Literature and Disability in the English Renaissance (2024)

Introduction: Disability in Renaissance Literature and Culture

Literature and disability in Renaissance studies is a field that started to be formally pursued in the academic community in the early 21st century. Inspired by urgencies of inclusion and the special interest in disability, the lived experiences of the disabled, and their role in society and culture, the field has variously picked up from, complemented, better explained, categorized, and gone beyond previous research trends discretely invested in early modern narratives of the abnormal, monstrous, or nonideal in the human body and mind. Cultural representations of monsters, fools, madmen, the deformed, blind, deaf, mutes, and more are now being seen as manifestations of what we may call disability and may be discussed both through presentist approaches and vocabulary provided by modern disability studies and—often concurrently—by recovering historical meanings of difference. The literature and culture of the early modern period is particularly rife with opportunities to discuss human variation: indeed, instances of physical, sensory, somatic, cognitive, or other types of disability are virtually omnipresent, and just as frequent are metaphorical or symbolical uses of disability representation. On one level, this reflected the diversity of a society where, partly because of its sanitary precarity and the limited capabilities of science, people with disabilities were indeed numerous and very visible, and anyone might reasonably expect to become disabled sooner or later. Indeed, in premodern times disability was part of everyday life, part of a diversified society that accepted nonnormativity without physically segregating it: a society where disability was perhaps problematic and scorned, yet not so exceptional—as long as it was not wondrous or monstrous.1 Early modern disability studies as a field demand that we stare at any form of variation, whether it was regarded as natural, monstrous, or wondrous in the period, in order to both dignify human variation and to recover its significance in remote cultures. The field does this through a wide and diverse range of approaches (i.e., historical, theoretical, medical, etc., or a mix), which aim to uncover more manifestations of difference in order to learn more about them—culturally, historically, but also in their intersections with the present. As long as human variation is put front and center and considered in its many manifestations, the questions that can be asked about Renaissance disability are virtually endless. For instance, scholars have explored: definitions of difference—and, by contrast, of ability or normativity—in the period; whether or not difference meant also disability (i.e., a disadvantage); how the disabled character reacts to itself and the world; how the abled view the disabled and their own self when they come across difference; how present disability definitions might illuminate past human variation; how difference is linguistically described; how disability intersects with other minority statuses (e.g., race, sexuality, gender, class); how disability is not necessarily tied to a tangible body; how abled and disabled readers/audiences experience early modern texts; and how an awareness of Renaissance disability might influence modern stagings.

On another level, exploring disability in early modern narratives is also relevant because multifarious human variation was deployed on the basis of its huge representational power and its ability to codify meanings that went far beyond the mere physiological impairment, encapsulating cultural, social, religious, or moral standpoints pertaining to the Renaissance mindset. This idea can be linked with the seminal theoretical concept that disability studies scholars David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder call narrative prosthesis.2 This applies not just to the Renaissance but more generally and transhistorically to any form of disability narrative. The idea is that a literary text works as a prosthesis for the character having a disability, and simultaneously the disability is itself a prosthesis for the text where the disabled character appears. This implies that disability has always a meaning that must be uncovered and interpreted. Specifically, the story gives meaning to the nonnormative character’s difference, for example by empowering or disempowering the character: in this sense, the story compensates for what the character supposedly lacks. Yet, at the same time, the story too is propelled by the very presence of disability, or acquires additional meaning thanks to it. Ato Quayson’s theory of aesthetic nervousness partly agrees with these points but significantly emphasizes that the presence of disability in a text causes a subliminal anxiety similar to that which abled people experience in the encounter with disability in reality, and which essentially stems from the realization of our bodily contingency. In the literary-aesthetic domain, this anxiety is experienced at multiple linked levels—namely in the interaction between abled and disabled characters, at plot level, and in the relationship between reader and text—and has the effect of (unnecessarily) complicating or (excessively) simplifying the shaping or interpretation of disability, thus basically preventing a complete or objective comprehension of it.3 So it is not just an anxiety that describes our response to texts as modern readers; something close but perhaps even more complicated would have been felt by early modern respondents, whether real (i.e., the audience or readers) or fictional. The encounter between disabled characters and abled respondents sparked reactions ranging from derision to fear, pity, or even envy: these might equally indicate the respondent’s desire to distinguish themselves from the variant individual. This desire, however, was not simply a whim but might originate in the respondent’s fundamental uncertainty about the solidity of their own physical, intellectual, or—particularly in the post-Reformation era, when the body was often seen as an expression of one’s interiority—moral integrity.4 In short, an ableist attitude to disability—but also the opposite desire for a disabled character to “overcome” his disability—had its roots in fears of inevitable human fragility, which went hand in hand with fantasies of ability.5

However, one fundamental problem that must be faced by anyone tackling disability in the Renaissance has to do with lexicon and the appropriateness of employing presentist disability discourses to talk about the past. Indeed, when we use such approaches, anachronisms are arguably lurking. Specifically, the problem lies in trying to view disability as an operational identity category in an era when not only the concept of “norm” did not exist (it emerged only in the 19th century), but also words like disability, disabled, and to disable did not have the same meaning as today.6 For example, the UK Equality Act 2010 states that “a person (P) has a disability if . . . P has a physical or mental impairment, and . . . the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”7 In contrast, in the Renaissance disabled and its cognate words were not necessarily used in contexts pointing at physical or mental nonnormativeness. The medical meaning of disability as in “having a disability” emerged only in 1633, and disabled as a category of people only in the mid-17th century. Instead, the vast majority of occurrences of the terms in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance pointed at either someone excluded or barred from something, also juridically, or at someone/something “rendered incapable of action or use.” In this timeframe, human variation was indicated through other words, for example deformity, monstrosity, lameness, or foolishness, which stood conceptually in contrast with what the Renaissance called the ideal, rather than norm.8

To such methodological issues, disability studies scholars have generally responded that the nonexistence of certain labels or of formalized approaches in the past should not obscure the fact that human variation has always existed, though each age defines it in its own ways. As Allison Hobgood and David H. Wood—the pioneers of literary disability studies in the Renaissance—have argued, the main focus of the modern scholar lies therefore in analyzing Renaissance stories in order to reveal historical understandings of difference, and experiences of and reactions to it. Simultaneously, they also propose valuing disability histories as a way to learn by comparison something about our own ways of understanding disability and about how they came to be. Moreover, by wielding modern disability studies tools and methodological frameworks and applying them to past histories, we are able to better explain historical and transhistorical phenomena, and to better appreciate the characterization of disability in the Renaissance. Looking at literary disability history in this way is viewed as a means to reject today’s “compulsory able-bodiedness” and to “expose ableist hegemony so as to resist and subvert its dominance.”9 It is therefore a means to reevaluate the potential of disability by refusing to neglect it. In this, Renaissance literary disability studies have followed the call of disability activists such as Simi Linton, who in the 1990s invoked the help of the humanities in bringing disability narratives to the fore, and in shaping the image of disability as a social category and identity-defining factor on par with race, class, gender, and sexuality—just as prone to abuse, mockery, or exclusion as other minority statuses and sometimes also intersectionally linking with them.10

