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Distemporality: Richard III's Body and the Car Park'

Jonathan Hsy



My contribution to this Upstart forum on Richard III began its life as a posting on the collaborative website In the Middle (6 February 2013).1 I composed the entry soon after researchers announced their findings that DNA most likely confirmed skeletal remains unearthed beneath a Leicester car park (parking lot) were those of medieval English monarch Richard III. This king is commonly imagined in the popular imagination (via Shakespeare and other sources) as villain with a deformed body, and the curved spine of the skeleton — among other features — seems to confirm the identification.

In this venue, I consider how this “moment of discovery” offers the prospect of renewed, non-Shakespearean reference points for discussing Richard III and making sense of this figure’s curious existence across time. That is, I am not so much concerned about what the physical form of Richard III’s body might reveal about the king himself; instead, I consider how the contemporary discovery of the body itself provokes us to think more critically about discursive and conceptual movements through time. What role does Richard III continue to play for us simultaneously as a historical medieval king, a particular early modern (i.e., Shakespearean) representation, and a modern cultural icon?

This essay contains three loosely interconnected sections. The first considers some contemporary discourses about this present “moment” of discovery and the promise of a shifting paradigm in our approach to the king himself; the second discusses the perceptual lens that Shakespeare continues to provide for contemporary discourses about Richard III; and the third bridges early modern and contemporary contexts via theatrical performance and disability studies.

Disinternment and Discovery

As suggested above, I would like use this venue to consider some of the ways dynamic notions of temporality (as developed by premodern literary scholars) can be brought into conversation with contemporary (present-oriented) disability studies. In my view, this “Richard III moment” we are currently experiencing invites new ways of thinking not just about the historical personage of the king and the socially constructed meanings of deformity; it also reveals an increasingly flexible notion of “distemporality” (an emergent term in literary criticism which I will discuss below). In popular coverage of the Richard III identification story, media outlets published (somewhat staged) photographs to highlight the disruptive force the excavated body had exerted upon local everyday life. One “genre” of photographs — recirculated in many print and online venues — features historical reenactors arrayed in “medieval” armor observing the ensuing car park excavation. I view this awkward juxtaposition of time periods — the armor of knights clashing with mundane clothing of workers — as visually conveying a profound distemporality. Rebecca Schneider (in her discussion of historical reenactments of Vietnam War art) identifies certain forms of reenactment as “[m]oments of dis-temporality, of uncanniness, of error, or of a return to sense [that] occur in pauses . . . or tiny details of interruptive anachronisms as the ‘now’ folds and multiplies — even for [Howard] Zinn’s “brief flash’” (186).2 The visual conceit of the “knights at the excavation” snapshot — a flashpoint humorously depicting a “culture clash” between everyday modern life and a re-created nostalgia-infused past — conveys the distemporality of the entire “event” of Richard III’s disinterment.

Distemporality, I would say, is not just “about” temporal disruption per se. Entailing much more than veering away from linear, progressive models of time, distemporality implicates the very modes by which we move through time itself. In other words, distemporality agitates us to think more deliberately about the co-operation of many different modes of transit and types of motion through time and/as space. If queer temporality so often suggests fluid movements across time — flowing circuits of desire, contact, affective cross-identification across historical periods — then what happens once we acknowledge the profoundly uneven mechanics of motion itself, and reflect upon the participation of co-agents to enable co-mobilities across time and space?

If this all sounds too obscure, let me try to unpack this a bit more. The Richard III discovery — which can invite sensationalized reporting of a disruptive, “game changing” encounter with the past — does not mark a clear shift from one particular historical timeline, conceived as linear chronology; rather, it jostles the disparate elements of a profound distemporality. The translated (transported) decomposing remains of a medieval body found underneath a modern car park — a collective space for vehicles in transit — at once grounds the event in stationary space while also evincing the potential of future motion and a manifold history of prior travels: multiple modes of motion in and through one shared space.

In other words, the “discovering” (think dis-covering) of Richard III’s body is simultaneously material and metaphorical, rather than a completely conceptual recovery or uncovering. In a different context, queer disability theorist Jasbir Puar — engaging with the temporal “flash points” of Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida’s time out of joint — also cites Nilüfer Göle in reference to September 11 as “an exemplary incident which, in one moment, allows different temporalities to emerge, and with them, a range of issues hitherto suppressed” (qtd. at xvii and xvi). The disinterred medieval body marks a profound disruption, a “history-making” moment that the popular media reports as having the potential to revise broad master narratives: rethinking the shifting perceptions of the monarch over time, both demonizing and apologetic; providing an alternate timeline for the Reformation; or any number of (counter)interpretations. On a more immediate level, the fact is that this body’s disinterment radically reconfigures social relations and lived space. The discovered (revealed, uncovered) body in the car park has cascading effects, obliging drivers and commuters to find alternative sites and modes of transit. Richard III now “spills over” into media, online and social. The Richard III Society posts regular updates on Richard III research and related news coverage on its Facebook profile page. And “Richard III parking violation” memes continue to circulate online. (Just do a Google image search). On a very material level, the disinterred Richard III physically transforms the local landscape as well. Leicester is, among other things, constructing a new Richard III attraction across from the car park itself.3

