Stigma in Shakespeare

John Cawse, Falstaff Mocking Bardolph's Nose


Every day, coalitions of people branded outsiders, strangers, and others – people of color, women, LGBTQ+, those disabled, deemed second-class, discriminated against, historically disenfranchised, politically oppressed – are forming armies (with allies and advocates) to resist the tyranny of the normal. While dead white male William Shakespeare might be the golden calf of Western normalcy, his plays offer a revelatory vision of the social problem that will define the twenty-first century, stigma, understood as the making of the meaning of discredited difference.

The world was changing then as now, technology bringing different cultures into closer contact, science disputing theological traditions about the meanings of our bodies. Yet the politics of narcissism – love of what looks like me – reigned supreme. Onto this scene burst Shakespeare, his ethics inseparable from his choice to write in drama, the form of literature making the most of the visual. Uncovering the lives and minds of marked characters like Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Shylock the Jew, Ophelia, Edmund, Falstaff, Thersites, Othello, and Caliban, Shakespeare’s conclusion is sobering: social interaction between stigmatized people and stigmatizers will always be fraught, imperfect, tragicomic, loaded with guesswork about attitudes and biases, even when attempts at reparations are made. Historicizing stigma in earlier English literature and culture, theorizing it with modern social science, this book shows it to be central in Shakespeare’s artistic vision, and Shakespeare to be central in the history of stigma.