In this article I analyse how Shakespeare uses early modern paradigms of intellectual disability to construct the identity of Touchstone, the fool of As You Like It. Although Touchstone is no real fool but simply performs like one, his actions and mocking reflections on the characters he faces expose how Shakespeare was very well acquainted with socio-legal and even medical definitions of natural folly in his time. A reading of the character as a natural fool according to specific paradigms of the period further reveals how Touchstone enacts an expanded 'complex embodiment' of disability.


The Shakespearean witty court fool type probably offers the best early modern stage foolery. This outcome is usually ascribed to the playwright's taking advantage of the skills of the star comedian Robert Armin, who probably played the renowned roles of Touchstone in As You Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night, Lavatch in All's Well That Ends Well, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida and the Fool in Lear. 1 But because the term fool, other than being a synonym of jester, bespoke lack of 'judgment or sense' (OED) due to its cognateness to the concepts of foolishness/folly, these characters' roles invite questions about cognitive difference. So, what happens when we consider one of them, such as Touchstone – the first, and one of the most memorable – as intellectually disabled? Literary criticism has generally hedged this issue and has focused almost entirely on these characters' wit, which is assumed on the grounds of their satirical power against the faults of major characters on stage, their dramatic enactment of an Erasmian type of folly, and their power to lead master-servant discourses and to bend words at their will, shooting conceits, puns and quips at their foils. 2 Touchstone, for instance, has been termed 'a sophisticated critic' who 'banters sharply and speculates impressively', engaging in 'zestful imitations of highfalutin Petrarchan poetry and courtly balderdash' (Bell 24). His wit has been seen as 'ready, sharp, and to the point' (Videbaek 86), the characteristic that makes him the 'touchstone by which the wisdom of the wise is exposed as false currency' (Shakespeare 2006, 107). Having been considered 'far from idiocy' (Shakespeare 1993, 1.2.46n), Touchstone basically appears the quintessential dramatic example of what in the Renaissance was called fool 'artificial': a professional who pretends folly (Southworth 5) with the specific aim of entertaining his noble master or an audience.

But however sensible, this position is problematic because it almost exclusively identifies the artificial fool's non-normativity with his witticism and extraordinary performativity instead of also adequately explaining if and how they linked to 'foolishness', a concept which pointed at some kind of perceived difference or limitation. In other words, this position obscures what the artificial fool may tell us about intellectual disability in its Renaissance historical signification. Hence it is crucial, I believe, to focus on the nature of fools' disability, rather than just their ability, even more so because Renaissance culture did possess concepts that to an extent correlated to today's category of intellectual disability and which may therefore facilitate our comprehension both of historical phenomena and of characters' identity. One such concept, as will be discussed more in detail, was 'natural folly', which stood in contrast with 'artificial folly'. A 'natural fool' was indeed someone who had a disability, in that they were born with low intellect or learning difficulties (Iyengar, 235; Billington 30-31). But we should not stop at assessing how 'artificial' and 'natural' differed: on the contrary, because this polarity referred to individuals called 'fools', we should ask what the two fool types had in common. More specifically, because the 'artificial' fool existed in relation to the 'natural', we should ask if and how the characteristics of the latter, who supposedly embodied a more tangible signification of folly as 'lack of sense', might influence the performativity of the former, whose main task consisted instead in some degree of imitation or invocation of folly.

Indeed, Touchstone and the other jesters' presence on stage insistently raises comments on folly: both because this is their favourite topic – i.e. they constantly seek to demonstrate how others are 'fools' – and because their own folly is often talked about. Yet, it is worth noting that the folly Shakespeare's vocational fools are associated with has multiple significations. Criticism has usually remarked on its rhetorical/performative or moral implications (folly as foolery or transgression) but has mostly neglected a close contextualised examination of its meaning as disability, perhaps erroneously assuming that the fools' relationship with it is already clear enough not to need an explanation. 3 In fact, dialogues involving the jesters include many social, legal and medical allusions to early modern understandings of natural folly. More specifically, as we will see, such details are largely used to talk about the artificial fool as if he was actually a natural fool.

Unlike many physical disabilities, intellectual disability may not be readily visible. So, to visually communicate that a character was a fool – whether artificial or not – Renaissance dramatists typically dressed them in peculiar ways (i.e. motley coat, cap and bells, bauble). Another crucial way of communicating intellectual disability on stage was through the possibilities of language: that is why criticism has significantly focused on the fools' use of language, their quips, chop logic, rhymes or songs. 4 What remains to be included in literary analysis – in order to document fools' performance and understanding of folly – are therefore the ways the early modern period identified symptoms of impairment. This article attempts to fill this gap, putting disability at the centre of the analysis: I believe this is necessary not only to return a fairer, more complete picture of the wise fool which accounts for his embodiment of disability, but also to invite different, perhaps less simplistic, interpretations of words, relationships and representations in familiar texts, offering information about Renaissance views of intellectual non-normativity. This analysis is also important to expand our knowledge of disability operations in the literary renaissance and to gauge whether some frequent dynamics at play in other early modern texts still function – for instance the stigma which typically characterised reactions to the 'abnormal' body or the idea that disability 'empowered' characters in specific ways. 5

Starting from historical notions of natural folly, I will therefore discuss how much the lines and representation of Touchstone owe to the definitions of intellectual disability given by the law and society, and I will then move on to medico-physiognomical descriptions of folly in the period. The rationale for my approach lies in the fact that these were the fields that, as I will illustrate shortly, mainly defined or discussed natural folly in the period, and often did so in technical terms. This technicality, different but at times not too different from more recent disability definitions, may arguably help the modern scholar more easily detect disability in early modern witty fools' characterisation while simultaneously reveal disability as a concept that morphs according to the historical period. I propose Touchstone as a case study not because he is unique in this sense – in fact, many of the points I make in this essay can fruitfully be applied to similar characters too. Rather, I have chosen Touchstone for two reasons. First, because as a jester he is an emblematic example of the Shakespearean wise fool type. Second, and most importantly, because of the quantity and diversity of allusions to legal and medical notions of folly detectable in lines referred to or uttered by him. This wealth will allow for a more comprehensive analysis of manifestations of foolishness in early modern drama. By carefully considering how technical knowledge pervades utterances about and by Touchstone, I will demonstrate that his artificial folly consists in a constant and multifaceted rhetorical deployment of early modern intellectual disability tropes. Touchstone's show of folly significantly relies on its being described through specialised historical paradigms of cognitive deviance. More specifically, the fool undergoes a deliberate and consistent action of disablement by his interlocutors, who insistently point out how his actions conform to specialised frameworks of intellectual disability. Furthermore, because Touchstone is witty, his interaction with early modern intellectual disability does not exhaust itself in his actual or reported simulation of non-normativity according to specific canons: it also entails his ability to talk about how disabling frameworks affect him and above all to turn them back on his interlocutors. In both senses Touchstone's awareness is often put to the service of his satire against others and their worldview. Touchstone's 'disability' is therefore the result of several layers and manifestations of difference: because of this complexity I will suggest that his identity operates in the space of – and broadens – specific theoretical models of disability, particularly Tobin Siebers' idea of 'complex embodiment', which considers the implications of disability not just as corporeality but also as knowledge of what bodily difference means or implies. ("Shakespeare Differently Disabled").

Approach and preliminary concepts

A 'new historicism' of disability (Mitchell and Snyder 24-30), is a helpful investigative tool because it will unveil intellectual disability in As You Like It as a specific construction of early modern society. Indeed, the fact that disability was 'diagnosed' on the basis of unfamiliar criteria for the modern reader is probably a reason why the attributes that link Touchstone to natural folly have rarely been detected by criticism. In this I endorse Siebers' understanding of 'diagnosis', which he sees as relevant not just to the medical model of disability but also to the social one ("Shakespeare Differently Disabled" 437). The medical and social approaches to disability interpretation are usually contrasted because while the former pathologises difference (Hobgood and Wood 4), describes causes and symptoms, and seeks a cure, the latter sees disability as a product of society: the result of turning physiological variation (the 'impairment') 'into a negative by creating barriers to access' (Davis 12). While Siebers subscribes to this distinction, he also thinks that there is a 'phantom connection' between the models. They both 'diagnose symptoms of disability in the person: features attributed to disability are not seen, defined, criticised, claimed, or cured, unless there is a person to represent them' ("Shakespeare Differently Disabled" 437). This idea that also the social model can provide a diagnosis is useful to an interpretation of intellectual disability in the Renaissance, when primarily society and culture identified difference and excluded the disabled. As Goodey's researches have shown, 'foolishness' could be mapped onto a wealth of social, philosophical, or religious descriptions. While in theory being at odds with even just one of those descriptors could signal the individual's 'foolishness', in most cases intellectual disability corresponded to multiple linked deviations. A physiological impairment in the head was deemed obvious, but a medical model of intellectual disability was not yet fully developed. Though, as I will show, medicine described some characteristics, it could not offer consistent definitions or univocal symptomatologies, nor did it look for cures. Doctors were actually dissuaded from studying natural folly because it was seen as a disorder of the soul, not of the body. As such, it was deemed curable only by the Creator, and not by earthly medicine. 6

