The Unfinished Self: Richard’s Gender, Deformity, and Personhood in 3 Henry VI and Richard III

by Julio C. Avalos, Jr.

September 14, 2002


This paper examines the relationship between physical deformity and sexual identity in Richard III and III Henry VI. When discussing Richard's deformities, critics have typically focused upon the metaphysical issues that they raise, first and foremost wondering whether they are tangible manifestations of an inner evil or whether they themselves are the root of his wickedness. This question presupposes the centrality of the moral implications that his deformities have, ignoring altogether the sexual connotations that a deformed body carried for a Renaissance audience. In this work, I discuss what exactly is meant when Shakespeare describes Richard as "unfinished," ultimately concluding that Richard represents a figure that transgresses the margins of sexual polarities, making him a threat to the very essence of Renaissance gender identity. I also conclude that -- beyond a manifestation of a simple "will to power" -- Richard's thirst for the throne is a sublimation of his wish to return to the womb.


    Shakespeare's treatment of Richard, Duke of Gloucester's physical deformity is often used by literary scholars as a point of departure for the asking of some fundamental metaphysical questions: Is his deformity a sign of his innate inward corruption, or is it the cause of his evil? Although important, this question takes for granted the presupposition that Richard's deformity has only moral implications. Regardless of whether one places his crooked back in the role of cause or effect, it is taken as self-evident that the deformity must in some way be directly linked to his absent morality.1

    This centralization of the moral dynamic associated with Richard's crooked body is only possible through a marginalization and obscuring of the link between physical imperfection and gender identity, missing entirely the implications that Richard's deformities have upon his sexuality and conception of personhood. Using Ian Maclean's influential The Renaissance Notion of Woman (1980) as a matrix from which to analyze the character of Richard III, this paper will attempt to illustrate just how Renaissance views on gender and deformity come into play in 3 Henry VI and Richard III. More specifically, this work will describe how Shakespeare's word choices in describing Richard point to a deeper intellectual project. I argue that in describing Richard as premature and "unfinished," Shakespeare was not only exploring the metaphysics of evil, but also implicitly questioning the Renaissance boundaries of gender and personhood, making the Richard character a figurehead that challenged contemporary mores on clear sexual polarities and demarcations.

    The Renaissance Notion of Woman is a text-based survey of attitudes toward and beliefs about women in the Renaissance. Maclean draws solely from the scholarly texts of the period, and it may be argued that his work provides the modern reader with a far too narrow scope from which to judge the Renaissance notion of woman. However, when used in tandem with literary works of the era, Maclean's study proves to be an invaluable resource in measuring the ideological temperature of the period, providing the twenty-first century reader with a context through which to better understand Shakespeare's language and themes. Word associations and connotations that would have been commonplace during Shakespeare's time are not necessarily evident to a contemporary audience, and it is in these situations that a work such as Maclean's proves helpful. One must be careful not to take his conclusions as a priori truths, but rather, to see them as helpful insights into the Renaissance mindset.

    Maclean is concerned primarily with three areas: the notion of woman itself, the idea of sexual difference, and the relationship between sexual difference and other differences. Maclean observes that the notion of woman has, regardless of culture or period, almost always been set in opposition to the notion of man, and that the Renaissance notion of woman must be viewed as an ideology that has its basis in Medieval and Aristotelian sexual polarities. These polarities, he argues, remained relatively unchanged from the Hellenic period through Shakespeare's time, varying little from Aristotle's association of the male principle with active, formative, and perfected characteristics, while the female was constantly relegated to the role of imperfect and unfinished, constantly desiring the male in order to "become complete" (8).

    St. Thomas Aquinas became the medieval spokesman for this conception of woman, describing every individual female as the result of some defect in the procreative process. The key words in Aquinas' view of women are manca, meaning, "crippled, maimed, defective, lacking, or weak," and occasionatum, a medieval term derived from the Latin verb that meant "of the occasion" and "random," but that could also mean, "fallen or "thrown away." Consequently, each particular woman is seen as an accident, a product of something gone awry in the womb. She is, for Aquinas, an incomplete and fallen male in both physiological and psychological senses. As Maclean points out, Aquinas is very explicit about the random irregularity of women, especially of their departure from the "active power of the seed of the male to produce something like itself" (8).