Employing disability studies approaches to understand human variation in early modern literature means, among many things, gauging how key theoretical models developed by the discipline (or also new models that are being or will be theorized in the future) might help us explain past disability histories and the ways disability is narrated, staged, lived, and reacted to in Renaissance texts. The medical model, which is the one that contemporary disability activists have mostly argued against, pathologizes difference as a problem of the individual only, defines it according to strict medical paradigms, and focuses on a cure.11 This model can be used in discussions of Renaissance disability, because medical theories (e.g., humoralism) addressing certain conditions existed. The medical model has been surpassed in contemporary discourse by the social and cultural/environmental models, which are also defined constructivist models. The social model strictly distinguishes between impairment and disability, purporting that, while a person may have a physical or intellectual impairment, it is society that constructs disability by placing barriers to access for people with impairments.12 This is possibly the model that has been used most productively in disability studies applied to early modern culture, in that scholars have tried to understand how Renaissance societies defined difference and how they excluded or stigmatized people carrying those that they would have seen as deviations at the time, but which may not have the same meaning for us in the early 21st century. The cultural model of disability does away with the firm distinction of the social model between disability and impairment but appears more comprehensive, because it emphasizes both the role of society in constructing disability and the lived experience or feelings of the deviating or impaired individual moving in a specific cultural context.13 While these are the main models, historical disability studies have theorized other crucial ones, the most important of which is perhaps the religious or moral model of disability—so relevant in the middle ages but also the Renaissance—which sees impairment as a result of sin and therefore as something curable by God, the church, or virtue more in general. But other theories or submodels have been proposed: for example a jurisdictional model, which considers how the law specifically constructs barriers to access or codifies what difference or normativity are; or Tobin Siebers’s theory of complex embodiment, which considers how the disabled have a knowledge of what it means to be disabled in their society, time, and location, and how they positively use it to express their identity as disabled.14 Such models, also sometimes concurrently, can helpfully direct our way of thinking about disability narratives in the Renaissance. However, as Joshua Eyler advocated in a volume on medieval disability culture, it is also important to let texts speak for themselves instead of applying specific models to them a priori. He argues that text-specific and historically specific models of disability can be devised by approaching texts with an open mind.15 This is why the theory supporting the field is constantly adapting or branching out and also why many approaches can simultaneously be detected in Renaissance representations of various forms of disability. Certainly, though, a large part of the way disability is understood in Renaissance literature is based on lack of full acceptance, prejudice, discrimination, and mockery: in short, on stigma, which is present in the unethical language used to define what we would view as disability and in people’s exclusionary attitude to the disabled—perhaps even when they adopt charitable attitudes to them, something that might come across as patronizing.16

Physical Disabilities

As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues, the modern world—including the early modern one—is ocularcentric, depending on sight as the primary sense to perceive reality.17 This is one reason why atypical bodies, whether monstrous, deformed, crippled, or just peculiar, are perhaps those that have most frequently and consistently appeared in literary discussions of Renaissance disability—because of their visibility (particularly in dramatic contexts), their more obvious unsettling of the reader or spectator’s expectations, and their most urgent demand to be explained. This is implicit for example in the etymology of the term monster, which, deriving from the Latin terms monstrare (to show) or monere (to warn), pointed at a creature whose difference embodied a sacred or supernatural sign that needed to be interpreted, or a warning that should be understood and heeded—a position endorsed also by the French surgeon Ambroise Paré’s in his famous book Des Monstres et Prodiges (1573).18

In this context, William Shakespeare’s Duke of Gloucester/Richard III, who appears in 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, and Richard III, has naturally been the most discussed literary example and has traditionally functioned as the foremost standard-bearer of disability studies: not only because he is deformed, but also because he actively reflects on the meaning of his disability and guides interpretations of his characterization.19 He is the one who famously describes himself at the beginning of Richard III as “curtailed of this fair proportion,” “cheated of feature,” “deformed, unfinished, sent before my time/into this breathing world, scarce half made up,” “lamely and unfashionable” (1.1.18–23).20 Somewhat differently than in 3 Henry VI, where Richard describes himself as having a shrunken arm “like a withered shrub,” “an envious mountain” on his back, and legs “of an unequal size” (3.2. 156–159), in Richard III his role as protagonist puts disability front and center, but the exact form of his deformity remains elusive. And it is partly this uncertainty that has massively invited compensation through critical interpretation. In the light of a moral model of disability, Richard’s nonnormative body is most superficially seen as a sign of his immorality and sinful mind. In other words, his quintessential wickedness as a trickster, conspirator, and usurper of the throne is epitomized by his appearance. The stigma he attracts from others is a reaction to both such deviations. But very significantly, Richard is often considered a supercrip, namely a character who overcomes the limits of his disability to achieve incredible enterprises. Moreover, he is an example of disability gain, that is empowerment or a positive outcome for the individual, thanks to disability. In fact, Richard does not describe himself as monstrous, deformed, and scorned by nature in an act of self-commiseration. Rather, he does so to spur himself into action and to push forward his political agenda, concurrently resisting ideal forms of able-bodiedness and even masculinity.21 His awareness of his difference serves to justify his scorn of the universe, which turns into political desire to overturn the authority of the abled.22 Moreover, throughout the play Richard insistently draws attention to his deformity to manipulate the audience’s response to him and to lead them to trust him by rhetorically compensating for his form. Richard resists demeaning picturings of his body form as just negative or inferior, even if the play, by obscuring his deformity once he seizes the power, ultimately celebrates the able-bodied ideal.23 In fact, much as Richard’s difference is viewed metaphorically, his representation also demonstrates the influence of an early medical discourse of disability: the character’s deviance, which includes abnormal growth, the possession of teeth at birth, and probably scoliosis, links up with early modern clinical descriptions of nonnormativity causing physical and psychological pain or discomfort and for which some forms of treatment were proposed.24

Though the central role of Richard, especially in Richard III, has warranted more significant analysis focusing on his bodily deviance, similar points with some variations can be made about other notably deformed Shakespearean characters. Thersites and Caliban, who are respectively the foul-mouthed slave of the Greek camp in Troilus and Cressida and the indigenous slave on Prospero’s island in The Tempest, are variously referred to as “crusty botch of nature,” “fragment,” “indistinguishable cur” (Troilus and Cressida 5.1.5, 8, 26), “monster,” “misshapen,” and “disproportioned” (The Tempest 2.2.178, 5.1.268, 29). Partly because they are definitely subalterns to the power structures in their respective plays, stigmatization is the standard mode through which everyone else interacts with them. Deformity, and the way it is described, reflects colonial feelings of superiority toward them. Simultaneously, bodily deviance connects with and validates their efforts at subversion and conspiracy: Thersites’ constant scurrilous railing at heroism and the very rationale of the Trojan War somewhat links not only to Caliban’s ongoing hate speech against his master but also with his very practical attempts at regaining power over his island. Their disability at once empowers their rhetoric and actions as outsiders and, from a Renaissance moral perspective, encapsulates what their society viewed as a sinful mind, as if they were bearing the physical marks of reprobation by God or nature. Yet, as in Richard’s case, their moral deviance is restrained once they ultimately get silenced, and in Caliban’s case, his conspiracy fails.

