King Lear's exploration of what it means to be human has significant Disability Studies implications that have not yet been examined. Through the course of the play, Lear gains awareness of interdependence, bodily vulnerability, and human-animal kinship, and his new worldview unsettles the shared ground of ableism and anthropocentrism. Analyzing three of Lear's significant speeches, I argue that King Lear's exploration of what it means to be human anticipates Lennard Davis's recent theoretical concept, dismodernism. Both Lear and Gloucester express concern for Poor Tom in ways that link disability to community and social justice. Through considering King Lear in relation to early modern contexts and current Disability Studies theory and activism, I argue that the play is an important site for developing a socially conscious Shakespearean Disability Studies.

1. Introduction

In many ways, King Lear's treatment of disability is embarrassing. The play relentlessly intertwines disability and tragedy, depicting the journeys of temporarily-able bodies becoming disabled as central to its tragic arc. Disability is used as a narrative prosthesis in every one of King Lear's multiple plots. 1 Gloucester is blinded, Lear experiences madness, Edgar feigns madness as "Poor Tom," and the Fool is ambiguously aligned with intellectual disability. 2 Additionally, disability is used as a problematic metaphor for characters' figurative "sight," 3 rationality, and decision-making. Edgar's unconvincing moral gloss interprets his father Gloucester's blindness as a sign of divine retribution. 4 The play has been cited as a central example of how literature is biased against blind people. 5

While all of this is true, I argue that the play also contains a radical view of disability—a perspective that not only makes disability central to the human condition, but also voices an awareness of the social responsibilities that stem from such an understanding. The play's exploration of what it means to be human and what distinguishes humans from other animals has significant implications for Disability Studies that have not yet been explored. King Lear is an important play for the emerging field of Shakespearean Disability Studies, not only because the play's problematic (and conventional) deployment of disability requires critical analysis, but also because the play's radical approach to disability and poverty has the potential to align the field with disability justice. 6

In three significant speeches, Lear exposes human beings' fundamental reliance on things, animals, and each other. 7 Through these definitions of what it means to be human, King Lear unsettles the construct of the able body and presents a view of humanity that anticipates Lennard Davis's concept of dismodernism, which makes disability central to a postmodern view of identity. Davis foregrounds the "partial, incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence but dependency and interdependence" (Bending over Backwards 30). He continues: "Rather than the idea of the complete, independent subject, endowed with rights (which are in actuality conferred by privilege), the dismodernist subject sees that metanarratives are only 'socially created' and accepts them as that, gaining help and relying on legislation, law, and technology" (Bending over Backwards 30). As Lear shifts from power to powerlessness, he begins voicing similar views of human subjectivity. He draws from embodied knowledge to critique the social institutions that distribute accommodations inequitably and expresses a desire for a more equitable human society. After Lear and Gloucester experience disability, they start defining humans as interdependent and link this understanding to social justice by advocating for poor and oppressed people.

Exploring human beings' relationship to animals is central to Lear's shifting definitions of what it means to be human. Early modern culture and postmodern theory both challenge the human/animal divide that characterizes modernity. Raber describes early modern texts' resonance with postmodern and posthumanist theory, writing: "As the unstable, fabulated nature of the category of 'the human' came under pressure in theory generally, critics found that its pre-Cartesian formulation in early modern texts seemed proleptically to anticipate post-modern transgressions and interrogations of species boundaries" (288). Lear's speeches, I argue, proleptically anticipate Davis's postmodern concept, dismodernism, and highlight the relevance of early modern views of humans' relation to animals to Disability Studies.

Shakespeare's plays have been springboards for animal studies theorizing that challenges the Cartesian divisions of mind from body, human from animal (Raber). Early modern animal studies scholars have drawn from queer theory and sexuality studies (Raber 292) as well as critical race studies (Swarbrick). While Disability Studies perspectives are not often included in early modern animal studies scholarship, cultural constructions of dis/ability are central to understanding the construction of the human/animal divide. Sunaura Taylor's recent book, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation, powerfully demonstrates that ableism is inextricable from anthropocentrism. Animal studies' focus on the agency of animals re-situates humans and "their" world: the human is revised "as a being relying on and inseparable from animals to the extent that the human world can only be regarded as the so-called human world" (Fudge, "Renaissance Animal Things" 87, emphasis in original). This revision of what it means to be human dovetails with dismodernism. In a chapter entitled "Dismodernism Reconsidered," Davis writes that both dismodernism and recent animal studies scholarship attempt "to revise the fiction of the human by making … outcast groups central to any discussion of identity" (End of Normal 27-28). 8 This is exactly the type of theorizing Lear was performing on stage 400 years ago when he made Poor Tom central to his definition of the human.

