How Richard III’s Appearance Reflects His Character

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When watching a play, it is important to remember that everything onstage is there for a reason. The way a scene is constructed, the scenery, and the appearance of a character are all critical for the understanding of the play. Shakespeare’s plays are no exception to this. Visual cues add a whole new dimension to the play that might not be gained otherwise. With Shakespeare, however, the text of the play gives a hint of the way the characters appear, so that by studying the text one can get a sense of how a character should look. These queues can provide an insight into the way a character thinks and the way that character is seen by others. In Richard III, the fact that Richard is not beautiful is evident from the first lines of the play. The idea that he is “ugly” on the outside is a reflection of the fact that he is ugly on the inside, too. In contrast, whenever Richard speaks of beauty, it is to lie or to promote his own agenda, not because he genuinely sees beauty. In Richard III, Shakespeare uses references to beauty or ugliness to show the audience a character’s inner flaws.

The importance of physical appearance in the play is clear, right from the first lines of the play. In Richard’s opening soliloquy, he makes reference to his appearance. He says: “I, that am of this fair proportion, / Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, / Deformed, unfinish’d, 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” (1.1.19-24). Within the first 25 lines the audience is told that Richard was born early, and in consequence is “deformed”, to a great extent., the fact that Richard does not look “ordinary” is meant to stand out. Richard immediately follows these lines with proof that his unnatural nature is not only skin deep. He says: “I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days” (1.1.31-32). He is telling the audience, in effect, that everything that will happen during the play, all the deaths and the betrayals and the slaughtering of the innocents, happens because he is bored of peace. Dogs bark at him and people shy away from him because he does not look pleasant. He proves to the audience beyond all doubt that the unpleasantness is as much a part of his personality as it is his appearance.

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Throughout the play, others make reference to Richard’s unnatural appearance as often as they make reference to his unnatural deeds. Usually, they are linked together. One such example is the Lady Anne’s comment about him as he is trying to woo her. She comments on his foul deeds and his deformity at the same time. (1.2.230-35). At the end of the play, the words “bloody dog” spoken by Richmond could as easily be about Richard’s appearance as his actions. (5.5.3894). The words foul and wretch are used about Richard many times throughout the play, both about his appearance and about his horrific actions. The comment that his mother makes about his childhood could either be about his appearance, his personality, or both. When told that he said that the sweetest flowers grow the fastest, she replies: “He was the wretched’st thing when he was young, / So long a-growing and so leisurely, / That, if this rule were true, he should be gracious”. (2.3.1502-04). This could be a reference to his appearance, because of his problematic premature birth, or his personality, as she later mentions his difficult personality as a child. Richard’s appearance and his personality are meant to be inseparable in the minds of the watching audience. Neither is beautiful.

When Richard does refer to himself or others as beautiful, it is not because he truly sees the beauty in the person of whom he speaks, but only because he wishes to promote his own agenda. Twice, he calls a woman beautiful when trying to woo her. The first is Lady Anne. He says to her: “Your beauty was the cause of that effect; / Your beauty: which did haunt me in my sleep / To undertake the death of all the world, / So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom”. (1.2.301-04). Basically, he is telling Anne that everything he has done up to this point is because of her beauty, for which he felt the need to fight, [and kill]. This is clearly untrue, as he says at the end of the previous scene. He neither desires nor loves the Lady Anne, but is wooing her for his own purposes. The same holds true for Elizabeth, Edward’s daughter. He says to her mother that she is “beauteous”. (4.4.3225). Again, this reference to beauty is only used to convince the Queen that he is committed in his desire to marry Elizabeth, which is true, though again Richard has let the reader in on the fact that he does not love the girl, but only wants to marry her to keep his crown secure. One other place where Richard mentions beauty only as a false cover is when discussing the Lady Shore’s wife, whom he has just been insulting. When interrupted, he says: “We say that Shore’s wife hath a pretty foot, /A cherry lip, a bonny eye, a passing pleasing tongue” (1.1.98-99). Unable to see beauty for its own sake, Richard uses the meaningless words here to cover his previous discussion of the lady, for whom he has only negative feelings. In all three cases, the word beauty, when Richard speaks it, should be a clue to the audience that Richard is being false. He never mentions beauty for its own sake and means what he says.

This holds, true, too, when he speaks of himself. He is somewhat surprised when he manages to woo Lady Anne so easily. He comments that he must look better than he thought, or that his looks did not matter as much as he thought they did, and immediately plans to take advantage of the fact. He says: “I’ll be at charges for a looking-glass, / And entertain some score or two of tailors, / To study fashions to adorn my body: / Since I am crept in favour with myself, / Will maintain it with some little cost”. (1.2.449-52). Not only is he able to comment on a woman’s beauty for his own purposes, he somewhat mockingly thinks to make himself more beautiful than he actually is for his own reasons. Again, when Richard thinks to comment on physical appearance, it is only to turn it to his own advantage.

In contrast to Richard’s wretched appearance and its links with the horrors he commits, the final lines of the play give hope for the future in terms of beauty. Richmond says that the way is paved now for “Smooth-faced peace”. (5.5.3925). The smooth face of peace is in contrast to the dog, the foul deformity of the reign of Richard, again, and for the last time, linking the horrors of his actions with the unpleasantness of his appearance.

Richard III is a man as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside. From beginning to end, the man’s outward appearance is a signal of what he is like on the inside. The play’s audience have an immediate, graphic insight to the character of the man who will lie, cheat, flatter and murder his way into the crown of England.

  • Shakespeare, William. Richard III. Open Source Shakespeare. Web. 2 May 2016.

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