Disability, impairment and embodied difference in late-medieval drama: constructions, representations, and the spectrum of signification
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Smith, Helen Frances
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This thesis explores the spectrum of signification of disability, impairment and embodied difference in medieval drama. Drama is an important medium in which to explore what the body is used to signify as it provides an extra dimension in the physical embodiment and performance of these physical and spiritual conditions. Despite the value of medieval drama in understanding the significations of physical and psychological affliction, it remains a neglected area of scholarly research. In order to understand the meaning of dramatic representations of disability and impairment, it is necessary to explore the spectrum of signification attached to these conditions, since they could elicit such unstable and ambivalent responses. In this endeavour, this thesis consults medical, historical and cultural sources in addition to play-texts and performance evidence in order to understand the construction and representation of specific types of physical and psychological affliction in medieval drama, and what these conditions are used to signify through the body. Over the four chapters of this thesis I examine the ageing body (chapter 1); the unconverted Jewish body (chapter 2); the disease of leprosy (chapter 3); and wounds, mutilation and dismemberment (chapter 4). The play-texts I use deliberately draw upon a wide range of characters and personified abstractions, from the moral and the sacred to the immoral and the profane, from biblical drama to morality plays. These diverse conditions and identities allow an overarching insight into their use and meanings in medieval drama. Similarly, the diverse range of characters allows me to consider how the body is used to reflect the moral and spiritual condition of a character through the embodied mode of dramatic performance. For each of my chapters, the conditions I discuss possess ambivalence in their contrasting meanings, which binds the thesis together as a whole in acknowledging the changing and contrasting significations of disability, impairment and embodied difference according to the context.