The Miracle at St. Albans

The Miracle at St. Albans

  Car.  What, art thou lame? 
  Simp.  Ay, God Almighty help me!...
  Glou.  My masters of Saint Alban's, have you not
Beadles in your town, and things call’d whips?
  May.  Yes, my lord, if it please your Grace.
  Glou.  Then send for one presently.
  May.  Sirrah, go fetch the beadle hither straight.     Exit one.
  Glou.  Now fetch me a stool hither by and by.  [A stool brought.]  Now, sirrah, if you mean to save yourself from whipping, leap me over this stool and run away.
  Simp.  Alas, master, I am not able to stand alone:
 You go about to torture me in vain. 
 Enter a Beadle with whips.
  Glou.  Well, sir, we must have you find your legs. Sirrah beadle, whip him till he leap over that same stool.
  Bead.  I will, my lord. Come on, sirrah; off with your doublet quickly.
  Simp.  Alas, master, what shall I do? I am not able to stand.
After the Beadle hath hit him once, he leaps over the stool and runs away; and they follow and cry, 'A miracle!' 

2 Henry VI, 2.1.157-58 

Shakespeare’s first depiction of disability is also his funniest. It comes in 2 Henry VI, in an episode familiar from the English chronicles, the spurious miracle at St. Albans, which satirizes the gullibility of a too superstitious King Henry. A dope enters the scene hollering, “A miracle, a miracle,” beaming that today a blind man has received his sight at the shrine of St. Albans. It would be impossible for the actor playing King Henry to overplay his response, a sumptuous prayer glorifying the goodness of God. Named Saunder Simpcox, the blind man arrives and says that he was born blind, and moreover that his friends must now carry him around because he once fell from a tree and is now lame, one disability piled on top of another. Much more skeptical than King Henry, the Duke of Gloucester wants to know what a blind man was doing climbing trees. Then, as Simpcox vaunts his new eyesight, naming the colors he sees all around him, Gloucester points out that a man blind from birth would have no idea which color is red. Simpcox is, in Gloucester’s words, “the lying’st knave in Christendom,” so – in a moment more Monty Python than William Shakespeare – Gloucester musters up his own miracle: he lashes Simpcox with a whip, causing the allegedly lame man to jump straight to his feet and sprint off the stage, a crowd behind him crying,  “A miracle, a miracle.” We laugh, but our laughter subsides when we recognize some of the sadly standard features of disability as it is represented in Western literature: in this scene, as in many societies, it is the “normals” who define, control, and manipulate what counts as disability; as in the Bible, disability is simply the platform for a display of God’s power; as in modern medicine, the normal man believes it is his job to cure the disabled and eradicate disability from the earth; people are both deeply sympathetic with and deeply suspicious of someone’s claim to be disabled; the disabled person meets both ridicule and violence; and, in the end, the disabled man is run off the stage and out of the sacred society of the normals.

Context

The Miracle at St. Albans in Early English Literature
Miracles in Shakespeare
Lameness in Shakespeare
Blindness in Shakespeare

Bibliography

Row-Heyveld, Lindsey. “ ‘The lying’st knave in Christendom’: The Development of Disability in the False Miracle of St. Alban’s.” Disability Studies Quarterly 29.4 (Fall 2009): n. pag