Stigma in Shakespeare

John Cawse, Falstaff Mocking Bardolph's Nose

Shakespeare’s villains are often victims of stigma based on social identities written into their bodies—Richard III and Caliban’s physical deformities, Aaron and Othello’s black skin, Don John and Edmund’s illegitimate births, Shylock’s Jewishness, Falstaff’s obesity. Since the 1980s, Shakespeare scholars have explored the characters marginalized because of gender, race, religion, sexuality, nationality, disability, class, age, and intersectionalities among such categories. Less studied is the structure of stigma that spans these identity categories—the process of making, managing, and dismantling the meanings of discredited social differences. 

The world was changing, technology bringing different cultures into closer contact, science disputing theological traditions about the meanings of bodies. Yet the politics of narcissism – love of what looks like me – reigned supreme. Onto this scene burst Shakespeare, whose plays suggest that 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.




Parts of Stigma in Shakespeare have appeared in Genre, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in EnglandDisability Studies Quarterly,  Making Strangers: Outsiders, Aliens and Foreigners, and New Readings of the Merchant of Venice.