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British sign language has existed in some form among deaf communities at least since the 15th century, when some of the earliest records of sign language reveal descriptions of specific signs, many of which are still in use today. However, for Shakespeare’s lifetime, sign language was far from formalized among the Deaf, and certainly not widely accepted by the hearing community. Similarly, education of the deaf, in terms of schools established to educate the Deaf, Mute, or otherwise alternatively abled, would not take root in England until after Shakespeare’s lifetime, and that wasn’t until well into the 18th century. To help us understand what life was like for a deaf person in Shakespeare’s lifetime, as well as what signs existed, and what records we have from the late 16th and early 17th century for deaf people, sign language, and the deaf community for Shakespeare’s lifetime is our guest, Mary Lutze. 

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Dr. Mary Lutze is an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of the Writing Center at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith (UAFS).

She has presented and published essays on disability studies, deaf theater, and the development of deaf theatre theory.

Find Mary Lutze on LinkedIN

or Visit Her Faculty Page

More on Dr. Mary Lutze

I’ll be asking Mary Lutze about:

  • What is the phrase “natural signing” and how does that compare or differ from British Sign Language? 
  • Shakespeare’s works call attention to different levels of deafness. Falstaff claims to be deaf, instructing his boy to “tell him I am deaf.” Then the boy suggests that the visitor speak louder because Falstaff is deaf, which of course suggests that Falstaff was pretending to be incompletely deaf. Later, other references suggest one can lose their hearing from loud noises, which is a different situation from someone born deaf. What was society’s response to deaf people and were there different responses to deaf people if you were born deaf, versus if you lost your hearing later in life due to accident, injury, or aging? 
  • Were there any options for education of the deaf in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and what might that have looked like?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Mary Lutze recommends:

Secondary Scholarly Resources:

Resources Cassidy Thought You Might Want to See

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Quotes from Shakespeare’s plays about deafness
  • Diagrams of 16-17th century finger spelling
  • 1648 record of a boy who was deaf, and taught to speak
  • 1576 Marriage Certificate of Thomas Tilsye, conducted in sign language
  • 1616 publication by Helikiah Crooke diagraming the brain, including parts of the brain responsible for hearing and a list of the nerves (like the auditory nerve)
  • 17th century manuals on deafness
  • 1501 diagram of the anatomy of a face
  • 1694 publication on sign language as a cryptic language for spies
  • Portrait of Juan Pablo Bonet, Spanish priest who educated the deaf (and information on his published manuals)
  • 1616 diagram of the parts of the ear, including what the author calls “Organs of hearing”
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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!