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Kathleen’s Class Summary for October 6

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A Mouthful of Birds

A play by Caryl Churchill and David Lan

Reading of madness spawns creativity. Reading of madness facilitates conversation. Reading of madness creates energy. All seemed true during the meeting following our reading of Churchill’s and Lan’s play. Informal discussion began in the hallway before the class session as those arriving early discussed their search for formal blog post quotes and their impressions of the reading. The conversation ranged from casting the play “I would so totally want to play the pig,” to outright head-scratching over its meaning “When I started reading [the play], I thought I was missing a page!” This writer confesses to being of the latter camp. I am still wondering why the list of characters does not seem to match all of the names that are in the play itself. We were on to the themes and issues that are relevant to dis/lit studies as soon as Professor Foss arrived.

In many class meetings the ‘chatter’ that begins the class has almost as many topics as there are class members. Today, every discussion seemed centered on the play. No doubt Professor Foss encouraged a sense of comfort with his first two “What the?” questions on the class meeting document. It seemed to remove tension (aesthetic nervousness?) from the room as this was admittedly a difficult text. His first question to the class was a general “What did you think?” which seemed to be answered by everyone at once. One of the voices suggested that the class perform the play. Professor Foss rejoined that it might be a good play for presentation at the Spring Symposium. Stay tuned…

Perhaps inspired by the energy and mayhem suggested by the play, Professor Foss selected a ‘speed-dating’ format for the small group discussions of questions 7-10. In this version, it was the questions that made the rounds to be examined by four groups in quick succession. My group’s first task was to look at question 9, which asked us to consider Paul and his love for the pig, how the playwrights intended the audience/reader to respond to this relationship and how or if bestiality might be seen as a category of sexual orientation. This last aspect was related to disability in that in the not-too-distant past homosexuals were considered to have a mental disorder. Fortunately, those ideas have changed and the playwrights could be asking the audience to think of bestiality and other sexual behaviors in a similar way: as alternative sexualities that are still considered ‘deviations’ in today’s society. Our group was still a bit excited about the pig and it took a minute or two to dispense with discussion of various staging:  real pig? stuffed pig? pink pig? We settled in for some serious talk, however, and those with laptops began a search for just when homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder, wanting to compare this with the date of the play’s production as a gauge of whether or not it may have been the playwrights’ intent to address bestiality in this way. There was consideration of the pig’s gender (“him”), and some question about Paul’s motives for his relationship with the pig. We agreed that the play suggests a platonic relationship between Paul and the pig: “romantic, not lustful,” and that the playwrights seem bold enough in other areas of the play that if they wanted to push the bestiality/sexuality link they would not have been reluctant to do so. Pursuit of Paul’s motivations were cut short by the question sheet having to move on to its next round.

Question number 10 asked us to consider the vignette about Doreen/Agave and whether or not the play glorified her violence and seeming possession by spirits/demons, with attention to her role in the death of Pentheus. After a bit of scrambling to refresh our memories on the referred-to passage, it was agreed that violence was not being glorified. To the contrary, Doreen seems to deal with the violence very matter-of-factly. Because the playwrights set up an ‘understanding of outlandishness,’ it was not a stretch to believe that Doreen could be possessed by spirits. More than any other character in the play, Doreen seems disturbed by the “commotion of life.” “All I wanted was peace and quiet,” she states, and without it, “my head is filled with horrible images” (44, 53). Rather than a glorification of violence, there seemed empathy for a temperament that is indefinably stressed by the everyday anxieties of life and undefined pain in her body. And it is on to the next question.

This topic is similar in that it concerns Lena who, like Doreen, is violent, though Lena’s violence stems from psychosis rather than possession. Unlike Doreen, Lena recognizes her violent tendencies, which she tries to hide even though the audience can hear the voice in her head which encourages her violence. Her violence receives no response from Lena herself, she is unphased by it: “I’m going home,” she says, after participating in the death of Pentheus (50). Lena has no empathy or attachment to human life. Her illness requires that she focus more on the appearance of a situation than about the effect it has on life. She has more concern for skinning the rabbit than the fact that the rabbit is dead. Birth or death, neither is important to her.

The final round brought us question 8. We talked about Derek/Pentheus/Herculine’s performance of masculinity and that his interest is in the outward appearance of a female, without the performance of a feminine role. This seemed a little ‘creepier,’ in that it emphasized physical appearance rather than emotional investment or the fluidity of gender or sexuality. The comparison was made that he seemed more like Norman Bates in Psycho rather than a transvestite, cross dresser or transgender person.

Next, large groups focused on the broader concept questions, numbers 3-6. Professor Foss suggested we consider: whether Foucalt’s quote informs the play; whether Lena is a problematic figure in that while no one wants to see a baby drowned, it is Lena that is most transformed in the play – she revels in her power; and to compare her to Doreen, who, though she is the leader in the death of Pentheus, she is the one who wants to just “stay here” and remain a secretary. We were asked to consider how we thought Churchill and Lan want us to respond to events and personalities in the play. Haley suggested that the playwrights captured well the idea of “an alternate reality taking over one’s mind,” in both the erratic structure of the play itself and the visceral ending. Professor Foss added that possession (by spirits), while not necessarily a choice, can be seen as an attempt to control that which you cannot.

Marin offered that those possessed had no choice, and that perhaps Churchill and Lan, by bringing into “play” (intended pun) gender/sexuality/bestiality were suggesting that these are no more of a ‘choice’ than possession. Professor Foss reminded the class that this connects with the way sexual/physicalities/preferences have been seen as mental instabilities.

Allison and another’s remarks closed the day’s session with the apt conclusions that by using a technique of turning internal madness to the outside, the authors do not let the reader hide behind the physical, but are insistent that we deal with the mental. It was suggested that in reading the play one needed to just “go along” when reading it – to embrace the madness. Considering the enthusiasm of the class discussion, it appears that is just what we did.

