Disability Studies Quarterly Blog
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Review by Olivia Henderson, University of California, Santa Barbara, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and Shaun Nowicki, Email: email@example.com
Keywords: Britain; art; contemporary disability theater; advocacy
Joining the growing community of premodern Disability Studies, Performing Disability in Early Modern English Drama, edited by Leslie Dunn, examines the broad intersections of early modern performativity, disability discourse, contemporary disability theater, and advocacy. Bringing together a variety of critical approaches, this excellent collection focuses on early modern drama, both canonical and obscure, and provides an exciting new resource for scholars and students.
The collection is divided into three parts. The first section, “The Performance of Disability in Everyday Life,” examines early modern theatrical and discursive rhetoric surrounding disability through the “labor” that comes with performing disability. Inaugurating this conceptual effort, Lindsey Row-Heyveld presents an early modern materialist definition of disability, contending that disability, “was not defined by physical condition, but by participation in productive labor” (32). Building on Tobin Siebers’ concept of disability as masquerade, Row-Heyveld argues that, in order to be excused from productive labor, disabled people were expected to “perform” or exaggerate their disability to prove the veracity of their impairment.
By opening the collection with this definition, Row-Heyveld provides a conceptual “anchor” through which we may read subsequent authors’ chapters. However, even as Row-Heyveld defines disability as the labor of performance, subsequent chapters resist a singular understanding of disability. Each essay emphasizes the multivalence of disability as a category of experience, experimenting with both historical and contemporary boundaries of definition. Although every chapter in this section provides a useful intervention, Simone Chess’s “Contented Cuckolds: Infertility and Queer Reproductive Practice in Middleton’s A Chaste Maid
in Cheapside and Machiavelli’s Mandragola” and Wes Folkerth’s “Reading Shakespeare After Neurodiversity” are particularly noteworthy.
By examining how infertility is medicalized as a disabling condition in both early modern cuckoldry plots and contemporary discourse, Chess cks queer strategies that enable pregnancy, pleasure, and reproduction outside of patriarchal, heterosexual monogamy. The non-genetic, polyamorous family structures that arise within these plays create pathways for disabled characters, and by extension people, to exist in the realms of queer and disabled possibility. Folkerth argues that Shakespearean fools are sharply individuated in their cognitive styles, each with different measures of “intelligence, wit, and speed.” Examining the nuances of these terms through the modern concept of neurodiversity, Folkerth complicates current scholarly understandings of “foolishness” while affirming the value of different cognitive experiences.
Melissa Hull Geil’s “Mutism and Feminine Silence: Gender, Performance, and Disability in Epicoene” explores accounts of early modern women’s silence and dramatic representations of mutism, unearthing moments of female agency in male authored texts. Finally, two chapters concern disabled veterans: “‘By the Knife and Fire’: Conceptions of Surgery and Disability in Early Modern Medical Treatises” by Jodie Austin and “‘Turn It to a Crutch’: Disability and Swordsmanship in The Little French Lawyer” by Matthew Carter. Austin argues that surgeons were conscious of the performativity of their developing craft and its disabling effects on their patients. Conversely, Carter examines the intersections of masculinity, disability, and Stoicism through the figure of Champernell, a disabled veteran, and the mechanics of early modern swordsmanship.
The second section of the collection, “Disability as a Metaphor in Dramatic Literature,” examines how disability is made to signify beyond individual performances and lived experiences. Avi Mendelson’s “Enabling Rabies in King Lear” and Joyce Boro’s “‘Lame Humor’ in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Love’s Pilgrimage” are representative of this portion.
Mendelson considers madness through the lens of “infection,” troubling the disability/ability binary that pervades criticism of King Lear. Drawing on animal studies scholarship, Mendelson interrogates the images of rabid dogs which suffuse King Lear, collapsing previous scholarly distinctions between human and nonhuman minds. Ultimately, the presence of rabies as spreading madness challenges binaristic readings of disability and humanity. Boro’s historicist examination of Spanishness and lameness in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Love’s Pilgrimage demonstrates the conflation of race, nation, and disability in early modern theater.