Rather than medicine, it was jurisprudence that conceptualised intellectual disability more explicitly. It did so by articulating the specificity of terms like 'idiot', 'natural fool' or also just 'fool' as opposed to 'lunatic' and 'mad'. Both sets of terms can be included in the umbrella term 'folly' – and this is possibly the chief reason why classic critical works such as Foucault's Madness and Civilization have conflated their implications 7 – but, in fact, they presented different states. Since at least the thirteenth century the English law had become the main propounder of the dichotomy between 'idiocy' or 'natural folly' and 'lunacy'. 8 The act called Prerogativa Regis (as well as later commentaries on its provisions) recognised that while an 'idiot' 9 had a permanent disability from birth, a lunatic became disabled during life as a consequence of a trauma or age. So, while a lunatic experienced a regression in wit at some point in his life, an idiot simply never developed to a level of understanding that was deemed sufficient. More importantly, a lunatic could have lucid intervals or also heal, while an idiot-fool could not. This distinction between idiocy and lunacy was important because it was (at least in theory) on that basis that authorities (Chancery until 1540, and the Court of Wards and Liveries between 1540 and 1640) decided whether or not examined individuals needed temporary or permanent custody, and especially if their property and all its revenue should perpetually go to the King, as was the legal prescription with idiots (Neugebauer 24-6).

Idiocy and lunacy thus suggest a seemingly proto-modern separation between what psychology today calls intellectual disability and mental illness. Modern science indeed holds that intellectual disability manifests itself in early childhood and is a life-long condition – certainly benefiting from developmental therapy, but essentially incurable. It is understood to be caused by genetic or environmental factors and entails deficits in intellectual functions (i.e. abstract thinking, reasoning or learning) and in adaptive functions (i.e. communication, social participation or independent living). Mental illness – which comprises conditions such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, psychotic disorders and others – is instead associated with psychological and social causes, and is more often periodic and treatable with medicine. 10 Hence, not only does a comparison of Renaissance and modern denominations invite a reflection on the historical evolution of social categories, but it also compels the reader of early modern literature to engage more in depth with the condition which, among the two, was most widely represented in literature but has been least explored in its non-metaphorical implications: 11 fools' folly as idiocy/intellectual disability.

While the characteristics and values the Renaissance attributed to foolishness will emerge in the following paragraphs, suffice here to point out that it would be fundamentally inaccurate to read madness into early modern fools (whether artificial or not). 12 This is mainly because fools' cognitive difference is not intermittent, but stable and unchangeable. Also, while many remedies for madness existed in the Renaissance (MacDonald 173-177, 186-196), this was not the case for foolishness. And even more importantly, fools rarely exhibit early modern madmen's typical symptoms – e.g. fury, hysteria, temper loss, weeping, delirium, physical suffering, violence against themselves and others, devilish possession, or nakedness (Bennett; MacDonald 117). Rather than with the frenetic brain activity which these symptoms suggest, fools are usually associated – as will be shown – with dullness and slow wits. Finally, foolishness was not mapped onto the same humoural parameters as madness: while the former, as will emerge, tended to coincide with what Renaissance medicine identified as phlegmatic complexions (i.e. cold and moist), the latter was supposedly caused by excess black bile or choler, and was therefore cold and dry or hot and dry. An excess of black bile also notably caused melancholy, a condition sometimes overlapping with madness but more often indicating a mental disorder associated with sorrow, torpor or passivity and fear: a sort of depression which might also lead to more serious disorders (Neely, 4, 72; Reed, 71; Iyengar, 215).

Staging melancholy in various forms, As You Like It itself invites some comparison between early modern understandings of mental illness and intellectual disability, especially when Touchstone, as we will see, approaches melancholics. The black-dressed malcontent Jacques is possibly the most famous Shakespearean melancholic character, whose disorder not only is very different in nature from Touchstone's but also, unlike the latter, manifests itself in 'sullen fits' (2.1.67). The play also notably features lovesickness, another type of melancholy/madness affecting a number of main and secondary characters in the play (e.g. Orlando, Rosalind, Silvius, Celia, Oliver). Caused by unfulfilled desire and treatable – as occurs in the play itself – in ways that involved the fulfilment or offset of sexual pulsions, or also convincing the patient of his/her beloved's flaws, lovesickness was associated with excess melancholy and symptoms reminding of madness: e.g. palpitations, grief, fever, loss of or excessive appetite, sighing, melancholy, fury, insomnia, epilepsy. 13 But, again, foolishness per se was rarely associated with such symptoms or humours and, as we will see, Touchstone's characterisation does match this difference.

A final central concept that should be introduced here because of its centrality to Renaissance discussions of mental capacity – as well as to descriptions of Touchstone in the play – is 'wit'. The term had various medico-philosophical and social resonances in the period. It was primarily associated with intellectual performance, meaning everyday cleverness, 'logic-related understanding', 'quick thinking', 'ease of learning', or mental ability in connection with the solving of syllogisms (Goodey, A History 51; "Intellectual Ability" 472; Harvey 12). But it also became a class-related concept, proportional to one's rank: a natural attribute of gentry but not of the masses, whose members could thus be called 'fools' without necessarily pointing at physiological impairment (Goodey, A History 103-150). In medieval psychological theory, which grafted the cognitive capacities described by Aristotle in De Anima onto the anatomical cerebral ventricles described by Galen, 'wit' was also each of the specific faculties that appertained to the three cells in the brain: the first ventricle hosted imagination (phantasia), the second reasoning, judgment and thought (cogitatio), and the third memory (memoria) (Metzler 58). According to Galen, each ventricle was physically filled by the 'animal spirit' or 'common sense' which, initially transporting material sense perceptions to the brain, was then transformed and passed on by each mental faculty to the next. 'Spirit' thus became another way the 'inward wits' came to be collectively identified, as they stood at the intersection between sense and intellect or body and soul (Metzler 85; Harvey 2). Hence the crucial connection between wit and brain substance which, as we will see, underlies medical imagery of folly in As You Like It.

Touchstone, society and law

Charles Felver – a major critic of Robert Armin's comedy– suggested that it is the play-goer, 'rather than another character pronouncing a judgment within the play', who decides 'the extent to which Touchstone's wit is artificial or natural'. And in this light, anyone would agree that 'to the play-goer, Touchstone is clearly an artificial fool, making everyone he meets a victim of his wit' (44). Felver's comment also correctly implies that the audience's and the characters' opinions about Touchstone's type of folly do not necessarily coincide. In fact, as I am going to show in depth, the play's characters – unlike critics – never call Touchstone an 'artificial' fool, but do suggest – in direct and indirect ways – that he is a 'natural'. Specifically, able-minded characters rhetorically disable the wise fool using Renaissance technical knowledge of intellectual disability. In other words, though Touchstone's disability is not real, it undergoes the same social process of stigmatisation which, as Wilson reminds, was the standard way of 'making the meaning of abnormality': 14 after all, 'it is the "normals" who define, control, and manipulate what counts as disability'. As I will show, stigmatisation occurs very frequently in As You Like It and forms the basis of the operational scheme of intellectual disability that will be repeatedly enacted, in some or all of its components, throughout the play. But other elements will also emerge. Namely, that the fool rarely protests against the stigmatisation or the association with natural folly because he agrees that his mind appears different; furthermore, he demonstrates that he also possesses that technical knowledge, and he consciously reuses it: either by applying it to his interlocutors – who may or may not be the same who used it in the first place – or by proactively confirming that, as a fool, he conforms to the paradigms through which able-minded characters view him. In this sense Touchstone's disability, though being the result of performance and of cultural disablement, seems to operate according to the main tenets of Siebers' theory of 'complex embodiment'. This idea transcends both the social and the medical model of disability by holding that 'the economy between social representations and the body' is not 'unidirectional' or 'non-existent' but 'mutually transformative': the character who is disabled or disguises himself as disabled has a knowledge of the meanings of disability and of how it works in his world, and puts that knowledge into action. In complex embodiment, the disabled character embodies 'social ideas about superiority and inferiority' and accepts 'the negative among the possible values of any disability representations' (Siebers 442). Disability is therefore 'a body of knowledge […] both driven by the built environment and transformed by the variety and features of bodies' (Siebers 443). In Touchstone's case, putting disability to work means not just accepting and embracing its negative values insofar as his society presents them, but also expressing them to satirise the courtly and pastoral world around him.

