This essay investigates William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Julius Caesar as a disability narrative. In doing so, it reveals that "disabled" was an operational identity category in the early modern period and argues that the play's treatment of epilepsy illustrates and confounds early modern articulations of disability as wondrous, monstrous, deviant, and pathological. It also suggests that Julius Caesar performs epilepsy as a disability that, in its veritable invisibility, undoes the disciplining of bodily variation these discourses each undertake. In its exploration of epilepsy, Julius Caesar interrogates the idea of early modern disability as a visible, physical phenomenon, instead positing a more complex notion of disability as less overt, decipherable, or legible. Ultimately, this essay introduces disability to Julius Caesar to complicate existing early modern scholarly engagement with difference and presents "Shakespearean" disability studies as a productive critical approach by which to both reanimate dialogue about Renaissance subjectivities and motivate a more politically invested classroom pedagogy.

What happens when we recognize William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599) as a disability narrative? What if we understand the play as a story about the disabled body as it was configured in the early modern cultural imagination?1 This story, as I explore it, takes shape around the epileptic body and considers the complex ways that body signified in late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century England.2 Situated at the juncture of myriad disability discourses, the play is informed by Hippocratic pathology, medieval marvelousness, Renaissance monstrosity, Galenic humoralism, and seventeenth-century rationalism. Shakespeare's drama portrays Caesar's epilepsy variously through, among other things, premodern discourses of wonder and curiosity and emerging "modern" notions of disability as deviant, abnormal, and limiting.3 The play acknowledges, as Lennard Davis might suggest, that "the body is never a single thing so much as a series of attitudes toward it" (Bending 22) and embraces its role in both uncovering and examining these coincident attitudes towards the disabled body as they were represented on the early modern stage.

While Julius Caesar offers glimpses into this period's multitude of disability discourses, it likewise exposes their inability to account for and stabilize bodily variation as it was manifested via epilepsy. In casting its protagonist as an epileptic, Shakespeare's tragedy constructs the disabled body, and its diverse rhetorical significations, against a dominant, able body that represents power, productivity, and longevity.4 The drama appears, that is, to privilege Rome's "normal" bodies over its "extraordinary" ones. In his failure to thrive past the play's third act, an epileptic Caesar helps Shakespeare's tragedy perform, even in its most basic plot structure, an ableist politics. It enforces what Robert McRuer, in his work on disability in contemporary culture, has identified as a pervasive, compulsory able-bodiedness obscured from view until the disabled body renders it visible (92). Caesar's assassination, for instance, is motivated by ableism, justified by his body's inability to conform to normative cultural expectations. His epileptic "lack" prevents his successful leadership while Brutus and Antony's able bodies are more suited to the task: "Caesar's better parts," explains one plebian, "Shall be crowned in Brutus" (Julius Caesar 3.2.47-48 my italics).5 Brutus likewise rationalizes his participation in Caesar's death through a medicalized rhetoric of disability that is entirely ableist at heart: "This shall make / Our purpose necessary, and not envious," he explains, "Which so appearing to the common eyes, / We shall be called purgers, not murderers" (2.1.177-80 my italics). Here Brutus imagines himself as engaged in not just political purification but "necessary" medical practice as well. He, like the all-knowing Renaissance physician, "purges" Rome of a disabled and politically dangerous Caesar to restore the republic to its paramount health and ability.

It becomes clear, however, that Julius Caesar performs the "falling sickness" as a disability that thwarts this ableist demand for control over the non-standard body. Epilepsy's muddled signification as divine, pathological, wondrous, intemperate, heroic, and depraved only begins to hint at the slipperiness of its categorization. By exposing how these discourses, even in their differences, consistently assume epilepsy's visibility on the body, the play complicates the idea of early modern disability as an observable physical phenomenon to instead posit a more complex notion of disability as less overt or legible. Shakespeare's play reveals how epilepsy's corporeal invisibility, even more than its discursive malleability, undoes the disciplining of bodily variation Renaissance culture undertakes. The epileptic body is in fact extraordinary but only in so far as its illegibility confounds early modern methods of knowing and articulating disability.

Epilepsy's Legacies

Julius Caesar's figurations of epilepsy, in their discursive flexibility, remind us that disability's shifting terms and conditions in this period did not follow a tidy, teleological trajectory.6 As we will see, the simultaneous ways in which Shakespeare represents Caesar's epilepsy indicate that, recalling Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston's work, one discourse did not necessarily evolve from the other in a linear "progression" towards rationalization or naturalization of the body.7 The play's language of epilepsy undermines assumptions that the construction of disability abides some distinct pattern of "modernization" where medieval understandings of disability as monstrous, mysterious, or divine are usurped by a medical model of disability that identifies "impaired" individuals and "cures" them of their "pathology." In other words, discursive play surrounding the epileptic body suggests that the early modern period witnessed neither an instantiation of new "modern" ways of imagining disability nor a disavowal of old "premodern" views but a far messier "working through" of these variable perspectives. This discursive messiness responds, therefore, to Davis' assertion that

looking backwards from the eighteenth century, we see an absence of a discourse of disability a world of variously marked unexceptional bodies amid a Bartholomew Fair of signs and wonders. Looking ahead, we see the systematized, divided structure of normal and abnormal bodies whose various disabilities are to be institutionalized, treated, and made into a semiology of metonymic meanings (Bending 66)

to encourage a less binary formulation of disability's historical evolution that emphasizes both the existence and concurrency of early modern disability narratives.8 It resists a model of history in which, as Margaret Healy explains, "'we' moderns emerge as inheritors of significant advances in objective, scientific thinking about the body which began with decisive paradigmatic shifts in the seventeenth century" (10). Rather, plentiful and diverse disability narratives must be understood as already in conversation with each other at the turn of the century, with one discourse not dominating or determining but rather each informing the others.

