Academic journal article Text Matters

Eroticism-Politics-Identity: The Case of Richard III

Academic journal article Text Matters

Eroticism-Politics-Identity: The Case of Richard III

Article excerpt

Act 1 Scene 2 of Shakespeare's Richard III is a culmination of Richard's acting skills, where he reveals different aspects of his sexuality: he poses both as a Petrarchan lover and as a sexually aroused male. It is interesting that he should manifest his erotic desire so explicitly before Lady Anne, especially as throughout the play he is very aware of his physical deformity as a hunchback with a withered arm. At the beginning of the play alone he asserts several times: "I, that am not shap'd for sportive tricks [sexual games], . . . I, that am rudely stamp'd . . . I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion" (Richard III, 1.1.14,16,18).1 The role of a seducer in the wooing scene seems altogether unnatural for Richard, the crookback, in the same way as his excessive show of masculinity. This makes him a prime object of study using Georges Bataille's definition of eroticism2 as "a psychological quest, independent . . . of any concern to reproduce life" (Bataille, Erotism 11), during which the protagonist puts himself to the test in order to prove himself more worthy as an individual. This article argues that Richard's overt manifestation of eroticism towards Lady Anne is, first of all, a way to refuse to limit himself within his individual personality and, secondly, an attempt to deny his individual life as a cripple and a social outcast. Eroticism is also used by Richard to break social taboos in his revenge on society, mostly his mother and the court, that rejected him.

It is important to note that Richard Gloucester "fashions" himself as a lover in the same way as he plays an obedient brother towards Clarence or as a thoughtful uncle to his nephews, the young princes. "Self-fashioning" is a term for "the action or process of making, for particular features or appearance, for a distinct style or pattern," but in sixteenth-century England it comes to denote "the forming of a self " (Greenblatt, Renaissance 2). Fashioning is also connected with the changing of shapes or arriving at a less palpable shape such as "a distinctive personality, a characteristic address to the world, a consistent mode of perceiving and behaving" (Greenblatt, Renaissance 2). Self-fashioning does not exist independently of one's culture and can be compared to a certain awareness of cultural codes and modes of behaviour operating in a given society. Social and cultural codes function as mechanisms of control; they "create" specific individuals or cause individuals to crafttheir public selves according to the socio-cultural expectations. Self-fashioning is characterized by theatrical play and a great show of acting skills; it involves the individual's dissimulation, pretending to be someone else by wearing a mask of an actor. In the case of Richard, he dons many different social masks, presenting many selves. The mask of the lover is, on the one hand, a way of taking revenge on his family, and, on the other, a means of testing himself, and of overcoming his weaknesses and complexes as a deformed and rejected man.

Shakespeare's idea to present his character as a hunchback comes mainly from Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III (1513) and from Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548), which was largely based on More's story. Much as in Hall's chronicle "the portrait [of Richard III] is not wholly dark" (Bullough 226), More's Richard had to be villified because he was part of the Tudor propaganda. According to More's very hostile account, Richard "transforms his nature, increasing the tyrant's villainy at all points" (Bullough 226). More's work is an outcome of his personal experience that he had gathered while serving as a page in the household of John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor under Henry VII, in the years 1489-92, only half a dozen years after Bosworth Field (1485). More was also acquainted with Robert Fabyan, the London chronicler, and Polydore Vergil, Henry VII's historian, who consistently and intentionally upheld the Tudor myth in his depiction of history. …

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