Richard in the Present: Staging Disability in the Twenty-first Century III. Project Definition

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Richard in the Present: Staging Disability in the Twenty-first Century

III. Project Definition

The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, or more simply, Richard III, continues to complicate the field of Shakespeare studies. The play finds a way to be problematic at every angle. To name a few of its many causes for concern, it can be classified both as a history and a tragedy, it presents three of Shakespeare’s strongest women while simultaneously displaying one of his weakest, it features the most onstage deaths in any of Shakespeare’s plays, and, most shockingly, it places a disability on the early modem stage. Literary researchers agree that the Richard of the play has some type of physical deformity, but they cannot agree on what this deformity is. Two of the most popular explanations for the deformity are Richard as a metaphor for the state after the War of the Roses (see Burnett) and Richard’s deformed outside reflecting his deformed inside (see Torrey). At least one medical researcher has attempted to diagnose Richard, although his analysis is layered with flaws (see Rhodes).

While these researchers argue over a sixteenth century text, theatre practitioners continue to perform the play. They are free to do anything they want in regards to Richard’s appearance. Aside from a few minor comments from other characters (particularly Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York), the primary description of his deformity occurs in Richard’s opening soliloquy:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks

Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass,

I that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph,

I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deformed, unfurnished, sent before my time

Into this breathing world scarce half made up...

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. (1.1.14-31)1

This description describes three things. First, Richard is unattractive and does not desire to examine himself in “an amorous looking glass.” Second, for some reason, he had a premature birth; this early birth is the primary reason literary critics assume Richard is deformed. Finally, he believes that he is so hideous to look at that, the only worthwhile use of his time is to cause harm. Aside from a few short discussions of Richard’s difficult birth, this description is the only time deformity is mentioned in Richard Ill. Any analysis that claims the Richard of this play has a deformed back, a hump, and a misshapen leg or foot actually references Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare’s inspiration for many of his history plays.

A production of Richard III obviously does not have to stage Richard with a hunchback and a trick-foot. Many theatre companies do not stage Richard this way (nor does the 1995 movie version starring Sir Ian McKellen), but it is a theatric tradition to give Richard some type of deformity. There is obviously, however, a rather sizable problem in regards to this deformity. Richard is one of the most villainous characters Shakespeare writes, but he is also disabled. The production frequently equates disability with villainy. How can a production balance the understood tradition of incorporating some type of physical deformity into Richard’s appearance along with an awareness that this staging could very likely be offensive towards disabled individuals and a more sensitive twenty-first century audience?

The answer is presentism. Presentism is a school of thought extensively written about by Terence Hawkes in his book Shakespeare in the Present, and subsequently in an anthology edited by Dr. Hawkes and Hugh Grady, Presentist Shakespeares. Presentism as a school of thought attempts to reconcile the ways in which the past constantly affects the present. What seems like a simple notion becomes quite complex when one considers the staggering difference between the theatre of Shakespeare’s age (which in its time was equated to bear baiting, see “Harry Hunks, Superstar” in Shakespeare in the Present) and our own. The Richard of Shakespeare’s stage would have had a grotesque disability, bordering on the melodramatic, that reflected his hideous character (Torrey, 140-41). Presentism, as I have begun to think, attempts to negotiate the divide between past and present and therefore analyze the bridge between viewing Richard as a monster and viewing him sympathetically. It asks: what are the critical ways in which our understanding of disability differs from that of an early modem audience, and how are these differences negotiated in production? Any production of this play, whether consciously or not, responds to the critical demands of the time period in which it was performed, and the present notion of Richard’s disability is one of the many possible points of inquiry in regards to this presentation. I am interested in how different productions portray Richard’s disability.

My analysis touches on an emerging interdisciplinary school of thought: disability studies. Disability studies focuses on the ways in which different fields (such as the humanities and the sciences) view disabled individuals. Richard is obviously a strong point of inquiry for this interdiscipline (see Williams). Williams’s essay analyzes the text of Richard III, and my work will move from this textual analysis to an analysis of three different performances of Richard III.

