Contemporary critical discussion of Shakespeare's works has frequently focused on the subject of race, particularly how racial “others” are represented in his dramas. Many commentators have focused on the importance of achieving a clear consideration of how Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries understood the term “race.” Generally, scholars have observed that Shakespeare employed the word “race” in a genealogical sense, referring to noble bloodlines and royal succession. Nevertheless, many contemporary critics have located race as a central site of conflict in several of Shakespeare's works, including Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, and Titus Andronicus. To varying degrees, each of these works confronts the tensions between white, Christian Europeans, and cultural outsiders—blacks, Jews, Muslims, and Indians. In examining these conflicts, critics have generally argued that while Shakespeare presents an array of stereotypes, in many cases he succeeds in transcending these limited perceptions and offers a complex, if not always balanced, depiction of racial interaction.

In Othello and The Merchant of Venice, the dark-skinned Othello and Jewish Shylock dominate their respective plays—works pervaded by the drama of racial difference. While racial antagonism drives the plot of these powerful works, other plays approach the subject of race less directly, exploring the clash of cultures as an important motif. Among these works, Titus Andronicus features a significant element of racial discrimination, centered on the figure of Aaron. A black-skinned Moor, Aaron represents, on a superficial level, the Renaissance association of the color black with evil. Several critics, including Edward T. Washington (1995) and Jeannette S. White (1997), assert that Shakespeare's Aaron surmounts this stereotype, particularly in light of his compassionate love for his child. An ambiguous character, according to Washington, Aaron offers an evil exterior that masks his deeply hidden virtues.

Modern critics have also found the link between race and gender particularly intriguing in several of Shakespeare's plays. Lorie Jerrell Leininger (1980) observes the analogy between Prospero's oppression of his daughter Miranda and of his racially distinct slave Caliban in The Tempest. Leininger discusses Caliban's qualities as a lascivious Vice-figure who stands in contrast to Miranda and her inherent virtue. Kim F. Hall (1995) further explores the concept of a sexualized threat posed by a racial “other,” discussing Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda and the danger to Roman imperial culture intimated by the sexually potent African queen Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. Joyce Green MacDonald (1996) follows a similar line of inquiry by probing the symbolic import of a highly sexualized, black-skinned Cleopatra as an emblem of corruption and lustful desire.

Twentieth-century study of cultural imperialism has also proved a useful point of departure for the interpretation of Shakespeare's late drama, The Tempest, which has elicited a number of racially-inspired, anticolonial readings. Rob Nixon (1987) surveys the play's appropriation by African and Caribbean intellectuals of the postcolonial period, who have found in the racially-charged relationship between Prospero and Caliban a strong condemnation of European imperialism. This critical exploration is furthered by Jyotsna G. Singh (1996), who examines Caliban's recasting by modern proponents of decolonization as a cultural prototype of the oppressed New World revolutionary. Richard Takaki (1992) analyzes Caliban's connection to American history in the early age of English colonial expansion, associating Shakespeare's depiction of Caliban with Renaissance reports of “savages” in the Americas. Furthermore, Barbara Fuchs (1997) expands colonial interpretations of The Tempest to view in historical context the racial threats perceived by English imperialists in Ireland and the Islamic regions of the southern and eastern Mediterranean.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: “Out of the Matrix: Shakespeare and Race-Writing,” in The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 13-29.

[In the following essay, Crewe examines the “racializing potential” of Shakespeare's drama and poetry, arguing that “race is ubiquitous in Shakespeare's work.”]

At present, any attempt to discuss “Shakespeare and race-writing” in general will almost certainly appear misconceived. To suppose, for a start, that Shakespeare engages in something we might call race-writing is already to risk begging the question entirely. Even if the term “race” is granted, recent studies have rightly emphasized the heterogeneity and historical specificity of “racial” construction in the early modern period. These inhibiting considerations notwithstanding, I have posed the question of Shakespeare and race-writing in general terms. I have done so because it seems to me that prevailing historicist and/or cultural-studies categories make it difficult to precipitate the issue of “race” in Shakespeare broadly or fluidly enough to do justice to the phenomenon. Some further constriction may result from anxieties attendant on the discussion of so hurtful a topic as race. Without denying the sensitivity of the issue, I do not believe that these forms of constriction do any good. I shall proceed to argue, therefore, that insofar as Shakespeare can be seen to engage in “race-writing” at all, that writing is not confined to overtly racialized characters and situations in a handful of plays. On the contrary, “race” is ubiquitous in Shakespeare's work: ubiquitously prophesied; ever-present even when not deliberately foregrounded; constituted exorbitantly from the start.