In addition to exploring human beings' indebtedness to animals, King Lear dramatizes human beings' dependence on shelter, material things, and each other by staging homelessness. Both King Lear and the Duke of Gloucester fall from extreme privilege to extreme deprivation in the play. Linda Woodbridge, exploring the play's radical treatment of poverty and vagrancy, writes, "King Lear makes the privileged experience homelessness" (218). We can also say the play makes the privileged experience disability; in fact, disability and homelessness are relentlessly coupled in the play. The play invites us to consider disablement as primarily a social process. For both Lear and Gloucester, disability coincides with the loss of familial support, social status, and a place to live. Further, both characters experience advanced age and face the contempt of many who view old men as having no place in society.

The play aligns aging and disability with disaccommodation by society. For Lear and Gloucester, this disaccommodation prompts an awareness of the injustice of routinely leaving so many bodies unaccommodated. Both men begin caring about economic inequality after they experience social disablement. While many critics have explored the play's concern with poverty and economic inequality, 9 I argue that the play's exploration of disability and views of the body that anticipate dismodernism are integral to its concern for economic justice. Disability is central to what Peter Holbrook terms the play's "utopian countermovement" (356)—its subtle exploration of "social hope" (355) amidst its depiction of individuals' tragedies. In King Lear, disability is not represented solely in relation to individuals (as is conventional in representations that cast disability as "tragic"), but also in relation to the social world and political resistance. Embodied knowledge of disablement sparks Lear's and Gloucester's social justice awakenings.

The play brings an awareness of social oppression to its exploration of body-mind difference by exploring the basic need that all bodies have for accommodations and depicting the tragedies that ensue when these needs are not met. Lear draws attention to Poor Tom's body, "the thing itself" (3.4.106), to create a binary not between able bodies and disabled bodies, but rather between accommodated bodies and "unaccommodated" (3.4.106-7) bodies. The play exposes the fantasy of the independent, able body and prompts audiences to consider the universal need for accommodations that human embodiment entails. These accommodations are routinely taken for granted by those privileged enough to have them—until they are removed.

2. Shakespeare and Disability Studies

King Lear's concern for disability justice makes it an important intervention into the emerging field of Shakespearean Disability Studies, a field in which the methodologies, priorities, and terminology are currently being shaped. The ways in which contemporary Disability Studies can be put into conversation with early modern representations of diverse bodies and minds is the topic of lively debate. Recently, Jeffrey R. Wilson provided a critical summary of the flourishing of Disability Studies approaches to Shakespeare since Hobgood and Wood's special issue of DSQ in 2009 and called for "reflection on the status and the stakes of a Disability Studies approach to Shakespeare."

A central issue in this debate is whether or not "disability" as we now understand it can be said to exist in the texts of Shakespeare and other premodern authors. In "Dr. Johnson, Amelia, and the Discourse of Disability in the Eighteenth Century," Lennard Davis defines disability as "a categorization tied to the development of discourses that aim to cure, remediate, or catalog variations in bodies" (56), and concludes that this discourse did not exist before the eighteenth century. Davis's chronology has been influential in historicist debates (Wilson). Wilson advocates for considering stigma, rather than disability, in critical analyses of Shakespearean characters marked as "other." At the same time, Wilson notes, a compromise can be reached in understanding disability as an identity category in the early modern period. He writes, "disability could have been a psychologically influential factor in identity formation in the Renaissance (as it has been in all times and places) that then became an explicit discourse in the eighteenth century."

As early modern Disability Studies continues to grow as a field it can, like early modern queer studies, critical race studies, and postcolonial studies, consider both the historically specific and the theoretically resonant. 10 Early modern conceptualizations of what it means to be human are important sites for understanding the roots of ableism and understanding how ableist views were enforced and challenged, even before the modern category of disability formally emerged. Lear's speeches challenge ableism by making interdependence, bodily vulnerability, and animal kinship central to what it means to be human. Through this, the play participates in what we can now call Disability Studies theorizing.