Little critical work on Julius Caesar has explored epilepsy or its place in this broad range of early modern disability discourses. Scholarship on the play has instead focused on the play's Roman quality, its political ideology, and its significance in the Shakespearean canon.9 Very few critics have probed into Caesar's crucial embodiment, and many, like Horst Zander, have dismissed Caesar's corporeal shape in the play altogether: "the play is not so much about the 'man' Caesar as about the myth or the much-quoted 'spirit' of Caesar. . . . The disembodied Caesar is mightier than the living one" (6). Somewhat contrastingly, Clifford Ronan notes important aspects of Caesar's embodiment— he is "deaf, epileptic, . . . unable to father a child by his wife and, when suffering from fever, given to whining like a 'sick girl'" — but only to sustain an argument about the "historical inaccuracy" of Shakespeare's Caesar (84). Barbara Parker also broaches Caesar's epilepsy but to further a discussion of Roman justice, order, and governance. She politicizes Caesar's "ill" health as symbolic of Rome's failings — his epileptic fits "replicate the civil turbulence that rocks Rome" (118) — and, therein, understands Shakespeare's play as "recall[ing] Socrates' equation of justice with health and well-being" (119).

While this scholarship skirts around the play's representations of Caesar's body, Gail Paster and Coppelia Kahn have offered more direct readings of his physicality. In its shameful passivity and uncontrolled leakage of blood, Caesar's feminized body reproduces early modern gender conventions.10 Paster specifically notes that "the Romans themselves obsessively thematize [the topos of Caesar's body]" (284), and she examines this fixation via the play's investment in "patriarchal bodily canons" (294). Though markedly different in their explicit focus on Caesar's "bodily weakness" (290), Paster and Kahn's analyses invite further investigation into how this weakness codes Caesar as less than able. In other words, a sick, bleeding body is not just feminine but a non-standard deviation from the masculine norm. Understanding epilepsy as disability in Julius Caesar aims to supplement these stricter, in this case feminist, interpretations of Caesar's body by pointing out the play's ableist privileging of normativity. The able body — strong, self-contained, unmarred — and its disabled counterpart — weak, infirm, grotesque — are encoded within Caesar's gendering throughout the play. The play's interest in his "wounded" corpse and the "shameful secret of [his] bodiliness" (285) certainly invoke Caesar's feminization but they likewise emphasize his epileptic body's entrenchment in the language and politics of early modern disability.11

Since antiquity, epilepsy has been characterized in many ways as many things. Divine, demonic, pathological, and geohumoral, philosophers and physicians alike have struggled to determine its nature and significance.12 Classical traditions understood epilepsy as both sacred and sinful. The term "seizure," for example, recalls ancient Babylonian medical notions of epileptics seized by gods or demons (Temkin 20). Often this association with the supernatural gave epilepsy an ominous connotation and encouraged interpretations of the illness as a sign of moral corruption (8-9). The middle ages into the Renaissance saw continued association of epilepsy with depravity but, with increased conversion of the populace to Christianity, epilepsy's connections to divine prophecy (divinatio) (150) and ecstatic possession (86) became more pronounced. Epilepsy was linked with Christ's goodness in St. Mark's account of Jesus healing an epileptic boy (91), while biblical descriptions of the three wise men at the nativity "falling down" before baby Jesus likewise associated epilepsy with God's favor (111).

Even as the falling sickness signified both sacred wonder and monstrous depravity, it was also conceived of in much more "rationalist" terms. Resistance to "supernatural" symbolism began in antiquity with Hippocrates' insistence that the disease was just that, disease: "It is thus with regard to the disease called Sacred," he proposes, "it appears to me to be nowise more divine nor more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause from the originates like other affections" ("Sacred Disease"). Following this interpretation of the falling sickness as a brain pathology that "affects phlegmatic people" ("Sacred Disease"), Renaissance physicians infused Hippocrates' logic with further Galenic humoralism by emphasizing as epilepsy's cause an excess of black bile found in melancholic temperaments.13 This tradition drew upon the pseudo-Aristotelian Problem on Melancholy (Problemata 30.1) which speculated that melancholic men of genius were prone to "madnesses" like epilepsy. As Carol Thomas Neely explains, Problemata 30.1 "attempts to adjudicate between the Platonic tradition's positive interpretation of the bile-caused 'eminence' of poetic ecstasy or heroic frenzy and the Hippocratic medical tradition's negative interpretation of the 'disease' caused by excess of 'black bile'" (13). Similar to medieval Christianity's recasting of epileptic fits as divine ecstasies, deployment of the classical Problemata 30.1 in the Renaissance situated bile-laden melancholics, with their epileptic tendencies, "between illness and heroic achievement" (13). This particular disability discourse again postulated epilepsy's pathological roots but did so while reshaping the "disease," via the myth of the melancholy hero, as the burden of genius.14