These operations are noticeable starting from Touchstone's first appearance in 1.2, in Duke Frederick's palace, when his noble mistresses Rosalind and Celia offer their diagnosis of the fool's cognitive difference. Touchstone's entrance interrupts Rosalind and Celia's conversation about the action of Nature and Fortune on people's life. His unexpected arrival thus prompts Rosalind's annoyed remark that 'Fortune makes Nature's natural the cutter-off of Nature's wit' (1.2.47-8). Building on her own previous comment that Nature establishes people's 'lineaments' (1.2.41), Rosalind applies to Touchstone the early modern belief that certain human traits were necessary: specifically, wit depended on Nature, in turn governed by God's will. Within this logic, Rosalind implies that Touchstone has an intellectual disability, which is both congenital and unchangeable. Indeed, it was believed that nurture could not overturn one's natural wit, but at most second it. As the Elizabethan headmaster and pedagogist Richard Mulcaster wrote in 1581 about students' wit, 'God hath provided that strength in nature, wherby he entendes no exception in nurture, for that which is in nature'. He further noted that when a child had neither wit nor a strong body to make up for it, it was a real disgrace, a hopeless condition that the family could do nothing about (Mulcaster 20). 15

From a social model perspective, we may then argue that Rosalind here effectively disables Touchstone by presenting him as an idiot, in legally validated terms. Furthermore, by doing so she anticipates that there will be a shared tendency among the play characters to neglect – whether intentionally or not – any difference between genuine and performed disability, or between a natural and an artificial fool. Though Touchstone's wisdom might, and will, occasionally be noted, at no point will he be mistaken for able-minded. In other terms, an able-minded individual who performs as a fool and wears a fool's costume will not be allowed to 'pass' as abled, but will always be talked about as if he was truly disabled. There might be a few reasons why this occurs, with Rosalind being merely the first, yet most prominent, of a series of characters acting in similar ways. First, depicting Touchstone as a natural/idiot is a simple – though abusive – way of generating humour, especially considering that in the Renaissance laughter was indeed a standard reaction to 'abnormality' (Tom Shakespeare 48). Furthermore, vocally disabling Touchstone is a way to communicate these characters' own social power or political authority. Introducing Touchstone by calling him a natural ensures that the audience instantly becomes familiar with the power relations within the play and can gauge the fool's own actions. Within this picture, I suggest that fashioning Touchstone as an idiot is not just a way to mock or discriminate him, but also serves to legitimise his function as a court fool, who produces comedy mostly by satirising those who occupy higher social positions than him. In the Renaissance, speaking truth to power was inherently a very risky operation for anyone but fools who, by virtue of their perceived intellectual difference and its linked image of innocence, were rarely punished for what they said. By insisting on Touchstone's being disabled, the play's characters actually allow him freedom of speech and considerable comic power, while also 'protecting' him from backlash or punishment. Yet, this is not a disinterested move on their part: disabling Touchstone means not only allowing him to speak and entertain, but also simultaneously neutralising the validity of his statements, thus ensuring that his foil's reputation remains safe.

The question now turns to the extent to which, as a wise fool, Touchstone can comprehend his neighbours' disabling attitude towards him. Does his performance of intellectual disability entail pretending that he does not grasp what others mean with their exclusionary language? In part. On the one hand Touchstone rarely pushes back against the labels his superiors use against him: this is relevant in the scene we have started examining, where straightforward epithets and attributes connoting witlessness are used but the fool apparently gives them little consideration. Yet, this does not mean that Touchstone is oblivious to the implications of what is being said about him. On the contrary, he himself has awareness of the knowledge on which his neighbours' disabling stance rests, and indeed consciously reuses it in his own time and terms. For example, a little after Rosalind has established a relationship between nature and man's wit, Touchstone mockingly exploits the same idea against the foolish lord Le Beau, who brings in news of an exciting wrestling competition. As Rosalind entreats Le Beau to tell the story 'as wit and fortune will', Touchstone unhesitatingly adds: 'or as the Destinies decrees' (1.2.97-8). In this way he targets not only Le Beau's imminent action, but also the necessity of his witlessness, which was seemingly predetermined by a supernatural entity before his birth and is now irreversible. So, rather than directly complaining against Rosalind's view of his natural folly, Touchstone then redirects the theological basis of that view to ridicule the courtier figure.

Satirising the court is Touchstone's job as a licensed fool and, we may argue, the success of this operation fully depends on the fool's willingness to be recognised as disabled. Therefore, it is ultimately in his interest and that of his art not to reject his neighbours' stigmatising remarks: a much better strategy is to reinterpret and reuse the same disabling frameworks that able-minded characters throw at him to satirise them or others. Viewed in such terms, Touchstone's relationship with foolishness taps on a few of the attributes of 'complex embodiment' as theorised by Siebers. In particular, it is already apparent that Touchstone 'make[s] use of [his] knowledge about disability' – in the way it was framed in the Renaissance – and uses to his 'own advantage the misrepresentations of disability by which [he] is put at risk of […] social exclusion, especially with respect to religious, moral, and social prejudices about disability' (Siebers, "Shakespeare Differently Disabled" 441, 453). More details about how this strategy is put in place will be given shortly.

The action of disablement against the fool in 1.2 continues, establishing an approach that intersects early modern views of intellectual difference and class. By calling herself 'Nature's wit' in opposition to 'Nature's natural', Rosalind actually assumes the superior stance of nobility, whose members considered wit an attribute they had by nature and an asset that granted them their position of power. Mulcaster for instance mentioned the 'natural ability' of the gentry, with which he meant both wit and what their title and possessions enabled them to do (138; Goodey A History 77-78). Hence, Rosalind scorns the vocational jester who, being in service at court, is socially and psychologically inferior to dukes' daughters. Similarly, Celia's first question to Touchstone, 'Wit, whither wander you?' (1.2.53-4), sounds, other than proverbial, similarly stigmatising on the grounds of disability and class, because it reminds that 'wandering' was an action best linked with natural fools in early modern society. In fact, historians have found little evidence that idiots were institutionalised in hospitals (e.g. Bedlam) or Christian charitable houses in the period. This usually occurred to violent and dangerous madmen or to those destitutes who were accidentally also impaired but needed help primarily on the grounds of their poverty (Stainton, "Medieval Charitable Institutions"). Consequently, idiots were generally free to wander, to the point that they might join the multitude of city vagrants and beggars (Zijderveld 38). 16 Celia's identification of Touchstone as a wanderer thus marginalises him both as a disabled individual and as someone located at the margins of respectable society. Her specific preoccupation with where Touchstone is going actually reflects well-off classes' anxiety about the potentially disruptive freedom of the underworld members, who included disabled individuals or, very often, people who feigned disability in order to trick passers-by. 17

When Touchstone replies that he is carrying a message, Celia asks if he has been appointed messenger, to which the fool responds 'No by mine honour' (1.2.57). This, in turn, prompts Rosalind's next question, which we examine first: 'Where learnt you that oath, fool?' (1.2.59). 'Oath', hinting at a solemn promise, should be read in close connection with the 'honour' Touchstone swears he has. Rosalind is clearly mocking Touchstone's vow, and by doing so she again presents him as intellectually disabled, both on the grounds of wit and class. As Goodey has argued, the concepts of folly and honour were deeply entangled for their being diametrically opposite: honour, like wit, was considered a prerogative of higher classes, so that anyone outside that society was deemed both honourless and witless. Correspondingly, members of nobility with severe intellectual impairments were practically disqualified from their social rank (A History 126). So, because Touchstone's swearing on his honour comes across as a way to bid for status and to affirm his mental ability, it is only natural for Rosalind, a duke's daughter, to show alertness at a non-noble fool's claiming a social position and a mental capacity that he cannot own.