I use the term "disability" throughout this article because I argue that King Lear not only represents a relationship between what we now call disability and identity, but also aligns this identity with community and a concern for social justice. While Wilson's argument for analyzing stigmatized identity in Shakespeare's works is applicable to King Lear, the play goes beyond representing stigma and begins to sketch the outlines of what we can now call a disability community. The play depicts bonds between characters aligned with disability and the emergence of social awareness based on the experience of oppression. Lear, Poor Tom, Gloucester, and the Fool are all aligned with disability either through experience or metatheatrical role, and all lose their place in society and end up homeless during the course of the play. Edmund, who is stigmatized because of his illegitimacy, does not share the same fate; he is emphatically not part of the disability community that begins to form on the heath. The play invites us to consider not only the social construction of stigma, but also the material conditions that support human life—and the ways in which aging, disability, and poverty can highlight a society's failure to accommodate people.

Focusing on King Lear can prompt the field of Shakespearean Disability Studies to address social inequality more broadly. Richard III's centrality to the field has shaped its priorities and resulted in significant omissions. In "Shakespeare Differently Disabled," Tobin Siebers poses a series of provocative questions: "How does the impulse to interpret Richard shape the field of disability studies?"; "what would it mean to replace him?"; and "Which Shakespeare character would serve as the standard of this differently disabled disability studies?" (435). Siebers explores how making Richard central to the field "comes at the cost of ignoring Richard's villainy" (451) and endorsing his quest for power (451-52). He shifts the focus to Falstaff and Ophelia—two disempowered characters—to reimagine what the field might look like if it focused on "embodied knowledge" rather than power (452). Following Siebers, this article focuses on disempowered characters in King Lear. I advance a version of Shakespearean Disability Studies centered on King Lear, and more specifically, centered upon Lear's view of Edgar/Poor Tom's body—a view of the body that confounds binaries of disability/ability and anticipates Lennard Davis's dismodernism. Katherine Schaap Williams's "Enabling Richard: The Rhetoric of Disability in Richard III" productively applies dismodernism to Richard III's protean rhetoric of disability, but Richard mobilizes disability solely to accumulate power for himself. Analyzing King Lear in relation to dismodernism foregrounds interdependence rather than self-interest. King Lear presents a differently dismodern Disability Studies that incorporates disability justice in ways that Richard III explicitly does not.

3. "Reason not the need": Separating Men from Beasts

Lear's madness coincides with the systematic removal of the props that support his identity: within the first two acts of the play, he loses his political power, familial relationships, retinue, and a place to sleep. At the end of act 2, Regan and Goneril discuss reducing the number of knights attending Lear, rapidly whittling the number of followers that they will allow from 100 to 50 to 25 to 10 to 5 before Regan asks: "What need one?" (2.4.263). Lear, faced with the loss of his knights and the loss of social position and filial obedience they symbolize, responds with a definition of what it means to be human:

O, reason not the need! our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's. (2.4.264-67)

Margreta de Grazia uses this speech to argue that the play defines humanity as dependent on things. She writes, "All persons, from highest to lowest, must possess something beyond need – a superfluous thing" (22). While de Grazia is concerned with social distinctions and the property relations that underpin them, I will consider the Disability Studies implications of defining humans as fundamentally reliant on external things. By showing the tenuousness of the line between man and beast, and defining man as reliant on things, Lear begins to unsettle both ableism and anthropocentrism, even as he struggles to maintain his position of privilege.

In Lear's speech, beasts serve as an abject foil for man. However, beasts' lives are "cheap" only because they lack the superfluities that give human lives value. Rather than defining humans as superior to animals because of an intrinsic quality supposed as unique to humans, such as a soul, rationality, or upright posture, 11 in Lear's speech, things alone separate human from beast. While reason has been constructed as a defining feature of humanity and used to establish humans' superiority over other animals, 12 Lear defines humans as requiring things that are beyond "reasoning." Already, Lear has begun to show the precariousness of the category of "man," how easily it dissolves into the larger category of "beasts" and the even more encompassing category of "nature." The category of "man," which, as Taylor has shown, is often aligned with the construct of able-bodied man, is less an inherent way of being than a social position supported by the accumulation of "superfluous" things.

