Just a reminder: I recently guested (again) on the Oi! Spaceman podcast to talk about ‘Caves of Androzani’. Download here.
What makes an English king ‘bad’? It certainly isn’t starting wars, brutally oppressing peasants and vassals, invading places, or killing and exploiting lots of people. If it were, most of them would be seen as bad, and Edward III (who basically started the Hundred Years War) and Richard I (crusader) wouldn’t have the perennially good reputations they still enjoy. Generally we seem to decide a king is bad if he lost something. We – by which I of course mean ‘someone somewhere’ – seem to have decided that John, Edward II, Richard II and Richard III were the ‘bad’ kings. Losers all. John lost a lot of France, and a lot of his power to his barons, an event marked by Magna Carta. Edward II lost to Robert Bruce at Bannockburn, thus losing control of Scotland, and then lost control of his kingdom to his wife and Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. Richard II was challenged by the peasants’ revolt, and ousted from power twice by his barons, being finally deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Lancaster. Richard III, of course, lost at Bosworth Field to Henry Tudor, thus ending the Plantagenet dynasty and inaugurating the rule of the Tudors. It seems that what we don’t like from our kings, above all else, is failure.
Peter Ackroyd once wrote, beautifully, that when a man fails Shakespeare’s sympathy envelopes him… which you can see in almost all Shakespeare’s history plays. Even Shakespeare’s Richard III is allowed flawed introspection and guilt, and even some faint self-awareness, before his final battle, thus lending him tragic dimensions… and then gets his last moments of brazen, daring defiance (the horse remark having been, in my view, seriously misunderstood). But as for history, or rather for those ‘someones somewhere’ who have decided how history is told, generation upon generation, it seems that when a king fails, condemnation envelopes him. The reasons for his defeat, military or political, are then discovered by working backwards. John failed because he was ‘bad’. The flimsiness of his claim to the throne is played up, his apparent murder of a child pretender is paraded as proof of his perfidy, etc… all the way up to becoming a villainous cartoon lion advised by a snake. Edward II failed because he was too fond of his favourites, i.e. men of lesser nobility who exploited their access to him for personal gain, and who antagonised the baronage by cutting them out of the action and insulting them. It’s unclear whether people at the time though Edward was having sexual relationships with his favourites (historians disagree), though this has become the standard popular account since. The probably apocryphal story about the red-hot poker emerged years later, and seems to sadistically imply a fitting end for a sodomite. Marlowe’s play about Edward contains a charge of admiration for the frank love of two men, and Marlowe’s tragic overreacher version of Edward is now favoured in an era when many of us are inclined to sympathise with a man attacked for being gay. You can see this in Derek Jarman’s sympathetic film version, in which Edward is explicitly a gay man victimised by homophobes. Even so, the whole concept of Edward as ‘gay’ (a modern category that people of that era would not have understood) stems from the attempt to reason out why he was a bad king, a failure. Richard II also gets similar treatment, with generations of English actors playing sexual implications into Richard’s relationships with his male friends.