While Galenic humoralism advocated epilepsy's association with melancholic heroism, Paracelsan medical philosophy stressed even more adamantly the falling sickness's relationship to environmental stimulus. In Von den Hinfallenden Siechtagen, for example, Paracelsus explains that "the pathology of epilepsy must not proceed from human physiology, but first the cosmic phenomenon which corresponds to epilepsy has to be perceived and interpreted, and it will yield an explanation of epilepsy in man" (qtd in Hoeniger 336). For Paracelsus, the geohumoral body is so vulnerable to its surroundings that forces like wind, water, and the cosmos engender seizures and dictate epilepsy's power over the body. Paracelsus even describes epileptic seizures through meteorological language:

when a thunderstorm is on its way, the weather changes, the animals notice it and become restless. So man too becomes terrified when he feels an epileptic [or similar] attack approaching. Then clouds gather in the sky, while man's eyesight becomes weakened, and he feels sleepy. . . . Now the thunder breaks forth, shaking heaven and earth; now the epileptic [or hysteric] is convulsed in all his limbs. The thunder sends forth lightening and the epileptic has sheer fire before his eyes. . . . The thunder sheds its rain; the epileptic emits froth. (337)

For Paracelsus, the body and its humors are in a constant state of flux depending upon external influence. Epilepsy's physical manifestations are, therefore, linked to situational occurrences such that just as "hail and a stroke of lightening break walls and disrupt everything — so the epileptic's limbs are bent and even broken by the force of the invisible storm and lightening in his body" (337).15

This God Did Shake

The Renaissance cultural imagination of the falling sickness performed in Julius Caesar incorporated these diverse understandings of epilepsy from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages. Shakespeare's play, a complex tale of human variation and early modern responses to it, evidences this diversity even in its opening acts. Take act 1, scene 2, for example, wherein the wily Cassius initiates his wooing of Brutus towards a conspiratorial plan against Caesar. Here Cassius encourages Brutus to acknowledge Caesar's "feeble temper" (1.2.131) by depicting Caesar's groaning tongue (126-27) and "coward lips" (124). Once when Caesar was in Spain, explains Cassius,

He had a fever . . .
And when the fit was on him, I did mark
How he did shake. 'Tis true, this god did shake.
His coward lips did from their colour fly;
And that same eye whose bend doth awe the world
Did lose his lustre. I did hear him groan,
Ay, and that tongue of his that bade the Romans
Mark him and write his speeches in their books,
'Alas,' it cried, 'Give me some drink, Titinius',
As a sick girl. (121-31)

In this exchange with Brutus, Cassius testifies to Caesar's embodied difference by carefully detailing his epileptic "fit." Cassius mocks Caesar's pallor, quaking, fatigue, and thirst and exploits his "feebleness" as a corporeal metaphor for political weakness and incompetence. On the one hand, Cassius uses epilepsy to ironically undercut Caesar's power and prestige; after all, what "god" would "shake"? His language humanizes Caesar by calling attention to his medical abnormality — he is "a sick girl" wrought by "fevers" and "shakes." His faulty, less-than-able body marks him as little more than the fragile embodiment of ailment. On the other hand, Cassius' anecdote grudgingly acknowledges Caesar's seemingly divine status. In his (even ironic) godliness, Caesar's fit resembles divine ecstasy and is a marvelous incarnation of the sacred, not symptomatic evidence of illness.16 Implicitly, Cassius' language likewise invokes the melancholic hero whose fits and visions were not necessarily sacred in nature but nonetheless testament to god-given genius and eminence.

In line 123, Cassius underscores Caesar's non-normative status by naming him both deity and patient, more and less than human. More than a calculated exposure of Caesar's falling sickness, his language provides rhetorical confirmation of the variable ways in which disability signified at the turn of the century. Cassius' concurrent representations of Caesar's epilepsy as divine portent and frightening pathology reveals the intermingling of at least two, if not more, early modern disability discourses. While I eschew the mutual exclusivity of these discourses in favor of their coincidence, I am not suggesting that Cassius understands all discourses as equally useful. His insistence on cataloging Caesar's disposition suggests, in fact, that a medical model of disability best serves the conspirators' agenda in this particular moment.17 Cassius strategically imagines Caesar's political liability as most compellingly metaphorized via the ailing body. Just as external physical "deformity" was often thought to signal internal moral depravity, Caesar's disabled body anticipates his disabled, and disabling, political ideology.18 In terms of refocusing critical attention onto the presence of disability in the early modern period, however, it is important to note the simultaneity of Cassius's depictions of epilepsy as opposed to their strict politicization. While he does privilege a narrative of disability as pathology to deploy his political agenda in this moment in the play, Cassius troubles the singularity of that particular narrative by also representing disability as marvelous, even divine.

