As Disability Studies (DS) has grown as a discipline, its exploration into the nature of disability and disabled selfhood has reached ever further across cultures, genres, and time periods. Recovering Disability in Early Modern England extends this exploration to include sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Edited by Allison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood, both of whom also co-wrote the introductory essay, this book aims to "undo the impulse to read early modern disability as predominantly metaphorical" (7). It instead examines presentations of non-normative bodies/minds in their historical and social contexts in order to gain insight into the material experiences of disabled individuals who lived in early modern England; borrowing from Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, it emphasizes "ethically staring" at difference, which is not gawking but "reciprocal interaction" between disability, disability histories, and disability representations and the reader/beholder (2). The essays in this collection engage with a wide range of authors, texts, and genres and examine not only visible physical disabilities but also those often considered "invisible," such as mental and cognitive disabilities. Although the book as a whole would be most appreciated by DS scholars in the humanities, the concluding coda provides pedagogical insights that professors in various fields, with or without a DS background, can find helpful.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is its multifaceted approach to the subject of disability in early modern England. While many of the essays focus on disability representation in specific texts now recognized as literature, others focus more broadly on historical popular culture or material artifacts. Many of the essays also make explicit connections to political systems (both early modern and present-day), making them useful or interesting for scholars and students outside the fields of literature or the humanities who may not be as familiar with some of the literary texts discussed. The inclusion of multiple kinds of disability and physical difference—including but not limited to blindness, paralysis, dwarfism, and autism and mental disorders—allows readers to create a broader picture of the period's attitudes and constructs regarding disability and the ways in which these impacted the lived experiences of disabled people.

The majority of the chapters focus on disability representation within specific early modern literary texts. Two chapters examine Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene from different angles. In chapter one, Sara van den Berg examines the royal power dynamics which shaped both the cultural construct and the lived experiences of court dwarves in order to illuminate the narrative role of the four dwarves in Spenser's Faerie Queene. Van den Berg draws connections between the roles of court dwarves and artists regarding their outsider status yet access to people in power, and suggests that Spenser's narrator viewed himself in similar terms. In chapter five, Rachel E. Hile looks at instances of impairment-as-metaphor in Faerie Queene in order to show how metaphors can become "disabling" when they rely on eliciting a "stigmatizing emotional response" based on social norms from the audience (101). Hile argues that Spenser's metaphors and allegorical personifications of vices and sins as grotesque, often deformed persons are largely built on this stigmatization and rely on emotional stigma to motivate readers to act with "virtue" while reinforcing unequal social hierarchies.

Chapters two and seven also both focus on disability in specific texts: Aphra Behn's "The Dumb Virgin: Or, The Force of Imagination" and Ben Jonson's Volpone, respectively. In chapter two, Emily Bowles provides examples of the early modern belief in the correlation between maternal morality and birth defects and illustrates the ways in which Aphra Behn critiques this construction. Bowles illustrates how Belvideera and Maria's inverted and complimentary traits (the former witty and deformed, the latter beautiful and mute) both implicate their mother through their defects while also speaking to the (imagined) power that medical discourses can have in constructing disability, femininity, and female sexuality. In chapter seven, Lauren Coker teases out the intersection of class, disability, and performativity. After illustrating the ways in which the disabled poor were often subject to humiliating scrutiny which called their disabled status into doubt, Coker examines Volpone's "disability drag" and how his feigned sickness contributed to a cultural equivalence of disability and spectacle that often led to punishment and imprisonment of actual living disabled people.

Chapter four focuses not on one literary text but on a genre. Lindsey Row-Heyveld examines the necessity of the trope of "madness" in several revenge tragedies, including The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet, where potential mental and intellectual disabilities in the avenger protects both avengers and play audience members from the "ethical mire" of the completed revenge killing while still allowing for a satisfying ending, and where these same disabilities in villains simultaneously explains and justifies their deaths: "because villains are driven mad by guilt, their disability proves that they are guilty" (83).

Several of the chapters look not at specific literary texts, but survey cultural texts and artifacts more broadly to try to reconstruct how different kinds of disability were viewed and negotiated both by disabled persons and society generally. For example, in the third chapter, David M. Turner uses examples from sixteenth and seventeenth century jest books to complicate the idea that humor was traditionally used to denigrate or ostracize disabled people by exaggerating their "otherness" (58). Turner points out that humor also sometimes encouraged reflection on the stigma and gendered nature of disability and could give disabled characters the agency to act as trickster figures capable of fighting back against the status quo. In chapter six, Simone Chess provides examples of contemporaneous medical discourse on vision and eye health as well as passages from plays, ballads, and woodcuts. Chess reconstructs some of the material realities of living blind in the early modern period and finds ways in which early modern blind people could treat their disability as "less about limitation and more about strategy" based on the ways in which fictional characters were portrayed using a variety of tools to negotiate the world around them (118). In chapter nine, Mardy Philippian, Jr. layers insights into modern cognitive science and an analysis of the structure and content of the Book of Common Prayer. Philippian argues that the Book of Common Prayer and its repetitions in Anglican church services "functioned for early modern individuals with atypical theory of mind (as well as for those who were neurotypical) as a macrosocial story, a collection of micronarratives" that could enable individuals with atypical cognitive development to incorporate themselves into religious and social culture (158).

Finally, two of the chapters make explicit connections between disability, its representations, and political thought and power. Chapter eight, by Marcela Kostihová, highlights the intersections of English Renaissance and post-communist Czech conceptions of disability and political power. The essay focuses on the casting of Jan Potmĕšil—a popular Czech actor who became disabled while engaging in dissident activities against the communist Czechoslovakian regime—as the titular character of Richard III during a production of the play throughout the 2000s. Kostihová teases out the connections and conflicts between the character Richard's "natural deformity" and his socially "inappropriate assertions of power" and Potmĕšil's acquired disability that "discourages—even actively prevents—the actor from 'disappearing' into his role" (141, 144). Kostihová argues that Potmĕšil's "non-normative body" remains the "heart of this sought-after spectacle" and reifies Czech cultural classifications of "(in)ability" despite its potential to do otherwise (146). The book's final full chapter, by Nancy J. Hirschmann, examines the ways in which ableism is inseparable from Thomas Hobbes's and John Locke's conceptions of freedom as laid out in their social contract theories of government. Hirschmann notes the ways in which Hobbes and Locke connect, construct, and arrange (dis)ability, levels of freedom, "labour," "reason," and law to ultimately create a very narrow definition of citizenship that emphasizes individualism and continues to impact law today (through, for example, the individual medical model followed by the Americans with Disabilities Act).

The book ends with a brief section by editors Hobgood and Wood on "Shakespearean Disability Pedagogy" which provides a narrative of a Shakespeare and disability course taught by Hobgood at Spelman College and its goals and achievements. Included are examples of course readings, activities, and transitions between units, all of which would prove useful not only for professors teaching courses about the Renaissance era, but could also act as a model for other courses that examine the intersection of disability with literature, history, and culture.

The breadth of Recovering Disability could mean that readers looking for an in-depth analysis of a specific text may be disappointed, depending on the text; the same holds true for scholars interested in representations of a specific type of disability. However, given its scope and the interventions that it makes, Recovering Disability in Early Modern England as a whole is an ambitious and insightful examination of the intersections of disability, culture, politics, and the history of the English Renaissance.

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Copyright (c) 2014 Lara Southgate

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

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ISSN: 2159-8371