I have narrowed my focus to these productions: a production on the regional level at Oak Park Festival Theatre in Oak Park, IL; a production on the national level at American Player’s Theatre in Spring Green, WI; and a production on the international level at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. I have chosen these three productions because each company carries its own prestige. The Royal Shakespeare Company is, of course, arguably the best and most authentic company producing Shakespeare today. The other two productions were chosen for their company’s high level of achievement, but they were also chosen for their location and ease. Oak Park Festival Theatre is close to Naperville, and in the production, Carin Silkaitis, Department Chair of Art and Theatre and Assistant Professor of Theatre, will be playing the role of Queen Margaret. Through her, it will hopefully be relatively easy to connect with professionals involved with the show. American Player’s Theatre is close to my home in Wisconsin, and the company has somewhat of a relationship with the high school I attended. I can use this relationship to connect with individuals at that company.

The central question I will answer is: How do these three contemporary productions stage Richard’s disability, both similarly and differently, and how does each of the three portrayals affect the production as a whole?

IV. Methodology & Timetable

The primary method of inquiry I will use in my study is performance analysis using a presentist approach. I need to attend these three productions of Richard Ill and examine the ways in which they respond critically to Richard’s disability. I have chosen to focus on specific moments in the play to insure continuity between my analyses (see below). Additionally, as a secondary form of research, I would like to discuss with the theatre-makers the basic reasoning behind their method of staging Richard. Finally, I have contacted Terence Hawkes (see above), and he has agreed to meet with me in London to discuss presentism, specifically related to performance analysis and Richard Ill.

It is vital for me to examine performance in order to undertake this project. My concern is not with textual analysis of the play, but rather with various ways in which the play is presented on stage. This type of study focuses on the physical life of the actors, the ways in which they use their voice, as well as the interactions they have with other actors. Separating these three aspects of performance is of course useful, but performance is a holistic endeavor. While I do plan to focus on and analyze aspects of performance individually, examination of how the entire performance works is perhaps the most critically interesting aspect of my study.

For the feasibility of my study, I have to initially pick different moments in the play in which Richard’s disability increases in significance. The moments I have chosen are Richard’s opening soliloquy in 1.1, his interaction with Lady Anne in 1.2, and the Duchess of York’s description of Richard in 2.3 and 4.1. These moments all reflect Richard’s behavior and disability; very often they relate the two. My questions are designed to respond to how these particular productions respond to this equating of disability with villainy. I, of course, will take into consideration moments in each production where Richard’s disability is either surprisingly present or strikingly absent.

I also hope to have discussions with individuals who have been a part of the making of these productions. I hesitate to call this type of research an “interview” because it is concerned with the work they have created rather than with aspects of their personhood. The questions I ask will mainly be in response to the specific production we discuss, but there are some basic questions I will ask in order to maintain consistency and begin the more specific discussion. I am still getting in contact with members of these organizations, which is fine for now because this portion is not necessarily vital to my research. Because of my connection with Carin Silkaitis, it is likely that someone from Oak Park Theatre Festival will agree to meet with me. I have some small connections at American Player’s Theatre, so it is likely I will be able to speak to a representative there as well. (See Appendix for e-mail correspondence to American Player’s Theatre). The Royal Shakespeare Company is slightly more difficult to contact, but there is a chance that I will be able to approach someone involved with the production as a result of my upcoming study abroad trip to the University of Glasgow. The theatre department at Glasgow has connections in London.

I have already contacted Terence Hawkes, and he is willing to meet with me (See Appendix for e-mail correspondence) to further my understanding of presentism. I have compiled a basic list of questions to ask Dr. Hawkes. However, a large portion of what I discuss with him will be based on what I’ve seen in the three productions, so the list does not fully reflect what our meeting will look like.

Questions to ask self during performance analysis:

  1. What is Richard’s disability?

  2. In his opening soliloquy, does he emphasize his physical deformity as he describes it? Or does he subdue that deformity?