Before elaborating on these remarks, I shall mention that they have not been prompted simply by consideration of Shakespeare's plays. Nor have they been exclusively prompted by recent discussion of Shakespearean and/or early modern racial construction.1 An important instigation came from outside the field in the guise of Neil Jordan's film The Crying Game. Arguably, Jordan's film is one that seeks to realize the politically progressive potentialities of crossing in both the gendered and the racial senses of the term, the transvestite character Dil being the crossing figure in both those senses. Yet any assumption of progressive homology between the film's destabilizing sex-gender representations and its racial-ethnic ones would be questionable.2 The ironic brilliance, articulateness, and political purposiveness of the film's gender-discourse are simply not matched in the film's racial/ethnic discourse. Perhaps it is because so many people now believe that sexuality and gender are culturally constructed and performed—or at least that the constructive-performative dimension is more consequential than the biological one—that Jordan's gender-bending tour de force could be produced as a mainstream film and received with broad public acclaim. As I have suggested, however, the film's racial/ethnic script remains fragmentary, relatively inarticulate, in comparison with its “performative” sex-gender script. Does this difference imply a lack of public conviction that race, too, is culturally constructed and performed? A strong residual belief that race is an intractable biological fact? Or does it imply a continuing deficiency in our critical discourses of “race”?

Consider the analogy apparently set up in the film between crossing (or passing) in gender terms and in racial/ethnic ones. Played by the “dark-skinned” Jaye Davidson, the gender-crossing transvestite character Dil can also be seen as a highly-eroticized racially or ethnically indeterminate figure, deconstructing the film's black-white polarities and constituting a valued third term. As an eroticized intermediary, Dil appears capable of negotiating racial/ethnic differences.3The Crying Game might thus be understood to promote ethnic plurality—and maybe “ethnicity” as such—in place of antagonistically “pure,” reductive, racial identities (black man-white man; “nigger”-Irish). Some difficulties may be posed for this thesis, however, by the different ways in which Dil is seen by different viewing audiences.4 A more serious difficulty arises from the apparent bodily coding—indeed, color-coding—of Dil as a figure of racial/ethnic indeterminacy or non-identity in the presence of sharply defined (black-white) bodily alternatives. In racial/ethnic terms, Dil does not represent a performative option so much as a particular look—one that leads bell hooks to characterize him/her as the type of the eroticized mulatta in an all too familiar racial schema. While I do not believe this characterization is necessarily correct, it raises a question about what Dil can stand for in the racial/ethnic context of the film.5

What, in fact, can Dil's racial/ethnic indeterminacy stand for if not the eugenic undoing of “pure” racial identity and hence antagonism? Failing any positive ethnic identification, to what can Dil's indeterminability attest if not a eugenic dream of benign mixture, with deracialization as its utopian telos? Yet no eugenic politics can be enunciated in film, or with reference to it, given both the current discrediting of racial eugenics and current reinvestment in ethnicity as distinct from race.6 The film's discursive blockage on this subject is rendered virtually complete by the fact that any explicit eugenic idealization of Dil would be no less disturbing in its complicated invidiousness than is the abjecting disdain for persons of “mixed race” in strongly race-polarized and race-identified cultures.7

In short, although The Crying Game is an actively anti-racist film, it is also a film at once possessed and thwarted by racial consciousness. Such “passive” racialism, which is certainly not confined to The Crying Game alone at present, can be regarded as a troubling residue of Western racial construction at least since the actively formative (perhaps strictly reformative) early modern period. It is for participating momentously and overtly in such racial construction—among other things—that Shakespeare stands out among his English contemporaries. The study of Shakespeare's race-writing may thus enable us to recognize the extensiveness of the racial residue of Western cultural construction as a preliminary to further consideration of any “post-racial” identification or consciousness. It is on this premise that I wish to broach once again the broad question of Shakespeare's race-writing, concluding with an example from the sonnets as an important “racial” text.

Racial readings of Shakespeare are hardly new. In an essay titled “The Getting of a Lawful Race,” however, Lynda Boose makes a case for reading the Shakespearean racial text more systematically and less anachronistically than has generally been done in the past from any point of view. These two requirements virtually mandate a fresh start in racial reading of Shakespeare, although it should be added that this fresh start has effectively been made by Shakespeareans working in postcolonial and cultural studies frames of reference. Some of the best new work appears in the very volume in which Boose issues her call for renovation.8 Insisting, nevertheless, that such reading be properly historical, Boose establishes three caveats. First, racial categories and imaginary racial genealogies are fluid at the time Shakespeare is writing. To read these texts into stabilized modern racial categories is anachronistic. Second, to the extent that early modern racial categories are stabilized, or are in the process of being stabilized, they differ from modern ones. Categorical misalignments in racial readings of Shakespeare are thus also to be avoided. (These caveats resemble the one now widely accepted about the impropriety of applying modern categories of sexuality to Renaissance texts.) Third, racial categories are never constructed independently of other cultural-political categories, notably those of class, sexuality, gender and nationality. Crossing of categories can thus easily entail double or multiple crossing. For example, the speaker in Micro-Cynicon: Sixe Snarling Satyres (1599), by T- M- (Thomas Middleton?) alludes to a prostitute-figure anticipating Dil in The Crying Game as a “pale Checkquered black Hermaphrodite.”9 This strongly eroticized multicategorical figure resists any exclusively racial reading, apparently figuring instead a disturbingly magnetic indeterminability.

