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In his plays, Richard III, in his Henry Plays, and even in Macbeth, Shakespeare writes about medical disabilities and physical deformities like a hunchback, madness, blindness, and being lame. We can tell form these references that disability was present in Shakespeare’s lifetime but what exactly was the understanding of what a disability meant for a real person in Shakespeare’s lifetime? In order to understand the reaction of society, whether accommodations were made for disabilities, what those would have been, and how organizations like Bedlam Hospital for the insane fit into this understanding, we are sitting down today with Jeffrey R. Wilson, author of Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity: Shakespeare and Disability History 📚 to examine how understanding 16th century medical history helps characters like Richard III make more sense.  

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Jeffrey R. Wilson is a Shakespeare scholar at Harvard University. He is the author of three books: Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity: Shakespeare and Disability History (2022) 📚, Shakespeare and Game of Thrones (2021), and Shakespeare and Trump (2020). You can find links to more of Jeff’s work and links to his publications here.  

I’ll be asking Jeff Wilson about:

  • Was the word “monstrous” used to be insulting for Shakespeare’s lifetime, or was this term applied broadly to any physical attribute that was unusual or atypical? 
  • Given the perspective on disability held in Early Modern Culture, was the famous deformity of Richard III in Shakespeare’s play a reflection of the real Richard III, or was this feature given to Shakespeare’s character as a parody display of a morally monstrous person?  
  • In the 16th century, what was the cultural understanding of the relationship between physical deformity and the causation of that disability? Did people like Shakespeare believe that a disabled person was at fault, somehow, for their condition? 
  • …and more!

16th century drawing of a monstrous birth, explaining the associated omens of the birth, published in the Nuremberg Chronicles | Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) Source |Public Domain | Image Source

Monstrous Humans and Their Public Birth Announcements

Jeff explains that the word “monstrous” could have been used to be insulting for Shakespeare’s lifetime, but this term also applied broadly to any physical attribute that was unusual or atypical.

“Monstrous” then meant something different than now. Yes, insulting, but perhaps different ways. Henry VI Part 3, Richard has his first major soliloquy, “Am I a man to be beloved…monstrous…fault.” Describes not his bodily disability, but refers to this idea that he has that is a fallacious idea, the idea of “demonstrable disability.”

“The owl shrieked at thy birth…” Henry VI undigested and deformed lump “teeth has thou in thy head”  

Physical disability gets lumped into “prodigies” because they are defined not by what they are, but what they are not. Natural or the normal course of nature. There’s a few words to consider here “Monstrum” from Moonier, “to warn” so “monstrosity” was considered a warning, explained by Cicero, and prodigies are formed from a Latin word that means “opportunities to speak about the meanings of these things, foretold things that were going to happen” eventually. St. Augustine takes it on and about 20 years before Shakespeare, Ambroise Pare writes a book about something something prodigies, makes a distinction between monsters and physical abnormalities, and then… he thinks of as total disruption of nature, like a woman who gives birth to a snake, etc. It’s vaguely something that doesn’t fit hat person’s understanding of nature.  

The Lamenting Lady, 1620? Magdalene College – Pepys Ballads 1.44-45 EBBA 20210. Licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0. | This lady was mean to a beggar woman and cursed to give birth to over 300 children in succession as a result. While this tale is fictional, this kind of odd birth announcement demonstrates how 16-17th century women’s loose moral behavior would often be blamed for abnormal births. I found this image in this article by Hannah Johnston

Jeff’s book identifies posters that announced “monstrous births.” The announcements were not unlike what you might think of as supermarket tabloid papers today. It was the sharing via mass media of flagrantly embellished announcements of a weird, odd, or determined to be scary and shocking birth of anyone with physical attributes outside what is typical.

Atypical births were prolific in books and journals, and Shakespeare describes these posters in Macbeth “will have these as our rare monsters..painted on a pole and underwrit” [They were] single sheets, cheap to make, easy to buy, a penny a piece, they had advertisements, propaganda, laws newly created, news on a local or national level, pass them around, hang them on their walls, and these monstrous birth posters were a genre that emerged in a big flurry in the 1660s, it was a collision of theology and medicine. They usually have 4 parts: Title, (something true and monstrous), give a visual representation of “monster” looked like, and it could have been humans or animals, but there was a visual, then there would be two more pieces: 1) Prose description of the facts of the case where/people involved/description and even sometimes a medical type description of the birthed person and 2) poetic interpretation, in verse, of the meaning of the anomalous birth, Read generally as a sign of an angry God, sending a warning to society, or to incestuous parents.  

1568 painting titled “The Cripples” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) |The Yorck Project (2002) | Public Domain| Source

Deformity in Shakespeare’s England

Given the perspective on disability held in Early Modern Culture, it caused me to question the famous deformity of Richard III in Shakespeare’s play. I wondered if it was a real a reflection of the actual Richard III, or if it was possible this feature had been given to Shakespeare’s character as a parody display of a morally monstrous person.

Jeff explains that many Shakespeare scholars had this same question about the bard’s play, but that archaeological evidence from just 10 years ago finally laid these skepticisms to rest.