  3. Does he speak of his disability with shame? Or with pride? Does he mix the two?

  4. How does Richard appear to feel when he says the line “Therefore, I must prove a villain?” Two possible options are sorrow or excitement.

  5. In Act I Scene Two, when is the disability heightened? When is it subdued?

  6. Does Richard use his disability to seduce Anne?

  7. Is Anne’s response to Richard influenced by his disability?

  8. Are lines such as “Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity” (1.2.57) and “Dost grant me hedgehog?” (1.2.102), coming from a place of anger, or from actual disgust at Richard’s disability?

  9. How strong is that choice?

  10. If Anne is disgusted at Richard’s disability, does it reflect poorly on her character?

  11. Is Anne strong, and thus mostly angry at Richard’s presence, or is she weak, and thus mostly upset that her husband and father in law are dead?

  12. How does that choice influence the scene?

  13. More specifically, how does the choice influence the way in which Richard seduces Anne? Does Richard change the use of his disability as a result of Anne’s character?

  14. How does the Duchess of York say “He was the wretched’st thing when he was young?” (2.4.18). How does this line reflect her opinion of Richard.

  15. What is her opinion of Richard, based on that line and 2.4 in its entirety?

  16. Does the Duchess of York begin 4.1 with falsity? Or is she angry upon her entrance?

  17. How does she say the line that begins “O ill-dispersing wind of misery .. .?” (4.1.52) What is her emotional status on this line?

  18. Is she truly worried about Richard? Or is there a sense that he can be conquered.

  19. What is the Duchess’s overall reaction to Richard’s disability? Does it vary from scene to scene?

  20. How does Richard live in his body when the Duchess is present?

Questions to ask theatre makers:

  1. Why did you give Richard this particular disability?

  2. How conscious were you about the possibility of offending someone when you were staging the character?

  3. What kinds of research did you do in preparation for staging the character?

  4. How do you think Richard’s disability works for him? Or, how does he use his disability to work for him?

  5. How does his disability work against him?

  6. What thoughts went into other character’s reactions to Richard?

Questions to ask Dr. Hawkes:

  1. How do you believe presentism and performance relate?

  2. Do you see presentism as a direct attack on New Historicism, or as a response to its teachings?

  3. What parts of Richard Ill do scholars leave in the past?

  4. In textual presentism, the solutions to problems lie with the researcher who lives in the present. He or she responds to the differences between past and present based on his or her own understanding. In this type of performance presentism, the solutions come from theatre-makers. What responsibility do I have to match the theatre-maker's choices with my own understandings and opinions of Richard III?

  5. What do you see as the future of presentism, both in the realm of theatre studies and performance studies?



Attended Production at Oak

Park Festival Theatre

Oak Park, IL


Attend Production at American

Player’s Theatre

Spring Green, WI


Leave Chicago, IL

Chicago, IL to London, England


Arrive London

London, England


Attend Production at Royal

Shakespeare Company

Stratford-upon-Avon, England


Depart London

To Glasgow, Scotland

Sometime between August and December

Meet with Terence Hawkes

Glasgow, Scotland to London, England. Then a return trip to Glasgow.


Fly to Chicago

London, England to Chicago, IL

Meetings with representatives from the three theatre companies will be worked into this timetable as soon as appropriate connections are made.

V. Dissemination of Results

I plan to present the final analysis of these productions at the Rall Symposium in the spring of2013. I also plan to apply to present at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research, the National Undergraduate Literature Conference, and the Sigma Tau Delta 2013 International Convention. Additionally, I plan to write an essay based on my findings that I will submit to a number of undergraduate literary journals, such as the Sigma Tau Delta Review.