If Rosalind's position is comprehensible, and consistent with her habit of socially excluding the fool, how should Touchstone's 'oath' be interpreted? I argue that he only apparently attributes honour, and thus intellectual normativity, to himself. In fact, Touchstone deploys again his knowledge of disability, but rather than using it to mock others, he proudly projects his own identity as fool. Specifically, he almost immediately debunks the validity of his oath by admitting and enacting an incapacity to swear. This in turn allows him to perform intellectual disability as lack of both discernment and status. First, instead of displaying his own power of self-assertion, he says that he learnt the oath from 'a certain knight that swore by his honour'(1.2.60), thus basically admitting that he is aping someone else. Second, he swears on worthless items: 'now I'll stand to it, the pancakes were naught and the mustard was good, and yet was not the knight forsworn' (1.2.62-64). 18 This strategy of imitation is effective and self-disabling at once. Goodey argues that 'people called intellectually disabled are stereotypically good mimics but also mere mimics' because they copy others' 'surface behaviours' (65) without really performing those actions. Touchstone is here comically acting as one who emptily repeats actions proper of nobility, and by doing so he intentionally fashions himself as intellectually disabled. This becomes even clearer as he finally confesses that, mentioning his 'honour', he was actually swearing 'by that that is not' (1.2.72). Thus he clarifies that he considers himself a fool without honour who therefore cannot swear by it. By acting as someone deprived of honour and status, he articulates a knowledge of the classical meaning of 'idiot' as it undergirded English legal interpretations of intellectual disability from birth. As Patrick McDonagh writes:

In the fourteenth century, the legal term 'idiot' meant exactly what it said in Greek: a private man. When the term was affixed to an individual by the Court of Chancery […] it meant that person was no longer considered a 'public individual' capable of holding any degree of authority at the indulgence of the Crown; instead, he was demoted to the lowly status of an idiota who does not hold a public office and is thus level with peasants. (6)

This is just the first of many occasions when Touchstone claims intellectual disability in one of its numerous early modern significations. And somehow, these attempts collectively amount to a peculiar strategy on Touchstone's part: passing himself off as a natural, though he is an artificial fool. This arguably looks like an act of 'masquerading', which can thus be achieved not only when the disabled subject 'disguise[s] one kind of disability with another or display[s] their disability by exaggerating it' (Siebers, Disability Theory 100) in order to temporarily avoid compulsory able-bodiedness (or –mindedness), but also when disability is a permanent 'mask' worn by an abled character, as in the case of the artificial fool. Touchstone's proactive self-definition thus has a specific aim, which is consistent with his not reacting to others' attempts at disabling him: it is a way to gain greater performative power as a licensed fool by appearing more realistic as a natural. In other words, keeping up his appearance as a disabled individual is foundational to the efficacy of his satire as an artificial fool. Duke Senior might imply this when he says elsewhere that Touchstone 'uses his folly like a stalking-horse and under / the presentation of that he shoots his wit' (5.4.104-105). Complying with Mitchell and Snyder's principle of narrative prosthesis, Shakespeare employs the non-normative body – or mind – as 'a potent symbolic site of literary investment' (49). Touchstone's folly is an attribute that needs to be interpreted and has a specific function in the play: that of giving him freedom of speech – as Shakespeare criticism has always argued, long before the advent of disability studies. But more crucially, I argue that the more he appears conformant to Renaissance abled understandings of foolishness, the more liberty he may acquire to comment effectively on his foils' folly – in its more general sense as vice or incoherence. In this light, Touchstone's self-disabling rhetoric is not so different from others' stigmatising/disabling attitude towards him. Both strategies, pivoting on analogue knowledge, have the effect of 'constructing' Touchstone's intellectual disability. And though it is mostly rhetorical, this overall construction significantly gives Touchstone's resulting 'disabled' identity a narrative prosthetic function: a meaning, or a representational power, which consists in the license to speak freely against the inconsistencies and shortcomings of the normate system.

Even in this context, Siebers' theory of complex embodiment helps make further sense of the fool's relationship with his own artificial folly as disability. Specifically, Touchstone identifies himself 'by the use of knowledge, gained through the experience of complex embodiment […] in acts of masquerading' (Siebers 2016, 453): in other words, he describes himself through specialised intellectual disability knowledge that he has picked up from his neighbours during his experience as an artificial fool. Hence his 'embodied knowledge' involves 'a reciprocal transformation between body and environment' (Siebers 2016, 453): the way he represents himself is not only 'self-conscious', but also heavily dependent on the way others view him and define wit. A further point, which lies at the basis of Sieber's theory, is that 'disability comes across as 'a positive' and 'robust' identity (Siebers 2016, 453). Though Touchstone associates negative or exclusionary characteristics to himself, he does not sound ashamed of them: on the contrary, he sounds humourous in his honesty. This attitude is consistent both with his tendency not to openly criticise others' attempts at disabling him, and more in general with his role as laughtermaker, which demands a merry – and not self-commiserating – posture. Moreover, Touchstone's overall positive stance again serves to make his moralising action as a vocational jester more acceptable and effective.

Yet, we might hypothesise that something else goes on in Touchstone's farcical oath scene, and potentially every time he applies disability frameworks to himself. In her study of temporary counterfeit physical disability in early modern drama, Lindsey Row-Heyveld (2018) argues that disguise generated and interrogated audience complicity. She is specifically interested in the ways dissembled disability onstage triggered suspicion or credulity, also influencing people's perceptions of the disabled body off the stage. In Touchstone's case, some type of audience response to intellectual disability might also be invited insofar as his knowledge and embodiment of foolishness may actually support a point of view: not just one that freely satirises the power structures of society, but also perhaps one that occasionally reveals a sympathy towards the natural fools of his time through a veiled allusion to – though not an open rejection of – the controversial ways in which they were defined, categorised or excluded. After all, Robert Armin was an artist who drew inspiration from real natural fools for his performances, and there are indications that he sympathised with some of them (Equestri). Moreover, because the audience would have been readily perceptive of Touchstone's general witticism, they might also have noticed – unlike the characters onstage – the discrepancy between what he claimed he was (a natural fool) and what he really was (an artificial fool). This would have possibly enabled them to question, or at least to think about, the suitability of familiar definitions of disability, especially when reference was made to legal measures towards idiocy, which were especially debatable at the time. Indeed, there is some suspicion that idiocy grants, with their dispositions on idiots' wealth, served to swell the monarch's coffers, not to mention the fact that allegations of idiocy were often exploited or even fabricated by prospective guardians in order to profit from idiots' property. 19 So, while raising laughter, Touchstone might contribute, in Siebers' words, 'to the knowledge of the audience about the world on the stage, providing as well the opportunity to think differently about their own world' (450). This might occur in other occasions when Touchstone gestures at his own folly as social disadvantage. Still in 1.2, after Celia praises his jest on Le Beau's foolishness, Touchstone pleasedly replies: 'Nay, if I keep not my rank –' (1.2.100). By leaving the sentence suspended, Touchstone actually puns on the problematic social position of the fool who, far from belonging to a privileged rank, was actually poised between servitude and statuslessness. Here Touchstone also partly anticipates a comment by a courtier who elsewhere mocks the fool's status by calling him 'roynish clown' (2.2.8). 20 But because the legal signification of foolishness at the time implied the dispossession of the individual and his complete loss of autonomy, a fool was arguably in a worse position than a peasant: he was actually removed from hierarchy and fit no rank at all.

This idea significantly undergirds more explicit stigmatising reactions towards disability: both normative characters' against Touchstone and Touchstone's against what he views as his interlocutors' folly, particularly as unsophisticated country life. Early in the play, after the fool and his mistresses are banished from court and reach the Forest of Arden, they meet the shepherd Corin. Touchstone salutes him 'Holla, you clown!', to which Rosalind irritatedly replies: 'Peace, fool, he's not thy kinsman' (2.4.63-4). If on the one hand she gestures at the substantial equivalence between 'clown' and 'fool' in theatrical jargon, on the other she underscores the substantial difference between them in terms of class. Touchstone is indeed admonished for his being – wittingly – disrespectful to someone who, unlike him, does have some social standing – albeit low. He is reminded of his 'idiocy', in contrast with Corin's identity as a rustic. Touchstone obviously neglects the reprimand, but reuses the same class-related notions of intellectual disability to satirise his foils: Corin first, insisting that Rosalind, Celia and he are 'your betters' (2.4.66); and later the rustic William, whom the fool mocks by quickly shifting from elevated to down-to-earth speech and communicating that he is doing so to suit the peasant's 'better understanding' (5.1.50). In a play which dexterously mixes classes in the off-court location, the fool thus plays down others' standing to express his skepticism about pastoral life and its idealisation. Moments like these serve to underscore and caricature the court-country foil in the play more broadly. The simple life and mindset of shepherds is contrasted to the sophistication of courtiers. Touchstone is indeed a courtier: he comes from the palace and his licence to speak freely exists as a reminder of his master's/mistresses' nobility and power. His acting superior to country dwellers, his punchy satire, as well as more in general his disappointment with the countryside, bespeak his self-identification with palace life. And yet, the association of his identity as a fool with early modern implications of idiocy simultaneously problematises his being a real courtier. There is indeed an irresolvable tension between his courtier-like feeling of superiority, which serves to mock both shepherds and courtiers who live the escapist illusion of country life, and the fact that his class-related statements have the parallel effect of drawing the audience's attention to his own position as an 'idiot' and outsider. This would again have prompted the audience to consider, and perhaps question, notions of class and identity in connection with idiocy legislation.

