Two "Stigma in Shakespeare" talks at MLA 2020

May 25, 2019

"Shax’s Invention of Stigma: Richard’s Deformity, Aaron’s Race, Faulconbridge’s Bastardy”
(Representing the Other in Medieval and Early Modern Drama)

The fusion of comedy and tragedy in the Vice allowed English dramatists before Shakespeare to capture the complexity of sin and evil, alluring in the carnal pleasure they provide, disgusting in the social harm they cause. After adapting the Vice to structure his depiction of Richard III’s deformity, Shakespeare returned to it in the following years to depict Aaron the Moor’s black skin and Philip Faulconbridge’s bastard birth, expanding the phenomenon represented from physical deformity (an aspect of Richard’s body) to social stigma (a feature of the “abnormal” character’s situation in life). The figure of stigma governing these characters – abnormality, villainy, irony, and tragicomedy – then became the system for many of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters, the author variously employing, adapting, and resisting the figure over the course of his career. In other words, during the period of roughly 1589-96, Shakespeare invented the notion of stigma the sociologist Erving Goffman later theorized in his 1963 book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. It was inchoate, not programmatic, and artistic rather than argumentative, but Shakespeare suggested – for the first time ever – that different kinds of differentness encounter similar situations in life, shifting the locus of meaning from the physical body of the stigmatized person to the structure of social interaction between “normals” and “abnormals.” 

"The Dramatization of Stigma in The Merchant of Venice”
(Early Intersectionalities)

In 3 Henry VI(1590), the deformed Richard, Duke of Gloucester says, “Then since the heavens have shap’d my body so, / Let hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.” Using similar language and logic, Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus(1589) says he “will have his soul black like his face.” But Shylock in The Merchant of Venice(1596) more exactly resembles what the twentieth-century criminologist Frank Tannenbaum called “the dramatization of evil.” Asking how, in modern urban America, the petty juvenile delinquent becomes the hardened career criminal, Tannenbaum theorized the criminal justice system, while notionally responsible for stopping crime, can unintentionally contribute to it by telling the young criminal who he is, and then “the person becomes the thing he is described as being.” The dramatization of evil is especially insidious in The Merchant of Venice– in many modern cases as well – because the thing for which someone is labelled is not a criminal act at all; it is simply a religious and racial identity. In Merchant both Shylock and the Prince of Morocco internalize the stigma saddled upon them, upon Shylock because he is a Jew and upon Morocco because he is a Moor. On the one hand, Shylock vows to act like the hyperbolically villainous stereotype of a Jew that he has been described as being. On the other, Morocco bases his choice of casket on a correspondence between external appearances and internal essences, a notion other characters have used to infer his inferiority from the color of his skin. The resonance of these examples with each other speaks to the coherence of stigma – as apart from race or religion – in Shakespeare’s dramatic vision, not only in Merchant, but in other plays too: just as the stories of Shylock and Morocco are overlain, so too are the deformity-based stigma placed on Richard III and the race-based stigma on Aaron the Moor.Meanwhile, the resonance of all these examples with modern social science on stigma speaks to both the forward-thinking quality of Shakespeare’s thoughts on stigma and the ascendancy of that progressive attitude relatively early in his career.