Blog Post

Book Review: Row-Heyveld, Lindsey. Dissembling Disability in Early Modern English Drama. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Reviewed by Olivia Henderson | January 5, 2022

Over the past ten years, several collections – including Recovering Disability in Early Modern England; Disability, Health, and Happiness in the Shakespearean Body; and Performing Disability in Early Modern English Drama – have demonstrated the growing investment of early modernists in disability studies, a multidisciplinary field that investigates the construction and experience of disability as a category of identity. Perhaps due to these excellent anthologies, most scholarship on premodern disability has been circulated through individual articles and book chapters. As one of the first single-authored monographs on early modern disability studies, Lindsey Row-Heyveld’s Dissembling Disability in Early Modern English Drama represents a significant step forward for the premodern disability studies community and makes an exciting contribution to both early modern scholarship and disability theory.

In her landmark project, Row-Heyveld examines the long-neglected theatrical tradition of “counterfeit-disability,” defined as an ablebodied (or nondisabled) character using disability as a disguise (1-2). By Row-Heyveld’s count, over 40 Renaissance plays employ counterfeit-disability as a plot device, and characters that “dissemble” disability appear more often than “authentically” disabled characters on the English stage (1–2). Row-Heyveld positions her research between studies of disguise, beggars/vagrancy, and performativity, arguing that counterfeit-disability reflects “the dominant narrative about disability in early modern England: that people with disabilities are, simultaneously, pitiful and criminally deceptive” (1).

Taking a Marxist approach to disability, Row-Heyveld connects dramaturgical instances of counterfeit-disability to structural changes in almsgiving, arguing that the Protestant Reformation reconfigured the English system of monetary aid, replacing the Catholic church with state organizations as the primary source of charity for those unable to work (Row-Heyveld 6). In contrast to the Catholic doctrine of universal giving, Protestant-affiliated state organizations created guidelines to determine individual need for alms, with the intention of preventing the “unworthy poor” from accessing aid (Row-Heyveld 7). Disabled people qualified for charity, but the construction of a system designed to question the “need” of a person asking for help led to increased skepticism surrounding the veracity of an individual’s impairments (Row-Heyveld 9).This structural mistrust was compounded by the popular genre of “rogue literature,” which advised people to use disability to cheat others out of money, and the rise in vagrancy from enclosure, which increased the visibility of disabled beggars (Row-Heyveld 11, 4–5).

Diverging from previous scholarship, which generally claims that changes in almsgiving were responding to genuine issues with dissembled disability, Row-Heyveld contends that, since there are few verified examples of people “faking” disability for money, the early modern paranoia surrounding disability was based entirely in ableism (3). Row-Heyveld covers much of this historical context in her first chapter, which doubles as her introduction.

Row-Heyveld’s second chapter, “Act the Fool: Antonio’s Revenge and the Conventions of the Counterfeit- Disability Tradition,” is a case study, which she uses to clarify some of the general conventions of the counterfeit-disability tradition (44). Because dissembled disability appears in all play genres (e.g. tragedy, comedy, etc.), is present in all subgenres (e.g. city comedy, carnivalesque comedy, etc.), covers multiple categories of disability (e.g. madness, blindness, lameness, etc.), and is adapted by a diverse array of characters (e.g. conmen, princes, etc.), Row-Heyveld claims that the only unifying concept in the counterfeit-disability tradition is its use of disability and spectator response to disability (38–39). She demonstrates that “responding to disability with charity becomes the ultimate sign of a faulty audience member,” as the able-bodied characters who trust dissemblers are typically cheated of their money, killed, or otherwise meet unfortunate ends (Row-Heyveld 41).

Row-Heyveld’s fourth chapter, “Feminized Disability and Disabled Femininity in Fair Em and The Pilgrim,” explores the freedom afforded to female characters through their dissembling (96). Beginning with a reading of Ophelia’s madness as allowing her to behave in previously forbidden ways, Row-Heyveld argues that becoming disabled or adapting disability permits female characters to retain their virtuous reputation while taking “unfeminine” actions (93–94). Since guidelines for alms typically privileged the female body, considering it the “weaker sex,” they established a connection between femininity, pity, and disability (Row-Heyveld 103, 110). Performances of female counterfeit-disability ultimately “collapse under the weight of their own contradictions,” seeming to promote pity as a response to disability, due to the gender conventions involved in almsgiving, but destabilizing any charitable impulse by characterizing women as “inauthentic” dissemblers (Row-Heyveld 125-126).

Other chapters consider the doubling of dissembled disability in Bartholomew Fair, audience complicity in both theatrical and everyday performances of disability, and the potential of reading Richard III through the counterfeit disability tradition, a refreshing and intriguing perspective on the most popular play in early modern disability studies.

Throughout her discussion of dissembled disability, Row-Heyveld chooses to group mental and physical disabilities together, arguing that early modern people did not understand the mind/body split in the same terms as contemporary scholars (Row-Heyveld 20-21). Although this is certainly true, her claim that nearly half of all dissembled disabilities pertained to either madness or foolishness merits further investigation into the mind aspects of the counterfeit-disability tradition (Row-Heyveld 47). Row-Heyveld’s briefly listed reasons for this disparity (e.g. the lack of props needed, eye-catching fool’s motley, etc.) do not fully explore the nuances of acting a cognitive state, though they are an excellent opening into the study of Renaissance neurodiversity.

In her conclusion, Row-Heyveld turns to modern instances of dissembled disability, including an exploration of current political discourse and an extensive list of TV shows that feature counterfeit-disability (e.g. The Office, Game of Thrones, How I Met Your Mother, The Amazing Race, Castle, etc.) (219–221). The issues surrounding dissembling disability for entertainment purposes and the resulting welfare suspicion are certainly pertinent to contemporary Western society and its attitudes towards disability. Through this timely endeavor, Row-Heyveld’s book offers plenty of original content and ways of understanding disability that merit further consideration. The book is well-organized and skillfully mediates between close readings of plays and historical contexts, providing a fresh look at classics and relevant interpretations of lesser-known drama. Row-Heyveld’s research has much to offer to anyone interested in disability studies, performance studies, or early modern theater, and her text is an accessible, worthwhile read for both new and veteran scholars.