Lear's appeal to humanity's right to "superfluous" things is part of his attempt to preserve his unique social privilege. De Grazia writes: "Lear pleads for the retention of his unnecessary retainers as if such holdings were a human right, for beggars as much as kings" (23), yet he is primarily concerned with maintaining social distinctions between men (de Grazia 24). He uses "basest beggars" as a purely rhetorical image to prove that humans, even in their poorest, most abject state, accumulate more possessions than beasts. In the storm, however, Lear begins to care about the poor.

4. "Poor naked wretches": Disability Justice in the Storm

Lear announces the madness that ensues from being confronted with the loss of the things that supported his identity as king, father, and human. Unable to keep his retinue, he jettisons more things, including a home, and says, "O Fool, I shall go mad!" (2.4.286) while rushing into the storm. Lear's madness is represented as a dynamic interaction between his body-mind and social world. 13

Lear's loss of things and his experience in the storm profoundly change his worldview. While Lear's "reason not the need" speech focused exclusively on his needs, Lear begins to show concern for the needs of the poor while on the heath. Feeling the elements against his skin and feeling the grief of his losses, Lear begins to care about the bodies of the most vulnerable. He says:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your [loop'd] and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (3.4.28-36)

Lear's realization of his foundational need for support prompts him to consider those who have been living without support for so long: the homeless and hungry people whose bodies he took "too little care of" when he was king. Davis describes "caring about the body" as central to dismodernist ethics (Bending over Backwards 28, emphasis in original). He describes this as paying attention to how bodies—including significant percentages of disabled bodies—are oppressed, mistreated, living in poverty, and incarcerated (Bending over Backwards 28-29). It is this type of caring about the bodies of others—their "houseless heads" and "unfed sides"—that incites Lear's desire for human action to "show the heavens more just" by redistributing wealth.

Lear cares about the bodies of homeless people, a group often considered beyond the scope of compassion in the early modern discourse of charity. 14 Woodbridge draws attention to the speech's emphasis on vagrant poor people, who were harshly penalized and feared in early modern England. She writes:

Audiences accustomed to hearing vagrants reviled for "beastly life" … and seeing the homeless disqualified from relief under the Poor Laws must have been signally unprepared for Lear's stunning proclamation of royal responsibility for the homeless, his resounding cry of compassion for those who for whatever cause have no house to cover their heads. (Woodbridge 214, emphasis in original)

While suspicion about feigned disability informed early modern constructions of the "deserving" and "undeserving poor," 15 Lear dissolves the need for such a binary by considering poor people universally deserving of aid. This moment imagines a society that recognizes the interdependence of people and things as a cornerstone of human identity. Humanity's relationship to things is interrogated to distinguish between superfluities that can be shed and necessities that should be granted. Rather than clinging to the extravagantly superfluous things that defined his identity as king, Lear implores the rich to shed their "superflux" to achieve the equitable distribution of things that human beings require. Lear envisions a society in which all people would be accommodated, rather than the current state in which some people are superfluously accommodated while others are left painfully unaccommodated. While the utopian potential of this moment is never realized in the play, it exists as part of what we can term the play's dismodernist ethics.

5. "Unaccommodated man": Lear's Dismodern Subject

This speech is immediately followed by the appearance of Poor Tom, the metatheatrical embodiment of the "naked wretches" Lear has just prayed for. Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, is feigning mental disability. As a caricature of theatricalized disability and poverty, Poor Tom hails from the genre of early modern texts known as rogue literature, which, as Woodbridge describes, depict "nearly all beggars and vagrants as charlatans, performing disability though able-bodied, pretending poverty though they have money stashed away" (221). This stereotype continues to harm people with disabilities, as Bill Hughes shows in his study of how early modern England's construct of the "sturdy beggar" and criminalization of "counterfeit disability" (998) impact the current discourse of welfare reform. While Edgar's disguise as Poor Tom perpetuates cultural biases that place people under suspicion of "faking" disability, Lear's radical empathy for Poor Tom presents a powerful alternative to suspicion—an alternative that audiences are invited to share. 16

Like Lear when he experiences madness and Gloucester after he is blinded, Edgar has lost his family, status, and home. It is not Edgar/Poor Tom's feigned madness or self-inflicted wounds, but rather his unfeigned lack of stuff that prompts Lear's manifesto on human fragility and the interdependence at the center of human identity. Gesturing at Edgar/Poor Tom's almost naked body, Lear says:

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow'st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha? here's three on 's are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork'd animal as thou art. (3.4.102-8).

