The American sociologist Erving Goffman was the first to argue this idea in full. His book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity , claimed not only that stigma is best understood as a social process rather than an individual attribute, but also that the mental and social experiences of people with disabilities are comparable to the experiences of those who face social discrimination in relation to individual attributes other than disability such as race, gender, and sexual orientation , a phenomenon later addressed under the rubric of "intersectionality.
In the words of disability scholars Jeffrey Brune and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, "The radical insights of social constructivism that emerged from sociology through the social interactionism Goffman initiated in the s gave disability studies what we now understand as a founding concept of our field: the social model. In contrast, in the "social model," things like deformity, disease, and illness do not directly cause "disability"; instead, these "impairments" encounter negative social reactions such as prejudice, hostility, and discrimination, and it is these features of society which cause "disability," understood in the conceptual sense as an inability to perform certain tasks that a human being can usually perform due to a social limitation imposed upon an individual.
In the s and early s, the social model was employed and refined by academics such as Mike Oliver, Vic Finkelstein, and Collin Barnes but, starting in the s and continuing to this day, the social model has been critiqued and rejected by Disability Studies scholars such as Liz Crow, Jenny Morris, Tom Shakespeare, and Nicholas Watson.
First, arguing for a "critical realist" model, Disability Studies scholars such as Tom Shakespeare no relation to William have pointed out that individual attributes such as deformity, disease, and illness quite obviously do directly cause people to be unable to perform certain tasks. This recognition that "disability" can derive from either one's body or one's society, and that it usually derives from both in overlapping ways, has produced the sensibility behind American Disability Studies since the mids sometimes referred to as New Disability Studies , including the work of Lennard Davis, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Simi Linton, James Charleton, David Mitchell, Susan Snyder, Catherine Kudlick, and Tobin Siebers, among others.
The second problem with the social model of disability is that it can actually reify the awkward dynamic of tragedy and charity it seeks to dislodge. Rather than the victims of nature, people with disabilities are presented as the victims of society, but victims nonetheless.
This victimization prompts the social dynamic in which the normals feel pity for the stigmatized and express their good intentions and well wishes — in other words, their disavowal of stigma — through charity, or at least through a charitable attitude which often comes across as patronizing.
Third, with respect to "intersectionality," it must be acknowledged that attributes of individuals unrelated to deformity, disease, and illness e. To many people including me it feels terminologically imprecise and conceptually compromised to redefine "disability" as broadly as the social model does, especially because individual attributes related to race, class, and gender are hardly "impairments" that are "disabling" in and of themselves.
In the words of Tom Shakespeare, "The social model's benefits as a slogan and political ideology are its drawbacks as an academic account of disability. In the vocabulary of stigma, individual attributes which can be collected under the category "abnormalities" — whether physical, mental, racial, familial, ethical, or sexual in nature — come into contact with social "norms" which define "normalcy," and from this encounter emerges "stigma," understood as the delegitimization of an identity due to some abnormality which is definitionally opposed to social normalcy.
Like the cultural model of disability, the language of stigma provides a more satisfying account of disability than the social model because it acknowledges the reality of "impairments" which directly cause disabilities and of "disabilities" which stem from individual attributes other than impairment. The "cultural model" which attends to both "disability" as a medical phenomenon and "stigma" as a social phenomenon is the version of Disability Studies underwriting the Disabled Shakespeares project both Hobgood and Wood's introduction to Recovering Disability in Early Modern England and Iyengar's introduction to Disability, Health, and Happiness in the Shakespearean Body begin by narrating the shift from the medical model to the social and then cultural models of disability.
But the Disabled Shakespeares project faces the same challenge that any theoretically inflected approach to literature faces: Does disability theory illuminate Shakespeare's texts and contexts by enhancing our ability to understand and explain them, or does it distort them by projecting anachronistic ideas and preconceived notions onto the texts? Is this an application or an imposition of theory? These have been the questions asked and answered in different ways by the Disabled Shakespeares project and subsequent scholarship on disability in and around Shakespeare's texts.
First, the historical argument has sought to establish "disabled" as an operational identity category in the Renaissance, a claim that, if true, would require a serious reconsideration of the widely held belief that "disability" as we now know it came into existence in the late eighteenth century. Second, the methodological argument has pointed out that modern theories of disability can be usefully even if anachronistically employed to understand and explain what disability is and how it works in Shakespeare's texts.
