Historical essay
Shakespeare Knew What Modern Science Tells Us: Disability Discrimination is Fueled by Disgust

Shakespeare Knew What Modern Science Tells Us: Disability Discrimination is Fueled by Disgust

Bradley J. Irish

Recently, literary scholars have demonstrated how the works of William Shakespeare can serve as a fantastic tool for teaching and analyzing social justice: his plays offer significant commentary on many categories of marginalized personal identity, including gender, sexuality, and race. I am a disabled scholar and teacher of Shakespeare, so I’m interested in the depiction of disability in his plays—a topic that has, over the last decade or so, also garnered considerable critical attention. But in the last few years, I stumbled into an even deeper appreciation of Shakespearean disability, in a rather unexpected place: the emotion of disgust in Shakespeare.

In the last two decades, psychology and neuroscience have revealed that disgust can be central to how people respond to non-normative bodies—and disgust, more specifically, has been shown to serve as potent fuel for discrimination against people with disabilities. But while scientists are discovering more evidence for this linkage, I think that Shakespeare anticipated their findings by depicting the association of disability and disgust in his drama. When Shakespeare’s characters encounter people with non-normative bodies, their response is often framed in the rhetoric of revulsion. Shakespeare, it seems, knew what modern science would go on to tell us: disgust is central to how many observers respond to people with disabilities. And we can use this awareness, I suggest, to both better understand the depiction of disability in his works, and to ultimately help approach them through the lens of disability justice.

Scientists theorize that disgust is an emotion of regulation and avoidance, designed to help protect us from getting too close to substances that might cause us harm. Though the things that cause disgust differ from culture to culture, there are some consistencies around things that have been sources of danger across human history, specifically behaviors related to things like food, disease, hygiene, animals, bodily injury, and sex. This is because those things might place us in proximity to harmful entities, like disease-causing pathogens. But while the emotion helps us avoid contact with dangerous substances, there are also some unintended consequences: because the disgust system is designed to keep us safe, it errs on the side of caution, and is thus biased toward identifying things as threatening even when they’re not. This, in turn, has a tremendous effect on how humans interact with one another: unfortunately, the mechanism of disgust is fundamentally conservative, and often interprets signs of human difference as signs of potential danger.

Though it doesn’t always happen, when the disgust system encounters someone with certain kinds of physical and behavioral differences, it can erroneously attribute those differences to the presence of pathogens and trigger a disgust response. Accordingly, research suggests that disgust plays a role in forms of social discrimination and stigmatization, when people categorized as “other” (because of things like race or sexual orientation) become associated with a negative avoidance response. Indeed, it has been explicitly argued that disgust may play a central role in disability prejudice, as the ostensibly abnormal bodies and behaviors of disabled people are mistakenly identified as dangerous by an observer’s disgust system. This effect is strong: humans have evolved the tendency to implicitly associate any deviation from standard morphological norms as a sign of potential disease, which may trigger the avoidance response against non-normative bodies, even when no actual danger is present. Though this reaction can be modulated and dampened by conscious thought, it is largely experienced as an immediate, automatic feeling – and while the effect is negligible on some, others are highly disgust-sensitive and respond with powerful aversion to other kinds of people.

I believe Shakespeare anticipated these findings some four centuries before they would be established by modern research. When he presents characters with non-normative bodies, they often become associated with language linking them to disgusting or offensive matter. We may think, for instance, of Falstaff, famously defined by his diseased, overweight body. Across the plays in which he appears, Falstaff’s physical being is associated with explicit disgust elicitors: one doctor notes that he “might have more diseases than he knew for,” and the Lord Chief Justice catalogs the symptoms of his declining health, noting that he has “a moist eye, a dry hand, a yellow cheek, a white beard, a decreasing leg, an increasing belly” (2 Henry IV, 1.2.5; 177-79).[1] He is notably characterized as suffering from syphilis—a malady, Shakespeare liked to point out, that could render the body repulsive—and is described as an “unclean knight” who suffers from the “dissolute disease” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 4.4.57; 3.3.184). And his weight, of course, is presented as a continual point of ridicule, as when Hal in 1 Henry IV deems him an “obscene greasy tallow-catch” (2.4.223)—that is, a repulsive mass of congealed animal fat. In turn, Falstaff’s body comes to serve as an index of his moral failings; not only are his diseases attributed to “lust and late-walking” (Merry Wives, 5.5.143), but the newly crowned King Henry V explicitly links his friend’s unseemly behavior to his size, bidding him to “make less thy body hence, and more thy grace” (2 Henry IV, 5.5.51).