VI. Relevant Experience

I am a double major in English and Theatre, and this project merges these two disciplines. I am also in the honors program. Based on the courses I have taken in the English and Theatre departments, I feel very prepared to conduct this research. In the winter term of 2012, I took ENG 401 with Dr. Sara Eaton, a Seminar in Drama focusing on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. My final research paper for the class was a presentist analysis of The Merchant of Venice. I used both Presentist Shakespeares as well as Shakespeare in the Present to complete this project, so I am already growing familiar with this method of analysis.

I have been performing since I was eight years old, and I see and respond to theatrical endeavors with a critical and trained eye. Because I have such a long history with theatre, I am aware of what performance on stage can look like, and what different performance techniques represent both to theatre-makers and to an audience. I can examine the subtleties of performance in a manner that untrained individuals cannot.

Performance analysis is one of the primary research methods used in both Theatre History II (THE 361) and Script Analysis (THE 100). I am therefore familiar with how to view and respond to performance with a critical eye. Specifically, in THE 361, I was required to see a play in Chicago and respond to it in an essay. Additionally, I have taken Classical Acting Styles (THE 382); the primary focus of the course is acting Shakespeare. Specific to this project, I was required to perform the famous scene from Richard III in which Richard seduces Lady Anne (see above), and I therefore have a uniquely critical understanding of Richard’s wants in the scene.

Finally, I have previously conducted research on Henry Fielding’s novel Joseph Andrews and presented my findings at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research. I am therefore familiar with the type of scholarship that results from critically examining literature, as well as critical pieces about that literature.

VII. Personal Application

This research is an important step in my continuing interest in early modem drama. As of right now, one option for my honors thesis is a queer, presentist analysis of these dramatists, so this research will further my understanding of presentism. This project also exists as an interdisciplinary study between the fields of English and Theatre, and it will help me understand how these majors work together. The research I do in this project will also help me to learn important skills I’ll need in graduate school. I plan on pursuing a Ph.D. in Performance Studies, and the performative nature of this project will help me develop the skills I will need to have a significant impact on this emerging discipline. Finally, I believe any well-conducted research project inherently fosters a student's analytical skills, and I will therefore, upon completion of the project, bring a unique perspective to the classrooms of North Central.

VIII. Annotated Bibliography
Burnett, Mark Thornton. “‘Monsters’ and ‘Molas’: Body Politics in Richard 111. Constructing Monsters in Shakespearean Drama and Early Modern Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. 65-94. Print.
This article notes how Richard is similar to a Mola, “an essentially shapeless composition of flesh that frequently appeared before a ‘natural’ term was completed” (65). It discusses the popular notion that Richard’s body is a metaphor for the state of England. Only by destroying this deformity can the state return to its true majesty. The article focuses on how difficult it was for anyone to obtain the English crown. Richard’s body is expected to perform so many metaphors that some must be subdued if the play is to actually be staged.
Hawkes, Terence. Shakespeare in the Present. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.
This important book marks the beginning of the use of presentism in Shakespeare studies. Presentism is concerned with the ways in which the past constantly imposes itself upon the present. Hawkes writes “presentist criticism’s involvement with the text is precisely in terms of those dimensions of the present that most clearly connect with the events of the past.” The book contains two essays that orient a reader towards presentism, and then several examples of presentist analyses. While some of Hawke’s essays touch on the Henry VI cycle, there is no specific focus on Richard III, indicating a clear call for such an analysis to happen.
Marche, Stephen. “Mocking Dead Bones: Historical Memory and the Theater of the Dead in

Richard III. Comparative Drama 37.1 (Spring 2007): 37-57. Print.
This essay focuses both on the debate as to whether or not Richard III should be classified as a history or a tragedy, as well as villainy and self-consciousness. In reference to the history/tragedy debate, Marche argues that spiritual portrayals of the dead, particularly Clarence’s “dead bones” example allow the play to lean towards status as a tragedy; this spectrum is possible because

most of Shakespeare’s tragedies are rooted in history.

Moulton, Ian Frederick. “‘A Monster Great Deformed’: The Unruly Masculinity of Richard III.”

