability is problematically aligned with social futility, if not abject evil, exemplified by the hunchbacked figure of Vice in medieval mystery plays. Like the racist representation of Aaron in Titus Andronicus, whose Blackness and criminality are presented as symbiotic, crip characters in early modern drama are frequently apportioned adverse outcomes as a result of their disability: take the proliferation of tokenistic minor characters named Stump or Cripple in the work of Shakespeare’s contemporaries (Love, 2018). Theatrical representations of physical disability rarely stray from this negative ‘symbolic potential’, condemning crip characters to fatalistic, negative consequences.
Where crip theory positions disability as ‘a positive...alternative to able-bodiedness’ (McRuer in Menon, 2011, p296), Western theatre historically presents it as the polar opposite. Not only do the representations Thomson describes ‘obscure [the] complexities’ of disabled existence, they also promote ‘a most blatant and pernicious form of stereotyping’ (Thurer, 1980). Too often, visibly disabled theatregoers see their images represented only as metaphors for corruption, impotence and suffering; the ‘defused infection of a man’ that Lady Anne refers to in Richard III (Shakespeare, 2008, 1:2:79). Put simply, it is clear that Western theatre traditionally reinforces negative representations of disability.
A canonical text which is taught, performed and celebrated across the West four centuries after its inception, Richard III arguably encapsulates theatre’s problematic relationship with disability. In it, Shakespeare employs the ‘symbolic potential’ of the disability to reinforce representations in which a body ‘rudely stamp’d’ (Shakespeare, 2008, 1:1:16) signifies political and moral corruption.
In the opening scene, Shakespeare aligns peace with conventional, able normality; ‘grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front’ to ‘caper nimbly in a lady’s chamber’, something Richard of Gloucester’s physical impairment permanently precludes (Shakespeare, 2008, 1:1:9-12). As he ‘descants on [his] own deformity’ (Shakespeare, 2008, 1:1:17), it is eminently clear that the ‘smooth’d…front’ of peace-time alienates deformed Richard, excluded by the ‘sportive tricks’ of his brother’s court. As with the medieval Vice figure, Gloucester is fundamentally ‘unfinished’, his moral and physical infirmity compounded as one and the same. Shakespeare exploits the symbolic potential of disability in Richard III, presenting it as embodied evidence of Gloucester’s transgression from the peaceful able-bodied norm: ‘Since I cannot prove a lover, …I am determined to prove a villain.’ (Shakespeare, 2008, 1:1:28-30). In line with Thomson’s criticism of symbolic representations, an inextricable link between disability and depravity is established, though the framing of Richard as rebellious, human and flawed anti-hero possessed of his own agency is arguably a more empowering and exciting vision of disability than much 21st-century "inspiration porn."
This is especially pertinent when considering Richard III in performance; from its first performance to the present day, able actors ‘cripping up’ to portray Richard’s disability remains commonplace (Kuppers, 2017, p17). Though brilliant and sensitively researched, Antony Sher’s performance in Bill Alexander’s 1984 production could arguably be said to reinforce such ideas. Sher drew upon the line describing Richard as a ‘bottled spider’ to embody his physical disability, reinforcing ableist representations of a king whose ‘physical differences underline his metaphysical unfitness to govern’ (Mitchell & Snyder, 2011, p101) - but powerfully presenting Richard as someone who capitalises upon ableist preconceptions of the 'harmless cripple [sic]' and resists them. Such symbolism lends itself to the original performance context of Richard III, but could also be said to expand upon it.
As the curtain rises, Sher as Gloucester is first seen seated, eyes closed and head tilted slightly backwards, the image suggesting a ‘harmless cripple in the sun’ (Sher, 2004, p160). Suddenly charging towards the audience on the line ‘I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks’ (Shakespeare, 2008, 1:1:14), his gnarled crutches slam into the ground, supporting a bulbously muscular torso with dangling, withered legs. His movement quality seems angular, dangerous— capable of violent, heavy speed. The only fully mobile feature, Sher’s face appears bitter, its aggressive muscularity sunken under the prosthetic bulk of his shoulders and hump.