Richard II is a fascinating play for the disparity between what is actually on the page and what ends up on stage, on screen, or in books of criticism. A product of the mature Shakespeare (unlike his play on John which is probably from earlier in his career, and a rewrite of an older play by someone else), Richard II is a deeply ambiguous play. The standard mainstream account of the play, which you’ll find regurgitated in most text books and in most performances, is that it’s about a weak and vacillating king who loses his kingdom through imprudence to a more machiavellian but also more competent competitor. But it seems to me that the Richard of the play Richard II is far from weak or vacillating, at least before his power is challenged. What he is, however, is more interested in making money for himself and his friends (his comparatively lowly born ‘flatterers’) than in protecting the prestige and landholdings of the old aristocracy. The barons grumble about the taxes they have to pay, John of Gaunt bewails that the king is like a landlord (i.e. he makes money from land), and then Richard confiscates all Gaunt’s property when he dies, to pay for Irish wars, effectively disinheriting Gaunt’s banished son Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke was banished to stop him talking about the murder of his uncle Gloucester, a murder it is implied the king ordered. In short, the problem with Richard is not that he is weak and vacillating – or gay – but that he acts like a modern man, more interested in a man’s qualities than his breeding, a machiavellian politician, a rentier, the head of a taxation-state… and, crucially, that the people at the sharp end of this are the feudal aristocrats. Bolingbroke returns to claim his inheritance and, somewhere along the line, decides to claim the entire kingdom. His narrative is that Richard is weak, misled by flatterers. When justifying the summary execution of two of them, Bolingbroke implies they have alienated Richard from his wife. Bolingbroke’s narrative wins the political contest so decisively that it becomes dominant, to the point where it has taken over how the play is read, acted, and interpreted. And yet the evidence for this narrative is surprisingly thin in the play itself. Richard never seems unduly weak before he finds himself already outmanoeuvred, he never shows over-dependence on the words of his favourites, they never get between him and the queen, and indeed the queen seems to get on fine with them and be genuinely fond of Richard. The irony is that to champion the cause of the aristocracy against their overly modern king, Bolingbroke must himself be a very modern kind of man. He is a ruthless, self-serving, machiavellian politician. This is what is meant when he is said to be ‘competent’. He’s playing the same game of power that Richard tries to play. He just performs it better. And even then, the support of the aristocracy for him soon wanes, and he spends the next two plays he’s in – Henry IV, Parts I & II – fighting insurrections by disaffected nobles.
Overall it’s clear that, to Shakespeare, kingship itself is caught in inescapable contradictions in a world where feudal power is the basis of an autocratic state that increasingly has to try to manage amid a nascent bourgeois economy and culture. The management of these contradictions is, to a great extent, what the history plays are about, which is why Shakespeare is so extraordinarily good at them: he’s very good at writing about performance, successful and failed.
Richard III, of course, is the king about whom the most extravagant stories of villainy are told. Shakespeare’s play draws on Thomas More’s unfinished biography of Richard III which was published after More’s death. It is, perhaps, a mistake to consider this work a biography or hit-piece so much as a dramatic account of an archetypal tyrant, created in order to satirize royal tyranny and create a negative example from a humanist perspective. More does not stick to facts, indeed he freely alters them. It’s often called ‘Tudor propaganda’ but that’s an egregious anachronism which fails to take into account the fact that More is consciously working with archetypes according to the example of classical historians like Lucian and Plutarch, who freely altered the facts if they got in the way of telling the moral stories they wanted to tell. It also fails to take into account the fact that More loathed Henry Tudor (Henry VII after Bosworth) for persecuting his father. It’s far more correct to say that More, who idolised Henry VIII (at least to start with), manages to find a way to make what he assumes to be eternal verities about good and bad government coincide harmoniously with the status quo of which he was a part. The very people who are ready to write off More as a ‘propagandist’ are probably guilty of doing exactly the same thing in their newspaper articles, columns, popular history books and TV history documentaries. It is always a tacit underlying assumption that ‘we’ are the good guys, running or living in essentially good states in which everyone tries to do the right thing. Meanwhile, the bad guys are always somewhere else, in some other country or era, opposing ‘us’ directly or in principle, because of their deformities – physical, moral, and/or ideological. If More was straightforwardly a ‘propagandist’ then so are Andrew Marr, Jeremy Vine, and Jonathan Jones.
Shakespeare innovates all over the place, but More’s basic picture migrates directly to the play: Richard is a ‘deformed’ man possessed of ferocious drive and low character, who schemes and murders his way to the top. Moreover, Shakespeare probably found More’s account apt because More builds into his account the idea of Richard as a performer on the stage of politics or history, which is, as noted, one of Shakespeare’s perennial obsessions and techniques.
Shakespeare’s Richard, you see, is an actor. This, parenthetically, is yet another reason why Shakespeare’s plays couldn’t have been written by the Earl of Oxford. Stage metaphors pervade Shakespeare’s plays and poems, and that’s just the start. Almost all his great characters are, in some sense, performers. The mechanics of performer and audience underwrite so many of his depictions of social interaction. He understands the theatrical aspects of politics, the manipulation of expectation and ‘belief’ that makes up so much of it, the fact that ‘belief’ is so often a reciprocal performance… and there are few plays that demonstrate these things better than Richard III. As is often the case, the textual reasons why we know the plays weren’t written by a dilettante aristocrat but by a professional man of the theatre are far more interesting than the question itself. But I must resist this rabbit hole.
