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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!

Here’s what’s inside the Detailed Show Notes For This Episode:

  • 16th century drawing of a monstrous birth
  • 17th C example of a woman who gave birth to 300 children
  • 16th century painting of crippled men using crutches
  • 17th century painting of a woman with dwarfism
  • Floor plan of Bethlem Hospital
  • Pictures from Ambroise Paré treatise on Monsters and Prodigies showing mermaids, rhinocerous, and other monsters
  • Direct link to our episode on Exhumantion of Richard III
  • 16th century illustration of cripples and beggars
  • 16th century portrait of a man born with no limbs
  • 17thC portrait of Will Somers
  • Drawing of the interior of Bedlam Hopsital
  • Portraits of Ambroise Paré, and links to his publication on Monsters that’s free to read online
  • Pictures of people in the 16th century that were conjoined twins, born with no limbs, hypertrichosis, and other abnormalities
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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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