The exposure of the fool's intellectual disability sometimes shifts from questions purely of class to, somehow more predictably, class-related learning and understanding. This again reveals how abled characters' stigmatising attitude towards intellectual difference correlates to Touchstone's satire through his embodied knowledge of disability. In the early scene where the fool swears about the taste of the pancakes and the mustard, Celia sceptically asks: 'How prove you that in the great heap of your knowledge?' (1.2.65-6). The query partly points at how in medieval and early modern culture the fool was sometimes a figure endowed with prophetic wisdom (Welsford 76-112). Yet it also includes the common prejudice that a natural fool had insufficient knowledge, particularly the knowledge possessed by nobility. In the renaissance outlook, a fool was anyone lacking the so called common ideas, an expression derived from Stoic philosophy that indicated the notions allegedly possessed by a restricted minority of the population, the nobles or non-idiotai: these were abstract concepts regarding religion, mathematics, the soul and society. Fools, regarded as uneducated and uneducable, as well as incapable of abstracting, lacked therefore the vital knowledge to be granted access to the honourable society (Goodey, A History 125-6). Celia's sneering comment at Touchstone's expense thus stigmatises him by revealing her biased view of a social hierarchy where an individual's status and knowledge are mutually determinant.

The same bias informs the rhetoric of the melancholic gentleman Jacques, who is in Arden as a member of Duke Senior's retinue and spots Touchstone wooing the goatherd Audrey. As the fool seeks to win Audrey over by claiming that he stands among her goats just as the poet Ovid was 'among the Goths' (3.3.6), Jacques exclaims 'O knowledge ill-inhabited, worse than / Jove in a thatched house' (3.3.7-8). The statement partly rests on historical assumptions about the superiority of melancholy (in its milder forms) to foolishness: though a mental disorder, melancholy was indeed somewhat 'fashionable', because a dark mood was believed to make the individual prone to scholarly studies. That is why melancholy was frequently associated with intellectuals, who might even consider it a reason of pride (Trevor 14-16; Neely 13-14). This seems the case with Jacques who, though he purports that his melancholy is only partly 'scholarly' but mostly the result of the 'sundry contemplation of my travels' (4.1.17), associates his mental state with knowledgeability. Consequently he feels he has a right to judge Touchstone. However, Jacques does not imply that Touchstone's knowledge itself is questionable – it is true that Ovid spent his exile among that Germanics – but rather that knowledge fails to change his nature as a fool, which in turn determines his low status. To Jacques' mind, knowledge is thus hopelessly wasted on an undeserving creature, an individual unable to really comprehend what he knows – otherwise he would not mention Ovid in such a lowly context.

In this scene Touchstone does not hear Jacques, who is speaking in an aside. Yet, he still demonstrates his awareness of the same epistemological and class-related misrepresentation of intellectual disability by consciously applying it to others: others who technically cannot be rightfully associated with the legal status of idiocy, but do embody the simple country life which Touchstone looks down upon. Touchstone thus deploys intellectual performance criteria to describe class difference. Just after Jacques mutters his criticism, Touchstone expresses his disappointment with Audrey's inability to comprehend the knowledge that others possess and try to convey to her. As he realises that Audrey does not understand poetry, he meditates that it is depressing when 'a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good wit seconded with the forward child' (3.3.10). This comment rests on the popular belief that a wise man produced foolish offspring, in that he was more focused on his studies than on the begetting of healthy children (Chakravarti 217; Carew 292; Dent M421). Further, Touchstone's knowledge of historical paradigms of intellectual disability lets him here allude not only to the intellectual limitations of fools and their exclusion from the common ideas but also, through his ludicrous self-identification as a new Ovid, to the gap between intellectual disability and humanist learning. Intellectuals like Sir Philip Sidney indeed called stulti and ignorant those who did not understand that 'the government of action is to be gotten by knowledge' and through reading classical poetry and philosophy (Defense of Poetry, 105). Recalling a position that significantly linked to the meaning of idiota in medieval Latin – someone ignorant of Latin letters (Metzler 32) – Touchstone therefore patronisingly bestows on Audrey the foolishness which, he believes, derives from living a modest life of contentment deprived of a courtly education.

Touchstone's being both perpetrator and victim of social paradigms of intellectual disability can further be observed as foolishness gets described as congenital, irreversible, lack of maturity. The fool, for his part, uses material tropes of uncookedness to convey the supposed unsuitability of shepherds' intellect. When he says to the shepherd Corin 'God help thee, shallow man! God make incision in thee, thou art raw' (3.2.70), he does so at the end of a verbal confrontation during which the pair have been debating about courtesy customs at court and in the forest. Disappointed with the unsuitability of Corin's logical justifications for not appreciating hand kissing in the countryside, Touchstone's compares his foil's intellect to a crude piece of meat. Again, here Touchstone adapts for his own satirical aims against simple life a bias that will be used against him just a few lines later, when he parodies the love lines that lovesick Orlando carved for Rosalind on a tree. Irritated by Touchstone's insensitivity, Rosalind employs a botanical metaphor to remind the fool that he will never mature:

ROSALIND I'll graff it with you, and then I shall graff it
with a medlar. Then it will be the earliest fruit i'th'
country; for you'll be rotten ere you be half ripe, and
that's the right virtue of the medlar. (3.2.115-18)

Referring to the unripenness or unreadiness of the fool, both Rosalind and Touchstone stigmatise their foils through the connection between the natural and the human being that has not fully developed yet: the child, who appeared intellectually and socially analogue to the fool. A 14th-century document commenting on the Prerogativa Regis for example explained that natural fools and children under 7 years of age shared the same legal status: neither of them might be legally prosecuted, as there was 'nor crime nor sin without a corrupt will' (Whittaker 138). The only difference between them was that, while the child could learn and mature, the fool's condition was deemed hopelessly permanent. As McDonagh observes, when someone was legally declared an idiot they would become a ward of the court and consigned to a guardian, like a child never reaching his majority. They would thus be removed from the world of men and officially relegated to that of children (85).

An inclusion of early modern idiocy legislation in our analysis of foolishness in As You Like It is finally helpful to recognise how its founding principles influence Touchstone's multifaceted relationship with disability, particularly his 'embodied knowledge' of it, in more obscure ways. If turning socio-legal paradigms onto his interlocutors is, as we have seen so far, one of Touchstone's preferred ways to shoot his rhetoric of folly against abled characters, 21 sometimes his play on such notions is very subtle, and totally prevents characters from realising they are being called fools. This arguably enhances the power the licensed fool acquires through his use of disability knowledge: because it increases opportunities of satire, and because, eluding normate characters' guard, jokes are only shared with the audience. For example, Touchstone notoriously dislikes pastoral life in the wood – i.e. he calls home 'a better place' (2.4.15), and he bullies the shepherds throughout most of the play. Consequently, given his resentment for his mistresses' removal from court (which in Celia's case is a voluntary decision to follow Rosalind after her banishment) he misses no chance to describe Rosalind and Celia as fools. On arriving in the Forest of Arden, Touchstone reacts to Rosalind and Celia's tiredness of walking by evoking a disabling image that may be defined 'intersectional', because it combines foolishness with an unfavourable class descriptor:

CELIA I pray you bear with me. I cannot go no further.

TOUCHSTONE For my part, I had rather bear with you
than bear you; yet I should bear no cross if I did bear
you, for I think you have no money in your purse.

ROSALIND Well, this is the forest of Arden. (2.4.9-13)

As Juliet Dusinberre comments, here Touchstone engages in an elaborate wordplay that combines the Christian doctrine of bearing one's cross with the image of the crusado, that is a coin with a single cross, possibly making fun of the poor profits the actor playing Celia made, being only an apprentice and not a company sharer (Shakespeare, As You Like It 203). Simultaneously, by stressing Celia's lack of money, Touchstone might be satirically disabling her by alluding to fools' socio-economical exclusion in the Renaissance: not just broadly because of their lack of status, but more specifically because an intellectually disabled individual who inherited any property was legally declared an idiot just as the Court of Wards and Liveries dispossessed them of anything valuable they owned. Such a measure was necessary in that an idiot was deemed incapable of managing money and property. Counting money and being able to tell the value of coins were indeed fundamental tests at incompetency examinations, because they gave clues about individuals' property management skills and their intellectual capacity (Neugebauer 29). In fact, the very notion of idiocy was based on a financial signification: as a sixteenth-century legal dictionary put it, an idiot or natural fool was someone who 'hath no manner of understanding or reason, nor government of himselfe, what is for his profit or disprofit' (Rastell 141). Touchstone accusing Celia of thriftlessness thus foregrounds the disconnection between economic power and lack of wit, and represents the fool's subtle use of an 'embodied knowledge' of idiocy to his own advantage: laughing with the audience at his foils.