It is not Poor Tom's seeming madness that distinguishes him from the "sophisticated" onlookers: it is the fact that he is "unaccommodated." The accommodations that he lacks include clothing and lodgings: in other words, bodily protections and the legible place in society that they symbolize. Rather than setting up a binary between disabled and nondisabled people, or "mad" and "not mad" people, Lear's speech posits a binary between "unaccommodated man" and accommodated man.

By drawing attention to Poor Tom's "unaccommodated" status, Lear is not castigating Poor Tom or locating the problem in Poor Tom's body or mind. In fact, Poor Tom's body is being held up as the standard for all human beings: "the thing itself." Lear implicitly criticizes the society that has left Poor Tom unaccommodated, a perspective that aligns with the social model of disability. The category of "unaccommodated man" is not limited to people with disabilities who may require accommodations: it is the primal state of all human bodies. A seemingly-able body is propped up by "lendings" (3.4.108) that have been assumed as one's own. The "lendings" Lear describes include silk, leather, wool, and perfume, but we can add housing, political representation, education, and employment opportunities: the slew of privileges routinely taken for granted by people who have enjoyed access to them.

Lear's "unaccommodated man" is strikingly similar to Lennard Davis's dismodern subject. Lear's view of the human condition aligns with Davis's description: "Impairment is the rule, and normalcy is the fantasy. Dependence is the reality, and independence grandiose thinking" (Bending over Backwards 31). Both Lear's "unaccommodated man" and Davis's dismodern subject define human beings by their reliance on external things, and both view human beings' "dependency and interdependence" (Davis, Bending over Backwards 30) as foundational. While Lear desires to remove his "lendings" and become "the thing itself," the dismodern subject is liberated by navigating the "lendings" that are available, making use of technology and legislation, and seeking to make society more equitable.

Lear's use of "unaccommodated" resonates with both the contemporary disability rights movement and the early modern discourse of homelessness. Hillary M. Nunn describes how the term "unaccommodated man," from a Disability Studies perspective, "highlights the vulnerability of the naked human body, yet it also points to its ability to eventually come to terms with its surroundings" (127). She considers how the early modern usage of the word "accommodate" as meaning "'to fit' or 'to make apt'" anticipates its current usage in the phrase "reasonable accommodation" for people with disabilities by "suggesting that humans can not only change their own bodies, internally as well as externally, but the environments in which they move" (127). Focusing on the early modern discourse of poverty and vagrancy, Woodbridge notes that, since "accommodation" can refer to "lodgings," "'unaccommodated' may mean 'homeless'" (234n1). Woodbridge considers the play "politically and socially radical" (205) in its portrayal of homelessness. King Lear is also radical from a Disability Studies perspective: the play's radical stance on homelessness is inextricably linked to its exploration of social disablement. Advocating for "unaccommodated man" is crucial to both the disability rights movement and anti-poverty activism, making Lear's speech a key instance of early modern disability justice theorizing.

Considering human beings' kinship with animals, as well as their dependence on animals, is central to Lear's undermining of the fantasy of human independence and self-sufficiency. Erica Fudge argues that King Lear's focus on "animal-made-objects" (her term for both commodities made from animal matter and living animals that are treated as objects), such as clothing and civet, deconstructs "the humanist ideal of the human as separate, as an end and not a means" ("Renaissance Animal Things" 100). Lear's speech unsettles the construct of the able body, literally pointing out the fundamental incompleteness, precariousness, and animality of all human bodies as he points to the actor's barely clothed body. Defining man as a "poor, bare, fork'd animal" highlights what is so often disavowed: human beings are animals. 17 Lear's speech shatters the belief that humans are separate from and superior to all other animals, a belief that has fueled both speciesism and ableism (Taylor).

