Disabled or Weak Characters as the Villain

During our most recent discussion of Richard III, someone noted Richard III’s disablement and its relationship to his role as the villain. As I recall, we did not go into great detail on this subject. I, however, was intrigued by this statement and realized it was an idea I wished to explore. I realized that this was not the first instance in which Shakespeare had created a villain who possessed some quality that made the character weak.

In this particular case, Richard III’s “weakness” is presented in a physical, conspicuous way. Richard III cannot hide his weakness; it is constantly on display for people to see. He has lived with this physical deformity his entire life and as such, it has had an effect on who he is. In addition to being physically “weak”, Richard has a slew of older brothers standing in his way of ever inheriting the crown. It is apparent through Richard’s asides that these “weaknesses” are constantly at the forefront of his mind. Richard says in his opening monologue,

“I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, 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 see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.”

(I.i.18-27).

Richard feels cheated by his appearance; he seems to think he is deserving and owed a beautiful body. This speaks to Richard’s sense of entitlement and shallow nature. He thinks that he is unable to participate in this happy, peaceful time just because he has a physical deformity. He says, “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain” (I.i.28-30). He seems to think that he has no choice but to partake in villainous acts in order to obtain the power he thinks he deserves. He places the blame elsewhere; his deformity has made him this way. He has no choice.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Don John is another villainous character who possesses a certain kind of weakness. As a bastard, Don John has been ostracized by society. He has dealt with the discrimination that comes with being a bastard and has been made to feel “less than” by others. He certainly harbors some resentment as a result of this treatment and is another character who is self-aware of his villainous behavior. Don John says, “It better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to / fashion a carriage to rob love from any. In this, though I / cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be / denied but I am a plain-dealing villain” (I.iii.24-27). Like Richard III, Don John seems justified in his behavior. Richard feels he has been cheated by life and that he must take matters into his own hands in order to get what he “deserves”, no matter what the cost. Similarly, Don John feels justified because he truly believes that it is better for him to continue being a terrible person because it is honest, whereas if he were to be kind to others, he would be faking it which is dishonest. Richard and Don John both think they are doing the “right” thing and are both heavily influenced by the weaknesses that have shaped their public identities.

I think it is interesting for Shakespeare to have his characters be physically, socially, or otherwise weak in some way because we do not often assume these types of people as being capable of such evil. Our society tends to view “weak” individuals as being innocent and weak in an all encompassing way. This, clearly, is not true and is something Shakespeare does an excellent job of pointing out. Just because Richard is not physically strong does not mean he is not capable of great mental strength and cunning. If anything, Richard’s “weakness” works to his advantage in the play. Nobody suspects someone like him to be capable of such deeds. In the 1995 movie adaptation of the play, the actor portraying Richard III, Ian McKellen, does an excellent job of showing his true nature when he speaks directly to the camera but then falling back into his innocent, weak routine with his family and followers. In the beginning of the film, there is a scene where Richard watches as his brother Clarence is sent off to the Tower of London. He takes out his white handkerchief and begins to wave it sadly as his brother departs. I thought this was an interesting cinematic choice since a white flag or cloth being waved in such a way is usually used to represent someone surrendering. Richard is clever; he knows he can use his physical weakness to his advantage and does just that.

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3 thoughts on “Disabled or Weak Characters as the Villain

  1. caitgee7

    I do see your point, there is some other obvious feature to go along with their villainy, as if there needs to be motivation for the evil that is done.
    Richard as a character is interesting because maybe we can categorize his appearance as a “weakness”. I think it really reflects the ugliness he has on the INSIDE. Clearly, from his actions we can see he is ugly and he does ugly things. (Act 5 he has a realization..) He uses his deformity to his advantage as well. In the movie adaptation we saw in class, the actor playing Richard III says Queen Margaret has cursed him. (Although we know he’s has this deformity all his life, in this scene he uses this and eventually has Hastings killed because he can’t be trusted.) His deformity also creates insecurities for himself. However, we do see that regardless of his deformity he does have the ability to control others, and woo Anne. I think there is a bizarre duality in these ideas. Richard is ugly inside and out, but still uses his strengths to create all this mayhem!

    I think you point out that these weakness are more of the outward appearance and used as trickery. These villains use it as an advantage over other characters and as motivation for their evil plots. Don John uses his bastardry as motivation, plus the other characters don’t really know him but trust him because of Don Pedro (his brother). His vengefulness is due to his illegitimacy, and he causes problems because of the terribleness he feels on the inside-that he has been cheated of property/wealth because his father slept around. He gets screwed out of property, etc. so this clearly means he should ruin a bunch of people’s lives. (Seems legit)

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  2. gerouc1

    How interesting is it that we judge so many people as being physically weak based on outer appearances, when it is generally the internal weaknesses that are the true downfalls of characters. A hunchback can make one physically weak, in certain cases, but it’s Richard’s wrath, and possibly even pride, that cause his eventual defeat.

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  3. elisebrucche

    Your analysis really teases out an interesting social commentary in Shakespeare’s plays. His tendency to link the abnormal exterior conditions (be it social or physical) of his villains to their interior motivations is not an uncommon practice in Elizabethan literature. Illegitimate children or people with physical deformities were generally viewed with distrust because they seemed to pose a threat to societal norms. Yet, as you wonderfully point out, there is some tension there as to whether society’s treatment of these characters some how justifies their actions. Both Richard and Don Jon indicate that they are not to blame for their abnormalities, and that it is society’s harsh, unwarranted treatment of them that drives them to commit these acts. If we believe them, then society has in essence created its own villains. Of course, their seeming justification is tempered by the evidence that both these men, particularly Richard, are just using these “flaws” as a sort of disguise to trick others. For instance, Richard frequently alludes to his deformity to make himself seem harmless while simultaneously manipulating those around him. The levels of violence that he is willing to incite to reach his goal leaves little doubt that he is a malicious person by nature, not by social conditioning. However, I think Shakespeare is encouraging us to think about this relation between one’s exterior appearance and one’s inner thoughts. Can we really say that some one is evil because they have a hunched back? Obviously not. Shakespeare does not seem to think so either. After all, one of his other great villains, Iago, is socially well off (albeit, not part of the upper-crust as he would like to be) and decent looking. Yet, he proves himself to be an absolutely awful person. This makes Shakespeare’s depiction of cruelty and violence all the more unsettling. One realizes that outwards appearances are a rather inadequate way of judging others. As Shakespeare indicates, the social convention connecting deformity with immorality is only a front. The real villains are rarely easy to spot.

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