Con.  Yes, the fashion is the fashion.
  Bora.  Tush! I may as well say the fool’s the fool. But seest thou not what a deformed thief this fashion is?
  2. Watch.  [Aside]  I know that Deformed; a’ has been a vile thief this seven year; a’ goes up and down like a gentleman: I remember his name….
  Bora.  Seest thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this fashion is? how giddily a’ turns about all the hot bloods between fourteen and five-and-thirty? sometimes fashioning them like Pharaoh’s soldiers in the reeky painting, sometime like god Bel’s priests in the old church-window, sometime like the shaven Hercules in the smirched worm-eaten tapestry, where his codpiece seems as massy as his club?...
  2. Watch.  We charge you, in the prince’s name, stand!
  1. Watch.  Call up the right master constable. We have here recovered the most dangerous piece of lechery that ever was known in the commonwealth.
  2. Watch.  And one Deformed is one of them: I know him; a’ wears a lock.
  Con.  Masters, masters –
  2. Watch.  You’ll be made bring Deformed forth, I warrant you. 

Much Ado About Nothing, 3.3.122-73

In this funny little set piece that comes midway through Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare dramatized, quite unintentionally, the stigmatization of deformity. The passage is not about deformity – it’s about fashion – and the word “deformed” is used rather casually. As a description of what kind of thief the thief in question is, “deformed” here is nothing more than a vigorous synonym for “bad,” “horrible,” or some other adjective of approbation. In the ear of the inept Watch, however, the adjective “deformed” is mistaken for a noun, even a proper noun, effectively allegorizing the adjective as a substantive being. What was a description of something becomes something in and of itself. We politely laugh at the confusion, nod, and forget about it as we proceed with the plot of Much Ado, but the Watch's confusion can point to another confusion, one that’s not very funny, not trivial at all. In this passage, Shakespeare was not attempting to articulate a theory of stigma, but in the linguistic slide that he dramatized we can find the basis for a rhetoric and even an ethic of physical deformity. Specifically, the shift from an adjectival to a substantive notion of deformity is precisely what occurs when a “person with a deformity” is called a “deformed person”: deformity shifts from being an accidental attribute of someone who is primarily defined as a human to being the principle identity of that person. The error of Shakespeare’s Watch, coming as it does from an idiotic eavesdropper, suggests that the shift from an adjectival to a substantive notion of deformity is a confusion, a foolish confusion, a foolish confusion based not on experience but on hearsay, one with no basis in reality, just as the character Deformed does not exist in Shakespeare’s play. Like the Watch, who says he knows Deformed, those who treat “deformed” as a stable identity believe in something that does not exist. They will forever be waiting for the world to “bring Deformed forth,” and it never will. 


Physical Deformity in Shakespeare


Lucking, David. “Bringing Deformed Forth: Engendering Meaning in Much Ado About Nothing.” Renaissance Forum 2.1 (Spring 1997): n. pag.

Williams, Katherine Schaap. "Demonstrable Disability." Early Theatre 22.2 (2019): 185-197.