One of the longstanding issues about the play Richard III is the way Richard’s ‘deformity’ relates to his evil. Anxieties about this have only intensified in the twentieth century and onwards. From a blithe acceptance that Richard’s abominable exterior mirrors or expresses the corruption within, critics and audiences have come to worry about the implications of this, just as they have worried about the sexual/gender implications of Taming of the Shrew, the racial implications of Merchant of Venice and Othello, and other plays in the canon. Critics from the last century or so have attempted to explain the relation between the ‘deformity’ – which is also what we would call ‘disability’ – and the evil by turning to the ways in which Richard has been socially excluded, or the ways in which he has attempted to rescue his sense of his own masculinity in a warrior culture, or his dysfunctional relationship with his mother, etc. Freudian and psychoanalytic critics have led the way.
In his essay ‘Of Deformity’, Francis Bacon (a contemporary of Shakespeare’s… though not the author of his plays) says that
…because there is, in man, an election touching the frame of his mind, and a necessity in the frame of his body, the stars of natural inclination are sometimes obscured, by the sun of discipline and virtue. Therefore it is good to consider of deformity, not as a sign, which is more deceivable; but as a cause, which seldom faileth of the effect. Whosoever hath anything fixed in his person, that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself, to rescue and deliver himself from scorn.
Essentially he’s saying that while we can’t choose our bodies there is a degree to which we can choose our personalities. You can choose to act a certain way, even against an inborn predisposition. So instead of seeing deformity as an exterior illustration of inner nature, it should be seen as a (near unfailing) cause of certain kinds of behaviour. In the case of the ‘deformed’, the scorn with which they are always treated by society causes certain reactions. He goes on to list the reactions, and we needn’t trouble ourselves with them. Bacon can be an astonishingly crude and lazy reasoner. What’s interesting here is what Bacon’s attempt at bio-sociology tells us about the Early Modern culture in which he was writing. He assumes that behaviour can be empirically observed and rationally understood. He claims that the bourgeois virtues of “discipline and virtue” can rationally conquer the inborn traits that he assumes to exist. For him, the key is the personal choice of the individual. There is a mechanistic, near-inevitable process whereby certain behaviour stems from certain causes. He sees the contempt of society for the ‘deformed’ as natural. Equally, the reaction is natural. But the agency of the individual is also seen as important. This passage expresses, in compact form, a great many of the paradoxes that will plague bourgeois rationalism for centuries to come. The tension between society and the isolated individual, between a reductive view of fixed material traits and the concentration on individual enterprise. Such paradoxes would have been unthinkable, at least in this form, to someone living in pre-modern high medievalism.
A new culture is attempting to work out material explanations for social behaviour based on contingencies of birth. At the same time the hegemonic culture represented in Bacon – who was part of the political establishment – is trying to justify the stratification of people according to desert. Yet the fact that his culture felt the need to do so, complete with appeals to the (state regulated) authority of scripture and to a form of empirical observation, tells us that we are looking at an artifact of a society undergoing rapid and chaotic social reorganisation in a bourgeois direction.
Bourgeois culture went on to concoct spuriously scientific explanations for inequality based on race and gender, because it needed an ideological way to justify the dirty practicalities of slavery in the face of the greater potentialities for human freedom brought by the very system slavery was integral to constructing. The revolutions (short and violent, or long and gradual) that swept away feudalism had to make universalising promises in order to co-opt the power of the people against ossified aristocracies and monarchies… but certain people – women, black people, natives – had to be exempted from the universal declarations. We see such categories-under-construction being pondered in Shakespeare’s plays, in Kate and Shylock and Othello and Aaron and Caliban. I think we see something similar happening with nascent ideas of gay identity in Shakespeare, and also in Marlowe’s Edward II. I think all the Elizabethan and Jacobean popular writers are doing something along these lines, but perhaps particularly the playwrights, who are writing for the popular stage, texts to be performed in the bubbling social hubbub – to the very people attempting to navigate the shifting new categories of a society in profound transition. I’d want to argue that we see something similar in Richard III, in the construction of ‘deformity’. The process is not unlike the process that has been called ‘race making’, the social construction of ‘races’, which is (to be crude about this) the process whereby bourgeois society decides which groups count as ‘white’ and which don’t, and which groups thereby enjoy white privilege to some extent or another, based on their roles in the economy… roles which are themselves socially constructed, partly based on the categorization of people according to socially-constructed ‘races’, with the one feeding into the other dialectically.