We again see this discursive interplay in other representations of a disabled Caesar as divine, monstrous, and diseased. Later in 1.2, for example, Cassius deems Caesar a "Colossus" who "bestrid[es] the narrow world" (136). Caesar is a haughty yet enviable giant who towers above "petty men [who] / Walk under his legs, and peep about / To find [them]selves dishonourable graves" (139). This time disability does not stigmatize Caesar as frail, ill, or incompetent; instead this difference — here re-signified as gigantism — renders him prodigiously contrary to nature and therein a being whose presence and power is attributable to God (Park and Daston "Unnatural Conception" 25). While early modern sentiments about monstrosity were not exclusively positive, popular belief rooted in medieval tradition tended to acknowledge the monstrous, like epileptics, as fascinating examples of God's mystery. A.W. Bates has described early modern monsters as both "slip[s] of nature and divinely-mediated sign[s]" through which God's presence was made visible to humanity (114). "Monsters," scholar Jenny Mann agrees, "were signs from God, signs demanding interpretation" (70). An epileptic Caesar depicted as "Colossus" certainly serves as a political omen — what Mann identifies in another context as an "abstract [sign] of political, social, or religious corruption" (70) — but the foreboding in that omen is somewhat mediated by its likely association with God's sacred plan. Cassius politicizes disability via the colossus metaphor, in other words, to signal Caesar's inflated self-worth and its risk to the republic as well as, perhaps paradoxically, the superhuman, godly quality that makes his leadership so seductive.

Even as Cassius imagines Caesar as monstrous, he also describes him as suffering from the "falling sickness" (1.2.250). Employing a counter-discourse in which epilepsy is not divine symbol but insufferable malady, Casca, another conspirator, likewise characterizes Caesar's condition as "infirmity" (267). Casca understands epilepsy as a regrettable illness that separates Caesar from his rational self and causes him to say and do things that seem "amiss" (266). Through Casca's language especially, Shakespeare appropriates "rationalist" perceptions of epilepsy as an abnormal physiological response "caused by some humor or vapour; suddenly stopping the passage of spirits in the brain, which the brain striving to expel, causeth the Patient to fall down, and commonly foam at the mouth" (Blount).19 More specifically, this "evil," as it was sometimes called, was caused when "Flegm or Melancholy, or crasse and thicke winde is reteyned in the Ventricles, which stopping them up either wholy or for the most part, do strangle the spirits therein conteined" (Crooke 500). The sickness betrayed itself in the comportment of the affected individual who, according to physician Philip Barrough, portrayed "an vnwyse state of the body and mind, saddenesse, forgetfullnes, troublesome dreames, ache of the head, and continuall fullnes in it" (31).20 The patient likewise experienced "palenes of the face, [and] inordinate mouing of the tongue" (31). While the disease was thought to be caused by any number of things ranging from the ingestion of goat, quail, or parsley (Estienne 85, Boaistuau 72-73) to the movement of "cold ayer, comming from some member, and creeping up to the braine" (Barrough 31), it might be tempered with treatments as diverse as the wearing of cramp-rings made of the "whyte houfes of an Asse" (Albertus) to the burning of moles into fine powder to be drunk alongside "bloode warme wyne" (Brunschwig 9).

This litany of epilepsy's causes and cures signals a budding early modern understanding of "the falling sickness" via a nascent medical model of disability. Julius Caesar verifies this cultural sensibility as it again employs Casca to explore epilepsy's pathology. Casca's anecdotal rendering of Caesar's public coronation ceremony, for example, emphasizes epilepsy, and hence disability, as disease, particularly in Casca's insistence on its perceived geohumoral quality:

the rabblement hooted, and clapped their chapped hands, and threw up their sweaty nightcaps, and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown that it had almost choked Caesar; for he swooned and fell down at it. (1.2.243-46)

Here Casca pinpoints the plebeians' "stinking breath" as the source of Caesar's falling sickness. Their rowdy hooting and filthy utterances precipitate Caesar's "fit;" because of their gross humors, Caesar "fell down in the market-place, and foamed at mouth, / and was speechless" (250-51). As Casca rationalizes Caesar's disability through scientific discourse, he associates the uncleanness of the masses with infectious illness and attributes Caesar's epilepsy to contagious "bad air" (248). Notably, however, it is not just Caesar who is threatened by this contagion as Casca likewise fears for his own well being: "And / for mine own part, I durst not laugh for fear of opening my lips / and receiving the bad air" (247-49). In not daring to open his mouth, Casca imagines epilepsy as a transmissible medical condition. If Caesar can be moved to swoon and foam, so might he.21

Taken together, these moments — Caesar as Colossus and Caesar as infirm — portray the early modern, disabled body as wondrously divine and fearfully deviant. While these coincident imaginations of disability offered by the play are affirmed in numerous treatises on epilepsy written in the Renaissance, one treatise in particular crystallizes their compelling interplay. The writings in this 1665 publication were catalyzed by physician Théophraste Renaudot's weekly public addresses at the Bureau d'adresse et de rencontre, a free medical clinic cum employment office established in Paris in 1630.22 In these addresses, Parisian virtuosi characterize the falling sickness as follows. They first acknowledge epilepsy's sacred history, noting that,

the unexpectedness of this malady, and the Patient's quick recovery, may justifie the vulgar for thinking that there is something divine in it. Since nothing amazes us more than sudden uncomprehended alterations.23 Therefore in Hippocrates days they us'd to make expiations and incantations for this disease, which he derides, saying that the bad Physicians promoted this false conceit, that they might get the more honour for the cure, or be more excusable for not effecting the same. (Recontre 471)

Although the virtuosi deem epilepsy's divinity a "vulgar" notion, their mention of it here testifies that such a belief still circulated in the Renaissance; its divinity need not be discussed, that is, if not to be formally deconstructed. The virtuosi's seeming skepticism as to whether there is in fact "something divine" in "sudden uncomprehended alterations" is troubled likewise by their depiction of epilepsy as secret and fantastical: "The truth is," they contest, "there is a specifical occult quality of the humours particularly disposing to this disease" (471). Put another way, while interpreting epilepsy as sacred sign may be unfashionable to the virtuosi, the "unexpectedness of this malady, and the Patient's quick recovery" — its "specifical occult quality" — is nonetheless undeniable.