    According to Maclean, the Renaissance kept to most of the beliefs in a strict dichotomy between male and female. During the period, "sex is a polarity rather than something which admits ranges of possibilities to both man and woman which may overlap . . . [there exists] an adherence to firm divisions and an aversion to ambiguity or complex relationships" (27). The hermaphrodite, for example, is not seen as a midpoint along a male-female continuum, but rather, as a creature belonging to the realm of monster. Indeed, the Elizabethan conception of gender seems not to allow for talk of a sexual continuum at all, "male" and "female" seen as mutually exclusive, biological categories. It may be prudent to note that this extreme polarity of male and female extends solely to the biological realm. Maclean states that only in "psychological terms" can there ever be a sexual contradiction (27). As numerous works from the period attest to, the Renaissance was fraught with episodes - or at least fantasies of episodes - of cross-dressing and androgyny, manifestations, I think, of a purely phenomenal and superficial transgression of sexual borders, not the biological trespassing that Richard III evidences.

    In order to understand the sexual complexities of Richard in Richard III, it is necessary to look first at the maturation of his character in 3 Henry VI. His final soliloquy at is especially revealing. The passage introduces and underscores a theme that will prove paramount in Richard III, namely, that Richard has psychologically severed all ties between himself and his kin:

I had no father, I am like no father;

I have no brother, I am like no brother;

And this word, "love," which graybeards call divine,

Be resident in men like one another

And not in me - I myself am alone. (

    The passage is telling on several levels. Superficially, it evidences a sort of narcissism, a causa sui fantasy of self-creation that negates the existence of a father figure upon which he depends. By suppressing the role of the father in his creation, Richard is free to create a self ontologically independent of any other, which in turn leaves him free to create his own moral and ethical code. By erasing the Name-of-the-Father from his conscious perception, Richard is literally able to develop his own laws.

    This analysis of the passage is interesting, but contains a major flaw. During the mental disassociation of the self from kinship ties in lines 80-84, Richard makes no mention of his mother, and thus cannot be said to have severed all links between himself and his past. The conspicuousness of this omission, and of the mentioning of only male familial figures, implies the need for a different interpretation of the soliloquy.

    Immediately preceding the excerpt quoted, Richard details the circumstances surrounding his birth. He tells of the shock of the midwives when they saw his deformities, their horror at his mangled body and his tooth-filled mouth. In what amounts almost to a free association, Richard, with no intervening segue, immediately follows his recounting of his birth with the announcement that he is "like no father," going on to differentiate himself from men who are "like" one another. It is no great leap to infer that in Richard's mind, his birth and body somehow keep him from being "like" other men. He is espousing a belief that the deformities of his body somehow prevent it from achieving complete essence of maleness. To put it in Aristotelian language, the deformity prevents the Form of Man from being actualized, the telos forever diverted and sent astray, lost, perhaps, in the mangled asymmetry of Richard's back.

    This conclusion would seem congruent with Maclean's findings on the Renaissance dichotomies between male and female and the conceptualization of "man" as the completed and whole Self. Implicit within Richard's soliloquy is an admission that his body is an impediment on the road to maleness, implying that he is forever doomed to be incomplete and lacking, that is, trapped in the feminine domain of manca and occasionatum. When face-to-face with his mother in Act 4 of Richard III, Richard says to her, "Madam, I have a touch of your condition," and we can now see just how right he is; the absence of a severing of the tie with his mother seems logical (4.iv.158).

    Richard is not attempting to remove himself completely from the realm of humanity, simply from the realm of masculinity. His deformity evidences a tangible and inescapable link between himself (incomplete, lacking, and effeminized) and his mother, who is, by the classical definition of woman, herself a deformed and ill-shapen man. This basic theme is continued and expanded on in Richard III.