Touchstone's knowledge of this economically-driven signification of intellectual disability also allows him to subtly, if unproblematically, identify himself with it only about thirty lines later. This device is designed both to present himself 'positively' and 'critically' as a disabled subject, and to satirise the lovesick. On hearing the shepherd Silvius' passionate lament for his unrequited love for Phoebe, who fell in love with the cross-dressed Rosalind, Touchstone comments on how love leads lovers to all sorts of follies. To support this point, he comically recounts his own past wooing experience, for example when he gave 'two cods' to his beloved and 'said with weeping tears, 'Wear these for my sake' (2.4.50-1), thus apparently ignoring they were worthless and unsuitable as gifts. This device allows him to attach to himself an idiot-like incapability to assess the economic worth of material goods, while simultaneously dissimulating that legal disability metaphor with references to the confusion and emotions customarily linked to love. He also reports an episode when he mistook his lady for something else, 'kissing […] her batler' and 'wooing […] a peascod instead of her' (2.4.47-9). The story actually plays on one of the key socio-legal signals for determining if a person was mentally impaired: the ability to recognise or tell the name of people who should be very familiar to them. 22 Therefore, Touchstone's seemingly disastrous performance can hardly be regarded only as a lover's 'strange caper' (2.4.50), but may be also influenced by early assumptions about intellectually disabled people's capacities. Similarly to the scene where Touchstone mocks a knightly oath, his comic narration here of strategic episodes from his past, which we have no clue as to whether they are authentic, is key to the wise fool's projection of his theatrical persona as intellectually disabled. Touchstone thus seemingly shapes his own past to appear a natural: this enhances the realism of his performance, perhaps also critically drawing attention to problematic social diagnoses of idiocy such as those put in place by law authorities. Furthermore, remembering his own suffering for love, as well as the crazy things he did, Touchstone appropriates not just the idiot's experience but also that of the lovesick. Yet, while his stories seem to foster a (fugacious) link between the two conditions, also the opposite is the case. Touchstone's comic narration and his ludicrous pose towards himself as a lover, intensified by the allusion to idiocy measurement criteria, ridicule the play's characters' real lovesickness and ultimately enable Touchstone to mockingly stress the separation between others' distraction and his own 'disability', which entails foolery and not mad grief.

Touchstone and Renaissance Psychology

An examination of Touchstone's relationship with foolishness also as a clinical condition is warranted by the existence of some type of medical, other than social, model of disability in the period. This can be held even if the approach of Renaissance medicine to intellectual disability was very different from that of present-day psychology. Other than not really offering definitions of or cures to foolishness, Renaissance medicine did not even make a clear-cut distinction between the disability of the mind and that of the body; doctors did not study intellectual disability as a statistical abnormality; they saw it as a divinely rather than biologically determined condition; and they did not discuss it in terms of the permanent identity it bestowed on the individual. Still, there is some historical continuity between now and then in the fact that brain anatomy and intellectual functions were somehow linked (Goodey 'Blockheads' 165-166). In this context, it will emerge how the tenets of the 'complex embodiment' theory that have been interrogated so far are still helpful in an assessment of Touchstone's interaction with scientific knowledge. Again, we assist to a reciprocal influence between body and environment: Touchstone both 'positively' identifies with the way others disable him through the use of medical/physiognomical allusions and consciously reuses the same principles to his performative advantage. It will be apparent, though, that the occasions where that knowledge is deployed to describe him are more frequent and noticeable than when he uses it against others. This might be due to the fact that a (pseudo) medical model underscores the physicalisation of disability as organic difference. This in turn heightens the perception of disability as a physiological reality – rather than only the result of a disabling environment – and better suits both other characters' necessity to undermine the fool's authority by describing him as actually impaired, and Touchstone's own resolution to claim his identity as a fool to strengthen his satire.

We may first evidence this double tendency by observing how Touchstone's folly is associated to cognitive difference according to classical mental faculty theory, revived in the middle ages and the Renaissance. In Touchstone's first scene, Celia annoyedly remarks how the 'dullness of the fool' serves as 'the whetstone of the wits' (1.2.52-53). Dull, indicating slow and blunt wits, was one of the many adjectives commonly used to describe intellectual non-normativity (Metzler 40). It had to do with the reasoning power and its swiftness, especially in connection to Galen's influential psychopathology. Rudolph Siegel translates as 'dullness' what Galen called morosis or dementia which, while not being equivalent to natural folly, was a condition where the mind was deteriorated, the reasoning power insufficient, the understanding wanting and memory severely impaired (Siegel 274). It is in such terms, then, that Celia mockingly represents Touchstone's mind, before sarcastically calling him 'Wit' (1.2.53), which reinforces the message by questioning Touchstone's possession of any brain spirit at all. Similarly, a little later the fool himself uses faculty theory to proactively describe his own 'impaired' brain. In the scene where his mistresses and he arrive in the forest of Arden after a long walk, Rosalind exclaims: 'How weary are my spirits', alluding to her tiredness, and Touchstone replies: 'I care not for my spirits, if my legs were not weary' (2.4.1-3). While Rosalind refers to her emotional state, the fool seems more alert to the physical needs of the body – which Arden is not satisfying at present – and in this he simulates more the reaction of a simple or senseless being than those of a man capable of abstraction (Jenkins 48). But even more cogently, in a sentence that suggests his dislike for Arden, Touchstone might gesture here at specific medical knowledge to give organic shape to his folly. Galen held that the quality of the brain spirits – which in turn were believed to be a refined version of the body spirits – would indeed determine the quality of brain performance, so that intelligence depended on the good temperament of the 'physic pneuma', or brain substance (Galen, On the Usefulness 418). Renaissance writers drew on this notion when they explained that intelligent people had a refined or thin brain substance, while the foolish and mindless had a slower, thicker one. Accordingly, William Fullwood in 1562 referred to chapter 12 of Galen's seminal Ars Medica to claim that 'wit declareth a subtle substance of the brain, and the dullness of understanding, a gross substance' (Fullwood 55). Touchstone's remark thus yokes the quality of his own brain substance, which seems bad enough for him not to worry too much about it, to his present bad mood and weary legs, both of which are a consequence of finding himself in a place where he does not want to be. Hence, this technical description of his performed disability serves both to keep empowering him as 'disabled' truth-teller in the play, and to sustain his criticism of the pastoral setting in the context of the scene. Though now he applies it to himself, Renaissance psychology buttresses his typical strategy throughout the play of branding country life as folly.

Touchstone's medical joking on the non-normativity of his mental faculties continues in the same scene, after the group hears the shepherd Silvius pining for love. Touchstone reacts by joking once more on the folly of love:

TOUCHSTONE […] As all is mortal
in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly

ROSALIND Thou speak'st wiser than thou art ware of.

TOUCHSTONE Nay, I shall ne'er be ware of my own wit,
till I break my shins against it. (2.4.51-5)

The fact that he ends by stressing his lack of abstract thinking is seemingly a way to simultaneously empower himself in his satire against lovers and to avoid liability for his controversial jokes. In the last two lines Touchstone puns on the English proverb 'fools set stools for wise men to stumble at' (Dent F543; Shakespeare 2006, 206n) – meaning: 'wise people often have trouble answering fools' simple/silly questions' – not only to rhetorically dissimulate his wisdom, but also to describe his intellectual difference as an apparent lack of connection with his cognitive functions. The fact that Touchstone supposedly has to break his shins against his wit in order to feel it projects again an affinity with the physical rather than the psychological channel of perception, the former of which requires a lower degree of understanding. Besides, medieval and early modern psychology correctly assumed that intellectual performance was linked to the health state of the brain. Hence Touchstone is quick at associating his mental capacity with a physiological/physiognomical condition: if it is able to break his shins, it means that his brain substance is hard. This inference would perhaps have originally recalled Plato's wax tablet theory, which held that the mind is like a wax tablet which records impressions from outside. If the wax is too hard the individual is a slow learner, impressions are recorded more faintly and get easily confused, and the individual is finally led into false opinion; similarly, signs are also confused when the wax is too soft (194c-195a; Goodey "Intellectual Ability" 469). This theory was also revived more recently. For example, Stephen Batman in 1582 wrote:

Good disposition of the braine and euill is knowne by his deedes, for if the substaunce of the braine be soft, thinne, and cléere: it receiueth lightly the féeling & printing of shapes, and lykenesses of thinges. He that hath such a braine is swift, and good of perseueraunce and teaching. When it is contrarye, the braine is not softe: eyther if he be troubled, he that hath such a braine receiueth slowly the féeling and printing of thinges: But neuerthelesse when hée hath taken and receiued them, he keepeth them long in minde. And that is signe and token of drinesse, as sluxibility & forgetting is token of moisture, as Haly sayth. (5.3)

Touchstone's allusive, multifaceted comments about his own wit thus project both his nuanced knowledge of early modern disability metaphors and his compliance with the way his interlocutors see him. By reinforcing the stigmatising opinions of his own society, he manifests his calculated desire to be taken as nothing else than what they believe him to be. Simultaneously, the artificial fool's claims that he possesses hard, slow or even insufficient wits are definitely fraught with irony, something which would have been perceived by early audiences. Hence, in the light of Siebers' interpretation of embodied/performed disability as a way to question the audience's beliefs about disability itself, chances are that spectators would have been led to wonder about the reliability or suitability of physiognomical readings of foolishness. This was especially likely in an era when medical theories of intellectual disability were still tentative, and physiognomy itself was, as Sybille Baumbach notes, 'a highly controversial and often disputed method for deciphering man' (583).