Just as the virtuosi inadvertently concretize epilepsy's "occult" nature, they concurrently corroborate a narrative in which it is simply a disease. Following this logic, the "falling sickness" results from the "abundance of gross humours, either phlegmatick or melancholy; which if it wholly fills the brains ventricles, and makes a total obstruction; . . . it causes an apoplexie, which is a total abolition of sense and motion in the whole body, with laesion of the rational faculty" (471). Here epilepsy is plainly pathological: ill humours obstruct ventricles to the brain causing temporary loss of both "motion" and "sense;" "Animal Spirits" are unable to traverse properly throughout the body prompting a "total abolition" of function (471). For the virtuosi, as for Shakespeare, the falling sickness is something both wondrous and rational that inspires amazement even as it is explainable through medical science.

Deciphering Disability

These coincident early modern disability narratives each attempt to classify disability and make it somehow recognizable for, as Park and Daston have clarified, categorization and rationalization are typical human impulses ("Unnatural Conception" 20). What Julius Caesar uncovers, however, is the challenge epilepsy posed to this classification process. Take, for example, Cassius and Casca's attempts to enunciate the falling sickness via various discourses that, when examined more closely, prove unable to fully articulate this kind of disabled body. To be clearer, the conspirators' failure to define epilepsy lies in the fact that the discourses they employ all recognize disability as something legible. The marvelous or monstrous body, for example, is defined by obvious physical difference; Caesar is identifiable as a Colossus and signifies as such. Similarly, the sick body registers its illness in observable symptoms; Caesar swoons, chokes, and foams. The epileptic body, however, often lacks such distinguishing characteristics: it does not always function in a predictably legible manner.

The problem epilepsy poses for the early modern cultural imagination — and perhaps for our modern sensibilities as well — resides in this illegibility. Epileptic seizures are transitory episodes that only temporarily register disability on the body and then seem to disappear. In this way, epilepsy forces a particularly rigorous exercise in discernment that might fail at any moment.24 The epileptic Caesar, in his ability to appear able-bodied, is unidentifiable as "Other" and thus eludes categorization as disabled. Julius Caesar acknowledges this dilemma, performing Caesar's ability to go unrecognized amongst the able-bodied — to "pass" as "normal." For nearly all his time in the play, in fact, Caesar enacts just such a strategy.25 He resists his non-normative status in what Simi Linton elsewhere has described as either "a deliberate effort to avoid discrimination or ostracism, or . . . an almost unconscious, Herculean effort to deny to oneself the reality of one's racial history, sexual feelings, or bodily state" (19).26 Caesar, in his efforts to pass, creates for himself a "minifiction" in which his disability has no place.27

Note, for instance, Caesar's response to the conspirators' pleas that Publius Cimber be granted "an immediate freedom of repeal" (3.1.53). Here Caesar emphasizes his able-bodiedness by remarking upon a constancy he asserted in the play's opening acts: "for I am always Caesar" (1.2.213 my italics). "I could be well moved if I were as you," he again attests in 3.1, "But I am as constant as the Northern Star / Of whose true fixed and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament" (59-62). Caesar continues:

The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks;
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: 'tis furnished well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaken of motion; and that I am he
Let me a little show it even in this —
That I was constant Cimber should be banished,
And constant do remain to keep him so. (63-73)

In this monologue, Caesar employs the language of "constancy" to affirm at once his political resolve and his physical endurance — the absence of disability. Though Caesar "could be well moved," he is not. His claim to be "unassailable" and "unshaken of motion" seems a direct response to Cassius's indictment earlier in the play. In this case, however, Caesar is a god who does not shake. As Katharine Eisaman Maus notes, "although epileptic and physically frail, he imagines himself as embodying a god-like permanence, 'unshaked of motion' (3.1.70)" (1528). His body is not marked by epileptic seizure but rather by a "true fixed and resting quality." By claiming steadfastness, Caesar accents his "personal self-control" and "reassuring fixity" (Maus 1528). He rejects disability, or at the very least, confirms his effort to pass as able-bodied. He denies any "apprehensive" corporeality, his fragile "flesh and blood," so as to "a little show" a powerful ability to "[hold] on his rank." In epilepsy's illegibility, Caesar proclaims himself "as constant as the Northern Star" and hence "hold[s] his place" in the world of the able-bodied.