Written by kfabie

October 12th, 2010 at 9:58 pm

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Limitations Imposed by Society

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As the class filed in, it continued to rain steadily outside and Doctor Foss began our class.  On this day we were going to discuss the short stories by authors of the nineteenth century, this included Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”;  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”; Thomas Hardy’s “The Withered Arm”, and Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta”. After beginning class with some announcements, such as the opportunity to sit in on Doctor Foss’s first year seminar’s, Autism in Contemporary Literature and Film, movie viewings, and that at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., there would be an Italian children’s film that was focused on Disability. Professor Foss then told us that he would be making a quick drive to the library to pick up a movie for his next class, and that we would be working mostly in small groups. Upon breaking into small groups, we mainly discussed the short stories, “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Birthmark” in terms of the disabilities and their relations to gender, and touched on the infantalization of the dwarf in “The Birthday of the Infanta”. The short stories illuminated the portrayal of disability as often depicted in according to main stream gender roles and characterizing disability as a weakness and feminine, or on the other hand disability often infantilized to evoke pathos from the reader.

Typically portrayed in terms of an act being masculine or feminine, this draws the connotations of being either a strength or weakness. This is too often associated with disability and can be seen in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. In this story the narrator, a woman is characterized as being ‘hysterical’, a diagnosis that has historically be given to women in attempt to explain undesirable traits.  Her husband tries to brush off her behavior, telling her to retire to her room and sleep for a while. However, it is being in the room for an extended period of time that causes her mental illness to progress even further until she seems to reach her breaking point and rips down all of the wallpaper. Later still, when her husband reappears to check on her, he faints at the sight of what has happened and the state that she is in. Fainting is considered to be a ‘female’ action, uncharacteristic for men. This showed that when something was wrong with the individuals, regardless of it was the woman or man, they both exhibited stereotypically feminine actions. In comparison with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the creature is depicted as having hysteria, especially when he is yelling and making a scene. This brings to issue a disability of the body versus one of the mind. Is hysteria truly a disability? Or is it simply attributed as a sign of weakness? There is no clear answer, for there are mental disabilities that are characterized with hysterical qualities. But often people are simply attributed to having hysteria, as a way to explain undesirable behavior.

In Nathanial Hawthorne’s, “The Birthmark”, the main character Georgiana had a birthmark upon her cheek. Her husband Alymer pressured her to have it removed, marking it as a defect. He develops an obsession with having his wife being physically perfect. And through this, Georgiana began to internalize the effect, convincing herself that she needed to be fixed. This reinforces the stereotype that women need to be concerned with only their appearance. And when something is seemingly wrong, it needs to be alter. There is a clear juxtaposition of the mindsets of Georgiana and the narrator from “The Yellow Wallpaper”; while Georgiana was convinced that she needed to be ‘fixed’, the narrator confronts her disability and realizes that it is happening, this is acceptance rather than feeling that something is extremely wrong with her.  Though Georgiana is unable to do this, this may come from the pressure that women often undergo to be perfect. In Frankenstein, the creature knows that he cannot be fixed, yet he wants a very domestic reality, wishing for a wife to spend his life with. The social constructs of femininity have disabled the individuals.

The dwarf from “The Birthday of the Infanta” was, too, limited by social constructs, but not in terms of gender. His role was more comical and infantile. Upon seeing the princess of Spain and ‘performing’ for her, he wanted to be friends with her and play with her, but then he stumbles upon a mirror and sees his own appearance. He is horrified. This scene is used to evoke sympathy, for the ‘poor’ dwarf who didn’t know his own disability. This is similar to A Christmas Carol’s Tiny Tim, who tried to live life to its fullest and not be brought down by his own disability. Tiny Tim and the Dwarf want to live life without the limitations that have been imposed upon them. These limitations do not allow them to forget that they are not like everyone else.

Social limitations are often implemented from stereotypes and do not allow for those with disability to escape their differences. To some, they can be seen as a mark on society, a defect. To others they are helpless and need our sympathy. It is too often overlooked that they are individuals with varying personalities and characteristics, like everyone. Those with disabilities are not more feminine, or infantile then others. This analysis can be critiqued in the nineteenth century short stories that were read for class.

Written by sroop

October 6th, 2010 at 11:51 am

Haley’s Class Summary for October 1st

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Robert Browning, “Johannes Agricola in Meditation” and “Porphyria’s Lover”

John Clare, “I am”

Emily Dickinson, “327”, “435”, and “670”

Amy Levy, “Felo de Se”

Charlotte Smith, “70”

Walt Whitman, “The Wound-Dresser”

Dorothy Wordsworth, “Thoughts on My Sick-Bed”

William Wordsworth, “The Idiot Boy” and “The Mad Mother”

The day’s focus was on 19th century poems written by and/or about the disabled. Foss began class by asking us to consider in small groups how the representation of the speakers in Robert Browning’s poems altered our perception of their monologues. Browning’s characters were not particularly affable and Foss wanted us to think about how the personalities of the speakers changed our view both of their mental state and actions. He also asked us to analyze how different representations of mental illness affected our ability to relate to or sympathize with the speakers and subjects being discussed. We concluded class with a large group discussion of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and John Cage’s poem “I Am”. As our discussions progressed it became clear that there are many approaches to presenting mental illness in literature. Dickinson and Cage use metaphors and descriptors to explain the lived experience of mental illness, while W. Wordsworth and others take a narrative approach. Each style has it’s benefits and drawbacks, ultimately the choice of format depends on what an author intends to convey. Mental disabilities are inherently harder to represent than physical disabilities because they are so intangible; therefore, representations of mental illness are varied in stylistic approach and often fraught with pity, infantilization, and misrepresentation.

While discussing “Porphyria’s Lover” by Browning, we focused greatly on how thinking of the speaker as mentally ill made us more understanding of his actions and forgiving towards him. Conversely, we noted that in Frankenstein, because the creature knew that his actions were wrong, we felt he was more culpable for his actions than the lover. Ultimately, though, the creature and the lover committed the same crime, but the status of the lover as “mentally unstable” fundamentally changed how we thought of him. One group member pointed out that by viewing the lover as “unstable” and therefore a victim, we were infantilizing him and assuming he was incapable of clear thought or action. Although he clearly believed that murdering his lover would make her his for eternity, should we therefore remove responsibility from his shoulders?

