Richard III A Monster Great Deformed: The Unruly Masculinity of Richard III
by William Shakespeare

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A Monster Great Deformed: The Unruly Masculinity of Richard III

(Shakespearean Criticism)

"A Monster Great Deformed": The Unruly Masculinity of Richard III

Ian Frederick Moulton, Arizona State University West

In recent years, largely due to the work of feminist critics and queer theorists, the dynamics of gender in the early modern period have been subjected to a thorough re-evaluation. In general this body of work stands as a successful and convincing attempt to shift attention from the center to the margins and to validate the experiences, lives, and struggles of those who did not belong to the male elites that were theoretically and materially at the apex of early modern society. In this paper, rather than exploring possibilities at the margins, I wish to concentrate on incoherence at the center by examining some of the fault lines that existed in the practice and gender ideology of masculinity in early modern patriarchy. Sodomy may have been (and may still be) an "utterly confused category,"1 but to a lesser degree all ideologies of gender are confused, in that they represent contingent responses to a host of social and cultural imperatives, many of which are conflicting or are themselves confused.

One of the greatest structural problems facing any patriarchal society is the control of the masculine aggressivity, violence, and self-assertion that constitute patriarchy's base. Although patriarchy depends on male homosocial ties and masculine aggressivity for its organization and enforcement, the masculine values inculcated by patriarchal societies can themselves pose a threat to patriarchal order.2 In early modern London a considerable amount of official energy was devoted, with uneven results, to curbing unruly masculine aggression. Tensions raised by the war with Spain and by rapid population growth led to thirty-five outbreaks of disorder in the capital between 1581 and 1602. While most of these disturbances were described by contemporaries as riots of "apprentices," the disorderly crowds also included servants, masterless men, and discharged soldiers and sailors.3 Although public order in London was generally under the jurisdiction of the City government, the crown was sufficiently fearful of civil unrest in the capital to interfere on many occasions in order to preserve the peace. After a particularly notorious assault by apprentices on Lincoln's Inn in 1590, Elizabeth issued a proclamation that enjoined all masters to keep their apprentices within their houses and imposed a nine o'clock curfew on all apprentices in the surrounding parishes.4 Concerned about the frequency with which common people were carrying arms, especially pistols or "dagges," Elizabeth issued proclamations throughout her reign in an attempt to curb the practice.5 The unauthorized carrying of pistols was said to lead to "disorders, insolencies, robberies, and murders," both in London and in the countryside. Also forbidden in these proclamations were the wearing of concealed firearms and "Shooting in any such small Pieces, within two myles of any house where her Maiestie shall reside."6 While such ordinances, like those issued against vagrant soldiers,7 were aimed primarily at curbing the violence of lower-class men, in 1613 James issued ordinances against duelling in an effort to end the "odious" practice of private quarrels to the death among young men of "worthie Families."8

To focus on patriarchy's inability to control the masculine aggressivity it fosters is not to claim that unruly men are the primary victims of patriarchy but rather to point out an important structural incoherence in any society organized around the supremacy of aggressive masculinity. As Norbert Elias and others have argued, the transition of the male elite from a warrior to a court culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was marked by an increasing sublimation of affect and the gradual appearance of "pacified social spaces . . . normally free from acts of violence."9 Manuals of aristocratic conduct such as Castiglione's enormously popular Book of the Courtier are...

(The entire section is 10,135 words.)