The stark and disconcerting fact is that Richard III is arguably potentially of a different race. He is constructed by himself and others as so noticeably physically different that he is potentially classifiable in terms of racial difference. The concept of biological race is a very new one, only just beginning to be constructed when Shakespeare was writing. Racial categories are partly constructed from supposed deviations from the ‘norm’, much as are ‘deformities’. By definition, the ‘norm’ is set by the hegemonic culture doing the construction of difference. Othello, Shylock, Aaron, and Caliban represent groups that have since gone on to be categorized according to biological race (which has irrevocably effected how we now read them). We see the beginnings of the process of categorization in the plays, in the way each character negotiates their role in societies in which they are, to some extent, outsiders, and which treat them in contradictory ways depending on what it needs from them. Richard is seen negotiating his own role in startlingly similar ways, and being treated in similarly contingent ways by his society. There are those who treat him as a monster, and emphasize his physical difference at every turn. He does this himself. There are others who accept him without comment.
The fact that the ‘deformed’ did not ultimately quite get categorized in racial terms is a contingency of history. But there are moments in history when the political biologism of bourgeois societies has racialised or semi-racialised the ‘disabled’, or treated them in ways akin to racialization, or lumped them in with racialist programs. Most particularly there is the eugenics movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, which was wildly popular and mainstream in many more places than Germany, but which nevertheless found its ultimate and most ghastly expression in the Nazis’ T4 ‘euthanasia’ program, under which thousands of “lives unworthy of life” were murdered by their doctors. There is no question that the Nazis conceived of the ‘disabled’ (physically and mentally) in racial terms. If they didn’t construct them as a race, they certainly saw them as a racial threat. We only have to remember the unsavoury fact that people with Down’s Syndrome were originally called ‘Mongoloid’ to see the ways in which race-making and the social construction of disability rhyme, and sometimes directly overlap.
(So profoundly has our view of Nazi Germany been ideologically managed that we need to do some work to establish that it was actually bourgeois at all… but that’s a subject for another time. For now, take it from me: it was.)
One of the most profound examples of deformity as villainy and potential racial difference is in R. L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hyde is never properly described, and seems to have different features depending upon who is seeing or talking about him, but he is always said to be “deformed in some way”. People who have encountered him are never able to put their fingers on quite how he is deformed, just that “he gives a strong impression of deformity”. In this the deformity of the body is abstracted to a point where it is barely even physical anymore, but is almost a spiritual sensation which confounds the perceptions. The ape-man Hyde of the movies is an attempt to supply something visual where the book is deliberately vague, and tries to use social-Darwinistic and racism-tinged associations to put across the idea of the degenerate, the savage, the rapaciously sensual, the uncivilised side of mankind, etc. But even in the book, Hyde is sometimes possessed of simian features, and Jekyll dreams of new races of men, the result of the widespread use of his potion, segregated according to their innate moral natures and going their separate ways. Here again we see the spectre of race and race-making, its linkage to a discourse of deformity both physical and moral. Similarly, way back in Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of the threats of the monster is that he will propagate a new race. It carries on throughout the history of modern monstrosity, to the horrors of miscegenation expressed by Lovecraft in ‘the Innsmouth look’ to the SF discourse of alien ‘races’ inaugurated by Wells.