In our small group we then analyzed Browning’s poem “Johannes Agricola in Meditation”, comparing the representation of Agricola with the lover of Porphyria. Agricola’s monologue focused on his arrogant belief that his lack of disability meant that he was one of God’s chosen. Agricola says God’s choice to bless him was a sign of love. He states, “Yes, yes, a tree which much ascend, No poison-gourd foredoomed to stoop!” (Browning). The latter statement references the idea that those who are disabled are so because God has chosen not to bless them, to keep them ‘foredoomed to stoop’. We have seen this idea many times throughout our readings, including in Lord Byron’s The Deformed Transformed and Shakespeare’s Richard III. Our group was very unsympathetic to Agricola and felt he was unjustified in thinking his ‘normality’ was due to a higher power deeming him worthy to be free from afflictions .We found it interesting that, although Agricola committed no crime, we viewed him with much more hostility then the murdering lover. The presence of mental illness fundamentally altered our response to the lover, but the lack of disability in Agricola allowed us to feel justified in judging him harshly.

Our small group then went on to discuss the W. Wordsworth, focusing on the prompt which asked us to consider if these  poems were progressive simply because the persons in them were more affable than those in Browning’s poetry (prompt by Foss, i.e. the best, coolest professor ever, and way better than Dr. Scanlon). In our group we were divided over our feelings in regards to the prompt; some of us felt that even though he wrote about disability, the representation completely removed any possible progression. To begin with, W. Wordsworth refers to Johnny as the ‘idiot boy’ which does not inherently make the reader sympathize with the character. W. Wordsworth also continually refers to the only noise that Johnny makes. He writes, “And Johnny’s lips they burr, burr, burr….” (W. Wordsworth). This ‘burring’ can easily remind the reader of a young infant who, yet unable to speak, makes humorous noises with their lips as they attempt to learn how to talk. By referring to this noise throughout the poem, he constantly reminds the reader of Johnny’s failings and his stunted development. Furthermore, the pony’s intelligence and value is seen to be superior to Johnny’s. W. Wordsworth writes, “Your pony’s worth his weight in gold, Then calm your terrors, Betty Foy!” insinuating that Johnny’s mother need not fear as her pony will save her poor idiot son from his ineptitude. Those of us who argued that the piece was not progressive thought that the way in which W. Wordsworth infantilized Johnny far outweighed any benefit from presenting the piece to the public. However, others thought that despite the many failings of the piece, ultimately simply presenting the subject was an accomplishment especially when considering the time at which it was written. Those arguing that the piece was progressive discussed the fact that Johnny’s mother did love her son and cared for him despite his mental deficits, which was not common at the time. In other writings of the time, the ill were often locked away and rejected. This happened in Lord Byron’s The Deformed Transformed, in which not only was Arnold rejected by his mother but also ridiculed for his appearance and existence.

The class then began discussing as a whole the differences between representation of mental and physical disability in the literature we read for today. Foss asked us to consider Dickinson’s representation of mental illness in her poem “670” which offered a more concrete view of insanity. She writes, “One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted  – One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing – Material Place -” (Dickinson). The class generally thought that her representation allowed readers to get a different picture of mental illness, one, that because of its placement in the physical idea of ‘space’, lets readers conceptualize her thoughts in a way more familiar to them. One student commented that a problem distinguishing physical from mental illness is how much the idea of the ‘self’ or the ‘soul’ can be lost when discussing the mentally ill; the line between the disease and the person becomes blurred. Unlike mental disability, it is easier to distinguish the individual from the impairment in physical disabilities because the illness is able to be seen, it is on the body not trapped in the mind.

The discussions, both in small group and as a class, made it clear just how hard it is to represent mentally disability as it is not able to be seen. Furthermore, we question the abilities of those with mental impairments because the affliction is in the brain, not on the body. We tend to view Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol as the sweet, angelic cripple, but how should we view the ‘idiot boy’? Should we hold ‘the creature’ more responsible for his crimes than Porphyria’s lover because the lover is mentally ill? Are we justified in judging Agricola for thinking the crippled are being punished for sins more harshly than the lover who has murdered Porphyria? These are questions that have very pressing applications to critiquing disability in literature, but are also important for us to consider as individuals, to define our beliefs and morals.

Written by Haley

October 5th, 2010 at 11:03 pm

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Robert’s Class Summary: October 4, 2010

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Class began with a debate about the use of “good week” in place of “good afternoon” on Mondays. Professor Foss wondered if “good week” was more appropriate and we responded with an intricate web of greeting levels (good day, good week, good month, etc.) This debate fit nicely with Samuel Beckett’s sometimes absurd and existential play, Endgame. Class entered into small group and, later, large group discussions of Endgame and its use of disability. The primary focus of discussion was on the importance of disability in the play; we debated whether disability is a vital primary part of the play or whether the play’s absurdity and existentialism trump it. Like the outcome of our salutational debate, the answer is, quite simply, absurd.

Dr. Foss prefaced our small group discussions with a brief overview of Samuel Beckett, Endgame, and Ato Quayson’s critical analysis of the play. Beckett had several illnesses during his life and wrote Endgame shortly after his brother died of cancer. What impact, if any, does this have on his work? We can see in Endgame the issues of pain, suffering, and mortality and their existential repercussions. Are these issues and the general issue of disability central to the play? According to Dr. Foss, Quayson’s argument is that disability functions more as a metaphorical device in Endgame than a central literary focal point. The focus of our reading – or, perhaps, the reading of those outside of a disability studies mindset – is on Beckett’s themes of the indeterminacy of meaning and existentialism. Additionally, the absurdity and humor in the play overshadow our critical reading of disability.

