In William Shakespeare's play, how does Richard III's deformity lead to the development of his villainous personality?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare did not hesitate to attribute Richard III’s dark nature – as depicted in this influential play, if not necessarily in reality – to his physical deformities.  In fact, the play’s opening speech by then-duke of Gloucester and later king bespeaks this character’s bitterness regarding his physical shortcomings.  A monologue that begins with among the most justifiably famous opening lines in the history of literature -- “Now is the winter of our discontent” – proceeds to emphasize the duke’s anguish regarding the fate to which he has been condemned on account of his hunchback and club-foot.  Lamenting the disadvantageous timing of his existence and the limitations placed upon his opportunities by misfortune, Richard emphasizes the role of his deformities in subjecting him to a life of bitterness.  As that opening monologue continues, Richard notes the effect his physical appearance has on his attempts at love relative to those blessed with more picturesque physiques, probably referring to Prince Edward, deceased son of King Henry VI:

“And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
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:”

No further affirmation need be made regarding Richard’s image of himself than the vituperation directed at him by Lady Anne, beautiful widow of Edward and object of Richard’s lascivious attention:

 “O, gentlemen, see, see! dead Henry's wounds

  Open their congeal'd mouths and bleed afresh!

Blush, Blush, thou lump of foul deformity;”

For Shakespeare, the deformities were the defining characteristic so Richard’s life.

Read the study guide:
Richard III

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