Disability Studies Quarterly Blog

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Review by: Rachel Ellen Clark, Wartburg College, benedicc@wabash.edu

Keywords: literature; Shakespeare; (in)accessibility; neurodivergence

In this slim and powerful volume, Sonya Freeman Loftis makes a provocative, paradigm-shifting argument about the trajectory of early modern disability studies. The most groundbreaking claim she makes is also a polemical one: that up to now, scholars’ focus on disabled characters in early modern literature has replicated the medical model by locating disability in the fictive bodies of literary characters. For Loftis, further emphasis on these fictive bodies would distract from how disabled readers, theater practitioners, and audience members interact with the texts as part of a disability community. Although the character-based approach does provide important evidence of representation in history, she argues that it also turns attention away from theater as a “social phenomenon” in which both disabled and nondisabled bodyminds engage with one another and the text. Thus, she links this approach, which is inflected by performance studies, to the social model of disability. This call to rethink the methodologies of early modern disability studies represents a major shift in the scholarly conversation. While it has already begun in seminars at recent conferences of the Shakespeare Association of America, Loftis makes an urgent case here.

The argument rests on three building blocks, which Loftis clearly defines for a general audience and to which she frequently returns: theory, access, and inclusion. Disability theory becomes the basis for access andaccess becomes the basis for inclusion. She explicitly employs this structure so that each chapter builds on what came before. In the first chapter, Loftis uses disability theory to analyze critical receptions of Richard III among historians, performers, and literary critics. This chapter serves as a case study for her turn toward readers, performers, and scholars and away from character-focused analysis. She examines the repeated impulse among historians and literary critics to question Richard III’s disability, arguing that these impulses to deny disability in a historical and literary figure also demonstrate a larger cultural refusal to acknowledge disabled people as human. Loftis spends some time debunking arguments that disability theory is too anachronistic to apply to the early modern period. While her debunking is thorough, careful, and persuasive, I do wonder at what point will early modern disability scholars stop needing to argue for the field’s own existence.

The most fascinating analysis in this chapter comes in the section on the 2013 documentary Richard III: The New Evidence. In this documentary a man named Dominic Smee, with the same kind of scoliosis as Richard III, armors up and practices the battle skills that Richard would have used. Loftis points out the many problems with the premise of this documentary, not least of which is the notion that disabled bodies are interchangeable, but shenotes that Smee himself found the experience empowering because it worked against stereotypes that assume the inherent incapacity of disabled people. Loftis draws a fascinating parallel between Smee’s moment of breaking out of internalized ableism and Richard’s own internalized ableism in the opening soliloquy of Shakespeare’s Richard III, a virtuoso reading of that famous speech that serves as a perfect example of how her social method of reading Shakespeare enriches our understanding of both modern disability and the early modern text.

From there Loftis builds on theory to consider access: specifically, accessibility in performance spaces. The second chapter describes the work that the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Shakespeare’s Globe, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) have done to increase accessibility for Deaf and disabled performers and audience members. Loftis points out that because of Shakespeare’s reputation for difficulty, accessibility already lies at the heart of both classroom and theatrical practices. She then spends most of the chapter discussing sensory-friendly (US) or relaxed (UK) performances, describing how the RSC and the Globe have had particular success in creating welcoming spaces for neurodiverse audience members. Notably, both theaters have imagined neurodiverse adults as their primary audience in these performances—unlike the otherwise laudable efforts of the Kennedy Center in the US, which still targets its sensory-friendly performances toward children. As an autistic person, Loftis speaks directly to the pain of sensory overload, the frustration of infantilization, and the relief of relaxed performances. By reducing ticket sales, allowing the audience freedom of movement, sending out preparatory materials, and changing lighting and sound practices, relaxed performances allow for a much greater range of audience responses. Loftis also points out the disability gain that comes with relaxed performances. Recently, the RSC has tried out “chilled performances,” which occupy a sort of halfway space between a typical performance and a relaxed one by preserving the freedom of movement and other audience liberties while leaving lighting and sound the same. These practices have proven popular with parents of infants, people with dementia and their families, and others who simply enjoy the less formal environment.