Fourth, the theoretical argument, instead of using disability theory to read Shakespeare, has suggested that Shakespeare's texts can be used to generate and support theories of disability. In what follows, I address each of these arguments in turn. In brief, I reject the historical argument due to lack of evidence and imprecise argumentation. I embrace the methodological argument but draw attention to some shortcomings in its execution. I accept the critical argument but try to move beyond it.
And I celebrate the possibilities of the theoretical argument and offer my own examples of it. To be clear, however, I do not want to argue against the claims of the Disabled Shakespeares project as much as I want to use those readings as evidence of the imperfect ways we think and speak about the elusive problem of stigma when we encounter it in Shakespeare's texts. Shakespeare's first depiction of disability was also his funniest. It came in 2 Henry VI , in an episode familiar from the English chronicles, the spurious miracle at St.
Albans, which satirized the gullibility of a too superstitious King Henry, as Lindsey Row-Heyveld discussed in her contribution to Disabled Shakespeares. It would be impossible for the actor playing King Henry to overplay the king's response, a sumptuous prayer glorifying the goodness of God. Named Saunder Simpcox, the blind man arrives and says that he was born blind, and moreover that his friends must now carry him around because he once fell from a tree and lost his ability to walk, one disability piled on top of another.
Much more skeptical than King Henry, the Duke of Gloucester wants to know what a blind man was doing climbing trees. Then, as Simpcox vaunts his new eyesight, naming the colors he sees all around him, Gloucester points out that a man blind from birth would have no idea which color is red. We laugh. We even laugh heartily, but our laughter is tinged with uneasiness when we acknowledge some of the sadly standard features of disability as it is represented in Western literature.
In this scene, as in many societies, it is the "normals" who define, control, and manipulate what counts as disability; as in the New Testament of the Bible, disability is simply the platform for a display of God's power; as in modern medicine, the normal man believes it is his job to cure the disabled and eradicate disability from the earth; people are both deeply sympathetic with and deeply suspicious of someone's claim to be disabled; the disabled person meets both ridicule and violence; and, in the end, the disabled man is run off the stage and out of the sacred society of the normals.
In calling foul on a claim for the reality of disability in the Renaissance, I am doing in this section a version of what the Duke of Gloucester did to Simpcox in 2 Henry VI , so I want to emphasize that Gloucester was right. The perpetuation of this scene, and the effect this perpetuation might have had on attitudes toward disability — including the likelihood that it legitimized or even cultivated suspicion and hostility toward persons with disabilities, as Row-Heyveld argued — is another matter altogether.
Our culture and history certainly exhibit highly undesirable traditions related to suspicion of the veracity of claims for disability and hostility toward those who are disabled but, in Shakespeare's scene, Gloucester is correct that Simpcox's disability is a forgery. I have no interest in Gloucester-like whipping anyone, of course, but I do want to exercise a little Gloucester-like circumspection regarding claims for the reality of disability in the Renaissance.
That is because the historical argument of the Disabled Shakespeares project is deeply flawed: it confuses the fact that we can identify examples of what we now call "disability" in Shakespeare's works with the claim that "'disabled' was an operational identity category in the Renaissance. They proceed to argue that "identifying disability in the Renaissance requires an acute sense of how, to echo Lois Bragg, it has been sequentially redefined over time.
As they themselves note quoting from the definition of disability in the OED , "The term 'disability' did not circulate in England until as late as , and even then, it most often intimated something more about an individual's general incapacity than the 'fact or state of having … a physical or mental condition' that prompted said incapacity. There are certainly patterns in Shakespeare's treatment of the blind — Old Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice and the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear , for example, are both blind men deceived by their sons 31 — and there are certainly patterns in Shakespeare's treatment of epileptics — Julius Caesar, Henry IV, Othello, and Macbeth 32 — but Shakespeare did nothing to bring the blind and the epileptic together under a single identity of "disabled.
