When Johnny Lydon, then known as Johnny Rotten, took the microphone in front of the Sex Pistols in the late 1970s, he projected a fantastic malevolence. Skinny, hunched, wide-eyed, a man anger-obsessed. He also began to affect a strange accent, a hyper-enunciation, with trilled r’s (as in “Rrright, now”). It was clearly his own Cockney tinged with something else, a parody of something aristocratic. Lydon has said in interviews, and in his autobiography, that this stage persona was partly inspired by Laurence Olivier’s performance of Richard III, in his 1955 film based on the Shakespeare play.
And indeed that is the image – the twisted, poetic man with murder on his mind – that we have long had imprinted on us, an image not just of this particular king but of English kings in general. It was a creation of Shakespeare and of Olivier, and it was recreated not just by the Sex Pistols but by Rowan Atkinson in the early Blackadder episodes and even to a certain extent by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a slender yet savage Henry VIII in The Tudors. It informed Heath Ledger’s nastily disfigured Joker character.
Disfigurement – or simple ugliness – is key to the persona in all its iterations. Shakespeare called the king a hunchback (we now know he had severe scoliosis). He was using a crude and ancient trick of storytelling: Villains, like monsters, are ugly. They bear some deformity that evinces their evil. The monster Grendel, Beowulf’s nemesis, is an “unnatural birth,” larger than a man, his skin covered in a horny iron substance. Rumpelstiltskin, the evil imp, is the opposite: a dwarf. Witches and wicked stepmothers have warts and curved noses throughout fairy tales. The tradition continues through modern science fiction, where alien enemies are usually reptilian, or masked, like Darth Vader – what horrible visage is the dark lord protecting from sight?
And yet a defiant ugliness is precisely what Johnny Rotten was using to command attention: Ugliness is clever, rebellious, angry. His ugliness heralded revolution. And Shakespeare’s Richard III is similarly complex: His resentment about his deformity motivates him. Some of the most frightening lines about physical ugliness in English literature come out of his mouth: 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.” Later Queen Margaret describes him as a “poisonous bunchback’d toad.” (He calls her in return a “hateful wither’d hag.” Shakespeare did not fear causing offence.)
It is hard for anyone with a disability or deformity to read those lines. I have a minor one myself (funny hands) and remember being moved, as a teenager reading this play, by the horror of the dogs as the lame man passes by.
In modern times, interpreters of Shakespeare’s character have stressed his disability even more than the play does. A famous Royal Shakespeare Company show from 1984 had actor Richard Sher playing the king in crutches, barely able to walk; other companies have used actors with real disabilities to play the king, including at least one in a wheelchair. The idea, with every new version of the play, is to add to the character’s complexity, to make him more than a mere psycho.
By the 19th century, the sentimental archetype of the deformed antihero had shifted to a more benevolent one. Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, is an object of sympathy rather than loathing; a simple victim rather than a complex tyrant. This is now a convention we are familiar with too, in theatre in particular – The Phantom of the Opera is also about a disfigured face that needs love.
Even in recent science fiction and fantasy, attempts have been made to break negative expectations of abnormal-looking characters. Tyrion Lannister, the manipulative genius of Game of Thrones , is a sympathetic dwarf, and as played on the TV show by Peter Dinklage, he has become a sex symbol. The South African sci-fi film District 9 created a slave race of slimy aliens – they have tentacles on their faces and are rudely called Prawns – who are the most sympathetic, and secretly intelligent, characters in the story. The idea in modern representations is that we the audience all feel abnormal in some way and are going to identify with the mocked and shunned far more than with the powerful. This idea of individualism is a recent one, a product of the Enlightenment and Romanticism.
Shakespeare’s textured and interesting Richard III, though, is part of the beginning of that transformation, for disfigured characters in literary history, from monsters to charming victims or even stoic heroes. Richard, like Johnny Rotten, is dissatisfied with “idle pleasures,” and “determined to be a villain,” and an amusing and charming villain he is. This was around 1592 – 75 years before Milton’s attractively tortured Satan, in Paradise Lost, became a model for sexy villains in literature forever after.
And now we have found evidence that the real Richard III was not only actually deformed but that his life of battle was truly an ugly one. The skeleton found under a parking lot in Leicester showed the results of bound wrists, an axe or sword blow to the head, a sword through the buttocks, and other unnamed “humiliation wounds,” probably inflicted after death. This king was torn apart by a mob of soldiers, his body publicly defiled and then thrown into an unmarked grave. The world of violence these guys lived in was ruthless from birth. One can’t really imagine a blameless moral king coming out of this culture. Plantagenets, Tudors, Sopranos – all fundamentally depraved family sagas. We need a scary character – a face – to embody the blood thirst of the time.
Creepily, a computer reconstruction of Richard III’s face, based on the skull recently dug up, bears a very slight resemblance to the young Laurence Olivier’s.