Shakespeare and Disability HistoryJeffrey R. Wilson
Richard III will always be central to English disability history as both man and myth—a disabled medieval king made into a monster by his nation’s most important artist.
In Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity, Jeffrey Wilson tracks disability over 500 years, from Richard’s own manuscripts, early Tudor propaganda, and x-rays of sixteenth-century paintings through Shakespeare’s soliloquies, into Samuel Johnson’s editorial notes, the first play produced by an African American Theater company, Freudian psychoanalysis, and the rise of disability theater. For Wilson, the changing meanings of disability created through shifting perspectives in Shakespeare’s plays prefigure a series of modern attempts to understand Richard’s body in different disciplinary contexts—from history and philosophy to sociology and medicine.
While theorizing a role for Shakespeare in the field of disability history, Wilson reveals how Richard III has become an index for some of modernity’s central concerns—the tension between appearance and reality, the conflict between individual will and external forces of nature and culture, the possibility of upward social mobility, and social interaction between self and other, including questions of discrimination, prejudice, hatred, oppression, power, and justice.
“Wilson explores the many meanings of Shakespeare’s masterpiece in performance and as text and of Richard III as an historical figure in a wide-ranging study that offers careful and approachable close readings that will interest actors, directors, playgoers, scholars, and the general reader. While Richard’s body is center stage in this reception history, Wilson’s spotlight is also on the audience. This book makes a strong case for Richard’s centrality to disability studies and is a hugely enjoyable read.”
—Essaka Joshua, Associate Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, and author of Physical Disability in British Romantic Literature
“Erudite, original, and thoughtful, Jeffrey Wilson’s Richard III’s Bodies from Medieval England to Modernity is a vital resource for anyone studying disability history, stigmatized bodies, and the historiography of monarchy. Chapters range widely across medieval
and early-modern visual representations of Richard and the presentation of Richard’s so-called hunch on stage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book also includes a fascinating account of contemporary performances and the political stakes in the twenty-first century of casting Richard as a person with a disability, as a person with a disability who culturally and politically identifies as Disabled, or as a person without a disability. The volume concludes with the felicitous coinage ‘historical presentism’ to discuss the study of Shakespearean adaptations and appropriations and reminds us why we still read about Richard, and perhaps why we still read Shakespeare at all.”
—Sujata Iyengar, Professor of English at the University of Georgia, and editorof Disability, Health, and Happiness in the Shakespearean Body
"This is a beautifully argued and thoroughly documented book, the first longitudinal study of Richard’s disability and its multiple significations..... consistently enthralling."
"Wilson's perceptive and timely work...demonstrates succinctly that disability and its presence within Shakespeare’s Richard III and all subsequent interpretations of Richard’s body remain central to our understanding of Shakespeare’s role within English disability history.... (A)n excellent resource for anyone seeking to visualise and trace the undeniable shift in interpretations of Richard III’s physical body through time."
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