Shakespeare’s Lameness

Shakespeare’s Lameness

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth.
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed
And by a part of all thy glory live.
     Look, what is best, that best I wish in thee:
     This wish I have; then ten times happy me!

Sonnets 37

Some think that Shakespeare was himself disabled based on a brazenly literal reading of some fairly fleeting lines in the Sonnets. In Sonnet 37, Shakespeare says he was “made lame by fortune’s dearest spite,” suggesting a disability derived from some birth defect, or perhaps an accident, and elsewhere Shakespeare vows, “Speak of my lameness, and I straight wilt halt.” To say that the argument for a disabled Shakespeare is guilty of the biographical fallacy is merely to state the obvious; all we can say with certainty about the author is that he was keenly interested in the abnormal body. To note, however, that the persona created by the author, not Shakespeare but his speaker, is disabled is to entertain an observation that could radically alter our reading of the Sonnets. The perennial problem of these poems – the extent to which each sonnet participates in a sequence – is a matter of literary criticism, but it is also remarkably resonant with an issue that arises in our examination of stigma: is a difference from some cultural norm an isolated aspect of an individual’s identity, or does it define that individual? If the speaker of Sonnets 37 and 89 is disabled, is the speaker of all of the Sonnets disabled? What happens to the rest of the Sonnets if we say, on the basis of these lines, that their speaker is disabled? In the pregnancy sequence, is the speaker obsessed with procreation because he wants to repair his own botched birth? In the young man sequence, is the jilted lover’s flight from a temporal to a poetic existence also a disabled man’s retreat from body to mind? In the dark lady sequence, is the speaker’s reactionary aesthetic (insisting, against convention, that black is beautiful) a narcissistic attempt to shore up his own self-worth? When we come across the lines about lameness in the Sonnets, we are reluctant to sweep aside what may be a considerable source of pain, suffering, and identity for the speaker, but we also worry that we might impute an inaccurate mental history on this individual if we emphasize his disability too much. If Shakespeare meant for his sonneteer to have a disability, even though it is only acknowledged obliquely, we are likely to make major mistakes in our analysis of this character if we overlook this fact. If, however, we assume that the speaker is disabled, and realign our entire understanding of the sonnets on that assumption, we risk reducing that character to an extension of that disability in a way that clearly does not capture the complexity of the character that Shakespeare created.


Lameness in Shakespeare


Weis, René. “A Will ‘Made Lame by Fortune’s Blows’.” Shakespeare Unbound: Decoding a Hidden Life. New York, NY: Henry Holt, 2007. 185-98.