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Hearing Shakespeare's women

Discover Shakespeare in sign language.

Grace Lester

While working at the Trust as an intern in the development department, I have had the opportunity to conduct personal research. Being a young woman with chronic hearing loss, I wanted to explore the interactions between Shakespeare and the d/Deaf*. I have been happy to find many female representatives of the d/Deaf engaging with Shakespeare, from Tudor times to our current era.

According to the British Deaf Association, approximately 1 in 7 adults in the UK experience hearing loss. Many of these individuals have a profound degree of hearing loss and communicate primarily through sign language. (However, not all d/Deaf people use sign language or practise lip reading.) Sign language is a form of communication much more complex than simple body language. Contrary to popular belief, sign is not universal, but hundreds of sign languages, dialects and even accents have developed in countries and regions worldwide. Culture and identity within the Deaf community is intricate and vibrant- one of the most distinct characteristics being the view of Deafness as a state of being, not a disability. Besides hearing, Deaf people can do everything that hearing people can do, including driving, enjoying music, and communicating orally.

Chirologia: or The naturall language of the hand title page
Chirologia: or The naturall language of the hand. (SR - 82.91) (83236457)

Chirothea Johnson was the adopted daughter of John Bulwer, an English author, physician, and contemporary of Shakespeare. Her name, coming from Greek, means ‘Hand Goddess’, and was testament to the focus of her father’s work. Fascinated by the use of hands, John Bulwer wrote of the superior, universal, and even holy nature of manual expression in his books Chirologia, or the Natural Language of the Hand and Chironomia. In these two works, published in 1644, Bulwer establishes his argument that gestural expression has the capacity to be a complete and beautiful means of communicating, supporting his claim with examples of body language and expression from a multitude of sources, most notably the Old Testament and the works of Shakespeare. Considering that British Sign Language (BSL) was not recognised as an official language by the UK government until March of 2003, Bulwer was ahead of his time in writing these books and in becoming the first in England to suggest educating the deaf. While little is known of Chirothea, it is speculated that she was deaf, and may have been a pupil of her father.

Chirologia: or The naturall language of the hand illustration
Chirologia: or The naturall language of the hand. (SR - 82.91) (83236457)

Chirologia, or the Natural Language of the Hand and Chironomia are often bound together and referred to as a single work. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections cares for a copy, which contains what may be the earliest illustrations of what has been adapted into the modern BSL alphabet.

Becky Barry sign language
Becky Barry translating Hamlet into sign language. Image courtesy of Byron Mondahl.

Becky Barry is one of the British Sign Language interpreters who work with the Royal Shakespeare Company to create their semi-integrated sign performances, which began in 2014. In a semi-integrated sign performance, the interpreter is on-stage, in-costume, working as a performer alongside the cast. Barry engages and interacts with other performers, providing interpretation in the midst of the action. This allows sign language users to centralise their attention, rather than having to choose between interpreted dialogue to the side of the stage or watching the show itself. Louis Neethling, an avid theatre-goer who is Deaf, described the RSC’s first semi-integrated performance, The Christmas Truce, as “...the first time I could really relax” while at the theatre. Barry, who is hearing, does not represent the Deaf community, but she is outspoken in her advocacy, and serves as an example of how the poignancy of a performance can be enhanced when presented to people in their native language.

Charlotte Arrowsmith in Troilus and Cressida in sign language
Charlotte Arrowsmith as Cassandra in Troilus and Cressida. Image courtesy of Helen Maybanks (RSC).

Charlotte Arrowsmith is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first Deaf actress. She has been working as a film and stage actress for years, in productions within both d/Deaf and hearing communities. Currently, Arrowsmith has taken the role of Cassandra in Troilus and Cressida, and has a series of video blogs which she uses as an opportunity to spread Deaf awareness and discuss her variety of experiences, including translating Shakespeare into BSL and working with a hearing cast. She says, on getting the part, “It hit me. Wow. I will be the first Deaf actor in one of their shows...Why don’t I use this to my advantage and put it into a melting pot, mix it up and share it...” As a representative of the d/Deaf community, she has triumphed in getting a role based on her acting abilities, and neither because of nor in spite of her hearing.  

My understanding of and love for Shakespeare has bloomed as I have become familiar with the work and example of women such as these. After years of trying to force myself to enter into Shakespeare’s world, I have invited him into mine, and have come to realise that he truly is “not of an age, but for all time”, and for all people. 

* deaf is the term used to describe those whose hearing loss is a primarily medical state, while Deaf signifies the sense of connection to the values and identity of Deaf culture.

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