In addition to drama, in cheap ephemeral literature in verse or prose such as ballads, broadsheets, and pamphlets, the depiction of monsters or monstrous bodies was geared toward a combination of anatomization, sensationalizing effect, and metaphor.25 Monstrous births were recounted in such texts as pieces of news, complete with accurate descriptions, captivating woodcuts, and ever-present explanations of their meaning. The birth of human monsters (as well as monstrous animal births, described in the same texts) was indeed seen as a prodigy encapsulating a specific message, a teaching, whether moral or political, and a precise sign of God’s will or wrath. For example, a 1552 broadsheet printed by John Day reports the birth in the Oxford area of two conjoined twins “with one onlye belly” but “.ii. heades, ii. bodyes. iiii. armes. iiii. hands . . . ii. legges wyth the feete on one syde of good reasonable forme & shape, and on the other syde but one legge wyth. ii. feete hauing but. ix. toes, monstrous both legge and feete.”26 Two ballads are included that establish a parallel between the twins’ deviation and the vice corrupting England, as well as the interpretation that God sent the twins as a warning of human fall. Another broadsheet narrates the birth of conjoined twins, “the one as it were imbrasynge the other, and lenynge mouth to mouth, kyssyng/as you wold say, one another.”27 Here the author views the action of kissing and embracing as God’s warning not to behave or think like Cain. This explanation has in turn sparked interpretations of this as religious and political propaganda, implicitly warning the enemies of the Protestant faith and monarch—namely Catholics. One more example is a 1642 pamphlet giving the account of the birth of a headless child in Northamptonshire. This—like many accounts of the type—is taken to refer not just to decapitations of political opponents in the years of the civil war but also to the mother’s headlessness, that is the sinful resistance to the husband’s authority and, with her previously expressed doubts about having the child Christianly baptized with the sign of the cross, her rebellion to religious and political authority and her susceptibility to dangerous dissident ideas. By extension, the monstrous birth symbolized the vocalization of gendered desire for emancipation.28

As full-grown yet somewhat deviant adults, dwarves were also involved in the literary representation of the atypical body as carrier of particular messages. However, their status as disabled was dubious, in that they were not significantly depicted as limited in their day-to-day actions, and medical texts very rarely mentioned dwarfism alongside outright monstrous deformities. In fact, in some texts their diminutive size was positively counterpointed by strength, agility, speed, and intelligence. Simultaneously, however, dwarves kept at court were not laborers but entertainers, objects of mockery, or human pets.29 Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson offered significant explorations of these varying motifs. In Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, dwarves are used as court ladies’ servants and companions but also as narrators. Two of them serve virtuous ladies (Una and Florimell), they are meticulous narrators (whose voice occasionally coincides with Spenser’s) and truth-tellers, as well as attentive and loyal helpers to the heroes—whether by carrying things for them or by sharing important information or advice with them. Two more dwarves serve instead wicked ladies (Poeana and Briana), and though they have similar functions to their counterparts, they are malicious and deceptive, witholding help from heroes rather than giving it.30 In Jonson’s Volpone, the dwarf Nano is employed as an entertainer, together with a eunuch and a hermaphrodite, in Volpone’s household. Perhaps even more than his companions, he is endowed with freedom and independence regarding who to side with and also to reflect on his own difference. Specifically, he views his dwarfism positively: he considers himself “little,” “witty,” and “pretty,” with a body not only capable to imitate “grater men’s actions . . . in a ridiculous fashion” but also needing only “half the meat, drink, and cloth” as an adult.31 Rather than a disability, dwarfism becomes therefore a source of power and pride, as well as a means to show off the character’s individuality and his wit. Nano’s dwarfism is seen as an advantageous nonnormativeness, and he views it as much superior to his companion Castrone’s foolishness.

Types of bodily impairments that might be represented as significantly more disabling but also as opportunities for disability gain are mutilations and lameness. The anonymous play A Larum for London (1602) and John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s The Little French Lawyer (c. 1620) cast war veterans who have lost one or more limbs. Both are just as much the targets of mockery or exclusion as individuals who gain agency through or notwithstanding their own bodily impairments and others’ abusive behavior. In A Larum, Stump, an amputee soldier defending Antwerp from the Spanish siege, delivers an admirable performance on the battlefield notwithstanding the city’s unwillingness to pay him for his efforts. More specifically, his disability makes him a hero in a society corrupted by immoderate food consumption and decay—something symbolized by the (prosthetic) belly of the fat burgher ruling Antwerp, to whose body Stump’s (prostheticized) disability stands as an opposite.32 The Little French Lawyer instead casts Champernell, a war veteran lacking an arm and a leg. Mocked as unlikely marriage material and as an underperforming soldier, his difference gives others the chance to invoke masculinist values in order to contain the disabled male subject. Yet ultimately Champernell’s disability is empowered and liberated not only when he gets married but also when he beats La-Writ, the lawyer of the play’s title.33 The anonymous Fair Maid of the Exchange (c. 1607) showcases lameness by featuring a central character, called the Cripple, who walks with crutches due to an undefined leg impairment. With his four legs in total, his disability locates him not just in deficiency but also in surplus or even extraordinariness, an idea encapsulating his role not only as a worker (and not a beggar) at the center of the economic world of the London Exchange but also as one who coordinates, author-like, the action of other characters and the main lines of the plot.34 Further, his disability does not impede his rescuing and alluring of women; it is even portrayed as an advantage and something worth imitating when another character dresses up like the Cripple in order to attract Phyllis, who loves the latter.35 The play is an example of how disability might be portrayed as not only not disabling but also as desirable and, due to the presence of prosthesis and disguise, as a strong metatheatrical reminder of the actor’s fictitious embodiment of disability on the early modern stage.36

Sensory Disabilities

As perhaps less visible forms of physical variation, lasting or congenital conditions such as blindness, deafness, or speech defect were also presented and can be analyzed as disabilities.

Visual impairments to varying degrees were common, especially with advancing age, to the point that almost anyone could be considered only temporarily able bodied.37 Yet, because sight was ranked as the most important of all senses, that which guided human experiences and knowledge, people were also anxious about losing such a key instrument in perceiving reality.38

In Shakespeare’s King Lear Gloucester’s blinding is staged as a terrible and gory event that anticipates the character’s death and parallels Lear’s madness, which is also partly induced by others’ actions. Furthermore, his blinding by Cornwall and Regan is a furious reaction to his loyalty to Lear and his will to protect him. Blinding is conceived by Gloucester’s enemies as a rightful act of natural justice and brings incommensurable physical suffering for the character. Yet Shakespeare unsettles straightforward implications of blindness by suggesting how blind Gloucester gains a better-performing inner vision that allows him to understand the real nature of his children and to perceive Edmund’s false benevolence. Also if, on the one hand, Shakespeare conveys how lack of sight impedes agency by showing Gloucester being passively led by his loving son Edgar, on the other hand he also stages Gloucester’s wise trust in Edgar, whose soul he can see after all. The tension between these parallel issues perhaps culminates in the scene where Gloucester wants to throw himself off the cliffs of Dover, and Edgar—through a sapient use of ekphrasis—makes him believe he has done it when they are actually on flat land. Gloucester’s agency (i.e., suicide) is impeded by Edgar’s mystification, which is perhaps disturbingly comic but also reveals that he should be trusted. Yet, for all the effort Edgar makes to save his old father’s life, the play ultimately and conventionally portrays the blind man’s inability to cope with reality and the emotions created by it as he dies offstage on realizing that Edgar is his son.39

Even more than Lear, the Old Testament play The Historie of Jacob and Esau emphasizes the blind man’s pragmatic experience of disability particularly as it centralizes Isaac’s need for and relationship with assistance, which is mostly offered by his loyal guide Mido. Mido’s help is so efficient that it virtually makes up for Isaac’s disability. Yet, unlike in Lear, the play also emphasizes how Isaac’s refusal to be assisted by Mido in certain moments of the play results in metaphorically making his inner vision powerless. It is indeed when he trusts Jacob’s guiding that he confuses him with his other son, and he is misled into blessing Jacob instead of the firstborn Esau.40 Blindness is thus ambivalently portrayed as something that can be helped through assistance but also as something taking independence and consciousness away from the individual.