Davis's argument that disability was not an "operative category" in the Renaissance is an argument about the language historically used to discuss the abnormal body, the kind of argument Hobgood and Wood claim to be making, but not the kind of argument they actually make. In fact, a closer look reveals that Davis's position is not necessarily incompatible with Hobgood and Wood's claim that "disabled" was an "operational identity category" in the Renaissance: note the interpolation of "identity.
I will admit that I am not totally certain what an "operational identity category" is, and the phrase is not explained. The criteria by which we can determine whether or not an identity is "operational" are also unclear. On the one hand, saying that "disabled" was an "operational identity category" could mean that someone was able to think or speak of "the disabled" in the same way that he or she could think or speak of "the English" or "the Catholic" or "the royalty.
On the other hand, seeing disability as an "operational identity category" could simply mean that disability, while not an explicit part of the public discourse, did exert an influence upon identity formation in the Renaissance. If so, who could argue otherwise? But if that is the historical argument of the Disabled Shakespeares project, one wonders if and when disability was ever not an "operational identity category.
As I see it, you can claim that disability is a timeless universal and then look at the historically specific ways it was defined and described in the Renaissance, or you can demonstrate with evidence that the discourse of disability "operant" in the eighteenth century and forward was actually "operant" in the Renaissance, but the fact that disability is a timeless universal does not demonstrate that disability was an "operant" discourse in the Renaissance. For scholars concerned with the history of ideas and language, there is value in Davis's identification of the emergence of the discourse of "disability" in the eighteenth century.
Thus, the central flaw in the historical argument of the Disabled Shakespeares project is that it promises to offer a look into the historically specific ways in which abnormal bodies and minds were represented in the Renaissance, but then it willfully ignores the historically specific language of the period in favor of anachronistic terminology.
This passage, in which the Watches eavesdrop upon the criminals Conrade and Borachio, is not about deformity. It is initially about fashion, but it is really about confusion, and the word "deformed" is used rather casually:. Yes, the fashion is the fashion.
I may as well say the fool's the fool. But seest thou not what a deformed thief this fashion is? Seest thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this fashion is? We charge you, in the prince's name, stand! Call up the right master constable. We have here recovered the most dangerous piece of lechery that ever was known in the commonwealth.
And one Deformed is one of them: I know him; a' wears a lock. Masters, masters — 2. You'll be made bring Deformed forth, I warrant you. As a description of what kind of thief the thief in question is, Borachio's word "deformed" is nothing more than a vigorous synonym for "bad," "horrible," or some other adjective of approbation. In the ears of the inept Watches, however, the adjective "deformed" is mistaken for a noun, even a proper noun, effectively personifying the adjective as a substantive being.
They believe there is a person named Deformed, but the characters in Much Ado cannot "bring Deformed forth," of course, because Deformed does not exist. He was invented by those who heard the word "deformed" and then confused the suggestion of something for the reality of that thing. Theorizing outward from this passage and here I am gesturing forward to the conclusion of this essay , the social phenomenon we might term Knowing Deformed involves a claim to have access to and knowledge of an identity which has actually been entirely invented by the person making the claim.
To Know Deformed is to observe through considerable obfuscation the discourse of deformity and then to assert, quite mistakenly, not only the reality of a thing called "Deformed," but also one's ownership of the true meaning of that thing. What is actually happening here, however, is that the observer is laying claim to something he or she invented in the first place — truly Much Ado About Nothing. I fear that a similar dynamic is as work in the Disabled Shakespeares project.
Those arguing for the existence of "disabled" as an operational identity category in the Renaissance have been trying to "bring Disabled forth. Scholars in the Disabled Shakespeares project seem to have mistaken their impression of a situation for some external reality, to have mistaken their own identification of examples of disability in Renaissance texts for the historically specific reality of disability as an identity category in the Renaissance.
Without getting into a historical debate about the status of "disability" as a discourse in the early-modern age, modern theories of disability can be usefully employed, as Katherine Schaap Williams put it in her contribution to Disabled Shakespeares , "with deliberate anachronism" to unpack Shakespeare's texts. For example, consider Hobgood's contribution to Disabled Shakespeares , which used Davis's work in Disability Studies to discuss how, in Julius Caesar , "the body is never a single thing so much as a series of attitudes toward it.
As such, Hobgood overlooked the hugely important fact that, in Shakespeare's play, Caesar's epileptic fit is feigned, an innovation that departs significantly from the traditional treatment and could be revealingly connected to Row-Heyveld's work on feigned disability.