Caesar's performance of normativity, though resisted by Cassius and Casca, is in fact corroborated by other characters in the drama. His insistent ability is confirmed, for instance, by Decius' reinterpretation of Calpurnia's dream in 2.2. "[Her dream] was a vision fair and fortunate," Decius explains:

Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,
In which so many smiling Romans bathed,
Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck
Reviving blood, and that great men shall press
For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance. (2.2.83-88)

According to Decius, Caesar's wounded body is not disabled but rather confers upon the populace "reviving blood" with curative powers. "Smiling Romans" "bathe" and "suck" from Caesar's potency, affirming his vibrant health and constancy in their demand for "tinctures" and "relics" born of his memorialized body. His "spouting blood" does not signify lack or deficiency but rather ability so robust and perfect that it might be bestowed upon other suffering, less-than-able bodies. "Great Rome," in Decius' formulation, is the disabled body that might be healed by Caesar's able one.

Just as these scenes affirm Caesar's ability to "pass" so too does the entire play in its refusal to formally stage Caesar's condition. In other words, although various characters comment on Caesar's disability, it never shows itself in the actions of the drama. In fact, word of Caesar's "falling sickness," the suggestion that he "fell down in the market-place, and foamed at mouth, / and was speechless" (1.2.250-51), appears to be nothing more than rumor. In noting his unconfirmed disability (the lack of actual performance of fit, swoon, or seizure in the drama), I am not denying Caesar's epilepsy but instead further confirming its illegibility. Put another way, this absence of "proof" throughout the play renders epilepsy an unrecognizable condition that, even as it is named disability, resists categorization as such. The invisible epileptic body, one that refuses identification and classification, undermines constructions of disability in the Renaissance. Epilepsy prompts a different understanding of human variation that, in its indecipherability, resists typical early modern narratives of disability as legible.

Interestingly, epilepsy's slippery categorization in the early modern period is evidenced by its misidentification on non-disabled bodies. In the Renaissance, able-bodied "counterfeit cranks" posed as epileptics; they exploited the falling sickness, in the words of Elizabethan author Thomas Harman, "for gain and to be pitied" (qtd Judges 81). Just as Shakespeare's Caesar passes as able-bodied, these "vagabonds," as Harman terms them, pass as disabled. In A Caveat for Common Cursetors (1567), Harman describes the deceptive tactics of one crank who feigned seizures by "hauing his face from the eyes downward, all smerd with fresh bloud, as though he had new fallen, and bin tormented with his paynefull panges, his ierken being all berayde with durte . . . as thoughe hée hadde wallowed in the myer." According to Harman, a lengthy inquisition reveals the rogue's deceit and confirms that his bloody face and dirty clothes are but props in a dishonest performance. The "monstrous and terrible" sight the man provokes turns out to duplicitously signal the falling sickness, and the rogue's seeming "[torment] with his paynefull panges" is nothing more than a false, albeit convincing, show (Caveat).28

As it outlines the challenge of discovering crank disability, A Caveat for Common Cursetors confirms, through the frightening prospect of misrecognition, early modern cultural anxieties about "proper" disability identification. Though focused on exposing counterfeit rogues and not on the passing practices of the disabled, the text betrays how Harman's vagabonds embody the blurry boundary between what constitutes ability and disability in the period, especially in terms of the falling sickness. Taken together, Harman's example of false claims to disability and Caesar's passing as able-bodied articulate an easy misinterpretation of the disabled body. Epilepsy's tangible signs — and, even more, the absence of them — might always be misidentified or misread, resulting in an imprecise marking and ineffective disciplining of what was considered to be threatening human variation.

A familiar early modern method for combating epilepsy's dangerous illegibility was the use of curative "cramp-rings" worn by those who were "diagnosed."29 Jewelry, in other words, had a restorative power that was especially conducive for treating the falling sickness and, therein, making it visible. Famed English astrologer William Lilly discusses the practice of ring remedy, citing the case of a young woman who, determined as epileptic, was cured by wearing a silver ring inscribed with astrological symbols.30 According to Lilly's report, physician Robert Napier insisted that she wear the ring diligently and that its powers were not occult. Yet the woman's parents and community members, as the cure worked, became suspicious of the ring and its symbols as potentially demonic: "Her parents acquainted some scrupulous divines with the cure of their daughter," Lilly explains, "'The cure is done by enchantment,' they say, 'cast away the ring, it is diabolical'" (qtd in MacDonald 30-31). When the woman's fearful parents complied, their daughter's epilepsy returned. Eventually, therefore, they reinitiated the ring treatment, and the young woman was restored to health for at least "a year or two" (30-31).

Like Napier, London's Royal College of Physicians recommended the use of jewelry to combat the falling sickness. They prescribed the following: "Elks Claws or hoofs are a Sovereign remedy for the falling sickness, though it be but worn in a ring, much more being taken inwardly, but (saith Mizaldus) it must be the hoof of the right foot behind" (London 71). Here London's physicians support Napier's remedy by also insisting that, in addition to ingesting the powder of an Elk's hoof, a ring filled with that same powder might alleviate the falling sickness. Their use of cramp-rings, of jewelry as cure more generally even, underscores the quandary epilepsy posed for an early modern culture in which disability was imagined as visually identifiable. Proscriptive ring wearing attempted to remedy this dilemma by offering treatment that distinctly marked an otherwise unmarked body. As a method of countering unrecognizable disability, the ring's therapeutic power actually lay, more than anything else, in its purposeful signaling of disability. Cramp-rings worked, that is, to contain via "cure" the threatening misrecognition that the epileptic body virtually guaranteed.31