    The opening soliloquy of the play is a direct continuation of Richard's closing soliloquy in 3 Henry VI. It makes explicit much of what the previous soliloquy had left implicit concerning Richard's thoughts on his body:

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 therefore since I cannot prove a lover

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days. (1.i.18-31)

    Richard's use of the words "deformed" and "unfinished," along with his admission that is "scarce half made up," emphasize the fact that Richard sees himself as lacking in some significant way, that he is, quite literally, a defective man, in Thomistic terms, mancus et occasionatus. As Lady Anne points out, Richard is a "diffused infection of a man" (1.ii.78).

    The Latin word for "unfinished" is imperfectus. If, for both classical and Renaissance scholars, the male figure was the perfect example of the human form (forma masculina perfectam est), then the female has no recourse but to serve as the opposing polarity, the imperfect and unfinished form. By describing himself as "unfinished," Richard is, at the very least, placing himself within a feminine domain, if not completely gendering himself as feminine.

    Richard's admission that he "cannot prove a lover" makes clear a connection between his deformity and a sexual frustration, a theme that appears throughout Richard III and the three parts of the Henry plays. In an echo of his earlier attack on love in the final soliloquy of 3 Henry VI, Richard sees his deformity as an obstacle also to "sportive tricks" (Richard III, 1.i.14). "Sportive tricks" may refer simply to the act of courting and of flirtation, but here it carries a stronger connotation, hinting at the actual sexual act itself. Richard's deformity must be reconceptualized as an unfinished masculinity, and thus as an agent of impotence and castration.

    By his own admission, Richard was sent into the world before his time, before fully maturing, and before becoming fully a man. He was born, then, lacking that part of the self that would make him "like a father" or "like a brother." Richard's deformity marks him as impotent, rendering him unable to partake in the venereal joys of his brother, King Edward. Richard's recurring condemnation of Edward's amorous prowess evidences his fixation on his own inability to procreate.

    Take, for example, Richard's soliloquy at 3.ii.124 of 3 Henry VI, a passage that immediately follows King Edward's courtship of Lady Gray. Edward is referred to as "lustful," and an allusion to a possible contraction of syphilis is made (3.ii.124-34). At the beginning of Richard III, Richard admonishes Edward for capering "nimbly in a lady's chamber / To the lascivious pleasing of a lute" (I.i.12-14). In both instances, talk of Edward's lustiness immediately leads to talk concerning the throne, Richard's feelings of inadequacy paving the way for a compensatory will to power. Richard's mind has conflated the idea of sexual prowess with political ascendancy. His drive for power is also an act of compensation as he attempts to makeup for his shortcomings by striving for the ultimate sign of masculinity, the throne of England. The reasoning behind his sudden and illogical thirsting for the throne now becomes clear. The crown represents for Richard the pinnacle of male prowess and power, and yet, in what ostensibly appears to be a paradox, is also referred to by him as "home," a word with strong womb imagery (3 Henry VI, 3.ii.173). The paradox that arises here, however, is only superficial.

    Richard feels the need to compensate - to seek out a phallus - because he feels that he has been born prematurely, and that his premature birth has left him unfinished and incomplete. His talk of incompleteness almost always follows talk concerning the amorous escapades of others (specifically his brother, Edward), a fact that leads me to conclude - along with Maclean's useful gloss on the Renaissance connotations of unfinished fetuses and femininity - that what makes Richard incomplete is a lack of a phallic power that serves to effeminize him.

    Richard's lack of a masculine identity is thus intimately linked - indeed, caused by - his premature birth, i.e., his premature departure from the womb. At 1.i.20 of Richard III, Richard explicitly laments the circumstances of his birth, crying out that he was sent before his time. Attainment of masculinity is thus knotted together with a return to the womb, that is, the return to a maternal presence that will not reject him and that will allow him to fully develop into a man. Thus, the crown signifies both the fulfillment of his lack and the possibility of a return to the mother, explaining why Richard refers to it in both masculine and maternal language. Richard says at much during his famous soliloquy at scene 2 of act 3 in 3 Henry VI:

Well, say there is no kingdom then for Richard -

What other pleasure can the world afford?