Beyond the literal prosthesis of this ‘bottled spider’ physicality, Sher’s performance visibly reinforces the representation of physical disability as negative signifier. In rehearsal, it was suggested that ‘we play him as a four-legged creature’, drawing upon animalistic descriptions of Richard to provoke ‘both pity and terror’ (Sher, 2014, pp118-119). This idea conforms to the theory of narrative prosthesis, ‘a [Western] cultural tendency to use disability as a narrative device’ which ‘rarely appears to offer… ‘positive’ portraits’ (Mitchell & Snyder, 2011, p16). Here, the prosthesis is both literal and metaphorical; Shakespeare’s crippled Richard is a cipher for themes of corruption, isolation and psychophysical deformity, a narrative exploitation exacerbated by an able performing body appropriating extant physical conditions through costume and movement. His prosthetic back sculpted by costumiers to mimic the actual Richard’s kyphosis (which, unlike the RSC's interpretation, was thought to be invisible while clothed), Sher also decided to play Gloucester as paralysed from the waist down, dragging his feet and accentuating his legs’ thinness with upper bulk.
During the coronation scene, Richard and Anne faced away from the audience, their cloaks removed climactically to reveal the performers’ naked backs. Based on research suggesting monarchs were stripped for coronation, this directorial choice juxtaposes ‘able-bodied heteronormativity’ in the form of Penny Downie’s Anne as Richard’s queen (McRuer in Menon, 2011, p296) with Richard’s crip identity. Here, narrative prosthesis is specifically intended to ‘provoke [both] pity and terror’, contrasting Sandahl’s celebration of disability as a ‘positive, substantive [and] authentic’ identity position.
Through narrative and literal prosthesis, Sher’s portrayal of Richard III could be said to ‘draw the same bold equations between external deformity and psychic immorality that are embodied in the medieval grotesque’ (Mitchell & Snyder, 2011, p102), reinforcing Western theatre’s conventionally negative representations of disability rather than disrupting them. However, the agency and respect with which he is endowed may also be viewed as empowering; may we not as disabled individuals express the full range of humanity onstage, even when this includes abject (or in Shakespeare's case, nuanced and complex) villainy?
Leaping forward to the twenty-first century, some companies have begun to counter these potentially limiting performance traditions. Outside of Shakespeare’s political context, Gloucester is viewed in a different light: though villainous, his depravity seems more a product of ableist society than of his disability. Bold as Bard are a community company at the forefront of diverse theatre-making in Warwickshire. They state that ‘everyone should have access to the same opportunities’ and are committed to creating ‘highly engaging and reputable work within schools, corporate sectors and local communities’ (EGO Performance website, 2019). They embrace crip theory, ‘recognis[ing], acknowledg[ing] and celebrat[ing]’ disability through diverse and divergent onstage representation (Sandahl, 2018). Retitled Richard the Spaz, they intend their production of Richard III to ‘make a statement about how disability was and is still used in entertainment as a symbol for wrongness or evil’ (Wilson, 2019).
On the controversial retitling, company member Kyle McCall Wilson writes that Richard the Spaz ‘was suggested by the actor who plays Richard III, Lee Bettles who has cerebral palsy and has developed a thick skin and a dark sense of humour’ - much like Shakespeare's Richard himself. Wilson emphasises the non-normative crip standpoint the company has taken, stressing that ‘we [as disabled performers] feel we have the right to use whatever language has been used against us.’ Bettles in particular was especially eager to perform Richard III not in spite but because of the way Shakespeare represents disability, channelling his own response to societal discrimination into a comedic, disturbing force-of-nature Richard whose delivery and wit is as quick and knifelike as his movement is slow.
