With this special section of Disability Studies Quarterly, we hope to introduce a new history of the early modern self. While Renaissance scholarship in the past decade has been interested in all sorts of identity histories, minimal work has been undertaken on early modern disability. The following essays, in response to this paucity, argue that "disabled" was an operational identity category in the Renaissance1 and rescue early modern disability narratives out of critical conversation that has often overlooked or misidentified non-standard bodies using the compelling but restrictive language of marvelousness, monstrosity, and deformity.2 In contrast, this collection introduces disability to Renaissance studies to perform what David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have described as "a new historicism of disability representations" (25) and to complicate existing early modern scholarly engagement with difference. While yoking disability with the early modern might seem anachronistic, these essays contend that human variation, though imagined and responded to variably, has always existed, and that identifying disability in the Renaissance requires an acute sense of how, to echo Lois Bragg, it has been sequentially redefined over time (167).3

These essays locate early modern disability narratives in a range of ways and in a variety of texts. We begin with Allison P. Hobgood's examination of epilepsy in Julius Caesar as a covert marker of difference that undermines early modern attempts to discipline the non-standard body. We then turn to Lindsey Row-Heyveld's exploration of the tradition of the Simpcox episode as it informs 2 Henry VI and evidences the Reformation's growing anxieties about disability and its regulation. Mary K. Nelson discusses the construction of infertility, the "disabled wombs" of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, as disability in Henry VIII, while Rachel E. Hile investigates the origins and meanings of Katherine's shrewishness in The Taming of the Shrew via textual and performance histories of her limp. Katherine Schaap Williams applies Lennard Davis' notion of the "dismodern" to Richard III to uncover a potentially enabling early modern performance of bodily difference, and, finally, David Houston Wood, in an examination of alcoholism as a narrative prosthesis in Othello, locates early modern difference in the inward aspects of the psychosomatic construction of humoral selves.

As this brief overview of the section suggests, our collection specifically explores Shakespeare's dramatic representations of disability. Analyzing a range of plays that invoke the early modern disabled body, the essays investigate how disability was imagined by Renaissance cultures, both real and fictional, and expose how early modern conversation about the "able" body constructed the disabled body as its oppositional term. The essays likewise historicize that conversation by examining what disability "traditions" Shakespeare inherited from the classical and medieval eras and what early modern views inform our contemporary moment. The goal of this set of papers is to reveal the utility of disability studies to early modern scholarship while advocating that Renaissance cultural representations of non-standard bodies might provide new models for theorizing disability that are simultaneously more inclusive and specific than those currently available. Our collection presents "Shakespearean" disability studies as a productive theoretical lens that might reanimate existing scholarly dialogue about Renaissance subjectivities and motivate more politically invested pedagogies in our classrooms.

Works Cited

  • Bragg, Lois. Oedipus Borealis: The Aberrant Body in Old Icelandic Myth and Saga. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2004. Print.
  • Davis, Lennard J. Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions. New York: New York UP, 2002. Print
  • ---. "Constructing Normalcy: the Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century." The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006, 3-20. Print
  • "Disablity." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford UP. Web. 20 Sept. 2009.
  • Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, Corporealities. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001. Print.


  1. These essays counter, for instance, Lennard Davis' argument that the disabled body is a "modern" construct invented in the nineteenth century; see "Constructing Normalcy," 3-16.

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  2. Davis claims, for example, that "while not much attention was paid to people with disabilities, during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries an inordinate amount of attention was paid to natural 'wonders,' that is, to dramatic instances of deformity" (Bending 53). The essays in this section resist his suggestion that "rather than disability, what is called to readers' attention before the eighteenth century is deformity. . . . Disability as the observance of the absence of a sense, limb, or an ability is much less remarked upon than deformity as a major category, a dramatic physical event of bodily configuration like giantism, dwarfism, and hunchback formations" (Bending 52).

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  3. Indeed, the term "disability" did not circulate in England until as late as 1545, and even then, it most often intimated something more about an individual's general incapacity than the "fact or state of having . . . a physical or mental condition" that prompted said incapacity; see "disability" in The Oxford English Dictionary.

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Copyright (c) 2009 Allison P. Hobgood, David Houston Wood

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

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ISSN: 2159-8371