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.



The Trouble with Disability in Shakespeare Studies

The Figure of Stigma in Shakespeare’s Drama
Hath not a jew a nose
Hath Not a Jew a Nose? Or, the Danger of Deformity in Comedy
Savage and Deformed
"Savage and Deformed": Stigma as Drama in The Tempest



Shakespeare's first great villain, Richard III, is “as crooked in his manners as in his shape.” His next great villain, Aaron the Moor, “will have his soul black like his face.” And his last great villain, Caliban, is “as disproportion’d in his manners as in his shape.” What is the meaning of bodily difference in Shakespeare’s stories? Why is it so closely attached to villainy? How should we engage with these Shakespearean bodies given their painful legacies in our own age?

This book shows how Shakespeare used stigma—discredited difference affixed to others’ bodies—to structure many of his plays, especially Richard III, Titus Andronicus, King John, The Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV, Troilus and Cressida, King Lear, Othello, and The Tempest.

Late in the twentieth century, Shakespeare studies exploded with interest in his representation of people marginalized because of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, disability, age, and the intersectionalities among them. These concerns are connected in literary criticism because they are connected in life: patterns of discrimination and the experiences of those marked as outside the “norm” resemble and signify each other. As Ania Loomba writes, “Othello and Caliban speak at once to vastly different histories and geographies, and yet together they indicate a shared terrain on which ideas of human difference were reshaped during the early modern period.”

The American sociologist Erving Goffman termed this stigma when arguing that “persons with different stigmas are in an appreciably similar situation and respond in an appreciably similar way.” Drawing especially upon Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963) and Imogen Tyler’s recent critique of him in Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality (2020), I argue that stigmatized Shakespearean characters—dubbed “others” by W.H. Auden in 1948, “strangers” by Leslie Fiedler in 1972, and “outsiders” by Marianne Novy in 2013—are quite different in their differentness, but they are alike in that they never get to present themselves to others (including audiences) for unbiased interpretation. They are always already interpreted by cultural stereotypes. They can only define themselves through and against those stereotypes. Thus, social prejudice becomes a mental struggle, a rhetorical joust, and an opportunity for the stigmatized character to either disprove or exploit preconceived notions. The scramble to define the identity of a stigmatized character, involving both themselves and others, is one of the most powerful sources of dramatic and conceptual tension in Shakespeare’s plays. Moreover, it tends to be the stigmatized characters with whom modern audiences identify, even though they are explicitly presented as “others,” and it is they who covet and dominate recent interest and criticism.

Shakespeare was the first person to use the word stigma in a consistent and deliberate way in the English language. But stigma was more than a word for Shakespeare. It was a dramatic strategy. It was an approach to the representation of a character—such as Richard, Aaron, Shylock, Falstaff, or Caliban—deemed to be inferior based on some innate aspect of his identity that appears in his body. This book historicizes and theorizes Shakespeare’s treatment of stigmatized characters as a specifically artistic endeavor, not just a case of culture reflected in literature. I show how Shakespeare used Christian allegory, especially the Vice of sixteenth-century English drama, to depict the physical disability of Richard III, and then how Shakespeare worked outward to other kinds of stigmatized identities with Aaron the Moor, Shylock the Jew, Edmund the bastard, and Caliban the savage, among others. Not only was stigma a deep and abiding concern across Shakespeare's entire career, but he has had a surprisingly significant impact on attitudes toward stigma in the modern world. The treatment of stigma in Shakespeare’s drama anticipated the dramaturgical theory of stigma advanced by Goffman in 1963: both Shakespeare and Goffman emphasized the making of the meaning of stigma in face-to-face social encounters, as well as the negotiations of that meaning behind the scenes of stigma.

The stigmatization of marked bodies was a consistent feature of ancient cultures, whether in the form of Greek philosophy, Roman law, or Jewish or Christian scripture. Concepts from those classical works—kalokagathia, physiognomy, monstrosity—were embraced by popular Renaissance texts such as Thomas Hill’s The Whole Art of Physiognomie (1556) and Ambrose Pare’s Of Monsters and Prodigies (1573). Before Shakespeare, if you wanted to address aberrant bodies, you wrote a philosophical treatise or scientific manual. When Shakespeare staged stigma as drama, as rhetoric, as socially constructed, as an event, not an attribute, he both reflected a growing skepticism toward stigma and prompted a change in the way it was addressed—not only in what was said about stigma, but also in howpeople wrote about stigma. After Shakespeare, and to some degree because of him, the most popular medium used to consider physical difference shifted from the philosophical treatise and the scientific manual to the essay.