If blindness was represented in narratives that heightened the potential for tragicality and often raised emotions like pity, horror, or anxiety about sight loss, hearing and speech impairments share with blindness the possibility of disability gain, but they also very frequently provide comedy or occasion for mockery. Perhaps because the latter impairments were seen as manifestations of low intellect, and because both hearing and speech were linked with the essence of humanity itself, such variations also seem to attract more intense stigma.41 For example, hearing degeneration or deafness lend themselves to comic scenes hinging either on sheer mockery, particularly of deaf old people, or on the impaired characters’ laughable misinterpretation of reality. In Jonson’s Volpone, old Corbaccio’s imperfection of hearing is mocked by Mosca, who has to speak louder to make himself be heard and remarks “your knowledge is no better than your ears, sir” or “Your Worship is a precious ass.”42 Comedy also stems from Corbaccio’s misunderstanding of Mosca’s statements, which therefore need to be repeated twice, and arguably from the fact that Corbaccio’s hearing impairment renders him even more oblivious to Mosca’s deception. Indeed, as Mosca gulls Corbaccio into believing that the rich Volpone will make him his heir, the old man completely misses Mosca’s mocking or revelatory statements, whether or not they are uttered as asides. Hearing loss therefore accrues the comic effects of a plot that relies on the naïve dupes missing vital information to be able to make conscious choices.

Jestbooks (texts collecting comic anecdotes, typically in prose) similarly, if more briefly, present deaf individuals at the mercy of others’ jokes—frequently misogynistic ones. Yet, though oblivious, such individuals might respond wittily. In a jest from A Banquet of Jests (1630) a man makes a toast to a deaf pub hostess and her “friends . . . the Baudes and whor*s in Turnebull street,” to which she replies “I know you remember your Mother, your Aunt, and those good Gentlewomen your sisters.”43 In another jest, another man toasts a deaf woman saying “kisse mine arse Besse,” to which she responds thanking him.44 Such jokes might have an empowering effect: as David M. Turner argues, “jests in which the civilities of the dining table were mocked by the exploitation of the impediments of deaf guests were one way in which disability might provide a vehicle for satirizing these developing social conventions.”45

A different tone, yet hardly less stigmatizing, is provided in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene by the characterization of deaf and mute Abessa on her encounter with Una. She is described not only as incapable of hearing or speaking but also understanding; much as her disability is real, it is also viewed theologically in an anticatholic perspective. Indeed, being the daughter of a Roman Catholic blind woman, Abessa’s inability to “heare,” “speake,” or “understand” symbolizes her superstition and religious error, as well as moral error—detectable by her sexual promiscuity and dealing with dirty money.46 Hence, Abessa’s disability links to many issues at once: her various faults, her desperate need to find grace through the encounter with the spiritual truth, symbolized by Una, and the impossibility for her to actually understand it and therefore to embrace it.47

When they are stable, genuine features of one character’s way of talking, speech impairments ranging from lisp and stutter to utter mutism (which might occur in conjunction with hearing impairments) often concur in presenting identities as somehow faulty, particularly in the light of Renaissance rhetorical and theological views that speech revealed someone’s mind, morality, or sociocultural background. In literature there is therefore a significant tendency to associate speech impairments with uneducated characters, whose disability is used to underscore a degree of foolishness and unsophistication and thus consequently also to bring entertainment at the expense of the character. In John Ford’s play The Lady’s Trial (1639) Amoretta’s lisp, chiefly rendered by the frequent repetition of the sound “th” punctuating her lines, marks a character who comes from a poor family. Furthermore, she comes across as childish and foolish because of her unrealistic expectations—which she vocally articulates—of raising her status by marrying a gentleman. Moreover, she attracts sexualized and misogynist comments hinging on lisp as a proverbial indication of women’s prowess in kissing and on its utility in preventing their excessive talkativeness.48 In the play Two Merry Milkmaids (1620), Callowe’s mutism is induced by constant love disappointment and his realization that he cannot efficiently communicate with women. His mutism is staged by having other characters address him directly, to which he just answers “hum” while also making a series of laughable grimaces. His interlocutors then systematically mock his disability by stressing his supposed subhuman nature.

Yet there are also cases where the aesthetics of speech impairment are made more complex, moving away from humor or slapstick comedy. Lavinia’s mutism in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is the result of an extremely bloody crime, that is the combination of rape, mutilation, and cutting off of her tongue by Tamora’s sons. There is nothing comic in Lavinia’s disability, though shortly after the deed she is not spared the cruel mockery of her two assailants. There is indeed misogyny in the act, spurred by the masculine fear of women’s agency or political power; there is also disability in the Renaissance signification of the term, because Lavinia is temporarily barred from revealing what happened to her; and there is dehumanization too, in the form of male characters’ objectifying description of her as a juxtaposition of the body parts she misses, including the tongue, which is now replaced by “a crimson river of warm blood” (2.4.22) not producing “honey breath” (2.4.25) any longer.

Intellectual or Developmental and Mental Disabilities

Disabilities of the mind are perhaps the most widespread forms of human variation in Renaissance literary texts: because of their heightened narrative potential, idiots, fools, madmen, lunatics, hysterics, melancholics, and the like were represented very often and their symptoms or associated behaviors closely explored or reimagined, particularly in drama. Despite the degree of perceived irrationality or nonnormative mental states that all such conditions were associated with, Renaissance texts require us to differentiate at least between two macrocategories: fools and idiots on one side, which may be seen as closer to what we may call nowadays intellectual or developmental disabilities, and, on the other side, all the conditions that might instead have more to do with mental health issues, such as madness. The main distinction lies in the congenital and essentially incurable nature of the former group, as opposed to the posttraumatic, intermittent, and often treatable nature of the latter. Recognized in the Renaissance, and partly articulated by fields like the English law and European medicine, this differentiation was also very productive in literature, where characters exhibiting features linked to one or the other group also generally have different representations and functions (though some overlaps are possible).49