I'll make my heaven in a lady's lap,


O, miserable thought! And more unlikely

Than to accomplish twenty gold crowns.

Why love forswore me in my mother's womb.


I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,

And whiles I live, t'account this world but hell

Until my misshaped trunk that bears this head

Be round impaled with a glorious crown. (146-71)

    Just after this excerpt, Richard refers to the crown as "home" (2.iii.173). Thus, in less than thirty lines Richard has used the crown to symbolize a means to achieve sexual intercourse, and therefore a phallus (line 148), and also a return to the womb (173).   This reading, I believe, is only possible when the link between Richard's deformity and his sexuality is made clear. Otherwise, the reader is left with the problem of explaining how the phallic crown can simultaneously be conceptualized as an object symbolizing the womb.

    In describing Richard as "unfinished," Shakespeare not only calls into question his morality and ethics, but also places him within a feminized sphere of lacking. Indeed, Richard's identity seems to be founded on lacking: a lacking of maternal love, of amorous delights, of respect, and ultimately, of a masculine identity. This latter point is reached both through the textual evidence that Shakespeare provides, and by Maclean's scholarship on Renaissance gender ideology that makes it possible to understand the implications that words such as "unfinished" have when placed in the proper historical context.

    Unlike the feminine characters of other Shakespearean works who don male attire and simply play at being members of the opposite sex, Richard transgresses the sexual boundaries of the period on a basic, biological level, making him a creature that cannot (unlike the cross-dressed heroines) be redeemed or recalled by the playwright at the end of the work. The animosity that he generates among the other personae is a logical projection of the Renaissance fear of beings who straddled the gulf between complete and incomplete, and thus between male and female. That gap between the two polarities needed to remain unpopulated, and Richard's appearance within that space relegates him to the role of monster. It is fitting, then, that Richard dies at the hands of Henry, Earl of Richmond, a character who is sanctioned by a myriad of powerful male figures who transcend the laws of time and of mortality. The patriarchy is saved through Richard's death, the masculine machinations of war putting a simple end to the complications of gender and identity that Richard represented. 


1. The reading of Richard's deformities as a vehicle through which to explore the "metaphysics of evil" is present in both Jean E. Howard's introduction to "3 Henry VI," and Stephen Greenblatt's introduction to "Richard III," both appearing in The Norton Shakespeare (1997). Their mutual concern seems to be discovering whether Shakespeare falls directly into the "deformity-as-cause" camp or the "deformity-as-result" camp. After claiming that "the play's exploration of deformity and its relationship to the breakdown of social order and emotional bonds is more complex" than even Richard might allow, Howard goes right ahead and reduces it to a manifestation of evil.

Freud's comments on Richard's character in "Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-analytic Work," along with Murray Krieger's insightful essay, "The Dark Generations of 'Richard III'," (1959) are works that offer illumination into the sexual dimension of his persona. However, both also lack the grounding that Maclean's scholarship has made possible concerning the Renaissance conception of sexuality. (Back to Main Text

Works Cited 

    Freud, Sigmund. "Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work," from The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud, Chapter XVIII of Volume IV, pp. 320-323, edited by Ernest Jones (1959). Howard, Jean. E. Introduction to "Richard Duke of York," in The Norton Shakespeare. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, & Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997. 

    Krieger, Murray. "The Dark Generations of 'Richard III'," from Criticism, Volume I, 1959. Reprinted in The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare. ed. M.D. Faber. New York: Science House, 1970. Maclean, Ian. The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.  "Richard III," in The Norton Shakespeare. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, & Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.   Shakespeare, William. "3 Henry VI," in The Norton Shakespeare. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, & Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997. 

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Julio C. Avalos, Jr. "The Unfinished Self: Richard’s Gender, Deformity, and Personhood in 3 Henry VI and Richard III". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 9, 2002, Published: September 14, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Julio C. Avalos, Jr.