About 10 years ago, archaeologists discovered the Richard III skepelton and confirmed the disability was fact,. It was not invented, his skeleton had scoliosis, curve in the spine, and some damage to shoulder blades, but he did not have what Shakespeare called a bunch back, or a hunch. The tudors treated this like a birth condition, but examining the skeleton the abnormality didn’t appear until his teenage years.  

That Shakespeare Life talks with Matthew Morris, who supervised the successful archaeological search for the lost grave of King Richard III, in 2012, for Episode 123 of our show. Hear Matthew share details about the dig, including the curvature of Richard’s spine. This episode is now part of our back catalog for patrons. Listen right now as a patron of our show.

While Richard’s deformity may not have been invented by Shakespeare, it was a source of contention for Richard III throughout history (which may help explain why Shakespeare found it important for his character version of Richard). Jeff explains,

After Bosworth in1485, the historians working for Henry VII, who had previously worked with Richard, are now making amends for being sympathetic to Richard, so they stigmatize his body. There was 100 years of demonizing his disability by people like Thomas More and Edward Hall, and by the time Shakespeare gets ahold of this story, at the end of 2H6, Richard shows up in 3H6, and he’s the demonized villain of lore. In Act 3 Scene 2, Richard turns to the audience to speak in soliloquies and asides, voicing his inner struggle, sharing his plans to deceive betray and kill his own family. It’s the first time anyone had suggested that someone who is treated as the historians treated the historical Richard III, if they were treated like that, that person would have their own opinions about their body and develop mental characteristics because of that Act3Sc2, 3H6, is the first inner world of a disabled person.  

16th century Portrait of a Disabled Man, Ambras Castle Innsbruck ‘Portrait of a Disabled Man’, oil on canvas (16th century), Ambras Castle Innsbruck (Chamber of Art and Curiosities). Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, GG 8344. | Public Domain | Source

In the 16th century, the cultural understanding of the relationship between physical deformity and the causation of that disability was quite different than today. For Shakespeare’s lifetime, the presence of disability, and certainly deformity, was often looked upon as the direct result of the failings of the parents of someone born with those attributes.

Ambroise Paré lists 12 causes for physical deformity. The first two and the last two are basically supernatural causes. The middle 8 causes get into some specific medical terminology. Contradiction between two discourses with respect to the causation of disability, by the time we get to Shakespeare, it’s pretty much accepted that there’s no immorality on the child’s part when it is born with a disability, but parents and the child’s society are assigned guilt for the disability. There’s starting to be a break in Shakespeare’s lifetime between the inner and ethical behavior of the person.

This painting was completed in the mid 17th century and shows a woman with dwarfism on the far right. Las Meninas (‘The Ladies-in-waiting’) (1656). Oil on canvas, 318 × 276 cm (125.2 × 108.7 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. | Public Domain | Source

16th Century Handicap Accommodations

There are cases in the 16-17th century of people with disabilities being placed on display. Think of the role of the fool at a Tudor court, for example. These individuals were placed in these rolls as an entertainment and were often suffering from a learning or physical disability. Despite the assumption there that anyone with a disability was viewed in Shakespeare’s lifetime as a sideshow attraction, or someone to be mocked and humiliated, it seems that there was a strong force in society to protect and care for those who were not able to protect and care for themselves. Jeff explains that accommodations for people with disabilities were “Often addressed at a hyper individual level, local and family level.”

Will Somers (shown here in an early 17th century illustration) was a court jester to Henry VIII, known to have had a learning disability. He was allowed to speak frankly to the King when no one else would have been given that allowance, due to his status as a disabled person. Will Somer was assigned a keeper to take care of him because he was unable to take care of himself. | Unknown Artist | Dated 1618-1624 | Image scanned from Robert Chamber’s Book of Days | Public Domain | Source This image is available on Wikimedia, but I found it originally through Historic England and their article on Tudor Disability.

He cites instances of a

“Blind baker, deaf shoemaker, or someone with a disability that is gainfully employed as a full member of society. Medical care was expensive so wealthy folks might seek out treatment, but most accommodations were created on the fly example: taking a shirt to sling your deformed leg. Churches were also active in helping those with disabilities. Henry VIII court his fool, Will Somer is thought to have had a learning disability, fully integrated member of that court, painting Las Meninas, dwarfism, in 1572, Vagabond act provides state support for people with severe disabilities. That was the start of some kind of system of offering accommodations.   

There were also hospitals dedicated to the care of the disabled in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and we see echoes of doctors being brought in to care for the insane when we see the doctor show up in Shakespeare’s Macbeth to attend to Lady Macbeth during her nighttime ranting.

Madness starts to be seen as a problem associated with the brain and its’ processes, requiring an institutional solution beyond the church. The property known as Bethlem, Bedlam Hospital, transforms from a poorhouse into a hospital for the insane. This is what we see late 16th century as the precursor to The Great Confinement, the social life of people with disabilities is closely bound up with poverty, so almshouses and similar would take care of these members of society.

Plays Besides Shakespeare that Display Disabled Bodies

Diogenes, 1584 

Amorphous, Cynthia’s REvels 1600s 

Cripple in Haywood’s Exchange 

Cupid’s Revenge 1615 

Viulcan, Lily’s Sapho and Phao 1584 

1613 Love’s Mistress 1636 

Persidies, Nicholas Thersydides (also in Troilus and Cressida)  

Richard III key English example, series of plays before Shakespeare 

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!

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