In The Accommodated Animal, Laurie Shannon shows how Lear's speech explodes the notion of human exceptionalism: humans are described as lacking compared to animals, rather than the other way around (127-50). She writes: "Lear's inventory of subtractions interprets man as a helpless, radically exposed creature (and a 'thing' at that), one who, with the aid of (only) two feet, walks on the ground" (127). Rather than casting bipedalism as a sign of exceptionalism, as it has been in the intertwined histories of speciesism and ableism (Taylor 83-94), Lear disparages this "forked" anatomy. 18 Using a Disability Studies framework, we can say that Lear constructs animals as more able-bodied than "bare" humans: animal bodies are equipped with fur, wool, sharp teeth, claws, and even houses in the forms of shells. 19 By using animals' capacities to judge man's status as "unaccommodated," Lear reimagines what counts as ability and pushes back against the tendency to measure animals' capacities in relation to those deemed typical of humans—a tendency that has animated speciesism from Aristotle through medieval concepts of the Great Chain of Being to contemporary scientific research (Taylor 49-55, 83-94). Since human exceptionalism is intertwined with ableism, 20 Lear's "human negative exceptionalism" (Shannon 20) dismantles the shared ground of anthropocentrism and ableism.

Lear's speech lays bare the central fantasy of ableism: no human being can be said to possess a truly able body. Humans must fashion bodily protections that many other species are naturally provided with, and often depend upon animal bodies to do so. In other words, all human bodies require accommodations in order to navigate their natural and built environments. While Shannon focuses on the negative aspects of defining human beings as lacking other animals' "completeness and self-sufficiency" (142), this definition aligns precisely with Davis's concept of dismodernism. In other words, Lear's speech can be interpreted as both a lament about the limitations of human embodiment and a workable starting point for a more equitable society.

6. "Distribution should undo excess": Gloucester's Disability Justice

Gloucester, likes Lear, has a social justice awakening after his disablement. Like Lear, Gloucester views Poor Tom with radical empathy. Giving his disguised son Edgar his purse, Gloucester says:

Here, take this purse, thou whom the heav'ns' plagues
Have humbled to all strokes. That I am wretched
Makes thee the happier; heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your pow'r quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough. (4.1.64-71)

While Lear asks for human action to "show the heavens more just" (3.4.36), Gloucester calls on divine retribution as a means to achieve economic justice. Like Lear's "Poor naked wretches" speech, Gloucester's view of economic justice can be interpreted as radical. Woodbridge reviews how critics have interpreted "distribution should undo excess" as either a radically communist sentiment or a conventional appeal to charity (216) and argues that "'distribution' often referred more generally to a radical redistribution of wealth" (217). She writes: "Both Lear and Gloucester speak of superfluity, excess wealth arrogated by the haves to the deprivation of the have-nots. Their epiphany is not a warm, fuzzy sense of human brotherhood but a specific recognition of economic inequality in this realm" (Woodbridge 215-16). This recognition is intimately intertwined with the embodied knowledge of disability that both characters come to possess.

For both Lear and Gloucester, the experience of disability is central to the characters' roles as advocates for social change. Gloucester, like Lear, begins to care about Poor Tom's body; he asks a tenant to bring him clothes (4.1.44). For both characters, aging is linked with impairment and disaccommodation by society. For both characters, disaccommodation by society prompts concern for the bodies of others and contemplation of a more equitable distribution of wealth. This representation of disability as embodied knowledge with social justice implications goes beyond the conventional literary uses of madness and blindness as narrative prostheses and metaphors (although the play also uses disability in these ways) and allows the play to explore a disability justice consciousness.

7. Conclusion

King Lear's dismodernist ethics has notable shortcomings. While the play's treatment of poverty and homelessness is radical, the play does not address the intersection of disability, race, gender, and sexuality, which is of central importance to disability justice activism. In fact, Lear's dismodern vision coexists with fierce misogyny. "Man" may merge into the category of "animal," but "man" is still set distinctly apart from the category of "woman." While Lear acknowledges men's bodies as animalistic, he denounces women's bodies as demonic. 21 Rather than offering a purely utopian view of dismodernism, the play shows how even Lear's radical new understanding of economic justice, dis/ability, and human-animal kinship can coexist with deeply entrenched misogyny and the scapegoating of oppressed groups.