With Quayson’s theory in mind, we broke off into small group discussions. Guided by Dr. Foss’s well crafted discussion questions, our group tackled Quayson’s assertion that “it is very rare that [Beckett’s] impaired characters are read as disabled, even though their disabilities are blatant and should be impossible to ignore” (28).  Considering that all four characters in the play are disabled or deformed in some way (and even the toy dog is deformed), it would seem that disability would be key to the play. Quayson, however, is right. Beckett overshadows the “blatant” disability by using it as a metaphor for isolation. The characters exist in an increasingly isolated world; Clov is limited to watching the world through a telescope, Hamm is limited to Clov’s visual reports and relies on him to move around the one room. Nell and Nagg are even more isolated; they live in their tiny sand-filled bins and cannot even reach one another. Our small group, however, found this isolation as a representation of deeper social isolation, perhaps post apocalyptic in nature. Reading the play, we can also see how Beckett’s existentialism obscures disability. Hamm and Clov, for example, debate the relative meaninglessness of “yesterday.”

CLOV: I oiled them yesterday.

HAMM: Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!

CLOV (violently): That means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything anymore, teach me others. Or let me be silent.

Contrasting Beckett’s weighty ontology is his use of absurd situations and humor. Dr. Foss’s second question asked us to consider Quayson’s argument that “the comedic disposition of his disabled characters is used to deflect attention from the pain and anguish that are involved in carrying physical impairments” (35).  The characters Nagg and Nell are absurdly, albeit pitifully, humorous; they pop in and out of their bins like Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch and are more concerned with getting their sweet treats than their miserable existence in sandy bins. Several small group members stated that the absurdity of Nagg and Nell’s existence made them forget about Nagg and Nell’s disability. Absurd situations also detract from the reality of Hamm’s disability. Hamm and Clov gloss over Hamm’s use of a catheter, a rather painful medical device. Hamm nonchalantly says, “My anger subsides, I’d like to pee,” to which Clove responds, “I’ll go get the catheter.” Later, after extensive arguments, Clov asks “What about the pee?” Hamm responds, “I’m having it” and the two return to their former conversation. Here, the painfulness of catheterization is completely belittled; it’s used as a brief rest from the heavier existential plot.

This glossing over of the reality of pain and discomfort carried over into large group discussion. Dr. Foss highlighted Quayson’s suggestion that if Beckett put pain and discomfort in a central role, then they would short-circuit our response to the post modern, post apocalyptic, allegorical meanings in Endgame. Quayson also theorizes that Endgame’s aesthetic nervousness stems more from Beckett’s use of fragmented and disjointed conversations and an oscillation between positive and negative moments than from disability and/or pain and discomfort. Again, disability is put on the back burner.

We then discussed Quayson’s idea that Beckett’s representation of disability in the play creates doubt within us as readers as to whether the disability exists. Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Nell rarely directly comment on their disabilities. Therefore, readers might consciously or subconsciously question the validity or reality these disabilities. Hamm, for instance, frequently asks Clov for his pain pills. When Clov tells Hamm that there are no more, Hamm actually screams. We might read this a real pain; however, Hamm quickly quiets and does not mention his pain again. If it merits screaming, then why doesn’t he discuss if further?

Our next conversation centered around Quayson’s construction of disability as “inarticulable and enigmatic tragic insight” or as “hermeneutical impasse.” Quayson feminizes the first concept; in “Aesthetic Nervousness,” only female characters such as Cassandra and Io are discussed within this frame. Quayson qualifies this by saying that “female figures exemplify it best, not because they are women but because the dialectical coupling of tragic insight with loss of articulation seems to be a structural feature generated through the prism of gender as a opposed to the prisms of race and class” (48). In Endgame, then, the characters are feminized by this silencing tragic insight; though they struggle to hash out the meaning of their existence, there is no one else around to listen to them or understand them. The second concept, hermeneutical impasse, ties in with this. As Dr. Foss said, “It’s like Seinfeld. Nothing really happens.”

Moving on from Quayson’s jargon filled theory, Dr. Foss then asked us to consider Clov, Hamm, and their relationship. Clov is the feminized partner in this relationship. His mental disability is typically ascribed to women in literature; he constantly returns to his kitchen; he takes care of and feeds Hamm, Nagg, and Nell; and he feels trapped by Hamm’s demands despite a strong desire to leave. Even though Clov wants to leave, he cannot. Hamm, despite his disability, is masculinized because it is he who calls the shots, instructs Clov, and controls Nagg and Nell.

We also considered the disempowering implications of the play’s title. “Endgame,” in one sense implies limitation and finality. As Dr. Foss summarized it, Endgame refers to a “foreclosure of possibility.” We only see Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Nell existing in their one isolated room; not even Clov’s kitchen is real to us. There is little if any possibility for growth or expansion. Even though Clov considers leaving and searching for the human he sees wandering outside, we never really know if he escaped.

Disability, though central to Endgame’s characters and plot, functions only to drive Beckett’s literary devices. On its own, disability in this play offers little opportunity for an analysis of its reality. Instead, Beckett uses disability as a metaphor for isolation, an impetus for existential debate, and a device to increase aesthetic nervousness, humor, and absurdity.

Written by Robert

October 5th, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Andrew’s Class Summary: September 22nd, 2010

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Class began with Dr. Foss warning us that even though he may appear incompetent with technology, remember and trust that at least he can still grade papers. While carefully mulling over this assertion (threat), we went on a walkthrough of a new program called Panopto, which involved unicorn magic, twists, turns, mazes and a rant against the administration for taking so long to get him a new laptop, or at least one with the correct number of monitors. Unfortunately, this precise case of the dual monitor mystery plagued the impressive presentation and we were forced, not through desperation, but through sheer ingenuity, into small groups to talk about Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and its importance in disability studies. While Tiny Tim is a hot button topic for many disability theorists, must we really be so hard on Dickens, or can we use his depiction in order to further the conversation in disability studies?

While discussing Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in small group, we relied heavily on Mitchell and Snyder’s “Narrative Prosthesis” essay. We thought that Dickens was very self serving in using Tiny Tim as a walking, talking metaphor to represent disabled persons. Instead of being a true representation of the disabled, Tiny Tim is a representation of how we are supposed to feel in a guilty and charitable way. Bérubé asserts that, Tiny Tim is used as a reference to the other  characters’ “moral standing, offering [them] opportunities to demonstrate whatsoever they might do to the least of their brothers”(570). This helps to distinguish the intentions of the other characters based on how they perceive and treat Tiny Tim, but fails to shed light on the plight of the disabled, and does not depict any serious ways to help improve their conditions in society.

