Spiders and Toads

By Marc Williams

Laurence Olivier as Richard III.

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
~Richard III (Act 1, scene 1).

King Richard III is among Shakespeare’s greatest villains. Based on the real-life Richard of Glouster, Shakespeare’s title character murders his way to the throne, bragging about his deeds and ambitions to the audience in some of Shakespeare’s most delightful soliloquies. Shakespeare’s Richard is famously depicted as a hunchback, and uses his physical deformity as justification for his evil ambitions:

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
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.

For stage actors, Richard III is a tremendously challenging role. On one hand, he is pure evil—but he must also be charming and likeable. If you aren’t familiar with the play, its second scene features Richard successfully wooing Lady Anne as she grieves over her husband’s corpse! And Richard is her husband’s killer! Shakespeare’s Richard is both evil and smooth.

Simon Russell Beale as Richard III.

Actors must also deal with the issue of Richard’s physical disability. For instance, Richard is described as a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad,” an image that inspired Simon Russell Beale’s 1992 performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company, while Antony Sher’s iconic 1984 interpretation was inspired by the phrase “bottled spider,” an insult hurled at Richard in Act I.

Anthony Sher’s “bottled spider” interpretation of  Richard III.

While much of the historical record disputes Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a maniacal mass-murderer, relatively little is known about Richard’s disability. According to the play, Richard is a hunchback with a shriveled arm. However, there is little evidence to support these claims.

This uncertainty may soon change. Archaeologists in Leicester, England have uncovered the remnants of a chapel that was demolished in the 16th century. That chapel, according to historic accounts of Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth, was Richard’s burial site. Not only have researchers found the church, but they have also located the choir area, where Richard’s body was allegedly interred. And indeed, last week, the archaeologists uncovered bones in the choir area:

If the archeologists have indeed found the remains of Richard III, the famous king was definitely not a hunchback. It appears he suffered from scoliosis—a lateral curve or twist of the spine—but not from kyphosis, which is a different kind of spinal curvature that leads to a pronounced forward-leaning posture. As Dr. Richard Taylor explains in the video, the excavated remains suggest this person would have appeared to have one shoulder slightly higher than the other as a result of scoliosis.

Interestingly, Ian McKellen’s performance as Richard III, captured in Richard Loncraine’s 1996 film, seems to capture the kind of physical condition described by Dr. Taylor, with one shoulder slightly higher than the other. At the 6:45 mark in this video, one can see how McKellen dealt with Richard’s condition.

So it appears Shakespeare not only distorted historical details in Richard III, he also apparently distorted the title character’s shape. Of Shakespeare’s Richard, McKellen wrote:

Shakespeare’s stage version of Richard has erased the history of the real king, who was, by comparison, a model of probity. Canny Shakespeare may well have conformed to the propaganda of the Tudor Dynasty, Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather having slain Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Shakespeare was not writing nor rewriting history. He was building on his success as thee young playwright of the Henry VI trilogy, some of whose monstrously self-willed men and women recur in Richard III.

It seems likely that Shakespeare wanted Richard to seem as evil as possible in order to flatter Queen Elizabeth I, depicting her grandfather as England’s conquering hero. But why distort Richard’s physical disability as well?

In describing Richard’s body shape, it is difficult to ascertain what Shakespeare’s motives might have been and perhaps even more difficult to assess his attitudes toward physical difference in general. For example, in my “Big Plays, Big Ideas” class in the BLS program, we discuss the issue of race in Othello, even though we don’t know much about what Shakespeare thought about race. Many scholars have investigated the subject of physical difference in Shakespeare, of course: there are papers on Richard’s spine, naturally, but also Othello’s seizures, Lavinia’s marginalization in Titus Andronicus after her hands and feet are severed, the depiction of blindness in King Lear, and even Hermia’s height in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And just as one must ask, “is Othello about race,” we might also ask, “is Richard III about shape?” I doubt many would argue that physical difference is the primary focus of Shakespeare’s Richard III, but it will be interesting to observe how the apparent discovery of Richard’s body will affect future performances of the play. Will actors continue to twist their bodies into “bottled spiders,” or will they focus on the historical Richard’s scoliosis—and perhaps ask why such vicious language is used to describe such a minor difference?

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One response to “Spiders and Toads

  1. We should have known that Sir Ian had it right all along!