Whenever King Lear is taught, disability will be addressed. Too often, disability's centrality in the play is addressed without the insights of Disability Studies, in ways that reinforce stereotypes and turn disability into metaphor. Students should be encouraged to engage in critiques of the play's problematic and conventional deployment of disability. The play can also be a springboard for discussions of dismodernism, disability justice, and interrogating the constructs of the able body and the human/animal divide—constructs that did not formally exist yet in Shakespeare's time and that are in the process of being dismantled in ours.

Works Cited

  • Davis, Lennard J. Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions. New York University Press, 2002.
  • ---. "Dr. Johnson, Amelia, and the Discourse of Disability in the Eighteenth Century." Defects: Engendering the Modern Body, edited by Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum, University of Michigan Press, 2000, pp. 54-74.
  • ---. The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era. University of Michigan Press, 2013.
  • De Grazia, Margreta, "The Ideology of Superfluous Things: King Lear as Period Piece." Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, edited by Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 17-42.
  • Dhar, Amrita. "Seeing Feelingly: Sight and Service in King Lear." Disability, Health, and Happiness in the Shakespearean Body, edited by Sujata Iyengar, Routledge, 2015, pp. 76-92.
  • Fudge, Erica. Brutal Reasoning: Animals, Rationality, and Humanity in Early Modern England. Cornell University Press, 2006.
  • ---. "Renaissance Animal Things." New Formations, no. 76, 2012, pp. 86-100. https://doi.org/10.3898/NEWF.76.06.2012
  • Holbrook, Peter. "The Left and King Lear." Textual Practice, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 343-362. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502360050082659
  • Hornback, Robert B. "The Fool in Quarto and Folio of King Lear." English Literary Renaissance, vol. 34, no. 3, 2004, pp. 306-338. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0013-8312.2004.00046.x
  • Hughes, Bill. "Disabled People as Counterfeit Citizens: The Politics of Resentment Past and Present." Disability & Society, vol. 30, no. 7, 2015, pp. 991–1004. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2015.1066664
  • Langan, Celeste. "Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory; Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions." American Literature, vol. 78, no. 3, 2006, pp. 655-657. https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2006-045
  • Menon, Madhavi. "Period Cramps." Queer Renaissance Historiography: Backward Gaze, edited by Vincent Joseph Nardizzi, Stephen Guy-Bray, and Will Stockton, Ashgate, 2009, pp. 229-35.
  • Mingus, Mia. "Changing the Framework: Disability Justice." RESIST Newsletter, November 2010. Available at: https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/changing-the-framework-disability-justice/. Accessed on: September 29, 2017.
  • Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. University of Michigan Press, 2000.
  • Nunn, Hillary M. "'The King's Part': James I, The Lake-Ros Affair, and the Play of Purgation." Disability, Health, and Happiness in the Shakespearean Body, edited by Sujata Iyengar, Routledge, 2015, pp. 127-41.
  • Pierce, Robert B. "'I Stumbled When I Saw': Interpreting Gloucester's Blindness in King Lear." Philosophy and Literature, vol. 36, no. 1, April 2012, pp. 153-165. https://doi.org/10.1353/phl.2012.0008
  • Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. University of Michigan Press, 2011. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.1612837
  • Raber, Karen. "Shakespeare and Animal Studies." Literature Compass, vol. 12, no. 6, 2015, pp. 286–298. https://doi.org/10.1111/lic3.12235
  • Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin, Houghton Mifflin, 1997, pp. 1297-1354.
  • Shannon, Laurie. The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales. University of Chicago Press, 2013. https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226924182.001.0001
  • Siebers, Tobin. "Shakespeare Differently Disabled." The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, and Race, edited by Valerie Traub, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 435-454. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199663408.013.25
  • Swarbrick, Steven. "Shakespeare's Blush, or 'the Animal' in Othello." Exemplaria, vol. 28, no. 1, 2016, pp. 70–85. https://doi.org/10.1080/10412573.2016.1115624
  • Taylor, Sunaura. Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. New Press, 2017.
  • Williams, Katherine Schaap. "Enabling Richard: The Rhetoric of Disability in Richard III." Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 4, 2009. https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v29i4.997
  • Wilson, Jeffrey R. "The Trouble with Disability in Shakespeare Studies." Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 2, 2017. https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v37i2.5430
  • Woodbridge, Linda. Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature. University of Illinois Press, 2001.