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, like cramp-ring treatments, acknowledges the difficulty of identifying epilepsy and incorporating that epileptic body "safely" into early modern constructions of disability. The play portrays this threat well into its final acts as Caesar's ghost, an indefinable, "monstrous apparition" (4.2.328), appears to Brutus on the fields of Philippi. "Art thou any thing," Brutus fearfully queries the ghost, "Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil / That mak'st my blood cold and my hair to stare? / Speak to me what thou art" (329-32). This indeterminate being who is no "thing" affirms the play's preoccupation with what cannot be recognized. Signified in the ghost of Caesar who is neither god, angel, nor devil, disability remains utterly indecipherable, even as the play draws to a close. Just as Caesar's ghost resists classification — is he alive, dead, evil, good? — so too does the disabled body to which it alludes. The epileptic, like the illegible ghost, is frightening in the prospect that the disability it embodies might be similarly unidentifiable. It too haunts and threatens, testifying to the able body's tenuous privilege in a Renaissance cultural imagination that might only conceive of "normal" by successfully exposing "difference."

If, as Caesar's ghost reminds us, disability cannot be marked on those who are disabled, how does one define ability? What is able-bodiedness if disable-bodiedness has no tangible form? In the Renaissance, at least, it means that difference might go unrecognized and, in this lack of recognition, be located anywhere. Maybe everywhere. Or as Cassius aptly puts it, perhaps "Caesar hath it not; but you and I / And honest Casca, we have the falling sickness" (1.2.253-4).32 Shakespeare's Julius Caesar performs this prospect by staging epilepsy's indecipherability. In so doing, the play illuminates a knotty web of discourses used to articulate early modern disability and betrays how the complex interplay of those narratives fails to render disability fully visible or to contain what is perceived as its threatening difference.


The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is just one of many works in the Shakespearean canon that invite conversation about disability in the Renaissance. Analyses of Richard III and The Tempest, for instance, have performed the important work of interpreting the remarkable physicalities of both Richard and Caliban.33 Scholarly interest in these characters' "deformities" abounds, certainly, but too little of that interest reads either one's physical variations using the theoretical tools available to us via disability studies. In proceeding thus, one might ponder not whether Richard's deformity conjures or mirrors some inner evil but rather how his self-proclaimed mis-fitting in the world — "I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks" (Richard III 1.1.14) — offers reflection upon the awkward relationship of his body to an inflexible, oppressive, ableist environment. Or perhaps one might consider Caliban's development in The Tempest as evidencing a set of cultural and social practices that produce not only his disabled selfhood but the identity of the (hyper)able-bodied Prospero who dictates and determines his servitude.

As we move forward in an exploration of this new history of the early modern body, we need to search diligently and inventively for the terms and locations of disability in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We must look not just in unorthodox places, however, but revisit texts and narratives we have read again and again but without an eye to this sort of early modern subjectivity. As we open our scholarship to these possibilities and welcome the intersection of disability and early modern studies, Caliban will become more than a monster, Richard more than a hunchback. What might happen, we should ask ourselves, when Othello tells not only the story of a jealous Moor but, like Julius Caesar, the tale of an epileptic hero? How does the mutilated Lavinia or Amazonian Venus expose constructions of early modern femininity inflected by anxieties about able- and disable-bodiedness? How might these shifts in our attentions and vocabularies reinvigorate the processes of discerning in which we traditionally engage? What if difference becomes different, in other words, such that our old stories take on fresh shapes and resonances even as a new disability history in the Renaissance begins to be revealed?

I would especially like to thank for their insightful comments regarding this essay Professor David Houston Wood, Professor Gretchen Moon, Professor Marjorie Rubright, Lindsey Row-Heyveld, and Eduardo Paguaga.

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  1. While a number of Shakespeare's works are interested in disability, it seems important to note Othello as another play whose particular engagement with epilepsy sparked this essay's critical interests.

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  2. Though Caesar's deafness is also at issue, my essay establishes epilepsy as the drama's disability focus. For instances of deafness in the play, see 1.2.214, 1.3.43, and 2.1.317-18; for scholarly attention to Caesar's deafness, see Marvin Vawter's "'After Their Fashion': Cicero and Brutus in Julius Caesar" and John Velz's "Caesar's Deafness."

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  3. On medieval/early modern wonder and curiosity, see especially Mary Baine Campbell, Wonder and Science and Peter Platt, Wonders, Marvels, and Monsters in Early Modern Culture. For a discussion of the impact of scientific rationalism on this sensibility, see Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750.

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  4. David Mitchell further explains that "one cannot narrate the story of a healthy body . . . without the contrastive device of disability to bear out the symbolic potency of the message. The materiality of metaphor via disabled bodies gives all bodies a tangible essence, in that the healthy corporeal surface fails to achieve its symbolic effect without its disabled counterpart" (28).

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  5. This citation and all those hereafter appear in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Greenblatt, Cohen, Howard, Eisaman Maus, 1525-90.

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  6. In her discussion of early modern madness, Carol Thomas Neely argues for a similar kind of discursive malleability and interplay: "in this period, the cultural discourses that narrate and stage disorder themselves divide and produce reclassifications, revised diagnoses, changing gender associations, and new remedies" (3).

