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, as the American sociologist Erving Goffman argued in his book Stigma (1963): “Persons with different stigmas are in an appreciably similar situation and respond in an appreciably similar way.”

Nearly 400 years earlier, Shakespeare’s first great villain, Richard III, was “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 all villains are ugly, but how did Shakespeare negotiate the claim of stigma and its demand that our eyes do the work of our minds?

Shakespeare was the first person to use the word stigmain 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 deemed to be inferior based on some innate aspect of his identity that appears in his body. 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 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. Social prejudice becomes a mental struggle, a rhetorical joust, and an opportunity for the stigmatized character to disprove or exploit preconceived notions. The scramble to define the identity of a stigmatized character – his or her own efforts and others’ – is one of the most powerful sources of tension in Shakespeare’s plays. 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.

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. It shows Shakespeare exploiting the poetics of Christian allegory, especially the Vice of Tudor drama, to depict the deformity of Richard III, then working out to other stigmatized identities like 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 he prompts progressive attitudes toward stigma. Specifically, his drama anticipated the view of stigma advanced by Goffman, whose dramaturgical theory of sociology was based on the Shakespearean conceit that “all the world’s a stage.”: Both Shakespeare and Goffman emphasize the making of the meaning of stigma in face-to-face social encounters, and the negotiation of meaning behind the scenes of stigma, showing its constructedness, and the need for deconstruction.

After laying out this argument, the introduction to Stigma in Shakespeare combines literary history and social science theory to look at Shakespeare’s cameo in the Syrian refuge crisis. A reading of Shakespeare’s scene in Sir Thomas More suggests that, by prompting perspective-taking, his art generates an empathy which erases the stark distinctions usually made between self and other, in-group and out-group. There are then eleven chapters in the book.

Each of the first four brings several texts and traditions together in readings variously textual, historical, and theoretical. Clearing the way for the terminology of stigma, Chapter 1 reviews some instances of disability in Shakespeare’s works and of disability studies in Shakespeare studies. Chapter 2 delves into the connections between Shakespeare, one the first to use the word stigma, and Erving Goffman and Leslie Fiedler, the first writers to develop serious theories of stigma. Chapter 3 then delivers the central argument of the book by building 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. I dub Shakespeare’s strategy for handling these characters 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 4 historicizes the figure of stigma with a survey of the representation of physical deformity 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 villain in Tudor drama. Chapter 5 shows these traditions surfacing in Shakespeare’s representation of the physical deformity of Richard III, and Shakespeare then adapting Richard’s deformity into other identities marked as inferior: Aaron the Moor’s race in Titus Andronicusand Philip Faulconbridge’s bastardy in King John. Chapter 6 continues into 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, including Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, King John, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and the Sonnets.

Proceeding chronologically through Shakespeare’s career, Chapters 7 through 11 each address a single play in detail (or in the case of Chapter 8 a tetralogy). The seventh 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 mounted on Barabas. Looking at Falstaff’s obesity and Bardolph’s rosacea, Chapter 8 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 9 explores how a Shakespeare who had become suspicious of stigma dealt with the rhetoric of deformity and monstrosity in the scenes of Troilus and Cressidainvolving Thersites and Ajax. Chapter 10 argues that stigma is the organizing principle behind the major metaphors in King Lear – old age, madness, 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. And 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 that underwrites stigma), and Montaigne’s skepticism (a long-recognized source for The Tempest, but one with new valences on the subject of stigma).