  1. Mitchell and Snyder's highly influential concept, "narrative prosthesis," highlights the centrality of disability to the construction of narratives; while disability propels literary narratives, it is ultimately eliminated—usually when the disabled character is "cured" or dies (Mitchell and Snyder 53-54).
    Return to Text
  2. Robert B. Hornback argues that the Fool is an "artificial fool," or feigning intellectual disability, in the Quarto text of King Lear and a "natural fool," or experiencing intellectual disability, in the Folio text.
    Return to Text
  3. Amrita Dhar explores "the metaphorical and the material" (82) significance of sight in King Lear, with particular attention to the scene of Gloucester's blinding.
    Return to Text
  4. Edgar claims: "The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us" (5.3.171-72) and concludes that Gloucester's act of begetting an illegitimate son "Cost him his eyes" (5.3.174).
    Return to Text
  5. Robert B. Pierce considers the problematic treatment of blindness in literature in "'I Stumbled When I Saw': Interpreting Gloucester's Blindness in King Lear."
    Return to Text
  6. Mia Mingus describes disability justice as a social justice framework that foregrounds interdependence and intersectionality, and that is committed to dismantling ableism and other forms of oppression to which it is connected.
    Return to Text
  7. All of the speeches that are relevant to my argument appear in both the Quarto (1608) and Folio (1623) texts of King Lear.
    Return to Text
  8. Davis cites Celeste Langan's review of Davis's Bending Over Backwards and Cary Wolfe's Animal Rites as making this connection (End of Normal 27-28).
    Return to Text
  9. Holbrook argues that King Lear is particularly aligned with "criticism committed to social and economic equality" (344) and critically analyzes various Marxist approaches to the play.
    Return to Text
  10. Madhavi Menon draws from examples set by scholars of race and postcolonial studies working on the early modern period to argue that queer theorists should also not be limited by a "pre- and post- schema" (230) of modern identities.
    Return to Text
  11. Taylor reviews taxonomies that have been used to separate humans from other animals (83-94).
    Return to Text
  12. In Brutal Reasoning: Animals, Rationality, and Humanity in Early Modern England, Erica Fudge critically explores the centrality of reason in early modern constructions of humans as distinct from other animals.
    Return to Text
  13. "Psychosocial disability," defined by Margaret Price as a term that "bumps psych (soul) against social context" (18, emphasis in original), is a useful term to apply to the play's representation of madness.
    Return to Text
  14. In Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature, Linda Woodbridge surveys the early modern discourse of vagrancy and King Lear's unique portrayal of homelessness.
    Return to Text
  15. Woodbridge describes the cultural view that "the deserving were often disabled; the undeserving feigned disability" (22).
    Return to Text
  16. Woodbridge draws attention to the play's unique approach: "Readers are invited to sympathize with Edgar as faking madman, to see his fraud as legitimated by homelessness and persecution" (223, emphasis in original). Comparing how the approach to feigned disability in King Lear differs from the earlier treatment in 2 Henry VI, Woodbridge concludes: "Shakespeare's social awareness seems to have increased" (223).
    Return to Text
  17. Taylor discusses the simultaneous recognition and rejection of the fact that humans are animals (83-94).
    Return to Text
  18. Shannon describes the "sinister" undertone of the word "forked," and considers this descriptor a rebuttal to "claims about [man's] bipedal uprightness or the ontological movement toward divinity it was alleged to index" (128).
    Return to Text
  19. Shannon considers King Lear in relation to the view, present in classical, Christian, and natural history texts, that human bodies are essentially "bare" and "unaccommodated" compared to the bodies of other animals (141-50).
    Return to Text
  20. Taylor writes: "Ableism allows us to view human abilities as unquestionably superior to animal abilities" (58).
    Return to Text
  21. Lear describes women as "Centaurs" and says: "But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiends': there's hell, there's darkness, / There is the sulphurous pit" (4.6.124, 126-128).
    Return to Text
Return to Top of Page