A lithograph depicting Falstaff walking through a wood with a lady.
Falstaff at Herne’s Oak in a print by Michele Beneditti, after Henry William Bunbury, 1793. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

But it’s not just Falstaff. As Jeffrey R. Wilson demonstrates in his work on early modern stigmatization, Shakespeare routinely links a character’s non-conforming body with moral compromise. Modern research reveals that disgust underpins an aversive response to disfigurement and deformity, and this linkage can be seen throughout Shakespeare’s plays. The classic example is King Richard III, whose evil is explicitly linked to his disgusting physical disability: he is declared a “foul indigested lump, / As crooked in thy manners as thy shape” (2 Henry VI, 5.1.157-8). Foul is one of the central terms in the early modern lexicon of disgust, signaling something of visceral or moral offense. Richard wickedly encompasses both, and it’s impossible to separate his repulsive behavior from his repulsive form.

Finally, Shakespeare’s disabled characters also intersect with other vital matters of social identity, in the sense that disability is an intersectional issue. Disgust has also been shown to fuel racist discrimination against outgroup members; in the last twenty years, dozens of studies have established the link between disgust and xenophobia, with results suggesting that “disgust sensitivity [is] a relatively standard predictor of prejudice.” In Shakespeare, the specific consequences of the intersection of racial disgust and disability disgust emerge with The Tempest’s Caliban, whose body is marked as “other” in multiple ways. As with Richard, Caliban’s body,which is tellingly described as “not honoured with / A human shape” (The Tempest, 1.2.283-4), is negatively linked to his behavior. Prospero describes him as being “as disproportioned in his manners / As in his shape” (5.1.291-2). But this allegedly off-putting appearance becomes racialized in Trinculo’s response to him. His disgusting physical form (he is “a strange beast” that “smells like a fish”) is entwined with his racial otherness (he is “an islander that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt”), ultimately collapsing the distinction between his morphologically non-normative body and his non-European body, and presenting him as doubly stigmatized (2.2.31; 26; 36-37). The connection is most explicit when Prospero declares him to be descended from a “vile race” (1.2.359)—vile, like foul, was another crucial word in the early modern lexicon of disgust.

As I encountered again and again in my larger project, Shakespeare was quick to utilize the rhetoric of disgust in instances when someone is being stigmatized, either by another character or by the playwright himself. We find a clear pattern in which characters inhabiting non-normative bodies are painted with the language of either physical or moral disgust—in many cases, simultaneously. It seems, then, that Shakespeare anticipated a body of scientific research that would emerge some four hundred years later, which demonstrates the profound connection between disgust and discrimination against disabled people.

But this prescience, however, does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare was progressive: on the contrary, he seems to invite his audience to feel disgust at many of his disabled characters. Accordingly, as modern readers and viewers of his plays, we must be attuned to the fact that to the fact that he leverages, for dramatic ends, the same process of disgust-based aversion that underwrites discrimination against people with disabilities today.

This awareness can be repurposed towards the goal of disability justice. The theorizations of psychologists and neuroscientists are intended to explain, not excuse, the role of disgust in social discrimination – and indeed, scientists actively discuss how this awareness might be utilized to combat stigmatization in today’s world. So too with Shakespeare: when discussing and teaching his works, we can draw purposeful attention to the insidious ways that characters with disabilities are characterized by the language of revulsion, to draw attention to the larger psychological dynamics of disgust that seem to fuel disability discrimination at large. Shedding light on how dehumanization works is a vital step in combating it – and here, Shakespeare can be extremely helpful, perhaps in spite of himself.


  1. All quotations of Shakespeare come from William Shakespeare: Complete Works, ed. Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson, David Scott Kastan, and H.R. Woudhusen (The Arden Shakespeare, 2021).

Featured image caption: Edwin Austin Abbey’s depiction of Richard III of England and the Lady Anne, 1896. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Bradley J. Irish is an associate professor of English at Arizona State University, where he focuses on the literary and cultural history of emotion. He is the author of Emotion in the Tudor Court: History, Literature, and Early Modern Feelings (2018) and Shakespeare and Disgust: The History and Science of Early Modern Revulsion (2023).