Stigma in Shakespeare

John Cawse, Falstaff Mocking Bardolph's Nose

In the past 30 years, Shakespeare studies has ignited with interest in characters marginalized because of race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. Stigma in Shakespeare historicizes and theorizes Shakespeare’s treatment of stigmatized characters – others, strangers, outsiders – as a specifically artistic endeavor, not just culture reflected in literature. It shows Shakespeare exploiting the poetics of Christian allegory, especially the Vice of Tudor drama, to depict the deformity of Richard III, then working that model out to other stigmatized identities such as Aaron the Moor, Shylock the Jew, Edmund the bastard, and Caliban the savage. Not only was stigma an abiding concern across Shakespeare’s entire career, I argue, but his drama anticipated the dramaturgical theory of stigma advanced by the American sociologist Erving Goffman in 1963: both Shakespeare and Goffman emphasized the making of the meaning of "abnormality" in face-to-face social encounters, as well as the negotiation of that meaning behind the scenes of stigma, showing its constructedness, and the need for deconstruction.