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Welcome to Episode #76 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare’s presentation of Richard III portrays the king as a villain, with a great focus on his hunchback and other disabilities as a justification and contributing factor to Richard’s malalignment morally. For centuries, historians have wondered if the late King really was as twisted as legend has rendered him to be, or if the tales were merely the product of centuries of conflation, born out of the winter of a collective discontent. Other kinds of disabilities from Pistol’s mispronunciation of Irish Gaeilic in response to a French question being asked in Henry V, to questions of madness and mental stability from characters like King Lear. With the advent of hospitals like Bedlam Hospital to treat mental disorders in England, as well as the very first occupational health scheme established in 1599, Shakespeare’s lifetime was full of questions, and diverse answers, concerning what a disabilities was, and how to address it as a society and as an individual living with disease or impairment. 

Here today to help us explore the world of regional accents in a dialogue based theater, the twisted spine and subsequent hunchback of King Richard III, as well as the historical opinions, hospitals, and medical treatments available for those living with a wide range of disabilities in the 16th century is our guest, Dr. Susan Anderson

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Dr. Susan Anderson is Principal Lecturer in English and Deputy Head of English at Sheffield Hallam University and Co_editor of Bloomsbury Cultural History of Disability Thomas Heywood’s Lord Mayors’ Shows, 1631-1639. Her research focuses on disability in early modern drama, looking at the ways different bodies and minds are described in the early modern period, and also how they might have been portrayed on stage. Her book, Echo and Meaning on Early Modern English Stages, traces the way sound and music contributed to performance across the period.

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare’s plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Susan about :

  •  Was Richard III actually physically maligned as Shakespeare has lead us to believe?
  • Were there treatments available for people who suffered from physical disabilities? 

  • Would there have been people in 17th century England who were put to death if they were unable to speak properly?
  • … and more!

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

Richard III

Richard III I.1

Anonymous portrait of Richard III from the late 16th century. National Portrait Gallery, London Source

Discovery of Richard III’s body

The University of Leicester, the Richard III Society, and the Leicester City Council joined forces to begin a search for Richard’s body in 2012.

The very first day of their dig, they discovered the skeleton of a man who had all the markers of being Richard III. It was a man who died in his thirties, and had signs of severe malformations physically including scoliosis. It was apparent the man had been killed by a blow to the head by a sharp object, the injury being consistent with a blow by a halberd (as is thought to be how Richard III died). There were other injuries to the skeleton which were considered “humiliation injuries” these are damages inflicted post mordem as a type of revenge against the dead person. 

The bones date to when Richard III was killed. With all of this mounting evidence in favor of it being Richard III, archaeologists wanted to be certain so they organized a DNA test. They extracted mitochondrial DNA from the bone marrow and were able to match it to two descendants of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York. 

These details along with other facts recovered at the sight lead the team to declare on Feb 4, 2013, that they had, indeed, found the body of Richard III, and concluded beyond reasonable doubt it was him.

There was a great skuffle over where to bury the skeleton after it was examined, (reburial a condition of being allowed to dig him up in the first place). After a round about with it, it was eventually decided to bury him at Leicester Cathedral, where he rests today. 


The owner and lead historian at British History Tours, Philippa Brewell, takes us inside the royal court of Elizabeth I with a look at what “court” actually meant in the 16th century. 

there was speech in their dumbness
language in their very gesture;

First Gentleman

Winter's Tale, V.2

Chirogram from Chirologica, 1644. Listing of gestures used to emphasize rhetorical appeals, associated with letters of the alphabet for memorization. Source

The first wedding ceremony in sign language

In 1618, which is two years after Shakespeare died, Thomas Speller married Sara Earle in London, in what is the first known marriage to have taken place in sign language. There are notes from the ceremony that describe how Thomas Speller “made signs as best he could” to indicate he wanted to be married.

It was the first recorded marriage in sign language, but deaf individuals held a place in society long before this event. In the 16th century, deaf servants were considered more trustworthy, and were valuable additions to a household. It would not be until the 1620s that writers of speech therapy and formalized sign language techniques would be put into books and manuals, but for Shakespeare’s lifetime, sign language most definitely existed and was employed. It was a useful language at court for courtiers, too, even those who were hearing individuals, as a way to communicate in quiet. They most often learned their sign language skills from their deaf servants. 

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare’s plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


Stands Scotland where it did?


Macbeth, IV.3

Falstaff with Doll Tearsheet in the Boar’s Head tavern, illustration to Act 2, Scene 4 of the play by Eduard von Grutzner Source

Geoffrey Goodman

Susan writes about a man named Goeffrey Goodman, in 1616, who wrote about language diversity. It was Goodman’s opinion that language diversity had a biblical precedent for being a punishment upon society saying “in the same tongue you shal observe a great diversitie of dialects” Susan then describes a French writer [name] in 1598, who specifically attributed an association between location, speech, and one’s class or intelligence. He is quoted in her paper saying “ the more the people are in the south, the more they speak from within the stomach, and with heart, and with a voice full of consonants, without vowels, bruskly [sic] pronounced, and with many aspirations: because of the force and nature of the spirits, which are very present there, and from the impetuosity of the intense heat. But those who inhabit the southern hemisphere… and the Midi, who have their body heat tempered, and their minds weakened, pronounce softly..”

In Shakespeare, for the Welsh, Irish, Scottish characters, there’s a lot of stereotyping going on with accents. These were there for Shakespeare’s culture as well, and he uses speech patterns to indicate status. For example, high class characters speak in verse, and low class speakers speak in prose.

Language pronunciations of words are often utilized in Shakespeare’s works, as places to play with comic value, but they also show you the reputations that exist in England at this time.

In Henry IV Part II, his wife described Henry as speaking “thick” which “nature made him blemish” She indicates not only is this is a problem, disability, but that also the specific slur or pronunciation defect she observes in him has become a popular way to speak for the people because they love Henry so much.

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He is deformed, crooked, old and sere,
Ill-faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind;
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.


Comedy of Errors, IV.2

The original Chatham Chest, on display at the Historica Dockyard. “The Chatham Chest was established in 1590 by Sir John Hawkins, Sir Francis Drake and Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham. This was a response to the many injured seamen left destitute due to injuries sustained during the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585-1604. It was the first contribution based welfare system in Europe. Described by many as a forerunner of the welfare state, it provided financial relief for injured or disabled seamen of the Royal Navy for over 224 years.” Source

Chatham Chest

During the reign of Elizabeth I, specific hospitals were setup to care for soldiers who had returned from war missing limbs or other body parts from their time in battle. THere was one small hospital, considered to be for “Maimed soldiers” setup in 1599 in Berkshire, with similar hospitals following suit in Chelsea, Grennwich, and others throughout the late 17th century. Additionally, and just two years before we think Shakespeare wrote Richard III,  the Chatham Chest was established to pay pensions to disabled seamen . That fund has has been described as the world’s first occupational health scheme.

Charity and social obligation were determined somewhat by the poor laws, which attempted to codify the treatment of people who needed support. Consequences of the Reformation. The monasteries where a lot of charities was occuring, as well as a change to thinking salvation was by faith alone instead of through good works, so there was a change in terms of how the society saw charitable work, as well as how to do it. Decisions were made based on whether someone was worthy of pity, in terms of not do they need something, but rather do they deserve help by what they contribute.


Books and Resources Susan Anderson Recommends:


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