Characters with some degree of real, perceived, or metaphorical intellectual disability are virtually omnipresent in Renaissance literature. Fools were indeed staple types in drama, particularly (though not only) in comedies, where they are major contributors to the plays’ festive character, whether through sketches, buffoonery, banter, malapropism, or argute remarks. Such modes of communication and performance also allow them to parody the main action. This device, as Ruth Nevo notes, helpfully produces some detachment between the audience and the protagonist and impedes a complete identification with him that would otherwise “short-circuit a fully intelligent participation” in play.50 But fools were also found in didactic literature and prose or verse jestbooks. Such a variety and pervasiveness was warranted by the fact that, somewhat in accordance with the narrative prosthesis principle, their disability enables a religious or moral interpretation and/or a narrative and dramatic function, which mostly coincides with their comedic capacity. In Tudor morality plays and interludes, as well as didactic literary works, the fool might correspond to the sinning protagonist, who epitomized humanity’s mindless fall from virtue, or to any vice figures. Both such figures, regardless of their actual intellectual capabilities, were to various extents described as intellectually disabled from a moral or religious perspective. Their sin or susceptibility to it are typically represented through explicit mockery of their incapability of exercising judgment in order to obtain salvation. This stands in contrast with pre-Reformation visions of holy fools, who, in the wake of St Paul’s thought, were those who gave up the supposed wisdom and comforts of the world to follow the word of God.51 One example of a foolish Everyman is Moros in William Wager’s The Longer Thou Livest the More Foole Thou Art (1559), whose very name means fool, an epithet warranted by his being a noble youth devoted more to dissolution and immoral wealth than to discipline and education. His foolishness is continuously pointed out but gets especially underscored in some key moments, such as when he enters singing childish songs, when Discipline teaches him a prayer but he cannot properly understand it or repeat it, or when, as the play ends, the unrepentant Moros is given a fool’s coat to be then dragged off to Hell. Something similar occurs in John Reford’s Wit and Science (1534). Notwithstanding their sly, trickster-like nature, Vices are routinely called fools or rhetorically disabled on the grounds of their corruption, or they occasionally perform actions that might potentially denote low intellectual capacity. Yet there are also examples of fools where such features are intensified because of their intellectual disability: in Wit and Science Ignorance itself is presented as a natural fool who cannot even say his name or answer basic questions about himself, something that harks at the English law’s custom of interrogating allegedly low-intellect people to ascertain their disability and consequently dispose of their property.52

Later texts relied less on moral significations of foolishness than on the comic potential of difference. Fools of Elizabethan or Jacobean drama and jestbooks vary in degrees of wit: they can be idiotic, clownish, or witty, but they all fulfill a more or less sophisticated comic function. Less witty ones raise laughter because of their intellectual difference by becoming the butts of others’ constant mockery and stigma. But rarely do fools fulfill any other structural functions within the texts, especially in drama. The characterization of fools is similar in other prose or verse texts, though they may have a more central role, which in turn intensifies representations of devaluation and stigma as well as general unkindness or indifference. This is evident in episodes from jestbooks such as Archie Armstrong’s Banquet of Jests (1630) or Robert Armin’s Foole upon Foole (1600), where natural fools are played nasty games on that often result in public humiliation or physical injuries.

Witty fools such as Shakespeare’s Touchstone, Feste, Lavatch, and Lear’s fool; Jonson’s Carlo Buffone in Every Man Out of His Humour; or Passarello in Marston’s The Malcontent instead make their own difference productive by relying on it to give them the necessary freedom to satirize the world. This attitude—which might perhaps be illustrated by Siebers’s theory of complex embodiment, with its emphasis on the subject’s historical knowledge of disability and its implications—is effectively encapsulated in one of Feste’s best-known speeches in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Wit . . . those wits, that think they have thee, do very oft/prove fools; and I, that am sure I lack thee, may/pass for a wise man . . . /Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit” (1.5.29–33). The disability of licensed jesters typically lies in their nonstandard logic, their fooling, and also significantly in the ongoing mockery of others, which typically excludes them from a perceived normativity. Almost like lay versions of holy fools, these types give up a real political and social power but have an uncommon wisdom that looks like foolishness to others. They partly derive such characterization from the wise fool of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (1509), where the central character Folly delivers a satirical mock-encomium of all categories of humanity.53 The stage witty fool is certainly subject to some significant romanticization: because of their sharp wit and often musical skills, the audience hardly perceives their identity as narrowly disabled. Also an iconic episode such as Jacques’s praise of Touchstone’s difference in As You Like It contributes to idealizing fantasies of the wise fool. Yet such characters are still located outside the normative society, something that definitely allows them a special perspective through which to look at the world. Feste, for example, views his superiors’ conduct as folly and cynically chastises Olivia and Malvolio for their ordinary emotions, such as melancholy or hopelessness. His disability thus consists in a different way of looking at things and in employing alternative cognitive pathways than the others. These points partly apply also to less sophisticated fools: someone like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides with his very earthy presence a counterpoint to the magical setting of the play and even exposes some of the incongruities of the fairies’ world.

But often fools’ identity is just as crucially exposed as disabled through precise allusions to Renaissance technical understandings of foolishness as a disability. These allusions are consistently present in descriptions of all types of fools, including witty ones. For example, fools’ wits may be described as underperforming through references to the criteria the law used to identify people with intellectual disabilities (idiots) or through medico-physiognomical or humoral descriptions of their brains and temperaments, drawn primarily from theories of Renaissance Galenists and physiognomers.54 In Armin’s Foole upon Foole, the natural fools’ comic anecdotes are preceded by descriptions of their heads as small—something that did not favor the circulation of spirits in the brain—or of their temperament as phlegmatic, a characteristic associated with sluggish cognition.55 In As You Like It, Touchstone’s brain is described (among other attributes) as hard enough to “break [someone’s] shins” (2.4.54) and “as dry as the remainder biscuit/after a voyage” (2.7.38–40), both of which ideas point to an absence or defectiveness of brain spirits and wits. Such indications signal that foolishness in the period was not only seen as an artistic pose but might be represented (albeit more subtly) as a disability in a medical and social sense—a disability that often results in social abuse but may also allow the deviant individual to lean on it for freedom, empowerment, and for specific knowledge that may be directly used by witty fools in their jokes against the able-minded world.56

Representations of other developmental disabilities may be found in less obvious locations. For example, traits of the autistic spectrum have been recognized in two of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. Somewhat like autistic persons, Hamlet exhibits a single, very deep interest—almost an obsession—and repetitive behaviors that bring about the final tragedy. His fixation on the past and on mourning his father is judged excessive and unhealthy by other characters and is confirmed by his own speeches, particularly once he learns of his uncle’s culpability. Furthermore, somewhat like autistic people who excel in specific areas and are perceived to compensate for their disability through extraordinary mental skills, Hamlet is also led by his mental state to heroic deeds, though he occasionally views himself as less capable than others. Differently, yet relatedly, Coriolanus’s display of typically autistic traits is located in his unwavering strong beliefs and obsession with heroic values, as well as in his corresponding incapability to “accommodate the social expectations of neurotypical Rome.”57 While he directs all his attentions to the battlefield, he proves incapable to communicate with the Romans, for example when he needs to show off his leadership and pride in the city in order to win the citizens’ benevolence. More strikingly, communication for him is effective only when it is performed within a military context, which relies on different rhetorical rules and where, for example, aggressivity can be an asset. Instead, his scorn for the people and the neuronormativity they represent will backlash and turn him into a tragical hero punished for his difference.58

Mental disability or mental illness are modern categories that might relate to a whole series of varied and at times indecisive or overlapping Renaissance conditions, ranging from what may be viewed as light (e.g., melancholy, mopishness) to severe (e.g., madness, lunacy, distraction, mania, or lycanthropy). The Renaissance (especially the late Elizabethan and Jacobean era) was a period where a literary interest in mental illness and its implications was spiking, in part coinciding with medical observations of patients and their symptoms.59 In fact, a protomedical model of disability was reflected much more intensely in madness narratives than in other mental disability stories. Clinical readings of distraction were present in literary texts alongside more conventional religious views of madness as demonic possession, and social constructions of deviant cognition as markers of distinct identities (i.e., women, the poor, high-class intellectuals, etc.). In the 1600 prose work The Hospitall of Incurable Fooles, different types of madmen, including “franticke and doting fooles,” “melancholike and savage fooles,” “desperate fooles,” “Bedlem fooles,” and “lunaticall” ones, are presented as distinct categories of patients located in specific wards of a hospital where they wait for a cure. Each type of inmate corresponds to a different chapter where their madness is explained in a mixture of literary and clinical terms, with references to how ancient doctors including Galen explained each condition and examples of historical or literary figures affected by it.

