Stigma in Shakespeare

Stigma in Shakespeare traces the sociological study of stigma – understood as discrimination against those deemed to be inherently inferior – to its origins in Renaissance drama. Shakespearean characters as various as Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Shylock the Jew, Falstaff, and Caliban are marked off by their bodies because physical difference was the insignia of evil in the Renaissance. But by treating stigma as a scene of social interaction in which the meaning of physical difference is created and codified, Shakespeare not only disrupted the dominant view of his time, which saw stigma as a natural and physical phenomenon, but also anticipated the theories of the twentieth-century American sociologist Erving Goffman. We might even say Shakespeare fathered the line of thought made famous by Goffman, whose dramaturgical theory of sociology was based on the Shakespearean conceit that “all the world’s a stage.” Like Goffman’s book on Stigma (1963), and the field of study it established, Shakespeare’s plays show how stigma begins in ambivalence about difference and ends in uneasiness for both the stigmatized and the stigmatizer, as well as – crucially – for the audience observing the scene of stigma.