Historically speaking, Caesar had epilepsy, or at least Plutarch said he did, and Shakespeare's Caesar could conceivably have it too Shakespeare's Cassius says he saw one of Caesar's epileptic fits [1. Mark Antony thrice offers Caesar the crown of Rome, and Caesar thrice refuses it, playing the coy mistress. To Caesar's surprise, however, his audience applauds his rejection of Roman rule. In response, like an indignant schoolgirl set to rob the world of the pleasure of her existence, Caesar offers to cut his own throat, but he then sees better means to his end.
He feigns an epileptic fit, as Casca narrates:. Marry, before he fell down, when he perceived the common herd was glad he refused the crown, he plucked me ope his doublet and offered them his throat to cut. An I had been a man of any occupation, if I would not have taken him at a word, I would I might go to hell among the rogues. And so he fell. When he came to himself again, he said, If he had done or said any thing amiss, he desired their worships to think it was his infirmity.
Three or four wenches, where I stood, cried 'Alas, good soul! Comparing Caesar to "the players in the theatre" 1. What Shakespeare showed in this episode is the remarkable malleability of the meaning of physical affliction, his play dramatizing the making of multiple meanings. For, in this episode, epilepsy has three meanings, maybe more, depending on who is making the meaning. To Caesar, his false epileptic fit is a sign of his strength, his political acumen, his ability to manufacture public sentiment about himself and control his own destiny.
To the crowd, it is a sign of his weakness, of his humanity and mortality, and therefore his likeness to them. To us in the audience, Caesar's seizure is not a sign, as in a symbol with a static sense, but an empty marker, as in a placeholder for symbolization; it is a moment that collects the multiple meanings we make of disabilities, meaning-making that Shakespeare actually dramatized on stage. From this perspective, Julius Caesar was not simply a manifestation of the competing cultural discourses that Hobgood, in typical new historicist fashion, emphasized: "Situated at the juncture of myriad disability discourses, the play is informed by Hippocratic pathology, medieval marvelousness, Renaissance monstrosity, Galenic humoralism, and seventeenth-century rationalism.
The Plutarchan context helps us see that Shakespeare himself recognized, represented, and commented upon the making of the meaning of a disability like epilepsy by dramatizing the interpretation of it rather than the thing itself. Shakespeare, by filtering the off-stage episode through Casca's perspective and narration, literally did not represent disability. What Shakespeare actually represented was stigma, the making of the meaning of abnormality: not only Casca's interpretation of Caesar's epilepsy, but even Casca's interpretation of other interpretations of it.
In other words, the making and remaking of the meanings of epilepsy in the period is not just something we can retroactively identify, as Hobgood did. It is something Shakespeare identified in the moment. Julius Caesar does not attest to disability as an "operant identity category" as much as it illustrates that stigma — the creation of the meaning of abnormality — was an acute artistic concern for Shakespeare.
If there was a missed opportunity in Hobgood's reading of Caesar's disability, there was simply a misreading in Rachael Hile's contribution to Disabled Shakespeares , an account of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Unfortunately, this suggestion mistakes a dubious for a necessary reading, disparages those who do not accept it, and is in fact a selective reading that can only be arrived at by willfully ignoring the evidence against it.
In The Taming of the Shrew , the lines about Katherine's limp come in the context of Petruchio's plainly professed attempt to confound Katherine by contravening the evident sense of things. Even though he has not, Petruchio claims that he has heard that Katherine is coarse, coy, and curt, while he finds her pleasant, playful, sweet, sincere, soft, affable, mild, kind, and courteous, a flattering description of Katherine that clearly contradicts the direct evidence we have of her character from earlier in the play.
Then, even though again he has not, Petruchio claims he has heard that Katherine limps when she walks, while he finds her to stand straight and walk with a lovely gait:. Why does the world report that Kate doth limp?
O sland'rous world! Kate like the hazel-twig Is straight and slender, and as brown in hue As hazel-nuts, and sweeter than the kernels. O, let me see thee walk. Thou dost not halt. Obviously, there is no way to confirm what Petruchio has previously heard about Katherine, or the accuracy of his statement about her body, but both are likely fabrications.