It is no accident that two of the most influential modern statements on physical disability— William Hay’s Of Deformity: An Essay in the eighteen century and Sigmund Freud’s essay “The Exceptions” in the twentieth—were written by readers of Shakespeare who referred to his Richard III in their essays. It is no accident that the greatest twentieth-century theorist of stigma, Erving Goffman, took his philosophical foundation from the “dramatism” of Kenneth Burke, a Shakespeare scholar. Nor is it a coincidence that the other great twentieth-century commentator on stigma, Leslie Fiedler, was himself a Shakespearean critic and author of the book The Stranger in Shakespeare. The connections between Shakespeare and the modern theorists of stigma are not merely conceptual; they are historical. Progress on resistance to stigma in society was by no means swift, and it is certainly not complete, but Shakespeare initiated an age that acknowledges the meaning of physical differences as circumstantial and perspectival, not absolute. In this regard, Shakespeare helped create the conditions for change in modern attitudes toward physical difference.

Looking to the future, as technology leads both to increasing globalization (bringing different cultures with different ways of life into closer and more frequent contact) and to further medical advances (often promising to “fix” the “errors” of nature as they arise in the human body), and yet these emergent historical phenomena continue to be met with the retrograde politics of narcissism, Shakespeare’s works will remain a valuable resource for posing first-order questions about stigma: Why do so many people hate difference? What, really, is normal? Should we strive to accept or to improve nature? How do we create peace when history demands conflict? How do we repair traditions of prejudice and discrimination? How do we oppose the wrongs of others without mythologizing us vs. them and good vs. evil? These are timely questions as we look ahead, but they are also core questions raised in old Shakespearean plays such as Richard III, Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and The Tempest.


Chapter One

Stigma as Drama: From Shakespeare to Goffman and Fiedler and Back


After the introduction argues that there’s an additional story to tell on top of insights from Shakespearean criticism on race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, age, and disability, there are eleven chapters in this book. Each of the first three brings a number of texts and traditions together in readings that are variously textual, historical, and theoretical. Chapter 1 shows the connections between Shakespeare, the first person to use the word stigma in a serious and consistent way in the English language, and Erving Goffman and Leslie Fiedler, the first writers to develop serious theories of stigma in the Western tradition. Shakespeare indirectly influenced Goffman’s theory of stigma, and directly influenced Fiedler’s. Returning the favor, Goffman’s description of stigma as a dramatic scene of social interaction helps us recognize how Shakespeare used the resources of dramatic expression to treat stigma as a social, rather than natural, phenomenon. And Shakespeare’s treatment of stigma as a rhetorically charged attack against those who represent difference and danger enhances our understanding of an aspect of stigma that went unaddressed in Goffman and Fiedler’s theories. In other words, while Goffman and Fiedler can help us understand Shakespeare, the comparison is not a one-way street from theory to literature: Shakespeare can help us understand stigma in ways that go beyond Goffman and Fiedler.


Chapter Two

The Figure of Stigma in Shakespeare’s Drama


Chapter 2 presents the central theoretical claim of the book, moving us from thematic concerns with the content of Shakespeare’s plays to formal concerns that address the meaningful patterning of literary expression. This chapter builds out from the example of Richard III to other Shakespearean characters—including Aaron, Shylock, Don John, Falstaff, Thersites, Edmund, and Caliban—whose place and function in their plays recall Richard. As often observed, these characters descended from the Vice and the villain of earlier English drama, but it has not been observed that, with very few exceptions, Shakespeare’s Vice-like villains all encounter stigma in a major way. Each one has some innate aspect of his identity, usually visible in his body, that is used as the basis and the venue for statements about his villainy (whether by himself or others). Each one offsets his villainy with irony—witty asides and charismatic addresses to the audience that draw us into his exhilarating energy—and each ends up on the wrong side of a tragicomedy in which the virtuous are rewarded and the vicious punished. I dub this dramatic typology—abnormality, villainy, irony, tragicomedy—the figure of stigma, a term bringing together Erich Auerbach’s literary history of “figural realism” and Goffman’s social scientific theory of “stigma.”