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  7. See especially Park and Daston's seminal essay "Unnatural Conception."

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  8. In Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, both Davis and Robert McRuer argue that normalcy and able-bodiedness emerged in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century in an effort to establish the modern nation-state (Davis "Bodies" 100-101) and in conjunction with the rise of industrial capitalism (McRuer 92).

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  9. For a comprehensive overview of Julius Caesar's critical history, see the introduction to Horst Zander's Julius Caesar: New Critical Essays.

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  10. See Paster's "In the Spirit of Men There is No Blood" and Kahn's Roman Shakespeare.

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  11. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has discussed the useful interdisciplinarity of feminist and disability approaches. See her essays "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory" and "Feminist Disability Studies."

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  12. For more on Renaissance geohumoralism, see the introduction to Floyd-Wilson and Sullivan's Environment and Embodiment in Early Modern England.

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  13. Galenic medicine conceived of bodies as comprised of four elements: air, earth, water and fire. These physical elements correlated with four humors — yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood—produced by the internal organs and passed through the bloodstream delivering cold, heat, moistness, and dryness to the rest of the body. Character traits and personality were associated with an excess of any of these humors.

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  14. See also Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl's Saturn and Melancholy.

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  15. In "Transformation and Degeneration," Stephanie Moss discusses the differences between Galenic and Paracelsan medical philosophies and stresses Paracelsus' staunch belief in environmental influence over the body.

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  16. One should note, of course, that Cassius's use of the term "god" in line 123 does not recall a disability discourse solely but is also an explicit reference to Caesar's political clout.

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  17. For an overview of the medical model of disability, and disability theory more generally, see Barnes, Oliver, and Barton's edition, Disability Studies Today.

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  18. See Montaigne's "On Cripples" and Bacon's "Of Deformity."

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  19. Here again in Blount's discussion of humors, we are reminded of Renaissance appropriations of the melancholic hero whose excess bile lends him tortured genius.

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  20. Barrough's The Methode of Phisicke Conteyning the Causes, Signes, and Cures of Invvard Diseases in Mans Body from the Head to the Foote (1583) is considered the first medical textbook to be published in English.

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  21. Owsei Temkin explains epilepsy's perceived contagion, especially in antiquity: "the epileptic himself was [considered] unclean; whoever touched him might become a prey to the demon. By spitting one tried to keep the demon away and thus escape infection. . . . Among the Romans the custom must have been widespread, for it seems as if the mentioning of 'the disease which is spit upon' in a play was a clear enough allusion to suggest epilepsy or madness to the audience" (8).

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  22. Renaudot, who organized forums on diverse subjects of interest, catalogued about 240 conference proceedings, which were then translated into English and eventually published in London.

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  23. For more on the notion of "alterations," see Timothy Hampton's "Strange Alteration."

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  24. I am indebted to scholar Lindsey Row-Heyveld for the wonderful phrase "exercise in discernment," and I gratefully borrow it from a talk she gave at M/MLA in fall 2007.

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  25. Although Caesar appears to have called himself "infirm" after his seizure during the coronation ceremony, this information comes only second hand through Casca. Caesar himself never speaks directly of his "falling sickness" and hence never corroborates his disability in any way.

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  26. The attempt," Linton further clarifies, "may be a deliberate act to protect oneself from the loathing of society or may be an unchecked impulse spurred by an internalized self-loathing" (19-20). Note also how Linton's use of "Herculean" here recalls, even in our contemporary moment, the type of the melancholy hero so crucial to epilepsy's signification in the classical and Renaissance traditions.

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  27. The term "minifiction" is also Linton's in Claiming Disability.

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  28. French physician Ambrose Pare also describes fraudulent early modern epileptics who "counterfiet the falling sickness, binde straitly both their wrests with plates of iron, tumble and rowl themselves in the mire, sprinkle and defile their heads and faces with beasts bloud, and shake their limbs and whole bodie. Lastly, by putting sope into their mouths, they foam at the mouth like those that have the falling sickness" (qtd in Temkin 166); for the original text, see Pare's Of Monsters and Prodigies, translated by Thomas Johnson in The Workes of that Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey (1649).

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  29. Traditionally cramp-rings, also known as St. Edward's Rings, were blessed by England's sovereigns each year on Good Friday. A service was held during which prayers and psalms were said, and holy water was poured over the rings. The rings were most often gold or silver and made from metal that the king offered to the Cross during the Good Friday ceremony. For more on cramp-rings as treatment for epilepsy, see Raymond Crawfurd, "The Blessing of Cramp-rings" in volume 1 of Charles Singer's Studies in the History and Method of Science, 165-187.

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  30. For a lengthier discussion of Lilly's report, see Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam, 30-31.

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  31. Thanks again to Lindsey Row-Heyveld for drawing my attention to cramp-ring treatments.

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  32. Of course, Cassius also refers overtly to the way the three men are slipping in their stations, "falling" in comparison to, and perhaps because of, Caesar's meteoric rise.

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  33. Some notable examples are Mark Burnett, Constructing 'Monsters' in Shakespearean Drama and Early Modern Culture; Joel Slotkin, "Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Shakespeare's Richard III"; Alan Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare's Caliban; and Erika Rundle, "Caliban's Legacy: Primate Dramas and the Performance of Species."

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