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I'm watching Kevin Spacey's production of Shakespeare's Richard III. Here's a link to a youtube video with some highlights.

One of the production decisions that I don't really understand is the decision of make Kevin Spacey's character, Richard, a hunchback. So... why is Richard a hunchback?

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    I believe Richard III is commonly thought of as a hunchback in popular culture ... would be interesting to look into where this idea came from. (Perhaps there's evidence that he really was one?) – Rand al'Thor Nov 7 '17 at 18:34
  • @Randal'Thor for what its worth, in most productions of Richard III Richard isn't portrayed with a hunchback. – user111 Nov 7 '17 at 19:00
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    Umm. Richard is traditionally portrayed with a deformity, and it's usually a hunch. Off the top of my head in the last 30 years, he's been given a hunch by such disparate sources as Ian McKellan, "Red Dwarf," The Eyre Affair, and "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." In the latter three, the hunch is implicitly a common cultural expectation of the character. [citation needed] that he's not usually portrayed with a hunch. – BESW Nov 7 '17 at 21:25
  • @BESW I stand corrected. I've definitely seen at least one portrayal of Richard III without a hunchback: the 1955 film with Laurence Olivier. I'm probably going to ask a question about that one portrayal. – user111 Nov 7 '17 at 22:40
  • The Laurence Olivier has padded clothing for a more subtle "hump," but it's not humpless. (See the linked review in my answer.) – BESW Nov 7 '17 at 22:48
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Kevin Spacey's Richard III has a hump because Shakespeare wrote the character that way.

His physical deformities (which include but aren't limited to a hunched back) are a defining part of his personality and motivation, and inform how people interact with him. As for why Shakespeare wrote him that way...

Richard III had scoliosis.

It wasn't pronounced enough to give him a hunch, but for a lot of political reasons it was expedient for Richard's posthumous biographers to demonize the king. A twisted body is convenient rhetorical shorthand for a twisted mind, and his scoliosis was a useful thing to exaggerate for effect.

Shakespeare doubled down on this, describing Richard III as "rudely stamp'd", and "deformed, unfinish'd," with a hunched back, a limp, and a withered arm. In fact, Shakespeare makes Richard's fictional deformity the direct cause of his (equally fictional) villainy, thus tying propaganda neatly together with story and creating an extremely memorable villain we love to hate. It made for good theater, and he was writing in a country ruled by the royal line that overthrew Richard, so it was good for business all around.

This has been the common impression of Richard III ever since:

Academics have known for a very long time that Richard didn't have any pronounced deformity, but he's stuck with the hump in pop culture. In particular, removing the deformity from performances of Shakespeare's Richard III robs the character of his primary motive--so it's not done very often.

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    +1 largely for the Lancet link. A truly adequate answer would I think include the evidence of the skeleton unearthed a few years ago in Leicester, the textual evidence in the play itself (incl. 1.1.16-25 as well as the "bunchback'd" lines), AND perhaps the appellation "Crookback" that sources other than the play (e.g., Burton, More) associate with him. – Brian Donovan Nov 8 '17 at 0:10
  • "A twisted body is convenient rhetorical shorthand for a twisted mind" ... scrolls down yup, this is BESW :-) – Rand al'Thor Nov 8 '17 at 0:12
  • @BrianDonovan Frankly I think that's tangential. The question is about portrayals of the Shakespearean character, who has very little to do with the historical figure anyway. A dissection of the accuracy of the Shakespearean character would find that the physical deformity is probably among the lesser slights imposed on the king by the bard. The answer you're describing would be an excellent response to a different question. – BESW Nov 8 '17 at 0:18
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In Richard III, Act I, scene 3, lines 245-246 Queen Margaret tells Elizabeth that:

The day will come that thou shalt wish for me
To help thee curse this poisonous bunch-back'd toad.

and indeed, in In Act IV, Scene IV, lines 79-81 Queen Elizabeth does so curse Richard:

O, thou didst prophesy the time would come
That I should wish for thee to help me curse
That bottled spider, that foul bunch-back'd toad!

according to Wikipedia, in the second Quarto, the last line read "hunch-back'd", but it is retained as above in the texts I've found.

Also, in Henry VI, part 3, act III, scene 2, lines 1648-1650, Richard (here still called Gloucester), laments his looks:

To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;

So it is pretty clear Shakespeare thought of him as a hunchback.

  • Props for the Henry VI quote! Much less well known than the other histories in my experience. – DukeZhou Nov 8 '17 at 21:04
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It's pretty well covered in the famous opening monologue to Richard III:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass;
I, that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
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 III, Act I, Scene I

Since this is our introduction to the character, in his own words, it becomes challenging to portray him without some outward deformity (i.e. it would raise questions in the audience about why Richard perceives himself in that way, contrary to actual physical appearance. Still, it could be a quite interesting choice--if I were staging The Glass Menagerie I'd reduce Laura's limp to the point of imperceptibility to reinforce the idea that her real illness is her relationship with her mother;)

  • You're right that this quote suggests a physical deformity, but not specifically a hunchback. I think andejons's quotes are more conclusive. – Rand al'Thor Nov 8 '17 at 20:48
  • @Randal'Thor Andejon's excellent answer covers that aspect quite well. Perhaps I should allude to it in my answer? (Really, I just wanted to post may favorite section of that monologue because I love that he is not made for "sportive tricks", but figured I could also make a point about directing/audience expectation;) – DukeZhou Nov 8 '17 at 21:01

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