In comparison to Longman’s “The Cultural Framing of Disability: Telethons as a Case Study,” using Tiny Tim as an object of charity undermines his human nature and causes him to a poor representation of disabled persons, much like the children in the telethons who were direct copies of Tiny Tim, frequently shown as the “…perpetual child, sweet, cheerful, and brave,.. the disabled person as object of charity, grateful but hopeless and doomed unless those who are healthy and normal ‘give’; the disabled person as vehicle of others’ redemption…”(505).  In the end, because of these stereotypical traits, we only see that Scrooge is truly a changed man because he takes pity on Tiny Tim and saves his life by buying his family a giant Christmas Turkey, but are given no insight into Tiny Tim’s actual character. As cynical as this seems, our group did end on an optimistic note, while pondering over Garland-Thomson’s idea of depicting Tiny Tim as a naughty,  “normal child,” we thought it better that at least Tiny Tim wasn’t depicted as evil, like with Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Back in large group, Foss relayed the back story of Dickens’s life leading up to the publication of “A Christmas Carol,” and how Dickens lambasted the treatment of the poor and disabled during a lecture tour of America, which you can read about in his travelogue, “American Notes for General Circulation.” The criticism of American institutions lead to a huge loss in appeal and popularity for his works in the Americas. In order to win back his audience, and make up some money for his publisher, Dickens released the sentimental Christmas tale.

We were then asked to consider the work as a study of the urban poor, much like his later work Hard Times. Is A Christmas Carol more of a study of lower class life or of disability and impairment? Obviously, we chose the latter. Unfortunately, the chimes were ringing fifty past two at that moment and we were left with one last question: If the way we perceive the poor in literature is inaccurate, can we or should we change our way of thinking in the ways described and outlined by scholars in disability studies?

Written by aallingh

September 28th, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Disability as Identity? Samuel Beardslee’s Class Summary for September 17, 2010

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After the double celebration of finding the dis/lit blog on the second page of the book of life held by the Internet god, Google, and the plans held by Dr. Foss for both that night and the following night, an occurrence that is rarer than the planetary conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Krypton, our class focused our attention on The Deformed Transformed by Lord Bryon, and comparing that with Shakespeare’s Richard III.  More specifically, we looked in depth at both Arnold (as well as Caesar) and Richard III (Gloucester), the roles that they play in their respective dramas, and how they handle themselves with regard to their disability (which are both physical in nature).  What we would find is an interesting juxtaposition of how one mentally approaches disability in life.  Richard III, who is always aware of the social power that his disability can achieve, uses his disability for his own gains, while Arnold, jumping at the first chance to rid himself of the disability, never frees himself from the disabled mentality that he has grown into.  Ultimately, disability (in this case) proves to be more than just a bodily defect, the effects of which are entirely dependent on the person’s mentality.

To begin our comparison, the openings of both plays were compared and contrasted.  Our group  found, based on the set up of both of these characters and with the knowledge of the outcome of these characters, that, while Richard tries to rouse feelings of sympathy, Arnold succeeds in gaining our empathy for his condition.  This is achieved by his interactions with his mother, who treats him very poorly because of his disability.  Richard, on the other hand, stands alone and is appealing to the audience.  Whatever little sympathy we have for Richard at the beginning of the play is destroyed as his motives become clearer not only through his actions, but what he says as well.

Meanwhile, Arnold, who has every right to hate humanity due to their treatment of him, does become manipulative or evil despite this.  On the contrary, Arnold is manipulated by The Stranger/Caesar after his introduction into the drama, oddly enough taking Arnold’s crippled body for his own to use (fulfilling Arnold’s wish to escape his own body into a perfect one).  Both Caesar and Richard III are using their disabilities in a way that makes these deformities seem enabling as opposed to crippling.  The social boundary usually set around those with disabilities cannot hold back either of these powerful charismatic characters.  Arnold escapes the social boundary by gaining a perfect body, and is thus not bound by the social boundaries of the disabled by default.  However, even after obtaining this body and seemingly escaping that aspect of his life, Arnold does not hold the same zeal as either Richard or Caesar.  He is still disabled in his mind; he is held back by his own inhibitions surrounding a disability that he suddenly doesn’t have any more.  Perhaps this is a commentary on class status?  That only the upper classes can deal with disability in a way that is socially considered ‘normal’.  This idea doesn’t hold much ground considering Arnold’s position in society is not made very clear; he starts off in a rustic lifestyle, but is clearly educated.

Lord Byron never truly finished The Deformed Transformed, but it is still clear that the progression of events ultimately makes Arnold a less sympathetic character, while Caesar retains his character throughout, not letting the disability affect his personality.  Richard III achieves the same result, not letting his deformities get the best of him even in the midst of battle.  What does this mean?  Is disability simply a prop or a mask, as Richard and Caesar seem to use them as?  Perhaps the case could be made with those two characters, but in Arnold’s case, disability is a bit more than a prop, even though he thinks he discards it like one.  Arnold’s disability has ingrained itself in his personality, leading him to be a rather unassertive and “boring” character.  In a sense, the body that Arnold gains is simply an Avatar; his mindset has not changed despite the freedom from his disability.  Disability, in this sense, has much more bearing to be considered an identity as opposed to a mask; an inner aspect as well as, but not necessarily including, the outer.

In other words, one can still be “disabled” simply by one’s life experience.  Arnold was rejected and shunned by society, and thus grew in this unforgiving environment.  While Richard’s disability seemed to be a manifestation of his evil nature, Arnold’s personality is very much a product of his disability and how other treated him because of it.  Disability may be a mask, but this is a mask that affects different people in different ways.  This mask gave Richard III a sort of super-ability in society, while it suffocated and stunted Arnold.  In this light, how disability affects someone is dependent on many factors, including how one is raised, one’s personality, and several others, and cannot simply be deemed as “disposable” or “integral.”