Arguably you can interpret the monstrousness of the alien in pulp SF as a (very unfortunate but entirely consistent) analogue to inborn physical ‘deformity’ as well as to ‘race’. An unfortunate side-effect of this is that it becomes impossible to offer a Baconian reading of the behaviour of monsters as a reaction to the scorn of society… at least, most of the time. You can’t read the Zygons in ‘Terror of the Zygons’ that way, as they come from a separate culture in which they are the norm. Indeed, this is stressed in the story when they speak of loathing the human form, which they find an “abomination”. In ‘The Zygon Inv’ you could actually read some of their behaviour as a reaction to the way they are treated by human society, though the story seems to go out of its way to alibi us against any charge of actually mistreating the Zygons into revolt. Actually, there’s a sense in which the rebellious Zygons of ‘The Zygon Inv’ are quite Ricardian in that they construct and perform their own monstrousness out of a physical difference which they choose to accentuate, owing to a pre-rational sense of victimhood. But then, one of the problems with ‘The Zygon Inv’ is the way it insists upon the necessary virtue of ‘passing’. You can argue that there should be no need for Richard or the Zygons to ‘pass’ any more than there should be any need for anyone LGBT+ to pass… and maybe that the refusal of Richard and Zygons both to pass thus constitutes a heroic defiance, one that is twisted by their respective narratives into perversity… but that way lies a rabbit hole, in which both deformity and monstrosity are used as metaphors for LGBT+ identities. The moment you introduce any element in which the other has to, or chooses to, hide itself and, in some sense, ‘pass’, you leave a text open to this interpretation. This is because LGBT+ identities have been constructed as monstrous or abnormal, a construction that some LGBT+ people like to weaponize and embrace, in a way analogous to the way post-colonial discourse has embraced Caliban.
It’s unclear exactly what Caliban is in The Tempest, yet generations of critics, actors and audiences have interpreted him as, in some way, a ‘native’ – to the point where he has been reclaimed, to an extent, by post-colonial thinkers and critics. He is best understood, I think, as a sort of early and fuzzy stage in Western imperialist culture’s gradual construction of its ideas about the peoples it was going to be encountering in the process of building a global empire. He is a native, and a slave, and a monster, a “thing of darkness”. He’s an early sketch in the construction of the category of ‘native’, and of its meaning. Now, of course, we look back and read back into him the whole subsequent history of Western colonial and imperialist relationships with native peoples. Many readers and audiences are inclined to be very sympathetic to him, as they now are to Shylock and Othello.
And it’s important to notice that such sympathy is warranted by the original plays. It’s partly the theatrical effect, where we are inclined to sympathise with whoever is talking, simply because they are the most dynamic thing in front of us, and their words and emotions come at us unfiltered. On stage, there are no close-ups and no privileged perspective. Theatre can’t quite do what prose and film do, and tell us who to sympathise with. Theatre presents us with unfiltered human figures, right in front of us, in the same space as us, capable of looking us in the eye. A book can inform us that a figure is terrifying; a film can force us to concentrate on the horror on the faces of others. The theatre has to let us make up our own minds, at least to an extent, based on our assessment of the presence and voice of whoever is talking to us. It’s vital to remember that this was a part of the cultural process of the construction of our ideas about groups and races, which is why it was so popular with people trying to navigate the choppy waters of a changing society, and why the state tried so hard to control what the theatre showed them.
It is absolutely essential to understanding Richard to understand that he is fundamentally theatrical, performative. Richard draws upon his ‘deformity’ for an identity. As it turned out, ‘disability’ was never fully constructed into race, and yet it is socially constructed. Disability is the result of society choosing to organize itself according to imperatives that fail to take into account certain kinds of bodies, whether we’re talking about the scarcity of ramps or Osborne’s budget yesterday. Ability and disability are, in a sense, performed. Gender is performed. Sexuality is performed. Race is performed. (Not that this makes any of these categories any less ‘real’ to those in them – what we socially construct and live is not ‘unreal’ or immaterial even if, like ‘race’, it lacks a biological basis.) The theatre had an impact in the way modern Western bourgeois culture ended up performing these things, for good or ill or both.
There’s an extent to which Bacon was right when he said that people adopt characters as a result of how their bodies interact with society. Society is going to interact with your body whether you like it or not.