Black bile was the humor whose excess or adustion in the body was viewed as the source of many mental health issues. Among the lighter conditions caused by this humor was melancholy, a condition that might partly overlap with modern depression but which appeared almost fashionable and desirable. Typical of high-class individuals, melancholy was associated with the great reflexivity of intellectuals, as well as their heightened rational skills.60 One of the most notable melancholics in the early modern literary panorama is Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Jacques is introduced as a melancholic or malcontent right away by his Arden companions, who jeeringly note how his disposition leads him to grieve for anything he sees. As he confirms himself, he actually “feeds” on melancholy, “sucking” it from anything he comes across, like sad songs or anything he observes during his travels, and refuels his sadness.61 His somber reflections make him the odd one out among the merry occupants of Arden. Even more than his jolly counterpart Touchstone, Jacques is represented as a privileged moralizer of his own kind within the pastoral setting. He reminds us that the courtiers’ conduct in the idyllic setting is far from spotless and should be called into question for its disturbance of the natural context and its values. In general, his melancholy is what fuels his deep contemplation and questioning of everything around him and endows him with higher awareness than others, making him the ultimate defender of the pastoral location while simultaneously preventing him from enjoying its festive possibilities.

More severe (and disabling) manifestations of madness are often at the center of early modern literary narratives, which exploit the rhetorical and dramatic potential of distraction, particularly in its being caused by psychologically traumatic events, such as rejection, loss, grief, or guilt. Characters whose madness is triggered by such events are for instance Hieronimo and Isabella in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and Shakespeare’s Lear, Lady Macbeth, and Ophelia. More than in Renaissance comedies, where madness is usually resolved, in tragedies madness is an effective dramatic device that underscores the agonizing self-destruction or loss of the heroes’ identity, often to death. Further, it might provide a cover for criminal or stealthy actions while allowing punishment to be deferred or suspended—which is also why it might be faked, as in Hamlet.62 Manifestations of madness include hallucinatory speech, hyperbolic ranting, denial of reality, laughing, weeping, rage, obsession, sleepwalking, desire of revenge, and/or suicide—many of these representations reflected medical theories of melancholy as illustrated by medical writers like Richard Napier, Timothy Bright, or Robert Burton.63

In this period of greater clinical interest in human psychology, also the tendency to associate madness with demoniac possession or bewitchment decreases, except in feigned representations of mental disability.64 In this context, it is also important to note, the representation of madness by way of others’ reading and interpretation of its symptoms and manifestations is just as relevant in early modern literature as the actual performance of it.65 In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s hallucinatory madness is introduced and described step-by-step by a doctor and a gentlewoman who duly note “you see, her eyes are open,” “ay but their sense is shut,” and “she rubs her hands” (5.1.23–26), noticing her words, actions, and sleepwalking. Their interpretation complements her physical actions and officially diagnoses her disease, while also expressing that its cause is of a moral-emotional nature. We might view it as an example of how a cultural model of disability works in Renaissance literature to explain how difference is both embodied by the deviant subject and created by society, which decides what difference consists of.

It is similar in Hamlet, where much of Ophelia’s representation as madwoman relies on others taking note of her speech and how she utters it. Driven to madness on hearing of her father’s murder and after being forsaken by Hamlet, she communicates what ails her through an intricate web of apparently nonsense formulas, proverbs, and songs on loss, death, and unfortunate love.66 Her condition makes of her a dramatic parallel of the play’s hero, who feigns madness, but even more significantly, it invites intersectional interpretations of disability as gender-specific. Not only is Ophelia’s disability a consequence of direct masculine neglect or abuse, but also the show of it encapsulates her knowledge that being a woman in a patriarchal and sexist society means being disabled. For example, her physical appearance with loose hair and her tales focusing on women suffering because of others indissolubly yoke madness and femininity, testifying to Renaissance medical and social tendencies to study or view certain forms of mental disorder as gender-specific.67 In particular, women who were not sexually gratified (i.e., widows, unmarried women) might become insane or hysterical, and in general more women than men were apparently diagnosed with melancholy by doctors.68 The play is arguably ambiguous about whether Ophelia is still a virgin or she has been seduced and abandoned by Hamlet, as seems to be implied by some of her songs. Either way, in a society where women’s desires were scary and women’s sexual agency needed to be harnessed, Ophelia’s lack of sexual gratification—whether because she cannot get married or because her unchaste sexual desire is frustrated—is read as something making her whole identity abnormal.

For similar reasons, women are among the subjects whose humanity becomes ridiculed in notorious Bedlam scenes, namely self-contained scenes set in psychiatric hospitals where inmates, who have little contact with characters outside the institution or the main plot, are supposed to display what the abled expect their difference to look like. Similar scenes feature in plays like Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s The Honest whor* (Part 1), Dekker and John Webster’s Northward Ho, Webster’s The duch*ess of Malfi, Fletcher’s The Pilgrim, and Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling. Here, madness becomes a source of spectacle for the fruition of abled characters (onstage, but also offstage), who witness the quirks of inmates explicitly for sport. Disability thus becomes segregated, excluded, enfreaked, and theatricalized in a much more intense and physical way than when madpersons appear outside houses of confinement. Furthermore, such representation is perhaps achieved as an exaggeration or dramatic manipulation of the actual reality of London psychiatric institutions (including the famous Bethlehem Hospital), where people were probably not yet interested in visiting patients primarily for entertainment, and where violence against inmates was perhaps not such an ordinary practice.69 In the plays, examples of Bedlamites’ theatricality include dancing, singing, animal or other disguise, immoderate laughter, bawdy talk pointing at sexual unrestraint, nonsense dialogues among madpersons, frenzied or bestial vocalizations, and torture. However, such representations are not uncoupled from a sense of the madness spectacle as not just pleasurable but also pitiable, employing actors worth of Christian charity.70

Foolishness and madness ultimately differ by the way they relate to the typical structure of disability narratives. In fact, representations of disability of any type normally follow a trajectory from an initial moment of onset or introduction or explanation of the variation to a final moment where the deviation is “resolved” in some possible ways: the cure, some rehabilitation of the individual from social exclusion, or their death. The disabled identity of the character must eventually be eliminated—either physically or through obliteration—as a form of “purification of the social body.”71 This is true for many madmen and non able-bodied characters in early modern literature (e.g., Ophelia and Isabella die, Hamlet and Lear recover but die, just as feigned lunatics of course regain their wits, as in The Changeling or Edgar in Lear). But this less often to be the case with fools, who not only cannot be healed (and rarely die) but also mostly tend to stick to their disabled identity as a way to maintain their comic freedom.

