By showing how Shakespeare used stigma to shape our aesthetic experience, this book maps out his encounter with an ethical question unique to drama, where we are enthralled (even more than usually) by the judgments of our eyes: What does villainy look like? His 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.” Stigmatizing similes like these are as ancient as the Greek ideal of kalokagathia, “the beautiful in the good,” and as current as the Disney aesthetic assuring us that all villains are ugly, but how did Shakespeare negotiate the claim of stigma and its demand our eyes do the work of our minds?

Late in the twentieth century, Shakespeare studies exploded with interest in his representation of people marginalized because of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, age, or ability. These concerns are connected in literary criticism because they are connected in life: patterns of discrimination and the experiences of those who stand apart from social norms resemble and signify each other. The American sociologist Erving Goffman termed this stigma when he argued “persons with different stigmas are in an appreciably similar situation and respond in an appreciably similar way.”

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 himself 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 we identify, even though they are explicitly presented as “others,” and it is they who covet and dominate our 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 will be the first to historicize and theorize Shakespeare’s treatment of stigmatized characters as a specifically artistic endeavor, rather than merely as a case of culture reflected in literature. I show how Shakespeare exploited the tradition of Christian allegory, especially the Vice of sixteenth-century English drama, to depict the deformity of Richard III, and then how Shakespeare worked outward to other stigmatized identities such as 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, I argue, but he has had a surprisingly significant impact on progressive attitudes toward stigma in modern English and Western culture. Specifically, 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 abnormality in face-to-face social encounters, as well as the negotiations of that meaning behind the scenes of stigma.

The stigmatization of anomalous bodies was a consistent feature of classical Western culture, whether it came in the form of Greek philosophy, Roman law, or Jewish or Christian scripture. Concepts developed in 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 the problem of the aberrant body, you wrote a philosophical treatise or a 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 the way that people 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 scientific manual to the essay. It is no accident that two of the most influential modern statements on physical deformity – 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. And it is no accident that the greatest modern 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. In other words, the connections between Shakespeare and the modern theorists of stigma are not merely conceptual; they are historical. Progress on the power of 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 may have done more than any other individual to create the conditions for change in Western 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 don’t we like 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.