Shakespeare Quarterly47.3 (1996): 251-68. Print.
A new historicist argument forms the backbone of this essay. Moulton points out that outbursts of masculinity in the form of physical aggression in public places were a serious problem in early modern England. He also notes that because Elizabeth was a woman leading a country at war with Spain, Shakespeare naturally included characters that challenge gender stereotypes (typically masculine women and effeminate men) in his first tetralogy (the three Henry VI plays and Richard III). These two veins come together in Richard, who challenges gender using an extreme form of masculinity; this same masculinity causes his violent disposition and villainous nature.
Oestreich-Hart, Donna J. “‘Therefore, Since I Cannot Prove a Lover.’” Studies in English

Literature 1500-1900 40.2 (Spring 2000): 241-60. Print.
This essay notes the ways in which Richard actually can and does “prove a lover,” specifically in his scene with Lady Anne. Oestreich-Hart uses Renaissance love texts to note the ways in which Richard can be compared to a courtly lover. She deviates from the standard labels many researchers attempt to impose upon Richard (Machiavel hero or spurned child, for example).
Presentist Shakespeares. Ed. Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes. New York: Routledge, 2008.

This collection of essays ties together several presentist essays. Like Shakespeare in the Present, it begins with an explanation of what presentism is and how it works. Then, a variety of authors analyze King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, and Troilus and Cressida. All analyses are well done and provide helpful examples of what presentism should look like.

Rhodes, Philip. “Physical deformity of Richard III.” British Medical Journal2.61 03 (1977):

1650-52. Print.

This essay exists as the only attempt a medical researcher has made to classify Richard’s deformity. Unfortunately the analysis is extremely outdated, and fairly invalid. Rhodes does not understand that each play in the tetralogy is different, nor does he recognize that the Richard of the play is different than the real King Richard. By the end of his essay, he does not believe Richard has a diagnosable deformity.
Slatkin, Joel Elliot. “Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Shakespeare’s Richard III.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 7.1 (Spring-Summer 2007): 5-32. Print.
Slatkin uses the term “sinister aesthetics” to denote the ways in which Richard’s ugliness and evil make him an object of attraction. He specifically believes that there is an erotic component to this aesthetic, and again cites the Lady Anne scene as an example. He notes that Richard’s ugliness comes both from his deformity and from his larger-than-life stage presence.
Torrey, Michael. “‘The plain devil and dissembling looks’: Ambivalent Physiognomy and Shakespeare’s Richard III.” English Literary Renaissance 30.2 (2000): 123-53. Print.
This essay is brilliant for its analysis of how complex Richard’s disability is. Essentially, physiognomy was a prevailing school of thought in the early modem period in which the central argument was that a person’s inner nature was reflected in his or her physical appearance. If a person is ugly, other people assume that he or she is villainous in some way. This argument is extended to Richard. The problem, of course, is that with this logic, characters in the play should immediately be wary of Richard based on his appearance. The article asks why not all characters immediately respond to Richard with fear and revulsion, and eventually concludes that Richard’s extreme talent for communication allows him to move past the opinions that others may have based on his physicality.
van Elk, Martine. “‘Determined to Prove a Villain’: Criticism, Pedagogy, and Richard III. College Literature 34.4 (2007): 1-21. Print.
van Elk’s purpose is to discuss the best ways to teach Richard III in the college classroom. In doing so, she provides a detailed summary of many of the arguments scholars make about Richard, with emphasis on the Machiavel. She also provides an excellent description of how three different movie versions approach Richard’s opening speech.
Williams, Katherine Schaap. “Enabling Richard: The Rhetoric of Disability in Richard III.” Disability Studies Quarterly 29.4 (2009). Web.
This article analyzes Richard through the lens of disability studies and provides examples of different ways Richard has been staged since the play’s creation. Williams notes that different critics place different emphases on Richard’s body, but he himself calls it deformed. It is possible that he exaggerates in order to gain sympathy. She also notes that physiognomy pervades throughout the play (see Torrey above).

1 All references to Richard III come from:

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed.

Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. 539-628. Print.

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