Distemporality entails necessary disjunctions and material differences between modes of living, exposing not so much “time out of joint” but a profoundly disjointed materiality to time itself. The many “riffs” that Derrida enacts upon this idea are illuminative. Even with all the varied translations and explications he provides for this one Shakespearean line, the corporeal element of the “joint” remains occluded: Derrida readily marks this “joint” as referring to a door but can it also potentially suggest a body.

Furthermore, the “discovery” of Richard III is not so much an uncovering or recovery but a strategy of covering-differently. Physical re-constructions of Richard III’s face superimposed upon the skull indeed resemble well-known premodern portraits, yet the king’s features can feel strikingly domesticated: Richard the man appears attractive, young, and “rehabilitated.”4

It is my impression that media coverage loves “the car park” angle — it always comes up that he was discovered there! — because of the rhetorical and cognitive effect that very site creates: this feeling of collision, explosion, or “clash” between a mundane modern space and an extraordinary medieval body — an unexpected sensational contact between times. But it’s not that the modern space just gives us new or renewed access to the materiality of the past; this dismodern body actively reconfigures modern materiality as well.

Accessing Richard III

Speaking as a medievalist, I must say that this contemporary narrative that has unfolded around Richard III’s discovery — especially the whole obsession with the car park discovery, excavation, and transformative sense of history — resonates most strongly with a Middle English text known as St. Erkenwald. In this text (composed by a contemporary of Chaucer), work on the “New Werke” in the “metropol” and “mayster-town” of London unearths the tomb of a pagan judge. Karl Steel has already written in rich and nuanced ways about this poem as a narrative that (among other things) features a discovered body from a prior age that radically reconfigures time and community. At this point, I would like to pivot to the question of how we move through time to access Richard III himself.

When I encounter media coverage of this story, I must admit – again as a medievalist – that I am irked by the tendency for Richard III to be referenced as one of “Shakespeare’s kings.” It’s very difficult to find a single article about the Richard III discovery that does not include some reference to Shakespeare in it somewhere! Due to the imaginative power the Bard holds in the popular imagination, there’s a palpable sense that this late medieval monarch is always/already filtered through a formative early modern representational lens — and so much of the discussion about accessing the “real” Richard III effectively “digs itself out” from layers and layers of Shakespearean mediation. In all the talk about “rehabilitating” Richard III — with all its uncomfortable implications for his alleged deformity and the social meanings attached to embodied difference — we can’t access a truly “medieval” Richard III — even if we have the body. Our access to Richard III (always-already) acknowledges — in dutiful and even perfunctory ways — the disruptive and intervening presence of the influential Shakespearean manifestation.

Transtemporal Embodiment

The discovery of Richard III’s body and discussion of “what it all means” will continue for some time. In this final section, I would like to briefly consider the implications this discovery has for reorienting how we think about Shakespeare’s Richard III and the very material consequences that the king’s body might have for disability and performance. Scholarship engaging Shakespeare’s Richard III with disability studies is becoming increasingly frequent and varied. Katherine Schaap Williams, for instance, has offered a very provocative first gambit in the open-access journal Disability Studies Quarterly. She offers astute readings of crucial passages in the play that refer to the maligned king’s deformity and remarkable modes of embodiment, all the while, “with deliberate anachronism,” adapting Lennard Davis’s notion of the “dismodern subject” (a term which Davis himself developed within a nineteenth-century historical context). Even more recently, Alison Hogbood and David Houston Wood have situated Shakespeare’s Richard III in the context of premodern discourses of monstrosity and “ethical staring” (1-19), and Marcela Kostihová explores a recent and “wildly popular” staging of Richard III in the postcommunist Czech Republic that featured disabled actor and political activist Jan Potměšil in the starring role. Once we approach the Shakespearean work as a performative conduit between early modern theater and disability studies, we discern that this play — no matter who inhabits the role — always features multiple temporalities in single body: the present performance, early modern language, and medieval king. In any staging of Richard III, disparate temporalities collide and co-inhabit shared space. Such temporalities move unevenly and via disparate means — conspicuously so when the title role is portrayed by a disabled actor (or an actor using prosthetic devices such as a cane or crutches)5. Theatrical performances can mobilize quirky, discordant assemblages of temporally-marked signs concurrently — including a conspicuous clash between the use of “period” costume with disruptively anachronistic prosthetics such as a modern wheelchair or futuristic assistive technologies.

