Shakespeare and Disability Studies



This essay examines burgeoning scholarly interest in William Shakespeare’s representations of disability. In contrast with scholarship that identifies the 18th and 19th centuries as the genesis for identity-categories of disability, this essay explores the competing discourses relating to non-normative selfhood in the early modern period (the 16th and 17th centuries). In Shakespeare’s work, such discourses tend to function politically in situating disability at the nexus of the particularities of oppression and the construction of the subject, in that they often derive from classical concepts of the aesthetic; medieval concepts of the marvelous; theological concepts involving the radical reordering of personhood wrought by the Reformation; and medical concepts of pathology hinging on the supple explanatory system of humoral theory. The essay then offers concise overviews of three representative readings that illustrate the range of Shakespearean disability scholarship: the first, focusing on demonstrable forms of disability (2 Henry VI); the second, on ostensibly non-legible forms of disability (Julius Caesar); and the third, on the performance-history of disability (The Taming of the Shrew).