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.”
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.