Much more than evincing a queer “touch” across time, the dis-covering of Richard III’s body can help us attend more deliberately to how temporalities move — slide, bounce, connect, and shuffle. We can consider how they not only engage in modes of rearrangement but also jostle together and collaborate in an unpredictable dance. To adapt Puar from a different context, we might think in terms of “spatial, temporal, and corporeal convergences, implosions, and rearrangements” (205), inhabiting a world in which temporalities “interpenetrate, swirl together, and transmit affects and effects to each other” (205). Times, in other words, are anything but static: they enact co-movements that register as awkward, intimate, explosive, beautiful, or all of the above.

Distemporality, as a critical term, does not merely articulate an improperly aligned Shakespearean temporality, a sense of a timeline veering “off course” or set “out of joint” from a presumed norm of progressive unfolding. Rather, this notion sets divergent temporalities in motion concurrently. Shakespeare’s Richard III, rather appropriately, teems with evocative allusions to the troubled, contingent co-existence of bodies in time. Richard identifies himself as born “[d]eformed, unfinish’d . . . before my time” (1.1.20) and blames “some tardy cripple” for delaying the reversal of the order of Clarence’s execution (2.1.90); the Duchess of York laments the recent death of her sons as “two crutches [pluck’d] from my feeble limbs” (2.2.58); and Buckingham offers the prospect of “a lineal true-derived course” restored from “the corruption of abusing times” (3.7.189-190). In the discursive universe of Richard III, a straight “lineal” progression of time always awaits beyond the chronological unfolding of the play’s narrative action, and premature births and untimely deaths are entered into discourse by the figuration of bodies moving at a different paces from rest of the world. In the dual context of the early modern play and the car park discovery, the body of “Shakespeare’s” king — so disruptively unearthed and set it motion in our own modern world — conspicuously unfixes smooth and linear modes of temporal transit. Distemporality indeed resonates throughout Richard III — but it also animates our own contemporary discourses about the body and motion of the king.


1In order to demonstrate the layered temporality of this piece, I have retained much of the original text while also incorporating some subsequent feedback. Images and additional links can still be viewed at the site, as can all the comments posted in response to the entry.

2I use the term “distemporality” (without the hyphen) to maintain the uncomfortable connection between the dis- prefix and temporality.

3“A disjointed or disadjusted now, ‘out of joint,’ a disjointed now that always risks maintaining nothing together in the assured conjunction of some context whose border would still be determinable” (Derrida 1). See also the door-hinge reading (20).

4On “nonstandard” bodies in premodern texts, see Hobgood and Wood. On premodern deformity and “abnormality,” see Turner and Stagg.

5Antony Sher (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1984) employed crutches. Kevin Spacey (Old Vic, London, 2011) used crutches with prosthetic leg. Disabled actor Henry Holden (Spoon Theater, New York, 2007) employed crutches.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx. Trans. Peggy Kamuff. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Hobgood, Alison, and David Houston Wood, eds. Recovering Disability in Early Modern England. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2013. Print.

Hsy, Jonathan. “Distemporality: Richard III and That Whole Leicester Cark Park Thing." In the Middle. 6 February 2013. Web.

Kostihová, Marcela. “Richard Recast: Renaissance Disability in a Postcommunist Culture.” Recovering Disability in Early Modern England. Ed. Alison Hobgood and David Houston Wood. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2013. 136-149. Print.

Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Schneider, Rebecca. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “Richard III.” The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisman Maus. New York: Norton, 2008. Print.

Steel, Karl. “Will Wonders Never Cease.” In the Middle. 17 November 2009. Web.

Turner, David M., and Kevin Stagg, eds. Social Histories of Deformity and Deformity: Bodies, Images and Experiences. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Williams, Katherine Schaap. “Enabling Richard: The Rhetoric of Disability in Richard III.” Disability Studies Quarterly 29.4 (2009). Web.

Jonathan Hsy is Associate Professor of English at The George Washington University. His research explores intersections between premodern literature and the fields of translation theory and disability studies. He is the author of Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature (Columbus: Ohio State University, 2013), and he has published articles on medieval sea travel, multilingual lyrics, medieval urban networks, and xenoglossia (speaking in tongues). His article on leper-kissing and same-sex female desire appeared in Early Modern Woman Journal, and his current project explores writing by premodern authors who self-identify as blind or deaf. He blogs at In the Middle.

Image Credit: University of Leicester

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