This essay theorizes a tradition in William Shakespeare’s drama involving some of his greatest and most captivating characters, including, among others, Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Shylock the Jew, Edmund the Bastard, Falstaff, Thersites, and Caliban. While they have been called “strangers,” “outsiders,” and “others,” the notion of stigma best describes how these characters fit into Shakespeare’s dramatic vision. As such this essay combines the sociologist Erving Goffman’s theory of stigma with the literary historian Erich Auerbach’s account of “figural realism” to establish a vocabulary to explain how Shakespeare applies, rearranges, avoids, and dismantles what the essay calls the “figure of stigma.” In the figure of stigma an abnormal body evoking both pity and fear splits into the opposed dramatic elements of villainy and irony, the former an element of tragedy and the latter of comedy. Then the figure is reconstituted at the end of the play in the hybrid plot of tragicomedy, in which the virtuous are rewarded and the vicious punished on a stage that mingles clowns and kings. Like Shakespeare’s problem plays, however, the resolution of the figure of stigma is riddled with lingering questions, resulting in an awkward or unstable aesthetic experience for audiences

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