Liminal or Unmanifest Disabilities

A merit of disability research within Renaissance literary studies has been to uncover and explore manifestations of disability that are not immediately obvious: for example, because they are not readily visible or detectable through bodily description or through the evaluation of one’s speech and behavior (as is the case with bodily, sensory, or mental disabilities). Alternatively, such disabilities might not be obvious to us simply because our own views as 21st-century readers prevent us from perceiving them as actual disabilities.

Nonnormative reproductive health, for example, might be considered a disability in a Renaissance perspective not so much because of its affecting the individual’s or the couple’s bodies per se, but rather because it barred them from social security and reputation through productive marriage and offspring.72 However, the medicalization of childless couples tipified bodies as disabled. Indeed, some Renaissance texts did engage with reactions to the sociocultural stigma around infertility by representing characters’ search for practical cures to the issue. The ballad of “The Contented Cuckold: Or, the Fortunate Fumbler” (1660s?) is one of many texts focusing on infertility and representing solutions primarily to the social disablement of the barren couple. In the ballad, the title character is a husband who, unable to beget a child with his wife, allows the latter to have sex with a neighbor. While this may seem an unorthodox solution that disrupts the monogamous relationship and does not solve the man’s supposed physical problem, the text finally pictures a positive view of marital partnership and paternity that hinges not so much on biological but on educational factors. In Middleton’s A Chaste Maid of Cheapside the couple finds a more complexly sexual-and-medical solution. The wife is set to have sex with Touchwood, a hyper-fertile character endowed with high-performative sperm considered far more efficient than a “doctor’s drugs.”73 Interestingly, however, though this text too implies that the infertility is primarily the husband’s, by conceiving of Touchwood’s sem*n as a cure, by parallely depicting the husband’s drinking of a placebo concoction, and by preventing the latter from learning the exact details of his wife’s cure, the play ultimately blames the woman for the inability to reproduce.74 But regardless of cultural stigmatizations revolving around specific genders, these solutions have been viewed as disrupting the rules of heterosexual reproduction and in presentist interpretations linked to queer practices of generating offspring with gamete donors.75

A different type of liminal disability might be one that is basically invisible and only briefly made manifest in the context of an otherwise seemingly able-bodied characterization. It is a disability that actively requires to be noticed and interpreted in order to identify the person as deviant. This is the case of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and his notorious falling sickness, which Casca reports he exhibited in the marketplace after refusing the crown. Caesar’s condition, epilepsy, which Cassius and Casca describe as entailing shaking, groaning tongue, pallor, fever, feebleness, excessive thirst, swooning, falling speechless down to the ground, and mouth-foaming, can be analyzed in terms of disability. Caesar’s body is indeed medically scrutinized in order to support his enemies’ claims regarding his supposed political weakness. Hence, defying some Renaissance views of the disabled body as a portentous signal of God’s power, disability descriptions are then wielded to counter the positive, deifying narrative that Romans and Caesar himself apply to Caesar—and which might transpire from folklorical views of epilepsy as something divine, due to its being quick and sudden. Further, Casca’s remark that Caesar’s fit was caused by the “stinking breath” (1.2.246) of the crowd rationalizes epilepsy in geohumoral terms and encapsulates his disgust for plebeians. However, Caesar’s disability remains ambiguous, because it is only reported and never confirmed by his actions before the audience: Caesar apparently performs an elaborate strategy of passing as able-bodied in the play, to supposedly maintain his reputation.76

A character who partly employs a similar strategy of passing as able-bodied is Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henriad, to conceal the fact that, as we briefly learn in 2 Henry IV, he has a painful gout on his big toe that probably explains his incapability to chase thieves or walk long distances. However, in a series of plays centered on war, Falstaff understands that passing himself off as nondisabled is the best strategy to navigate a world that values the skills of able-bodied soldiers. He does so by imitating the confident or enthusiastic behavior and speech of military commanders, for example when he confesses abusing his powers as captain to make money off decent soldiers willing to bribe him in order not to fight, or when he acts as if he cared little for the welfare of the beggarly set of men he recruited.77 And yet, it is probably not Falstaff’s gout but his glorious fat body that can more significantly mobilize implications of disability. The categories of fatness or obesity and disability were close in the early modern period, because they both encountered stigma, and they were both seen as monstrous, as implied for instance by Paré’s use of fat people’s stories to illustrate monstrosity.78 Moreover, in a Renaissance literary perspective, both the disabled or deformed and the fat body come across as elusive, porous to additional meanings, and in need of interpretation.79 Falstaff is consistently stigmatized and mocked for a body whose size reflects the joyful attitude of the character to life just as much as his immoral indulging in excess. Both such characteristics come across as negative, especially if taken to represent the opposite of what thin Hal as (future) king should strive to embody.80 Hence, it is Hal himself who, in Royce Best’s reading, most tellingly constructs Falstaff’s body as obese, particularly in the play extempore metatheatrical scene of 1 Henry IV, where Falstaff initially plays the king chiding Hal as himself, and eventually they switch roles. Both characters in the scene bring up Falstaff’s distinct body size, and both rhetorically manipulate the construction of fatness, though attaching different values to it. Falstaff uses a euphuistic, grandiloquent, abundant style that aggrandizes his own fatness as obesity but also estranges it and depicts it as comfortable, soothing, or even virtuous. Hal too accentuates Falstaff’s fatness almost into obesity, but he also negatively exacerbates its signification as outright vice, devilry, and even nonhumanness. And yet, viewed from Falstaff’s own point of view, fatness may constitute another instance of disability gain. For example, it may be regarded as a positive example of physical variation: a sign of greatness and benevolence, in contrast with Hal’s embodiment of leanness as an indication of Hal’s new political regime of restrictions, preying on low-class people.81 A more neutral reading of Falstaff’s fatness has also been offered. In 2 Henry IV, when Falstaff drafts soldiers, he says he does not care for the “bulk and big assemblance of a man” (3.2.255–256) for his choice. This and similar statements might evidence Falstaff’s resistance both to define fatness as a trait clashing with athletic muscularity and to understand any such traits as distinctive of an idealized form of masculinity. Preferring other signs, such as changeable and temporary war wounds, as indicative of a man’s valor, Falstaff fights the anti-fat narrative by undermining the importance of body size and capability as signs of ability or gender.82

Dissembled and Metaphorical Disability

One last category of disability that is significantly found in early modern literature is that which, as it were, does not exist: either because it is not real but only faked—that is, dissembled—or because it is not attached to a specific body or mind but is used as an attribute or metaphor describing a concept or object, rather than an individual.

