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Review by: Nic Hamel, University of Texas, Email: nichamel@utexas.edu

Keywords: art; Disability History; religion/spirituality; 

In the history of disability, the early modern era is largely seen as transitional. The period follows the Middle Ages, marked by the dominance of the “religious model” where disability is associated with sin, shame, and humility. Yet, the early modern era emerges prior to the development of the “medical model” with its emphasis on diagnosis, institutionalization, and cure. Early modern English theater, and Shakespeare in particular, remain the subject of much critical and popular attention. However, these critiques tend to assume one or the other of these historical models are applicable. Katherine Schaap Williams suggests, “The historical conditions of the early modern theater return us to a moment when the typical has not yet settled into the normative” (227). The theme of indeterminacy and its potential for complex (and even contradictory) meanings runs throughout Williams’ work, Unfixable Forms: Disability, Performance, and the Early Modern English Theater. By combining close readings of plays and other period texts with insights from Disability Studies and performance theory, Williams argues that England’s early modern theater demonstrates that “the capacity to represent is also always a making, and disability is not a static attribute of a body but a dynamic interaction that happens in space and time” (3).

Williams performs close readings of several early modern English plays, augmenting the usual suspects with a number of more obscure pieces. Shakespeare is well represented, of course, with Richard III, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, and Othello, but so are less well known works by Jonson, Dekker, Middleton, Beaumont and Fletcher, and even plays with anonymous or unknown authorship. To establish the historical and cultural context of these works, Williams includes analyses of nontheatrical writings from the period as well. These include antitheatrical diatribes, Francis Bacon’s infamous essay “On Deformity,” period medical treatises, and John Bulwer’s sensationalized account of bodily and cultural differences. The contrast of theatrical and nontheatrical texts tends to illustrate the contradictory and confused concepts surrounding physical impairment in the era. 

Williams characterizes the interplay of these texts in performance as particularly unsettling: “In early modern performance, theatrical mimesis thrives on unfixing signification: the actor’s body is not a stable signifier and disability is not a stable signified. The early modern theater redefines disability because the form’s dependence on the unfixable body of actors—virtuosic, fallible—changes disability representation” (9). Despite the historical presence of impairments, the contemporary concept of disability has yet to be formed in the early modern era. Thus,Williams’ study focuses on a variety of concepts that were prevalent in the period: deformity, lameness, crippledness, ugliness, sickness, and monstrosity. While the last three of these concepts might not necessarily line up with common notions of disability, Williams links them by demonstrating how, particularly in the early modern era, they all depict physical differences with ostracization and/or stigma, fitting a loose definition of the social model of disability.

The most significant theoretical achievement that Williams makes in Unfixable Forms is the application of performance theory concepts to her considerations of early modern English theater, which serve to revise previous interpretations and offer productively flexible ones. At the core of Williams’ critique is performance scholar Elin Diamond’s. Her insight that “When performativity materializes as performance in that risky and dangerous negotiation between a ‘doing’ (a reiteration of norms) and a thing done (discursive conventions that frame our interpretations), between someone’s body and the conventions of embodiment, we have

access to cultural meanings and critique” ( 5). Williams applies this distinction, in one instance, to the making of theatrical monsters, and emphasizes that the logic of monstrosity in the early modern era entails a fantastic body of unknown origin. 

However, when a monster is represented onstage by an actor, the audience clearly interprets its origin in the performing body, and so “the fact of the role’s reproducibility hollows out the claim to authenticity that makes the monster so appealing” (190). Elsewhere, taking aim at the application of the religious model of disability that assumes that Richard III will be interpreted as evil due to his impairments, Williams counters that the individual actions of the play signify a more complex reading. By focusing on the things that Richard does rather than who Richard is, Williams concludes that “the play stages misinterpretations that highlight the illegibility of the body rather than the clarity of Richard’s deformity as a sign of evil” (36). Williams is careful to clarify that these plays do not necessarily offer positive depictions of disability, but rather that they do not contain categorically negative ones—the signification is nearly always complex.

In a theoretical move that appears to have consequences for theatrical readings well beyond the immediate period under consideration, Williams suggests that the well-established Disability Studies paradigm of “narrative prosthesis” has limited utility for engaging with theatrical texts. In narrative prosthesis’ original definition by David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, it is a technique that uses disability in narratives to render “comprehensible that which appears to be inherently unknowable” ( 6). Disability artificially signifies as a stable and marginalizable concept when situated within the structure of the narrative form. Theatre, however, though often employing narrative, contains other aspects that can signify as strongly in other directions, most importantly performance itself. As Williams explains: 

Encountered only through a narrative logic that prioritizes the end of the plot, disability appears to determine the character’s predictable disqualification or rehabilitation through cure. A play, however, unfolds in time, and a dramatic character is never only one thing” (20). Neither characters in performance, nor disabilities that those characters may portray are necessarily stable signifiers. Instead, at least in early modern England, “disability is a joint in theatrical making that allows us to perceive the incoherence of criteria that selects for disqualification—and the generative aesthetics of bodies that refuse to stay fixed. (24)

At occasional moments in the text, Williams appears to place more importance on certain arguments than they seem to deserve. For instance, she cites antitheatrical writings of the period that argues “that acting alters the body, insisting that theatrical metamorphosis might lead to unpredictable effects, even irreversibly transforming the actor” (8). Such context is certainly a welcome inclusion in this volume, and can augment certain arguments throughout. This occurs when Williams persuasively claims that “the disjuncture between the actor’s body and the character’s deformity must be effaced for a successful performance of disability and (contradictorily) maintained for a safe performance” (43). However, at another point in the book, Williams addresses the question of cripping up, ultimately dismissing it as incoherent given the early modern context, chiefly due to this antitheatrical position. It remains unclear, though, how seriously antitheatrical charges were taken by performers and audiences within early modern playhouses themselves. It is particularly difficult to imagine that the professional actors who regularly took on new roles would fear being “irreversibly transformed.” It seems quite clear that many early modern English actors were indeed cripping up, and that it was a regular part of theatrical practice in the period, especially given the ubiquity of characters with physical impairments. Williams does, however, offer the tantalizing possibility that there may well have been actors who specialized in certain kinds of roles due to their own physical impairments.

Overall, Unfixable Forms, displays a remarkable breadth of works considered, both theatrical and nontheatrical, as well as illuminating close readings of each of them. Williams engages with disability in a way that is always attentive to both the social construction of disability and the material realities of impairment as they are represented in texts from the era. The application of performance theory to dramatic criticism is a particularly welcome move, and illuminates disabled characterizations not only as they were written, but also as they could have been and continue to be portrayed. Williams’ central argument, that disability for the Early modern English theatre is more complex and malleable than previously thought, is both compelling and nuanced, as well as having implications for contemporary interpretations of these texts. The book would be helpful for scholars of dramatic literature, theatre history, and performance studies, as well as for any disability scholar with an interest in any of these subjects.

Works Cited

Diamond, Elin. “Introduction.” Performance and Cultural Politics, Routledge, 1996, pp. 1-14.

Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. University of Michigan Press, 2000.

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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