Just as the first chapter modeled a range of theoretical approaches that work together to analyze disability in Shakespeare as a social phenomenon, this chapter also presents methodologies that highlight the accessibility of performances. Loftis interviewed theater professionals at the RSC, Globe, and OSF, and her approach in this chapter foregrounds the practicalities of performance. She provides a list of concrete suggestions for practitioners, and her own experiences inform both the analysis and the evaluation of different theaters’ practices for accessibility. In the world of Disability Studies, the foregrounding of her own experience is only to be expected. In the world of Shakespeare studies, this is still a radical choice.

The last two chapters of the book concentrate on including disabled people in Shakespeare. Together they examine three examples of somewhat bardolatrous situations that elevate the power of Shakespeare. In the third chapter, Loftis expands on her 2019 article on the Hunter Heartbeat Method (HHM), contrasting the colonizing (and patronizing) dynamics of those workshops for autistic children with the much more engaging dynamics of Stephan Wolfert’s DE-CRUIT program for military veterans with PTSD. In DE-CRUIT sessions, veterans work with Wolfert and his team to rewrite Shakespeare in order to give voice to their own experiences and find their place in a disability community. This community-building aspect of the program is what Loftis argues distinguishes it from other Shakespeare therapy programs, many of which treat Shakespeare as a “cure” for disability. Therapy programs like this tend to prioritize the medical model will be no surprise to DSQ readers, however,what is particularly powerful about Loftis’s argument is her incisive critique of how therapy programs want to use the cultural value of Shakespeare to create humanity in disabled people. The ableist logic that she points out goes like this: Shakespeare speaks uniquely and universally to the human condition; therefore, only the truly human can understand Shakespeare; therefore, anyone who can’t understand Shakespeare isn’t human; therefore, many people with mental disabilities who can’t understand Shakespeare aren’t human. Part of the “cure” for neurodivergence and other mental disabilities, then, is to provide access to Shakespeare—because if disabled people can understand Shakespeare, then they will become human and won’t be disabled anymore. Moreover, the practitioners of these programs become Shakespeare colonizers: “the belief that Shakespeare is universal results in the impetus to make him universal” (89). In this light, Loftis’s critiques of HHM become all the sharper. Although she acknowledges some of the positive aspects of the program, ultimately she argues that both DE-CRUIT and HHM end up reinscribing the medical model’s emphasis on finding a cure, even if DE-CRUIT does so less than HHM.

The final chapter provides an alternative approach to including disabled people in Shakespeare. Here, she examines the 2018 documentary Still Dreaming, which chronicles a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at an assisted living facility for former actors. The primary difference she points out between the organizations in the previous chapter and the performance here is that the documentary focuses on the joy and pleasure that the participants find in acting. They are elderly; they have mental and physical disabilities, and these disabilities present barriers (not least of which is the directors’ bewildered response when they have to accommodate crip time). Despite the primary focus on pleasure, the documentary does include interviews suggesting that Shakespeare has curative powers. However, those interviews come from the facility administrators, not from the participants, who talk about the joy of community instead. Shakespeare doesn’t need to be therapeutic to be transformative.

Despite its brevity, Shakespeare and Disability Studies is sophisticated and ambitious in its polemical and theoretical approaches. Like the other books in this series from Oxford, it is appropriate for undergraduates, graduate students, theater practitioners, and others interested in Shakespeare. For non-Shakespeareans, it is most valuable for literary critics interested in theorizing disability, as well as scholars and practitioners of drama who are interested in rethinking accessibility. Anyone working on early modern disability studies, and especially on drama, will need to grapple with Loftis’s argument and methods. This book will change the conversation in the field.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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