By describing his own wits physiognomically, Touchstone contributes to the complex system of intellectual disability metaphors generated by other characters, who also occasionally describe the fool through very specialised uses of physiognomical concepts. This is especially the case with the melancholic Jacques, whose opinions on Touchstone's disability highlight his willingness to draw distinctions between his own disorder and foolishness. While this might not be aggressive stigmatisation, as Jacques is generally sympathetic with Touchstone because he admires his freedom and lack of worries, it is still important for the malcontent to signal how the fool is different from him. In fact, that very difference justifies Jacques' longing for the benefits of a fool's life. Telling Duke Senior about his first encounter with Touchstone, Jacques enthusiastically says that the fool's brain is 'as dry as the remainder biscuit / after a voyage' (2.7.38-40). This comment, though uttered benevolently, judgmentally rests on the assumption that melancholy, unlike Touchstone's foolishness, does not worsen intellectual performance: in fact, far from being dry, Jacques' brain is elsewhere described as 'full of matter'(2.1.68) and is the cause of his profound sadness. Jacques' allegation that Touchstone's brain is dry apparently contradicts the aforementioned inference on the hardness of Touchstone's wit, which presupposes that there is definitely some substance. Yet, because foolishness could be mapped out on many physiognomical traits, it is likely that Shakespeare relied on multiple of them to convey a more vivid perception of intellectual disability, even at the expense of consistency. Early modern Galenist doctors who commented on the dryness of the soul spirits linked it to a faulty structure of the brain, to an imperfect performance of cognitive functions, and specifically to small brains, where ventricles and channels were not big enough to let the animal spirits flow freely through them. Sixteenth-century doctors and physiognomers like Giovanni Argenterio, Martin Akakia and Arcandam explained that the compression made the spirits so dry that they might even burn up, causing attention deficit, insufficient memory, and incapacity of conceiving or doing difficult things (Goodey "Blockheads" 171; Andrews, "Begging 2", 188).

What is even more striking about Jacques' description is that it connects Touchstone's brain dryness with a specific non-normative type of intellectual performance: he claims that the fool 'hath strange places cramm'd / with observation, the which he vents / In mangled forms' (2.7.40-2). If on the one hand Jacques is arguably projecting his own self as a traveller onto Touchstone, 23 on the other he boldly advances an anthropological description of folly. Dusinberre notes how the expression 'strange places' subvertingly alludes to the 'loci communes of rhetoric', which 'transmute in the fool's brain to odd and unfamiliar topoi, like the exotic territories discovered by travellers', who cram their minds with the images of the places they visit (Shakespeare, As You Like It 219). But Touchstone's 'vision' of exotic places should also be connected with early modern assumptions about those locations and their relevance for alternative constructions of folly. In the age of new world explorations, faraway locations opened the way to new definitions of the fool and the monster. To 'civilised' Europeans, the American natives would look like incapable, primitive, deformed, animal-like fools, and medical writers were accomplices in spreading physiognomical bias about those peoples' inferiority. For example, they associated impossible or unhealthy skull layouts with the inhabitants of the Indies or other hot countries. One example were 'dog's heads', which were sutureless: this made them pain-resistant, but also unable to discharge excess fluid from the head, which was necessary to keep the brain in good health (Chakravarti, 208-27; Goodey "Blockheads" 175). Jacques thus draws a link between different types of marvels: the pastoral forest, the wise fool, and the fools of nature inhabiting strange faraway countries. And he does it once more towards the end of the play, when he sees Touchstone marry Audrey and terms them 'a pair of very strange beasts, which in all tongues are called fools' (5.4.36-7). The customary connection between the fool and the animal world is here combined with his otherness from ordinary humanity, as if he was one of Pliny's monsters of faraway countries: after all, Touchstone is a 'rare fellow' (5.4.102) to Jacques.

Sometimes idiocy-related physiognomical traits attributed to Touchstone do not just refer to the material quality of his brain but also to other body parts. Jacques reports that on first seeing Touchstone he was struck by the fool's 'lack-lustre' (2.7.21) eyes as he looked at his dial and contemplated on time. The implication here is that, as the OED suggests, the fool's eyes lack spirit and imagination, and are therefore dry. According to the leading physiognomer Thomas Hill this quality, together with coldness, was typical of the ass' eyes, and therefore denoted 'foolish[ness], and dull[ness] of nature' in human beings. This was because dryness, together with coldness, hindered the reception of external visual impressions, and in turn disrupted cognitive processes (Hill ch. 20). A few lines later, Jacques' description of the fool is supported by another claim about Touchstone's eyes, which are apparently capable of sending 'squandering glances' (2.7.57). If on the one hand this expression alludes to the fool's freedom of speech, on the other it seems a physiognomical description stressing again the nature of Touchstone's eyes as lacking something. This time Jacques defies our expectations by refusing to complete the description of the eyes through an assessment of their dominant humoural quality. Instead, by choosing the stigmatising adjective 'squandering', he appears to combine discriminatory physiognomy with a joke on the fool-idiot's statutory inability to manage money and his estrangement from economy.

Rather than just relying on partial physiognomical traits, the play's disabling rhetoric against Touchstone even goes as far as to hint at the specific condition ascribable to him. When Rosalind finds Orlando's love lines for her carved on a forest tree and Touchstone parodies them, Rosalind shows her disappointment by retorting that the fool will 'be rotten ere [he] be half ripe' (3.2.117), a metaphor that links natural folly not only with childhood but also with old age. In terms of early modern medical understanding of impaired intellectual performance, Rosalind specifically seems to hint at the parallel between idiocy and the Galenic concepts of dementia and amentia, which often occurred in senility: the former entailed a deterioration of memory and reasoning, while the latter was a severe mental defect that completely 'paralysed' the thinking faculties (Siegel 274-5). Rosalind thus appears particularly critical in her judgment of Touchstone's cognitive difference, but her deployment of hyperbole is justified by her aim to provoke the audience's laughter at the fool and to sabotage Touchstone's satire of lovers' feats and emotions.

As anticipated earlier, Touchstone's own exploitation of medical knowledge to mock others' supposed folly appears limited, though it still fulfils his aim of laughing at the inhabitants of Arden. I have found two such passages. One is quite straightforward: in the aforementioned scene where Touchstone patronises Corin for being content with the simplicity of country life, the fool suggests that God should 'make incision' in the shepherd, because he is 'shallow' and 'raw' (3.2.70). Touchstone's reference to God certainly reflects the early modern view of natural folly as a disorder of the soul curable only by supernatural intervention. Yet, Touchstone also implies that Corin is a fool by tapping on early modern medical techniques to 'deal' with brain disorders. Other than of phlebotomy, a method to cure the excess of uncooked/undigested humour in the shepherd (Iyengar 175-176), 'incision' reminds the audience both of the dissecting practices of doctors who studied the brain, 24 and of one of the most drastic methods to liberate a fool of his folly in early modern culture: the excision of the stone of folly from the brain, a motif of quack medical art present in many medieval and early modern allegorical representations of foolishness and madness. 25 Touchstone's application of such direct and vividly material image to Corin's intellect is possibly motivated by the limited social distance the fool feels he has from the peasant. Of all foils in Arden, Corin is arguably one of the most 'foolish' from Touchstone's standpoint, both because of his low rank and because of his complete estrangement from courtly customs and understanding. Hence, the fool feels he can take the liberty to satirise him even more impertinently.