Written by Spyden

September 22nd, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Helen’s Class Summary: September 20th, 2010

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Today’s class began with the great tragedy of the Blackboard reward quizzes: some, like the woeful author of this essay, neglected to take the Jane Eyre quiz until the hour before class, or, rather, the ten minutes before class started. When Dr. Foss attempted to reboot the closed quiz for our benefit, it rudely deleted itself. Amid cries of despair, Foss, with the kind of poise only accessible to people whose children are in school, promised to ask the illustrious Reverend Jim Groom about it, and said he would let us know when the quiz was once again available. Moving swiftly forward, we began our large group discussion about Bertha Mason and her portrayal in Jane Eyre; later, in small group, we talked of Rochester’s disability.  Our class discussion focused upon reading Bertha’s disability as an identity that dehumanizes her, as well Jane and Rochester’s reactions and relationship to Bertha; in small group, we concentrated upon the problematic way in which Rochester’s disability functions at the end of the novel.

To preface our discussion, Dr. Foss cited “The Madwoman in the Attic” a feminist article from the late 1970’s by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, which posits that, in Victorian literature, there is a temptation to portray female characters as either angels or villains. We used this idea to address the contrast between Bertha and Jane’s characters, and the way that disability may intersect well with Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist reading of this text. Bertha is portrayed as a dark, hulking, almost spectral figure with features so unspeakable that, in true Victorian fashion, they are left completely undescribed. Jane, dissimilarly, is pale, thin, and plain, a sensible and well brought-up young lady with whom Rochester has many illuminating conversations, while Bertha’s mind is described as “…common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger…” (p. 324). Bertha is entirely dehumanized by Rochester, less worthy to him, even, than his dog, Pilot. Rochester’s first wife is reduced to the role of spectacle: when Jane stares at Bertha, Jane is reminded of how normal Jane herself is.

For all that Jane is “good, gifted, and lovely” (334) to Bertha’s “manic upstairs” (335), Jane and Bertha do have some characteristics and life experiences in common. Jane has numerous encounters with extended confinement in her childhood, like her near-incarceration in the red-room in chapter II of the novel, which haunts her well into her adult life, and her tenure at Lowood School, which was little more than a jail. Jane experiences anger in these situations that could be considered similar to Bertha’s fits of rage, and perhaps Jane understands Bertha all the better for her experiences with confinement. She certainly pities Bertha, and says to Rochester: “you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady; you speak of her with hate—with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel—she cannot help being mad.” (318). This raised another question in our discussion: does Bertha behave like a wild animal because it is a function of her disability, or is Bertha simply living up to the role of the madwoman in the attic that Rochester has prescribed for her? When we discussed Richard III, we asked ourselves a similar chicken-and-egg question about whether Gloucester was naturally evil, or if his physical disabilities forced him to take up the mantle of a cruel and ruthless man.

Rochester’s attitude toward Bertha seems to change after she has been officially labeled as “mad.” Despite numerous protestations that he does not despise his wife for being mad but rather for being wicked, he was faithfully married to Bertha until he discovered that something diagnosable was wrong with her. Rochester claims to be capable of great love, but not of great love for Bertha. Foss raised an interesting question: does Bertha actually lose her status as a human being when she, apparently, loses her mind? Rochester seems to relegate her to the status of mistress: on page 234, Rochester says, “To tell me that I had already a wife is empty mockery: you know now that I had but a hideous demon.” Bertha certainly suffers the contempt, then, that Rochester’s other mistresses do. The class was reminded of the treatment of the disabled during more medieval times, when property could be taken over by a lord or another property owner when the actual owner was deemed unfit to oversee their own land.

Before Rochester is blinded unwittingly by Bertha, he tries to seek for himself a kind of spousal prosthesis: he is emotionally crippled, and in Jane he sees the kind of person who could look after him and perhaps cure him of his less desirable character traits. Bertha, on the other hand, exacerbates his worst characteristics, and Rochester believes that his treatment of Bertha and his disregard for the sacrament of marriage are the reasons he is stricken, by God, with blindness. In our small groups we discussed the problematic nature of Rochester’s blindness being dealt to him by a judging God rather than simple accident: this kind of thinking holds all disabled people accountable for their disability, and presumes that they have some sort of character defect that manifests itself outwardly though disability. We talked about how this is a narrow and fearful reaction on the part of non-disabled people. If there is universal morality or a just God to punish disobedience or defectiveness, then disability is avoidable, and therefore explainable and less frightening.
Whether Bertha’s mental disability led her to behave like an animal or if Rochester’s treatment of her is to blame, she provokes very dissimilar, though illuminating, reactions from Jane and Rochester. Jane empathizes with and pities Bertha; Rochester sees her as little more than a nuisance, a burden that he knows to be beneath him. Jane blames the disability for her behavior, while Rochester is compelled to believe that a natural wickedness has left her in this condition. Indeed, Mr. Fairfax, upon becoming blind, blames defects in his character for his plight, rather than the woman who inadvertently inflicted the damage. The disabled people portrayed in Jane Eyre are judged and punished, Bertha through incarceration and Rochester through his blindness.

Written by Helen

September 21st, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Meg’s Class Summary: Wednesday, September 14, 2010

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Unfortunately, Reward Quizzes have not yet begun, and so Foss began class with several announcements involving their eagerly anticipated arrival. Following this, we continued our discussion on the latter half of Richard III, our first text after our theory unit. In Richard III, the disability of the title character causes the reader to look at Richard’s legitimacy as well as gender; generally, these are demeaning structures that could stabilize Richard as a villain and undermine his claim to the throne (thereby solidifying Henry VII’s). However, Richard defies these demeaning figures and instead becomes an empowered figure, utilizing his disability to outwit the rest of the cast.

