Stigma as drama.

Stigma is drama in Shakespeare’s plays, as in life. Western literature and culture tend to treat the aberrant body as a symbol, an object with a static significance, but Shakespeare’s plays resist this position because they show meaning being made in the volatile exchange between stigmatizer and stigmatized, meaning that is therefore circumstantial and inherently dramatic. He developed a specifically dramatic way of thinking about stigma by staging it as a scene, by showing how it takes its meaning from an explosive social encounter, effectively exposing its concealed status as a cultural event as opposed to an attribute of the human body. We might even say that Shakespeare fathered the line of thought made famous by Erving Goffman, whose dramaturgical theory of sociology is based on the Shakespearean conceit that “all the world’s a stage.” Like Goffman’s book on Stigma (1963), and the field of sociology it established, Shakespeare saw stigma as an event, not a physical object but a social relationship.

Stigma as rhetoric.

By dramatizing stigma, Shakespeare showed that it is often more rhetoric than analysis. That is, Shakespeare showed, first, how physical difference all too often becomes a venue for expressions of offense, anger, and hatred; and second, how the culturally constructed claims of stigma are too easily confused for metaphysical truths about others.

The figure of stigma.

As a part of his dramatization of stigma, Shakespeare used the resources of dramatic expression to formalize a complex yet consistent system for thinking about and representing stigma, a system I call the figure of stigma. The figure of stigma involves four of the six parts of drama enumerated in Aristotle’s Poetics: plot, character, speech, and spectacle. Aristotle’s fifth part of drama, thought, is relevant to a consideration of how the elements of the figure of stigma relate to each other, while his sixth part, music, is not included in my study because it is not included in Shakespeare’s text. To provide an overview, the figure of stigma consists of the spectacle of abnormality, the character of villainy, the speech of irony, and the plot of tragicomedy. In his representations of stigma, Shakespeare created relationships among these elements and used them to signify each other. In the figure of stigma, an abnormal body evoking both pity and fear splits into the opposed dramatic elements of villainy and irony, the former an element of tragedy and the latter of comedy; then the figure is reconstituted at the end of the play in the hybrid plot of tragicomedy, in which the virtuous are rewarded and the vicious punished on a stage that mingles clowns and kings.

The planes of stigma.

Like Shakespeare’s problem plays, the resolution of the figure of stigma is riddled with lingering questions, resulting in an awkward or unstable experience for audiences. As such, the figure of stigma transforms tension from one plane of experience to other planes – specifically, from a social to a textual to an emotional plane. That is, the uneasy social situation of stigma becomes, in Shakespeare’s representations, the mixed mode of tragicomedy, which produces, when viewed or read, an ambivalent aesthetic experience in the audience, effectively recreating the original uneasiness of stigma.

The models of stigma.

In Western literature and culture, abnormality and villainy almost always signify each other, but Shakespeare explored, over the course of his career, several different models for the relationship between these concepts. First, in a theological model, an innate abnormality signifies immanent villainy in a divinely ordered universe. Second, in a psychological model, the mental struggle with an innate physical abnormality produces villainy. Third, in a physiological model, villainy causes a physical abnormality to develop. Fourth, in a legal model, villainy leads to physical abnormality when authorities mark or brand criminals to identify them as such. Finally, in a sociological model, there exists no necessary connection between abnormality and villainy; instead, cultures and individuals create this connection, often retrospectively and inaccurately, in the various ways described in the other models of stigma.

The kinds of stigma.

Shakespeare represented stigma, not deformity, disability, bastardy, idiocy, nor race, but stigma understood as deviance from some norm such that meaning is always relative. Thus, Shakespeare used the same dramatic system, what I have called the figure of stigma, to manage ultimately discrete kinds of abnormality: physical deformity (as in the examples of Richard III, Falstaff, and Caliban), racial minority (as with Aaron and Shylock), bastardy (for Philip Faulconbridge, Don John, and Edmund), and idiocy (in the cases of Bottom and Ajax).

Stage stigma.

The resiliency of stigma can be observed in the fact that Shakespeare, a uniquely humane writer on the subject of stigma, was himself a stigmatizer on a number of occasions. By way of a costume, he cast a visible mark or brand on some characters to identify them as criminals or inferiors for his audiences. That is, Shakespeare had recourse at times to “stage stigma,” which is a dramatic manifestation of the legal model of stigma in which authorities write their judgments of others onto their bodies.

Shakespeare as a progressive.

In the main, Shakespeare was and still is a catalyst for progressive thought about stigma on both a cultural and an individual level. On the one hand, historically speaking, he changed English and even Western attitudes about stigma for the better and, on the other hand, ethically speaking, his works have the capacity to change attitudes about stigma in our own day when retrograde ideas persist in our words and deeds.