Moreover, the reading that insists upon a disabled Katherine reveals a tendency in some Disability Studies scholarship to project disability upon someone who may not have, need, or want that identity, and to reduce that person to an extension of that disability, much like a single passage being plucked out of context and bullied into changing the entire meaning of a play.
The Disability Studies reading of Katherine is certainly well-intentioned, coming as it does in a plea to reject the cultural aesthetic of kalokagathia , "the beautiful in the good," but in distorting the play to fit its polemic, this reading actually stigmatizes a character by performing the very error it complains of: allowing an ideological commitment to skew our image of the world we ought to interpret from the ground up.
Significantly, something similar happens in Hobgood's reading of Caesar's epilepsy. Once she has identified Caesar as disabled, Hobgood then locates disability as the core of his identity and discusses how the disabled Caesar is able "to 'pass' as 'normal'.
But this imaginative invention of the hidden backstory of a character vaguely associated with disability is precisely the interpretive game that Shakespeare's text requires, and here the theoretical resources of Disability Studies are valuable. The game is a dangerous one, however, precisely because it encourages the projection of our own perspective onto the text, which can lead us to confuse our interpretation of a disability for something inherent in the character we are interpreting.
The game leads us to claim, I know that Deformed or I know that Disabled , a claim we tend to make, of course, not only about literary characters, but also about actual people with disabilities. In sum, the potentials of Disability Studies interpretations of Shakespeare's texts need to be measured alongside the pitfalls of that approach: the theoretical lens of disability can lead us to misread Shakespeare's texts, and it can bring us to see only part of the story.
Obviously, misreadings and missed opportunities are issues that arise in any field of literary criticism but, in the case of the Disabled Shakespeares project, they are closely connected to the application of a theoretical model which does not fully accord with the texts in question. I hope this critique does not come across as a cranky historicism or old-fashioned new criticism which sees no virtue in theoretically juiced readings of Shakespeare, for I believe just the opposite.
We don't need to get rid of theory; we just need better theory. We need to be both more rigorous and more ambitious in our search for the terms with which to account for the abnormal body in Shakespeare's drama. The critical claims of the Disabled Shakespeares project have been largely exegetical focused on single texts and exploratory interested more in questions than in answers , but there has been a strong suggestion that the constructivist models of disability the social model and the cultural model were at work in Shakespeare's dramatic vision.
I have already mentioned Hobgood's argument that Julius Caesar "acknowledges, as Lennard Davis might suggest, that 'the body is never a single thing so much as a series of attitudes toward it'. It seems to me that, if you conduct a rhetorical analysis attending to the ways Shakespeare used the word disability , you can convincingly ascribe to his works a social model of disability, but because of the redefinition of "disability" in the social model that analysis won't tell you anything about Shakespeare's representation of physical and mental impairment.
Consider the scare quotes in Iyengar's gloss on the Prince of Morocco: "He is 'disabled' in Portia's eyes" because she is "prejudiced against his dark skin. Meanwhile, if you conduct a literary analysis attending to the ways Shakespeare represented the disabled body, you can convincingly illustrate how his works exhibit a cultural model of disability, but because disability did not become an "operant category" until the eighteenth century Shakespeare did not think about such things in such terms.
Moreover, if you end your analysis with either of those conclusions, you will miss what is most remarkable about Shakespeare's representation of disability. You will miss the invention of stigma. Shakespeare was the first writer in Western history to recognize that people who are marked off as inherently inferior, while they may be so marked for different reasons — variously related to physical deformity, racial minority, mental disability, radical criminality, bastardy, and idiocy — experience similar social and psychological situations in life.
In fact, attempts to locate the social model of disability in Shakespeare's drama can distort both the concept of disability and the content of Shakespeare's plays. Consider Hobgood and Wood's conclusion to Recovering Disability in Early Modern England , which finds disability in Shakespeare's text where there is none, "exploring, for example, how Aaron's blackness in Titus Andronicus could be 'disabling' yet was not 'disability'," or "positing Edmund's illegitimacy as a very broad form of impairment.