After commenting on Foss’ new hair-do and subsequent new lease on life, we began with a large group discussion. Foss quoted Quayson, who asserted that disability serves as a metaphor to mark “anomalous social states such as those involving half-brothers and bastardy” (22). Because illegitimacy plays such a large role thematically, disability then shifts our understanding of that by becoming a marker of it; it is the possibility that whoever possess it was not capable to rule in the first. During discussion, Kathleen remarked that, “Both legitimacy and disability are tied up together; the two are both stigmas being placed against (Richard).” Because the opposition constantly calls attention to his disability, they are constantly calling into question his ability to rule. Because the audience at the time realizes that Richard is a “defused infection of a man” (I.ii.83) and a “foul bunch-backed toad” (IV.iv.81), they are constantly reminded of physical inability (and due to dramatic irony, this may be even more embellished); the audience must then question if that physical inability carries through to the ability to rule the throne. Because of Richard’s established villainy and his brief reign, an individual at the time could infer that these were all signs of Richard’s illegitimate hold on the throne and therefore believe in Henry VII’s (ancestor to the current Tudor line at the time and much more off the direct path to the throne than Richard himself) right to conquer.

Disability also plays a role within in gendering Richard and belittling him. Because most of the characters view Richard through his disability (Richard included), Richard does not utilize the straightforward, typically “masculine,” physical approach. Rather, Richard spends his time manipulating the affections of his family members and convincing others (such as Anne and the mayor) to bend to his will. This tactic is often seen as more typically “feminine.” Shakespeare and the characters even acknowledge the emasculation of Richard’s trickery, telling him to “play the maid’s part” (III.vii. 51) when he fools the mayor into believing he is religious and meek. The role that he plays with the mayor and citizens further engenders him because he boasts of his chastity, as opposed to Edward’s “lolling on a lewd day-bed” (III.vii. 2288). Chastity and purity are valued in women, whereas hyper-sexuality is a masculine merit. By the time he seizes the crown, he therefore seeks to legitimize himself in any way he can, aiming to secure his throne through marriage to Elizabeth, Edward’s daughter. Again, this is overtly feminine, as the only way women could secure and hold onto their fortunes at this period was to marry into a wealthy family. This feminization has a possibility of taking away from Richard’s legitimacy; not only is he disabled, but the means he must use through his disability also make him “less of a man;” Richard’s tactics and techniques are aligned with the various Queens; he spends more time talking with them than the men. Again, a reader at the time has a chance of ignoring Richard’s right to the throne; because he does not use physical means, he is not strong enough to rule the country.

We next moved to small groups where we were prompted to use Katherine Schaap Williams’ abstract as a jumping point: could we view Richard as an empowered example of a dismodern subject? We decided that despite the reductive effects of both disability and gender that had been previously discussed, Richard is able to become a fairly empowering figure. Through his use of rhetoric and diction, he uses these seemingly demeaning factors for his gain, letting his peers continually underestimate and ignore him—Richard outwits everyone, and it is only on the battlefield that he finally loses. In his first soliloquy, Richard laments that he has nothing to spend his time except:

Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
(I.i.25-31)

Here, Richard is acknowledging his disability; because of the way he is and the way he is treated, Richard has no other choice but to fight for his legitimacy. The others have backed him into a corner by not letting him be a “lover,” and not letting him work for some greater good. He has always been confined to the darkness (so as not to be horrified by the image of his “shadow”), so why should he stray from it now? Richard is a victim, illegitimate and forced into the only category that has been designed for him. However, Richard is not telling the audience (or himself, for that matter) the whole truth. He could be a lover. Clarence believes that he is a loving brother; Richard takes Anne as a wife and from that, could be a proper husband to her. Even so, Richard breaks these ties. What Richard does in this opening soliloquy is what he does throughout the play—continually convince his peers of his innocuousness. Here, he is even convincing the audience, and possibly himself, repeatedly drawing attention to what should be diminutive markers but are instead decoys for his immense strengths. Instead of condemning Richard for his actions, we either underestimate him, or, being more socially aware, pity him. Richard utilizes his disability as a smoke-screen, letting the rest pay attention to what should be his illegitimacy, while he uses his real strength, his mind, to secure a kingdom.

Although disability, gender, and illegitimacy all have the possibility of working with one another to undermine King Richard’s claim to the throne, Richard is an empowering figure. He allows himself to be underestimated, and instead triumphs over nearly every character in the play. If one follows this path, Richard transforms himself again and again. He goes from the innocuous disabled Duke of Gloucester to a conniving, strong king, and from a disabled, illegitimate villain, to a competent, fairly empowering figure.

Written by Meg

September 21st, 2010 at 12:08 pm

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Class Period Summary for September 13th: Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III”

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In our September 13th meeting of Professor Foss’ Disability and Literature course, our class examined and discussed Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III” through Act III, Scene iii. The meeting began with a brief, somewhat confusing lecture and diagram detailing the history of the royal English Bloodline, the War of the Roses, and more than a few Edwards and Henrys. The large group discussion then functioned to prime for our small group activity by presenting the idea that disability may function with a text as a binary characteristic: either as an insignia, or marker of a character’s corruption, or as a causation of that fundamental corruption. Each small group examined a short passage using this binary theoretical framework.

After the small groups were assigned their beginning passages, the groups discussed, argued, and recorded their findings regarding how each passage fit within the binary framework of insignia and causation. At the end of each singular passage discussion, the records were swapped between groups so that, by the end of class, every group was able to examine every textual passage with their own ideas as well as with the notes of every other preceding group. The small groups worked with four passages from “The Tragedy of King Richard III”: Gloucester’s opening speech in Act I Scene I, Anne’s opening soliloquy of Act I Scene II, Gloucester’s ending soliloquy of Act I Scene II, and Gloucester and Margaret’s interaction in Act I, Scene III.

