‘Representing Disability in Shakespeare’s World’ was an online event organised by the Civil War Petitions project in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and organised as part of the ESRC’s ‘Festival of Social Science Week’. The premiere of the film was shown on Monday 9 November 2020.
Using insights from history and disability studies, the performance draws from Shakespearean England to explore social representations and attitudes toward disability in the context of military life, then and today.
The film features actors from the RSC and two freelance actors with disabilities, with commentary by Professor Andrew Hopper and an afterword by Dr Daniel Blackie. The production includes a series of video monologues of extracts from Shakespeare’s plays, as well as dramatised petitions that survive from wounded soldiers applying for the first state military pensions during Shakespeare’s day and the years immediately afterwards. Although most petitions in the production (as in the archives) concentrate on physical injuries, the soldiers’ and their communities’ struggles with emotional and mental difficulties as a result of war are also evident. Dr Blackie’s afterword reflects upon some of the themes raised in the performance and suggests how these might prompts us to new questions about those who lived with disabilities in the past.
During the premiere, the film was accompanied by discussion from disability studies scholars, an expert from the Shakespeare Institute, early modern historians, representatives from arts and military organisations, and the actors themselves. These provided insights and critical reflection on contemporary representation and attitudes toward disability, as well as equality and social support for those with disability. It is hoped that the film will continue to create fruitful discussion about the various similarities between difficulties people with disabilities faced then and continue facing today when applying for help, and how the attitudes have (or have not) changed over the centuries.