But I also worry that using the terms of disability studies to describe things that aren't disabilities — like Aaron's race and Edmund's bastardy — turns the concept of disability into what disability scholars themselves call a narrative prosthesis , a metaphor that aids one's agenda by exploiting the emotional and conceptual grip that disability exerts upon us without attending to the actual realities of disability.
To be sure, it is important to observe that the treatment of an Aaron or an Edmund resembles that of a disabled character like Richard III, but we should not project the language of disability outward from Richard to Aaron and Edmund. Instead, we need to change the terms of our discussion, for the field of Disability Studies, in and of itself, cannot account for the fact that Richard III a physically marked character , Aaron the Moor a racially marked character , and Edmund the Bastard a hereditarily marked character all belong to the same representational system.
A better vocabulary presents itself in Erving Goffman's theory of stigma , which influenced the development of Disability Studies but is more far-reaching because it attends to all manner of discredited differences. Indeed, by using the same system to represent a Richard, an Aaron, and an Edmund, Shakespeare anticipated by nearly years what Goffman argued in his book Stigma : "Stigmatized persons have enough of their situations in life in common to warrant classifying all these persons together for purposes of analysis" For his part, Goffman identified three kinds of stigma — physical "abominations of the body" , behavioral "blemishes of individual character" , and racial "the tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion" .
But Goffman only detailed these different kinds of stigma in order to suggest that, while they are distinct in their origin and presentation, there exists a single system that governs them all because the stigmatized acquire meaning not from what they are but from what they are not , namely normal.
Shakespeare's list of the different kinds of stigma is slightly different than Goffman's but, like Goffman, Shakespeare used a single system to think about and represent different kinds of differentness: physical deformity as in the examples of Richard III, Falstaff, and Caliban , racial minority as with Aaron the Moor and Shylock the Jew , and bastardy as with Don John and Edmund.
As Jeffrey Brune has pointed out, one limitation in Goffman's study is that he wrote from the perspective of the "normals. This limitation in Goffman's study, however, could actually be a virtue when marshalling Goffman's theory in an attempt to approximate Shakespeare's attitude toward stigma: both Shakespeare and Goffman addressed the problem of stigma from the self-appointed perspective of the "normals. The theoretical argument of Disabled Shakespeares — which to me is the most exciting and promising aspect of the project, but also the most elusive — observes that, rather than using disability theory to read Shakespeare's texts, we can use Shakespeare's texts to generate and support theories of disability that have the potential to illuminate and influence our lived experience with disability.
The model for this approach would have to be Sigmund Freud's groundbreaking theory of "the exceptions" — those who rationalize crime as their right given the crime nature committed against them at birth — which grew out of a reading of Shakespeare's Richard III. For their part, in their introduction to Recovering Disability in Early Modern England , Hobgood and Wood drawing upon the work of disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who was herself working off of theories developed by Susan Sontag and Elaine Scarry call for "ethical staring" at early-modern disability: "We have not been staring hard or well enough at representations of disability right beneath our noses," Hobgood and Wood write: "The encounters we have had with those representations — the ways we stared upon finally recognizing them — should better reflect efforts toward ethical beholding.
Because "normativity requires and rewards the repression or forgetting of disability difference" 3 , they argue, we need to acknowledge both the prominence of disability in society and the exclusion of disability in both politics and academia. As a part of this acknowledgement, we need to recognize the extent of disability representations in the early-modern age because, if we stare ethically, we can "make the unknown known" 2. In other words, we can cultivate a "transformative scholarship" 1 in which our search for truth in an academic setting is politically efficacious.
Hobgood and Wood's "ethical starring" comes into conflict with my own version of the theoretical approach to disability in Shakespeare's text, the notion of Knowing Deformed. I submit that, while ethical staring is better than both unethical staring and willful disregard of disability, it needs to be acknowledged that ethical staring is not the end but the beginning of the problem of stigma.
In modern life and in Shakespeare studies alike, stigma is an acute and intractable problem precisely because it is approached ethically — i. The fraughtness of the situation stems from the fact that interactions between individuals inevitably carry the weight of imagined interactions between stereotypes "the stigmatized," "the normals" , including imputed motives both malignant and beneficent, such that expectations on both sides of the interaction preclude and condition direct experience.
