Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
The fear of able-bodied people pretending to be disabled was rampant in early modern England. Thieves were reputed to feign impairment in order to con charity out of well-meaning Christians. People told stories about these deceptive rogues in widely circulated prose pamphlets, sung about them in popular ballads, and even recorded their purported actions in laws passed to curb their counterfeiting. Feigned disability was especially prevalent--and potent--on the stage. Over thirty plays feature one or more able-bodied characters performing physical impairment. This dissertation examines the theatrical tradition of dissembling disability and argues that it played a central role in the cultural creation of disability as a category of identity. On the stage, playwrights teased out stereotypes about the non-standard body, specifically the popular notion that disability was always both deeply pitiful and, simultaneously, dangerously criminal and counterfeit. Fears of false disability, which surged during the English Reformation, demanded a policing of boundaries between able-bodied and disabled persons and inspired the first legal definition of disability in England. Rather than resolving the issue of physical difference, as the legal and religious authorities attempted to do, the theater revealed and reveled in the myriad complications of the non-standard body. The many plays that feature performances of dissembling disability use the trope to interrogate issues of epistemological proof, ask theological questions about charity and virtue, and, especially, explore the relationship between the body and identity. Fraudulent disability also had important literary uses as well; playwrights employed this handy theatrical instrument to construct character, to solve narrative problems, to draw attention to the manufactured theatricality of their dramas, and, often, to critique the practices of the commercial theater. Expanding beyond the medical perspectives offered by the few studies that have considered early modern disability, I argue that these performances emerge out of a complex network of literary, religious, and social concerns. For all that fraudulent disability may have been itself a type of fraud, trumped up by the state, the church, and the theater for their own diverse ends, it still wielded enormous influence in shaping notions of the non-standard body that are still current.
Copyright 2011 Lindsey Row-Heyveld
Row-Heyveld, Lindsey Dawn. "Dissembling Disability: Performances of the Non-Standard Body in Early Modern England." PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2011.