My small group generally agreed with findings of the other groups. We identified Gloucester’s opening speech in Act I Scene I as an instance of disability being presented as a cause of Richard’s III evil nature that he uses as an excuse to gain sympathy from his peers, as well as the audience. He also uses the pity and sympathy created in his community – by what Quayson would describe as “aesthetic nervousness” – to manipulate the other characters. Anne’s opening soliloquy in Act I Scene II mournfully curses the unknown murderer of Henry VI, and damns the killer that their offspring may carry an “ugly and unnatural aspect” (1.2.23) as marker of his evilness, thus rendering this passage as an example of disability serving as an insignia in “The Tragedy of King Richard III”. Gloucester’s ending soliloquy of Act I Scene II also identifies Richard’s III disability as an insignia due to the normalization that results from Anne’s loss of aversion towards him. “I do mistake my person all this while: / Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot, / myself to be a marvelous proper man.” (1.2.254) Essentially, Richard III validates his disability by asserting the he must be “normal” for her to desire him. Further, this scene develops Richard’s III apathy for his disability as well as his vanity. Lastly, Gloucester and Margaret’s interaction in Act I, Scene III is a very clear example of disability’s presentation as insignia within this text: “The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul, … Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog! / Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity / the slave of nature and the son of hell! / Thou slander of thy mother’s heavy womb! / Thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins! / Thou rag of honour!” (1.3.222, 1.3.228-233). Overall, the small group discussions rendered the conclusion that disability was frequently used as an insignia of Richard’s III evilness except in his opening scene which served to cultivate sympathy from the audience. Further, as Richard III emotionally and politically manipulates each character, he takes advantage of his disability and utilizes it as an empowering façade of self-pity.

After the small group discussions were completed and our large group was reconvened, we learned that because this play was first performed in the 1500’s, the audiences’ perception of disability may have varied slightly from the perceptions of the characters. While the characters may have simply assumed that a deformity was a hateful act of God, the slightly more modern audiences of the play’s first performances may have regarded Richard’s III disability as either a demonological portrayal of corruption, or as part of the natural order of variation in the world. Also in large concluding group, we were reminded to check Blackboard for Class Meeting Documents that would accompany our readings and large group discussions of the latter half of “The Tragedy of King Richard III” on Wednesday. In conclusion, the class meeting of Monday, September 13th examined and discussed Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III” under the binary theoretical framework of the presentation of disability as either a marking insignia of corruption, or as a causation of that corruption. The format of this discussion was transformed from a large group that gave a brief historical background, into four smaller subgroups that each talked about and shared their observations, and then again transformed back into the large group to conclude our discussion.

I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received any unauthorized help on this work. Katherine Sullivan

Written by Katherine Sullivan

September 21st, 2010 at 12:07 pm

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Katherine Sullivan’s Class Period Summary of September 13th: Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III”

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In our September 13th meeting of Professor Foss’ Disability and Literature course, our class examined and discussed Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III” through Act III, Scene iii. The meeting began with a brief, somewhat confusing lecture and diagram detailing the history of the royal English Bloodline, the War of the Roses, and more than a few Edwards and Henrys.  The large group discussion then functioned to prime for our small group activity by presenting the idea that disability may function with a text as a binary characteristic: either as an insignia, or marker of a character’s corruption, or as a causation of that fundamental corruption.  Each small group examined a short passage using this binary theoretical framework.

After the small groups were assigned their beginning passages, the groups discussed, argued, and recorded their findings regarding how each passage fit within the binary framework of insignia and causation. At the end of each singular passage discussion, the records were swapped between groups so that, by the end of class, every group was able to examine every textual passage with their own ideas as well as with the notes of every other preceding group.  The small groups worked with four passages from “The Tragedy of King Richard III”: Gloucester’s opening speech in Act I Scene I, Anne’s opening soliloquy of Act I Scene II, Gloucester’s ending soliloquy of Act I Scene II, and Gloucester and Margaret’s interaction in Act I, Scene III.

My small group generally agreed with findings of the other groups.  We identified Gloucester’s opening speech in Act I Scene I as an instance of disability being presented as a cause of Richard’s III evil nature that he uses as an excuse to gain sympathy from his peers, as well as the audience.  He also uses the pity and sympathy created in his community – by what Quayson would describe as “aesthetic nervousness” – to manipulate the other characters.  Anne’s opening soliloquy in Act I Scene II mournfully curses the unknown murderer of Henry VI, and damns the killer that their offspring may carry an “ugly and unnatural aspect” (1.2.23) as marker of his evilness, thus rendering this passage as an example of disability serving as an insignia in “The Tragedy of King Richard III”.  Gloucester’s ending soliloquy of Act I Scene II also identifies Richard’s III disability as an insignia due to the normalization that results from Anne’s loss of aversion towards him. “I do mistake my person all this while: / Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot, / myself to be a marvelous proper man.” (1.2.254) Essentially, Richard III validates his disability by asserting the he must be “normal” for her to desire him. Further, this scene develops Richard’s III apathy for his disability as well as his vanity.  Lastly, Gloucester and Margaret’s interaction in Act I, Scene III is a very clear example of disability’s presentation as insignia within this text: “The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul, … Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog! / Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity / the slave of nature and the son of hell! / Thou slander of thy mother’s heavy womb! / Thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins! / Thou rag of honour!” (1.3.222, 1.3.228-233).  Overall, the small group discussions rendered the conclusion that disability was frequently used as an insignia of Richard’s III evilness except in his opening scene which served to cultivate sympathy from the audience.  Further, as Richard III emotionally and politically manipulates each character, he takes advantage of his disability and utilizes it as an empowering façade of self-pity.

After the small group discussions were completed and our large group was reconvened, we learned that because this play was first performed in the 1500’s, the audiences’ perception of disability may have varied slightly from the perceptions of the characters. While the characters may have simply assumed that a deformity was a hateful act of God, the slightly more modern audiences of the play’s first performances may have regarded Richard’s III disability as either a demonological portrayal of corruption, or as part of the natural order of variation in the world. Also in large concluding group, we were reminded to check Blackboard for Class Meeting Documents that would accompany our readings and large group discussions of the latter half of “The Tragedy of King Richard III” on Wednesday.  In conclusion, the class meeting of Monday, September 13th examined and discussed Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III” under the binary theoretical framework of the presentation of disability as either a marking insignia of corruption, or as a causation of that corruption.  The format of this discussion was transformed from a large group that gave a brief historical background, into four smaller subgroups that each talked about and shared their observations, and then again transformed back into the large group to conclude our discussion.

Word-count: 814

I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received any unauthorized help on this work.  Katherine Sullivan

Written by Katherine Sullivan

September 17th, 2010 at 10:45 am

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