Other chapters by Susan Anderson and Nancy Simpson-Younger focus on limping, syphilis, and other forms of variability. Anderson’s “Limping and Lameness on the Early Modern Stage” traverses the wide canon of early modern drama, arguing that literal and metaphorical representations of limping and lameness are best illuminated through the lens of variability. Simpson-Younger’s chapter, “Syphilis Patches: Form and Dramatic History in The Knight of the Burning Pestle,” takes a textual approach to performance, considering the concept of syphilis patching as it is represented within the play and as an apt metaphor the “patchiness” of the text itself.
Introduced as a scholarly intervention in contemporary studies of performance, the final section of the collection, “The Work of Disabled Artists” focuses on recent productions of Shakespeare by disabled performers. These three pieces — Jennifer L. Nelson’s “Sign Gain to Deaf Gain: Deafness in Early Modern Manual Rhetoric and Modern Shakespeare Performances,” Sarah Olive’s “This Is Miching Mallecho. It Means Mischief”: Problematizing Representations of Actors with Down’s Syndrome in Growing Up Down’s,” and Leslie Dunn’s “Shakespearean Disability Theatre” — combine academics with activism, centering the theatrical work of disabled artists, writers, and collaborators.
Jennifer Nelson analyzes the convergences of early modern sign language manuals and contemporary d/Deaf performance in order to illuminate the affective and political potential of ASL Shakespeare performance. By tracing the historical continuities between the rhetoric of “sign gain” in early modern manuals and Deaf gain in contemporary d/Deaf theatre, Nelson provides insight into the power and potential of deaf theatre as a reinterpretation of Shakespearean performance.
Through her critique of Growing Up Down’s, a documentary that follows adults with Down Syndrome as they stage a production of Hamlet, Sarah Olive emphasizes the need to have disabled artists involved in every level of theatrical and film production. Olive criticizes limiting disabled performers’ options to solely acting or being the subject of a documentary, further arguing that disabled people need the power to interpret their impairments in any medium.
Covering both historical trends and recent productions, Leslie Dunn discusses the ableist history of the disabled body on the Shakespearean stage. Dunn critiques well-intentioned performances of disabled actors that inadvertently lead to ableist interpretations of Shakespeare. As an alternative, Dunn highlights performances which invite audiences to reimagine characters as disabled without offering metaphorical or stereotypical weight to their disability.
However, Dunn’s article presents us with a problem that pervades the collection and Disability Studies more generally, that of language and terminology. The collection is generally respectful and conscious of problems of historicity, but we were troubled by the phrase “living with autism” as it occurs in Dunn’s piece. Although preferences for language can vary, this phrase portrays autism as a burden, rather than recognizing autism as a divergent cognitive style.
Other essays in the collection are more neurodiversity affirmative and centered on community-focused language. For example, Folkerth deconstructs scholarly misconceptions around “foolishness” as a category, using respectful terminology throughout. Additionally, authors who discuss d/Deaf productions, like Nelson and Dunn, always use d/Deaf, language which affirms the debate within the community around self-identification and terminology.
The diversity of perspectives in this collection, both around fields of study and different disabilities, is certainly one of its strengths. The organizing theme of “performance” is not present in each chapter to the same extent and is approached very differently, but this absence offers individual authors the opportunity to explore the multivalence of disability, intersectional approaches to disability, and the capaciousness of Disability Studies in new and interesting ways.
As an intervention into both Disability Studies and early modern literature, Performing Disability in Early Modern English Drama has plenty to offer to both new and veteran scholars, both performers and readers, both early modernists and disability theorists. The collection is accessible and wide-ranging, covering canonical and non-canonical texts while exploring the implications of disability theory in both the early modern period and contemporary Western discourse. We believe that this collection is an invaluable addition to the expanding corpus of early modern Disability Studies.
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.