More subtle is Touchstone's deployment of certain foolishness-related physiognomical traits against his mistresses. Because Touchstone's job is to comment on human folly, and especially on his mistresses' faults, any of the remarks he makes can quite safely be suspected of such a function, even a statement like 'stroke your chins, and swear by your beards that I am a knave' (1.2.68-9), which he utters early in the play to convince Rosalind and Celia of his trustworthiness in telling the story about the knight, the mustard and the pancakes. Touchstone uses the point to logically demonstrate to the ladies that he is not lying, for the simple reason that a woman has no beard so cannot swear on it. But the allusion to beardlessness would have raised precise physiognomical and cultural implications in the Renaissance. Beard was physiognomically considered a sign not just of masculinity but also of 'good understanding' (Hill 8v), so the fact that women normally lacked it already indicated their intellectual inferiority. Because Galenists and physiognomers associated healthy beard growth with heat and moisture, they consequently saw in coldness and moisture, the typical temperament of women, an important reason for beardlessness (Hill, 146r; Carew, ch. 15; Siegel 178). It is interesting – though hardly surprising in a period of gender inequality – that the same humoural pattern (and, arguably, physiognomical trait) appeared to be associated to natural fools. Coldness and moisture indeed corresponded to the phleghmatic quality of the conditions which probably came closest to idiocy in medical writing: lethargy, which entailed stupor, slow-thinking, forgetfulness and dulled actions; as well as stupidity or dementia (Metzler 66, 84; Siegel 81; Batman 7.7). 26 Ultimately, then, by calling attention to Rosalind and Celia's beardlessness, Touchstone also subtly jokes – in more ways than one – on their foolishness. In this light, Touchstone's command to Celia and Rosalind is satirically powerful not only because it assigns masculine traits to two women, and not only because it cleverly anticipates Rosalind's gender shift from female to male. Most cogently, by calling them fools regardless of their gender, Touchstone symbolically deprives two members of nobility of their honourable dependability and their legal capacity, hence comically destabilising their authority.


Touchstone's acclaimed identity as a witty theatrical jester obliterates neither his common traits with natural fools of his time nor his deliberate play with a wealth of tangible historical, other than just philosophical, notions of intellectual disability. Most of the resonances that natural folly acquires in As You Like It draw from the early modern socio-legal background, where wit was perceived as deeply entangled with concepts like economical power, honour and rank. So, Shakespeare has Touchstone meddle with representations of folly as poverty and vagrancy, as ignorance, as lack of authority and reliability, and as permanent infancy. Medical constructions of intellectual disability in the play focus instead on the quality of brain spirits, and on physiognomical characteristics of the fool's skull, brain and eyes.

Disability theory helps illuminate the nature of Touchstone's multifaceted relationship with early modern idiocy. On the one hand, he is presented as intellectually disabled by the various ways in which the other characters view him: so his difference is, as Snyder and Mitchell would say, 'socially mediated' and lends him 'identity and phenomenological perspective' (10). But Touchstone seems aware of his superiors' mockery, so he also responds to that social mediation and further contributes to it. This is why a framework like the 'complex embodiment' of disability seems more suitable than the purely social model to read him as a character. As a privileged satirist, the way he reacts to his 'disablement' by those around him is twofold. On the one hand he confirms their statements and uses the very same rhetoric of disability to claim his own identity as a fool. Perpetuating the frameworks through which others disable him, instead of openly rejecting them, and further adding to the stigmatised image of his foolishness are devices to increase performative realism and to acquire freedom of speech, avoiding repercussions. On the other hand, Touchstone also subtly exploits technical knowledge – in addition to more straightforward jokes – to mock his interlocutors and their customs, as well as perhaps to raise awareness about controversial early modern social issues related to idiocy.

All these aspects hinge on a nuanced idea of disability: that which criticism has usually called artificial folly might be, in Touchstone's case, an 'embodied knowledge' of early modern idiocy and of many of the socio-legal and medical paradigms connected with it. Yet, because of his nature as an artificial fool, Touchstone's example expands what it means to have an 'embodied knowledge' of disability. Siebers, and more in general propounders of the cultural model of disability, tend to focus on how individuals with a real physical or mental impairment experience disability as a condition shaped both by corporeality and its interaction with the social environment. Shakespeare's wise fool instead testifies to the possibility for a literary character, or an early modern wise jester, to let go of straightforward definitions of impairment: a 'complex embodiment' of disability is possible even when the impairment is totally, and permanently, simulated. The disabling and self-disabling rhetorics pivoting on Touchstone therefore virtually constitute an additional layer of his costume: the identity of the artificial fool does not only transpire from his motley costume or his jokes, but also from an ongoing, consistent vocalisation of what being an idiot consisted of in the early modern period.


This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement number 745642. The author would also like to thank Prof. Andrew Hadfield, Dr Kirsty Rolfe, and the DSQ readers for their helpful suggestions on this piece.

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  1. On Armin in Shakespeare's company, between 1599 and 1612: Van Es, 163-194; Wiles 146; Felver 40-7; Lippincott 247-49; Dusinberre is one of the few making a case for the comedian Will Kemp's possible appearance as Touchstone, at least in the first performance of the play (Shakespeare 2006, 112-3).
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  2. Critical studies examining Shakespeare's witty fools: Goldsmith; Bell; Videbaek 75-123; Welsford 249-270; Bradbrook 49-67; Ghose 169-208; Calvo; Mullini Corruttore; Mullini Il Fool.
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  3. E.g. Bell makes the point that artificial fools perform folly, which he just defines as 'lack of wisdom, reason, understanding' without investigating further (3). Goldsmith wrote that Touchstone and Feste are 'perfectly sane' (51), thus dismissing any temptation to look for disability. Videbaek states that they have 'degree of wit' (77) but does not explain what the witlessness instead consists of. Among scholars of disability in history or literature, Goodey very briefly mentions Touchstone and Lear's Fool in connection with 'foolishness' as lack of status (A History 137, 138, 140). In general, as he focuses mainly on European historical, philosophical, religious and medical accounts of intelligence he cannot but pay passing attention to English literary texts. The only other significant attempt has been Angela Heetderks', but she focuses specifically on Feste's singing in Twelfth Night as a sign of his irrationality and marginalisation. Though she identifies some of the lines where the character's natural folly is exposed, she does not locate them in the context of early modern knowledge about intellectual disability.
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  4. E.g Calvo; Mullini, Corruttore 115-166.
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  5. Wilson discusses both these positions in Shakespeare disability studies, focusing especially on stigma.
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  6. See Metzler 53, 84-85; Goodey A History 219-241. The first substantial theories of medical philosophy concerning foolishness emerged only in the late 17th century, especially with Locke (Goodey, A History 326). Eliza Marie Buhrer discusses in depth the role medieval lawyers had in 'inventing idiocy', long before doctors did.
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  7. Also, among others, Salkeld 68; Welsford, 119.
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  8. This distinction emerges from sections 11 and 12 of the Prerogativa Regis. See Neugebauer 24-27.
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  9. Henceforward the word 'idiot' will appear without inverted commas.
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  10. 'The Differences between Mental Illness and Intellectual Disability'; Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders xiii-xviii.
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  11. On this 'lopsided' approach to Renaissance folly see Chakravarti.
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  12. I do not completely agree with Iyengar's explanation of natural folly as a form of 'madness' (202) like lunacy or melancholy – though she considers mostly the medical side of the issue and not the legal one. Rather, I like to use language that more accurately reflects early modern general usage of terms. A simple search into the Lexicons of Early Modern England database shows indeed that 'madness'/'mad' were generally used in connection with conditions reminiscent of modern 'mental illness' (i.e. frenzy, rage, lovesickness, furor, rashness, rabies, mania, falling-sickness, etc.). For modern scholars making the same linguistic choice see Rushton 44, 48; Andrews, The History 68, 77 and "Begging 1" 68-69; Metzler (passim).
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  13. On lovesickness in early modern culture and As You Like It see Neely 99-135.
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  14. On 'fools', Andrews ,"Begging 2" 194-195.
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  15. On the relationship God-nature-nurture, Goodey, A History 153-154.
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  16. Also, often destitute idiots who were taken care of in hospitals were let out to beg for alms in order to pay for their own maintenance (Stainton 25).
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  17. Especially physical disability was often artfully simulated (Hug 15-22; Aydelotte 71).
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  18. The connection between fool and food, however, is typical: Bakhtin notably described eating as one of the key manifestations of the grotesque (281); also Montironi 97-138.
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  19. The monarch received regular profits from idiots' lands, while guardians could be entitled to surplus revenue. On issues connected with idiocy grants see Buhrer, especially 126-155, and Neugebauer 32-37.
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  20. 'Roynish' means 'rough', 'coarse', 'vulgar', 'despicable' or 'base' (OED).
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  21. Though it is not the focus of the present article, there are also numerous occasions where he calls the wise 'fools' explicitly: e.g. 'the more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly (1.2.82-3); 'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool' (5.1.30-1).
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  22. At examinations, idiots were asked to name members of their family. MacDonald suggests that this was done under 'the assumption that every person was before other considerations the member of a household' (126).
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  23. On Jacques' melancholy as a result of his travel experiences see Fink.
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  24. For instance Vesalius in De Humani Corporis Fabrica illustrates at length how to open up a cranium and observe what is inside it.
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  25. It is doubtful, however, whether doctors actually performed skull trepanning on natural fools, as they saw their condition as incurable – but they did on lunatics and melancholics (Gross 119-30; Zijderveld 39).
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  26. Also Jackson 287; Sullivan 29-30; Goodey "Blockheads" 172.
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