When we tell people that we work in early modern disability studies, they invariably respond, “Oh, you mean Richard III, right?” “Of course,” we reply, “but he's just the tip of the iceberg.” We open our essay with this anecdote not to invalidate its logic – the infamous Yorkist king is an obvious figure for examining disability in the late medieval and early modern periods – but to broaden our scopes of study and our literary imaginations when it comes to premodern disability and its representations. To that end, our chapter contributes to the growing body of work represented in this volume by articulating conceptions of disability specific to early modernity and theorizing the myriad ways disability operated (and was operationalized) in pre-Enlightenment England. We illuminate how varied embodiments and lived experiences of disabled individuals in the Renaissance functioned representationally in literature of the period and, further, cultivated unique aesthetic modes in early modern English texts. Our essay covers a wide array of genres – we explore well-known medico-philosophical treatises by Michel de Montaigne and Robert Burton alongside lesser known, noncanonical poetry and drama from the seventeenth century – to show both the diversity and ubiquity of Renaissance disability and its attendant literary discourses. The first part of our essay outlines some discourses of disability and their literary manifestations to reveal various “ideologies of ability” at work in the Renaissance. The second section offers a case study in which we engage early modern humoral theory as one way bodily dys/function was configured in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Part three explores how, on both the page and stage, early modern disability generates what contemporary disability theorists have called a disability aesthetic, in this case, a compelling ethical and aesthetic desire for disability produced by the performance of impairment on the English Renaissance stage.
Early Modern Ideologies of Ability
In his seminal study, Disability Theory, Tobin Siebers aims to “define the ideology of ability and to make its workings legible and familiar, despite how imbricated it may be in our thinking and practices, and despite how little we notice its patterns, authority, contradictions, and influence as a result.