Dissembled or counterfeit disability was a reality in early modern England, before becoming a much more emphasized and diverse topos in literature, particularly drama. It was a reality tied to poverty and the politics of poor relief, particularly in a period when the state and church prioritized giving charity to those who were not just poor but also unfit to work—namely physically or mentally disabled. This not only determined the necessity to distinguish deserving from undeserving poor (those who were able to work but did not) but also increased suspicion of all disabled beggars, as they might be tempted to simulate disability in order to profit from alms. Such fears fed not only into preachers’ tracts, which warned people of whom they gave money to, but also primarily and most vividly into early modern rogue pamphlets, which romanticized the life of criminal underworld members and warned readers of their mystifications.83 For example, Thomas Harman’s classic A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursetors (1566) describes “counterfeit cranks,” who faked epilepsy, simulating also mouth foaming and smearing their face and bodies with blood and dirt to pretend frequent fallings; “Abram-men,” who pretended to be mad; or “palliards,” who put irritant herbs on their skin to cause horrible blisters and look pitiful.84 This, however, is nothing in comparison to the diversity and potentiality that dissembled disability gained in drama, a genre that felt like the natural venue for such stories, possibly because of the intrinsic theatricality any really or falsely disabled beggar had to rely on in order to win over almsgivers.85 By staging dissembled disability metatheatrically, early modern plays also judge and educate the audience by exposing the risks of credulity in the onstage spectators and by praising skeptical attitudes toward disabled tricksters.86 The dissembling of disability in these plays is generally temporary, being meant to enable a specific strategy on the character’s part: dissembling disability, which ranges from faked foolishness or lunacy to physical impairment or speech or hearing disorders, allows the character possibilities that would be unattainable in their abled subjectivity. A number of Shakespearean characters famously fake disability: Titus and Hamlet in the eponymous plays; Edgar in Lear pretends to be mad; Simpcox in 2 Henry VI simulates blindness; and Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale simulates seizures and generalized body pain. In authors who employ the topos centrally, the possibilities ensured by dissembling disability are analogous. The protagonist in John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge disguises himself as a fool in costume as a way to gain access to the court of his father’s murderer, as well as to partly shield his own mind from excess suffering for his loss. Antonio’s empowerment thus feeds on the statutory freedom of the licensed fool in a nobleman’s house.87

Another typical though less evident deployment of nonreal disabilities is when these are used more as metaphor than actual organic manifestation. Shakespeare’s sonnet 37 begins “As a decrepit father takes delight/To see his active child do deeds of youth,/So I, made lame by Fortune’s dearest spite,/Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth” (1–4). The lameness needs not be real but may point either at the speaker’s age difference with the Fair Youth or, more significantly, at life events that have hit him. But thanks to the youth’s excellence and the relationship with him, the speaker can live a full life, or be metaphorically cured: he claims “I am not lame, poor, [or] despised” (9) any longer. Sonnet 89 begins “Say that thou dids’t forsake me for some fault/And I will comment on that offense:/Speak of my lameness and I straight will halt,/Against thy reasons making no defense” (1–4). Lameness here alludes to the speaker’s error in offending the addressee with his poetry, or also to the poetic meter itself being lame or imperfect. However, disability gain is also present in the form of crip poetics, that is a poetics voicing disability pride and a positive, productive connotation of disability. Indeed, if we interpret the poet’s will to halt not as stopping to write but as limping or keeping to err, something that he would do without apology, disability becomes equivalent to positive poetic authority.88

Discussion of the Literature

The emergence of theoretical disability studies has inspired a wealth of essays and book-length studies on disability in Renaissance literature and culture. This body of work emphasizes the value and significance of disability narratives in the period and theorizes the modes in which human variation is represented or interacts with normativity. The pioneers of the field have been Allison Hobgood and David Houston Wood, first with their special issue of the journal Disability Studies Quarterly titled “Disabled Shakespeares” and later with the edited volume Recovering Disability in Early Modern England.89 Both volumes consider instances of disability and illness in early modern culture by reading them in the light of early modern medical, legal, social, religious, and philosophical history and modern disability theory. This kind of angle has also been taken in subsequent volumes. Sujata Iyengar’s edited Disability, Health and Happiness in the Shakespearean Body brings Renaissance disability studies into closer dialogue with other topics like illness, the body, sexuality, and emotions in Shakespeare and his contemporaries.90 Similarly, The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, and Race, edited by Valerie Traub, includes essays on disability in Shakespeare as marker of villainy, masquerade, or gender and in relation to prosthetics.91 Performing Disability in Early Modern English Drama, edited by Leslie C. Dunn, looks at a wide range of disability stagings in Renaissance drama, whether as genuine, pretended, or metaphorical difference, and at the nonnormative body as the origin of peculiar relationships between disabled and abled—whether onstage characters or audience.92 The volume also considers examples of modern Shakespeare performances with disabled actors. Allison Hobgood’s Beholding Disability in Renaissance England investigates both how bodyminds were constructed as abled or disabled in the early modern period and also how cultural instances of ableism and disability gain started to emerge.93

This interest in historical representations of disability has also sparked a need to give a wide-ranging, systematic overview of different disability types both in Renaissance culture and literature. Hence, a whole volume in Bloomsbury’s encyclopedic A Cultural History of Disability has been devoted to the early modern era: volume 3, titled A Cultural History of Disability in the Renaissance and edited by Susan Anderson and Liam Haydon, brings together essays overviewing atypical bodies, mobility impairment, chronic pain and illness, blindness, deafness, speech disorders, learning difficulties, and mental health issues.94 Each of the essays presents a historical and cultural overview of the specific disability at hand and often includes a discussion of key literary examples.

Some books have delved into more specific niches within Renaissance literature and disability. Genevieve Love’s Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability examines how the disabled prosthetic body in four plays brings to bear on the relationship between actor and role on the Renaissance stage, and between character and bibliographical discourse.95 A similar angle has partly been taken also by the more recent Unfixable Forms: Disability, Performance, and the Early Modern English Theater by Katherine Schaap Williams, who enquires how disabled parts showcased the malleable, deforming body of the actor.96 In Dissembling Disability in Early Modern English Drama (2018) Lindsey Row-Heyveld analyzes instances of counterfeit disability in Shakespeare and his contemporaries and observes how the topos interacts with social attitudes to charity.97 Other authors have sought to foster a conversation that brings together early modern discourses of the monster and more recent conceptualizations of disability. In Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability Elizabeth Bearden looks at representations of monstrous bodies in the global Renaissance, considering conduct literature, travel writing, and wonder books.98 Richard H. Godden and Asa Mittman’s edited collection Monstrosity, Disability, and the Posthuman in the Medieval and Early Modern World examines how the mentally or physically disabled were historically viewed as monsters and includes essays on madness and lycanthropy, blindness and sexuality, monstrous births, and monstrous ecologies in early modern texts.99 Alice Equestri’s Literature and Intellectual Disability in Early Modern England: Folly, Law and Medicine, 1500–1640 analyzes how the nonnormativity of fool characters in literature is represented according to Renaissance jurisdictional and protomedical models of intellectual disability.100 Less invested in historicist readings of Renaissance disability, Sonya Freeman Loftis’s Shakespeare and Disability Studies gives instead more space to how disability studies and disability theory may be used—or have been used—not only to demonstrate how key characters are indeed disabled but also to make Shakespeare more accessible to readerships and audiences that include different levels of ability.101

Of course, more work has been produced on cultural representations of difference in early modern literature or culture with limited reference to disability or disability theory. Such work ranges from anything on monstrosity to madness, foolishness, or sensory disabilities and is definitely helpful for more theoretical research of disability narratives in the Renaissance. Some recent book-length studies in this sense are Carol Thomas Neely, Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture; Wes Williams, Monsters and Their Meanings in Early Modern Culture: Mighty Magic; Stuart Clark, Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture; Carla Mazzio, The Inarticulate Renaissance: Language Trouble in an Age of Eloquence; C. F. Goodey, A History of Intelligence and “Intellectual Disability”: The Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe; and Patrick McDonagh, Idiocy: A Cultural History.102

Literature and Disability in the English Renaissance (2024)
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