Queer theorist Robert McRuer states that ‘certain crip performances…embrace the antisocial and accept the ‘figural burden’ we have inherited’ (McRuer in Menon, 2011, p201), implying Richard III can disrupt rather than reinforce negative representations of disability. In direct contrast to symbolic representation which ‘removes the unsightly from view’ (Mitchell & Snyder, 2011, pp15-18), Shakespeare’s Richard III centres the experience of a physically disabled character as the singular tragic protagonist in a previously unprecedented manner. Though Richard aligns himself with vice— ‘thus like the formal Vice, Iniquity, / I moralize two meanings in one word’ (Shakespeare, 2008, 3:1:82–83)— his representation of disability could be said to reflect the damaging effect of ableist social norms, and their contorting upon those excluded by them, rather than fundamentally othering disability itself. Bold as Bard play on this in their production through the climactic scene between Richard and Anne: ableist lines such as ‘Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity’ (Shakespeare, 2008, 1:2:57) are accentuated, drawing attention to Richard’s disability in a manner that disrupts conventional representations through the casting of an invisibly disabled Anne who nonetheless espouses the text's ableist views, casting them in a new and nuanced light that might provoke intersectional thought on the ways we internalise and reproduce our own oppressions, such as ableism and misogyny.
As evidenced in my analysis of Richard III and Antony Sher’s performance, it is clear that Western theatre tends to negatively represent disability. However, Bold as Bard’s inclusive performance provides indisputable evidence that it is possible for Richard III to disrupt these representations when placed in the right hands, reclaming the derogatory flavours of the play in an inclusive production which centred the ‘hard work, talent and dedication’ (Wilson, 2019) of disabled performers in line with Sandahl’s empowering definition.
While I largely concur with Mitchell and Snyder that Bill Alexander’s 1984 production reinforces rather than disrupts negative representations of disability it does so with intended positive effect, centring a disabled anti-hero who has been successively reclaimed by generations of people 'sent before their time' into an inaccessible world. In the words of theatre expert Victoria Lewis, ‘while Richard III may be a great play, those who stage or see it must confront the assumption that a deformed body represents an evil soul’ (Lewis in Kuppers, 2017, p20). This is exemplified by Richard the Spaz, where derogatory words and attitudes are not shied away from but actively employed to disrupt the negative representations audiences have come to expect, reframing Richard as anarchic anti-hero of a fundamentally corrupted world where disability and depravity coexist without being symbiotic.
While Richard III has traditionally reinforced negative representations of physical disability, I would argue that Antony Sher's Richard and, to a greater extent, Bold as Bard's Richard the Spaz disrupt such representations. As they navigate the humanity and depravity of Shakespeare’s crip king, theatre-makers should remember Sandahl’s celebratory definition of disability as a viable ‘alternative to able-bodiedness’ rather than a flaw to be shamed or corrected. As twenty-first century creatives engaging with Shakespeare’s works, it is essential we enthusiastically grapple with his most problematic of plays, using them to shed light upon and, crucially, disrupt the ableism, racism and misogyny they often contain.
Ego Performance Website http://www.egoperformance.co.uk/bold-as-bard/ accessed 17/12/19
Kuppers, P. (2017) Theatre & Disability. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Love, G. (2018) Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability. London: Bloomsbury- The Arden Shakespeare.
Menon, M. (2011). Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Duke University Press.
Mitchell, D. T. and Snyder, S. L. (2011) Narrative Prosthesis: disability and the dependencies of discourse. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
Richard the Spaz: A Disabled Adaptation of Richard III by William Shakespeare (2019-20) Directed by Katy Stephens [Coventry, 14 December].
Richard III by William Shakespeare (1984) Directed by Bill Alexander. Stratford Upon Avon. Available at: RSC Production Archives (Accessed: 16/12/19).
Richard III with Sir Antony Sher (2018) Shakespeare Uncovered, aired 26 October at 00:54:11 GMT. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/shakespeare-uncovered/uncategorized/richard-iii-with-sir-antony-sher-full-film/ (Accessed: 1712/19).
Sandahl, C. (2018) 'What's Crip Theory?' Breaking Silences: Demanding Crip Justice Conference, Wright State University, Ohio, September 22-24. Available at https://www.wright.edu/event/sex-disability-conference/crip-theory#theory (Accessed: 27/11/19)
Shakespeare, W., ed. Bate, J. and Rasmussen, E. (2008) Richard III. Basingstoke [England]: Macmillan. The RSC Complete Works
Sher, A. (2014). Year of the king: an actor's diary and sketchbook. London: Nick Hern Books.
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Wilson, K. M. (2019) EGO Performance Company [Facebook] posted 5th December. Available at: www.facebook.com/EGOPerformance/photos/a.236541683108971/2612277155535400/?type=3&theater (Accessed: 26/12/19)