Ethical staring is certainly a noble pursuit, but even our finest ethical impulses can be thwarted when we get up close and personal too close for comfort? In other words, the obstinence and power of stigma can trump even the best intentions of ethical staring. If we shift from an ethical to an analytical stance, we can observe that we encounter the hints of disability in Shakespeare's texts much as we encounter the hints of disability out on the street.
Both situations are often defined by efforts to determine if disability is in fact present and, if so, how it has affected someone's life and how we should act. Is there really a disability at hand? Should an acknowledgement be made? I want to do the right thing, but I don't want to assume too much.
There is a suggestion of disability in many of Shakespeare's texts, but only a suggestion, and I worry that making too much out of disability is a projection of what I know about how disability works in the modern world onto an early-modern character who neither calls nor needs to be understood as "disabled. Labeling a given character who has or seems to have an impairment as "disabled" could illuminate hidden aspects of that character's backstory and help us elucidate his or her actions, but doing so could also lead to over-readings that assume too much.
It is a matter of "identification," to quote Goffman, "in the criminological and not the psychological sense. Once an identification has been made, we both lay claim to the hidden backstory of another and adjust the way we interact with that person, but there is, of course, the danger of misidentification and, moreover, the inescapable fraughtness and uncertainty of the interaction.
I would add that this phenomenon is remarkably resonant with what has been called the central problem of modern philosophy, "the problem of the other," as well as what the philosopher Stanley Cavell has identified as a central concern in Shakespearean drama, the problem of knowing others' minds. In Shakespeare's plays, as in life, it is often difficult if not impossible to gain intimate, particular, personal information about a seemingly disabled character.
Even in the case of Richard III, where we get an information overload, we usually encounter disability in Shakespeare's text as hints and suggestions, possible signs of disability that confirm neither what is true nor how we should act. What follows from these hints and suggestions is guesswork about the identity of the disabled other. Consider how some critics think that Shakespeare was himself disabled based on a brazenly literal reading of some fairly fleeting lines in the Sonnets.
To say that the argument for a disabled Shakespeare is guilty of the biographical fallacy is merely to state the obvious; all we can say with certainty about the author is that he was keenly interested in the abnormal body. To note, however, that the persona created by the author, not Shakespeare but his speaker, is disabled is to entertain an observation that could radically alter our reading of the Sonnets.
The perennial problem of these poems — the extent to which each sonnet participates in a sequence 62 — is a matter of literary criticism, but it is also remarkably resonant with an issue that arises in our examination of stigma: is a difference from some cultural norm an isolated aspect of an individual's identity, or does it define that individual?
When we come across the lines about lameness in the Sonnets , we are reluctant to sweep aside what may be a considerable source of pain, suffering, and identity for the speaker, but we also worry that we might impute an inaccurate mental history on this individual if we emphasize his disability too much.
If Shakespeare meant for his sonneteer to have a disability, even though it is only acknowledged obliquely, we are likely to make major mistakes in our analysis of this character if we overlook this fact. If, however, we assume that the speaker is disabled, and realign our entire understanding of the sonnets on that assumption, we risk reducing that character to an extension of that disability in a way that clearly does not capture the complexity of the character that Shakespeare created.
As another example, consider that in Italian, the word gobbo means "hunchbacked," and some scholars have squeezed this term to suggest that the Launcelot Gobbo of The Merchant of Venice is, like Richard III and Caliban, physically deformed. Like Shylock, who may or may not have been stigmatized with an artificial nose on the Elizabethan stage — we don't know 64 — Gobbo may or may not have been played as a hunchback: the keynote of stigma in The Merchant of Venice is uncertainty.
Because Shylock and Gobbo mirror each other, and each is possibly but not certainly stigmatized in his body, it is tempting to think that Shakespeare did indeed have the concept of stigma in mind as he was crafting these characters, though we have no stable footing on this issue, which is exactly the point. Gobbo's hunchback and Shylock's nose are both question marks.
In The Merchant of Venice , as in life, the presence of stigma is beset with uncertainty, its operation with uneasiness, and its outcome with a mixture of happiness and sadness. These examples attest to the difficulty of determining if disability is even present in Shakespeare's texts, but the dynamics of stigma persist even when we know for a fact that it is. Consider, as one final example, the fact that there are six fully cogent readings of Old Gobbo's blindness.
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