Chapter Three

The Origins of the Figure of Stigma: A Brief Literary History of Physical Deformity Before Shakespeare


Chapter 3 then historicizes the figure of stigma with a survey of the representation of physical disability in the traditions informing Shakespeare’s work: Greco-Roman art and philosophy, Judeo-Christian scripture and theology, Middle English mystery plays, and the Vice and the villain in Tudor drama. Chapter 3 also starts the chronological narrative of the book, beginning with a sweeping view of pre-modern European culture and English drama, which is then slowed down as we come to Shakespeare.


Chapter Four
Shakespeare’s Invention of Stigma: From Richard’s Deformity to Aaron’s Race, Philip Faulconbridge’s Bastardy, and Beyond


Chapter 4 shows how the language and logic of these traditions surfaced in Shakespeare’s representation of the physical disability of Richard III, and how Shakespeare then invented the modern understanding of stigma by adapting his representation of Richard’s disability into his representations of other identities marked as inferior: Aaron the Moor’s race in Titus Andronicus and Philip Faulconbridge’s bastardy in King John.


Chapter Five

The Breakdown of Stigma in Shakespeare’s Early Period: Reflections on Richard III


Chapter 5 continues the chronological narrative of Shakespeare’s evolving attitude toward stigma by addressing a series of texts that took up physiognomy and related concepts in the wake of Richard III. Arguing that the intensity of Shakespeare’s representation of Richard made stigma a persistent part of the playwright’s thought and art during his early period, I illustrate how Shakespeare repeatedly and unnecessarily (thus revealingly) went out of his way to write issues of stigma into passages in Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, King John, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and the Sonnets.


Chapter Six

Shylock’s Nose: Stigma, Genre, and Character in The Merchant of Venice


Proceeding chronologically through Shakespeare’s career, Chapters 6 through 10 each address a single play in detail (or in the case of Chapter 7 a tetralogy). The sixth chapter explores the flexibility of character and genre in The Merchant of Venice in light of Shakespeare’s careful evasion of the artificial nose Marlowe had mounted on Barabas.


Chapter Seven

Falstaff’s Obesity and Bardolph’s Rosacea: Naturalizing the Figure of Stigma in the Second Tetralogy


Looking at Falstaff’s obesity and Bardolph’s rosacea, Chapter 7 illustrates how Shakespeare’s second tetralogy adapted the figure of stigma to a naturalized stage: these plays gesture toward a modern medical model of stigma in which disease and deformity are markers of past immorality and future misery in a disenchanted pathology that underwrites both biological sciences and health studies to this day.


Chapter Eight

Stigma and Satire: Thersites’s Deformity and Ajax’s Monstrosity


Chapter 8 explores how a Shakespeare who had become suspicious of stigma dealt with the rhetoric of deformity and monstrosity in the scenes of Troilus and Cressida involving Thersites and Ajax.


Chapter Nine

“Why brand they us?”: The Metaphors and Metamorphoses of Stigma in King Lear


Chapter 9 argues stigma is the organizing principle behind three of the major metaphors in King Lear—old age, bastardy, and blindness—the bastard Edmund being the mechanism by which the blinding of the Earl of Gloucester is achieved, these characters mirroring issues of disinheritance and misapprehension in the main plot of the play.


Chapter Ten

Normal Villainy in Othello


Similarly, Chapter 10 argues that, more than any other single issue—including jealousy, race, and gender—Othello is about (as Cassio says) “reputation, reputation, reputation” or, more specifically, stigma, its origin, operation, and outcomes.


Chapter Eleven

“Savage and Deformed”: Stigma and Skepticism in The Tempest


Chapter 11 concludes the book by bringing a close reading of Caliban’s body into conversation with three interrelated discourses: Goffman on stigma, social anthropologists on magical thinking (the mentality underwriting stigma), and Montaigne’s skepticism (a long-recognized source for The Tempest, but one with some significant new valences on the subject of stigma).




A final coda poses the possibility of Shakespeare as a prompt for progress on issues of identity.


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