‘Shackshoone: the disabled non-European performative body in 17th-century London'

Katritzky, M A (2024). ‘Shackshoone: the disabled non-European performative body in 17th-century London'. In: Hengerer, Mark ed. Der Körper in der Frühen Neuzeit: Praktiken, Rituale, Performanz. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz (In Press), pp. 323–343.

Abstract

The 1662 accession of King Charles II and his Portuguese wife Catherine of Braganza to the throne has long been recognized as one of the most significant historical threshold moments in English performance culture. They immediately re-opened London’s theatres, closed by the Puritans since 1640, and enthusiastically legalized professional actresses, previously officially banned from London stages. Less well documented are their requests for officials of the East India Company to import Indian male and female performers, including dwarfs. The royal couple’s far-ranging taste for the rare and exotic supported a growing London fashion for the physically and ethnically diverse performative body. The potential to profit from these court preferences motivated the world voyager and East India Company employee Sir Thomas Grantham to bring a profoundly physically disabled performer named Shackshoon back to London in the 1680s. With the express purpose of showing him first to the King, and then to London’s fee-paying general public, he put together an act for him, based on his ethnicity and disability. But who was Shackshoon? What precisely was the nature of his physical disability? His ethnicity? His act, costumes, props and venues? His economic agreement with Thomas Grantham? What other performers, if any, were involved? Shackshoon is variously identified by specialists as being Indian, African or Native American, and conflicting records of his disability have raised speculation about a wide range of medical conditions, from "some extreme form of goiter" to various mutually-exclusive types of conjoined twinning. When their novelty wore off at Charles and Catherine’s court, some disabled performers continued to perform in public. Others, such Shackshoon, made strenuous efforts to escape life as fairground performers. This publication reviews Shackshoon’s stage career in the light of the sparse and conflicting known contemporary records and newly discovered textual and visual documents, early modern theories and knowledge of the disabled body, and the disabled body in seventeenth-century London theatre culture.

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