Deformity and Illegitimacy in Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare’s plays provide modern readers with tremendous insight into the deeply-rooted convictions and beliefs that impacted everyday life in sixteenth-century England, ranging from parent-child relationships, marriage, and royalty to magic, fate, and courtly love. Two of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Richard III and King Lear, reflect Elizabethan attitudes regarding deformity and illegitimacy. Are Richard, the hunchback, and Edmund, Lear’s illegitimate upstart, villains because they are inherently evil or because the norms of Shakespeare’s time deemed them so from birth?

In Richard III, the malevolent king’s evil nature can be examined in light of his physical abnormalities. In Shakespeare’s day, the possibility of giving birth to a deformed child haunted Elizabethan women, for it was widely believed that “a crooked body meant a crooked heart” (Pearson 80). Scholars and historians of the period exploited this belief to slander the real Plantagenet king and lend credence to his alleged crimes.

For instance, John Rous claimed that Richard was destined from birth to lead a wicked life because he was supposedly born with a full set of teeth, shoulder-length hair, and a scorpion’s tail (Ross xxi). And according to Sir Thomas More, a loyal member of the Tudor propaganda machine, Richard’s deformities – “little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed” – mirrored a personality that was “arrogant of heart…dispitious and cruel” (xxii.xxiv).

Thus, the Globe’s audiences were conditioned to believe wholeheartedly in Richard’s villainy from the moment Shakespeare’s malformed creature limped onto the stage. The Elizabethan concept linking physical appearance and character had already predetermined the evil path he is expected to follow, and Shakespeare does not disappoint.

It was also believed in Shakespeare’s time that illegitimate children were destined to follow a similarly evil path. Evidence suggests that Shakespeare shared this popular view. At one point in King Lear, for example, Lear refers to his daughter Goneriil as “a degenerate bastard” (I. iv. 252). Lear also suspects that his wicked offspring are the product of his wife’s adultery (Muir 125). According to Elizabethan Thomas Becon, “Bastards were the gifts of God but contrary to the word of God because their generation, conception and bringing forth was unlawful.

God had ordained the state of matrimony for the propagation of the human race, and did not, therefore, bless whoredom but did bless and glorify the fruit of matrimony” (Pearson 266). These “unlawful” children were denied the right to enter a church or to inherit property (Pearson 266). With this in mind, Edmund’s “wicked” acts in King Lear can be viewed in a completely different light. Stripped of any and all rights and burning with a sense of injustice, Edmund rebels against the accepted convention:

Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom and permit the curiosity of nations to deprive me, for that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines lag of a Brother?…Now gods, stand up for Bastards! (I. ii. 1-22).

However justified Edmund’s actions may seem to the modern reader, bastards cannot triumph in Shakespeare’s world. They are evil. Therefore, in order to satisfy Elizabethan audiences, Shakespeare uses the stigma of illegitimacy to explain the tragic events that consequently unfold.

From a modern perspective, the Elizabethan views on deformity and illegitimacy seem strange and foolish; however, knowing those views help modern readers see Richard Crookback and Edmund the Bastard, not as evil incarnate, but also as victims of superstitious fears and ignorance.

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