I have just attended this webinar by Illuminations at the University of California, Irvine. The speakers were author and Harvard Lecturer Jeffery Wilson along with actor and writer Thomas Varga. This was inspirational in two ways. Firstly, the introduction by Thomas in truly Shakespearean form was great – a fantastic voice that can carry for miles! The knowledge about King Richard III by Jeffrey Wilson regarding Richard’s disability was outstanding and a thought provoking experience. It helps shed light on how disability has been viewed in the past, but also how society comes to see disability in the present. It is a view that has truly been transported through time.
As Davis points out Wilson manages successfully to tell us how Richards’s body travels through time to Shakespeare. He asserts that “from Richard’s own manuscripts, x-rays of sixteenth-century paintings, and Shakespeare’s soliloquies to eighteenth-century editorial notes, nineteenth-century theatrical costumes, and twenty-first century disability theatre, an interpretation of Richard’s body is never just an interpretation of Richard’s body. When we interpret Richard III, he interprets us in return” (Davis). Richard was portrayed, and still is, as the tragic villain. Wilson states that the story is in fact part history and part fact. It is true that he was stigmatized because of his disability, yet he was a great warrior and also joker. To become King in 1483 he had the notion of killing off the lines of heirs, which he did through war. This was known as the war of the roses and became the Tudor myth. He was King until he had a mental breakdown at his last battle, the battle of Botsworth where he was defeated. Henry VII marries Elizabeth of York and united two dynasties and there is some stability.
Shakespeare highlights Richard’s disability and how he was stigmatized by enemies and how it was actually greatly exaggerated. He was often portrayed as an awful hunch back, but in fact when his skeleton was discovered it was found he actually had scoliosis. This probably came on his teens. It would have been extremely painful and depilating, but he was not the monster that was portrayed. Even with such a disability he managed to be a powerful warrior and became very rich. He married and had children, two outside marriage. He would have had access to doctors at the time, who may have tried to stretch his bones. This must have been extremely painful. He survived infancy when his siblings did not.
Wilson questions just how he would have dealt with his disability at the time – who would he talk to about it? It must have been a very difficult situation. Yet this did not hold him back. His disability was not central to his life, it seemed no problem to him. He is a disability icon really, as Wilson maintains his disability was not separate from his life, but neither was he reduced to it.
Often referred to as a monster, or a sign of God’s wrath. This was the medieval view of disability. It suggests that his disability is the cause of his villainous ways. This really first started a more modern idea of disability rather than the medieval one.
In Shakespeare’s Henry part VI he is referred to as “heap of wrath” and “crooked prodigy”. See the passage below from the Third Part of King Henry the Sixth. Scene IV.
Brave warriors, Clifford and Northumberland,
Come, make him stand upon this molehill here,
That raught at mountains with outstretched arms,
Yet parted but the shadow with his hand.
What! was it you that would be England’s king?
Was’t you that revell’d in our parliament,
And made a preachment of your high descent?
Where are your mess of sons to back you now?
“The wanton Edward, and the lusty George?
And where’s that valiant crook-back prodigy,
Dicky your boy, that with his grumbling voice
Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?
Or, with the rest, where is your darling Rutland?
Look, York: I stain’d this napkin with the blood
That valiant Clifford, with his rapier’s point,
Made issue from the bosom of the boy;
And if thine eyes can water for his death,
I give thee this to dry thy cheeks withal.
Alas poor York! but that I hate thee deadly,
I should lament thy miserable state.
I prithee, grieve, to make me merry, York.
What, hath thy fiery heart so parch’d thine entrails
That not a tear can fall for Rutland’s death?
Why art thou patient, man? thou shouldst be mad;
And I, to make thee mad, do mock thee thus.
Stamp, rave, and fret, that I may sing and dance.
Thou wouldst be fee’d, I see, to make me sport:
York cannot speak, unless he wear a crown.
A crown for York! and, lords, bow low to him:
Hold you his hands, whilst I do set it on.”
Jeffrey R. Wilson ’12 is the author of three books, Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity: Shakespeare and Disability History (2022), Shakespeare and Game of Thrones (2021), and Shakespeare and Trump (2020). His work on Shakespeare and modern culture has appeared on CNN, NPR, MSNBC, New York Times, Salon, JSTOR Daily, Zocalo Public Square, Academe, CounterPunch, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Wilson is an Instructional Design” (Davis).
Kirk Davis Jr. Annual Shakespeare Lecture. A UCI Authors event featuring UCI PhD Jeffrey Wilson ’12 (Harvard University) and actor Thomas Varga ’17
watch the video at the following link –