Boose focusses mainly on the formation of white racial ideology through an interplay between what might be called the Renaissance ethnographic Imaginary (comprising the essentially fictional constructions of race inherited from classical antiquity and the middle ages) and the empirical data of early modern inter-ethnic encounters, the latter occurring mainly under the impetus of European imperial expansion. As part of this discussion, she notes the formativeness of English colonial/racial construction of the Irish for later constructions of race that will, so to speak, be ever more elaborately color-coded and body-typed, thus technically becoming subject to empirical verification. The perniciousness of racial othering (and enslavement) arises not only from the power-differential governing these encounters but from their overwhelming predetermination by texts concerning the savagery, wildness or Plinian monstrousness of “other” races. (Clearly, idealization of racial others as noble or prelapsarian is another mode of imperious othering that does no service to its objects.) Yet this history, voluminous, complicated, and still in the process of being written, is not the whole story. I particularly want to focus here on the discursive matrix from which Shakespeare's race-writing is historically precipitated. The racializing potentialities of that matrix—what we might call its many proto-racial components—are as much responsible as any other immediate circumstance for Shakespeare's production of a racialized text.

The common, gendered term “matrix” is one I choose deliberately. In the first instance, I use it to designate the loose ensemble of logical categories and operations, rhetorical tropes, semantic units, grammatical and prosodic forms, and whatever other elements comprise the language-situation for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Admittedly, the term “matrix” may, when used in this sense, seem barely distinguishable from “discourse.” In use, the term may thus seem only to reiterate the post-structuralist point that language stands in a constitutive rather than a derivative or mimetic relation to social reality.

In fact, however, the term “discourse,” even in Foucault's historically inflected usage, still adheres to its structuralist antecedents. Its use still recalls the structuralist model of language as a synchronic system, and it recalls more specifically the linearization of signifying utterance in structuralism, whether in terms of Saussure's single axis or Jakobson's coordinating axes. The systemic autonomy and unqualified originary status of language are likewise recalled, and have been dogmatically reiterated in a great deal of post-structuralist work. While “matrix” may still imply the constitutiveness of language, it does not invest language with primordial structural autonomy. Instead, a relatively unstructured, temporal grouping of elements—one capable of being troped, perhaps, as fecund, but also as “hysterically” mobile—is designated by the term. To the extent that structural binaries remain present in the matrix, their primordial constitutiveness is attenuated and their oppositional alignment is unsettled.

In The Renaissance Notion of Woman, for example, Ian Maclean refers Western gender-discourse (as we might also refer racial discourse) back to such primordial binaries as male-female; limited-unlimited; odd-even, etc., the series culminating in light-darkness; good-evil.10 Obviously, these binaries cannot be regarded as neutral structural ones, but must rather be seen as value-laden residues of an unrecoverable but nonetheless real prehistory. In other words, their diachronic and culture-specific character is already manifest. Yet insofar as these binaries enter recorded (Western) cultural history, they do so within a loose, historically shifting, ensemble, not as fatefully determining structural poles. It is to this ensemble that the term “matrix” can be applied.

If there is a further justification for preferring the term “matrix,” it is that it tropes linguistic constitutiveness and historical limitation in a way that appears to me reasonably consonant with Shakespearean practice. This consideration is not unimportant if, as I do, one attaches considerable heuristic as well as historical importance to Shakespeare's practice in race-gender representations. Insofar as “matrix” is irreducibly gendered, however, it remains unavoidably implicated in conflict between idealization of the prolific female source and misogynistic stigmatization of the female threat to masculine idealization.11 Yet the term can still be usefully employed to designate the (admittedly very large) set of particulars constituting speech and writing as agencies of cultural production at any given moment; it is not therefore a term exclusively bound either to mythic engendering or biological procreation. To turn attention to the Shakespearean matrix as one in which a strong, widely dispersed, racializing potential exists is not to turn away from the historical specifics of Shakespearean racial construction, but rather to reconnect those specifics to the language-situation enabling such construction.

To indicate what I mean by the racializing potential of the matrix, I shall begin with an example from “The Rape of Lucrece.” As one would expect, gender-conflict is strongly foregrounded in the poem, while categories of racial difference seem irrelevant given the implicit uniform “whiteness” of the poem's Roman characters.12 Yet the moral terms of the poem are proto-racial as well. At Lucrece's death, her blood becomes a “purple fountain” bubbling from her breast, but as it spreads on the floor around her the mixed color purple begins to separate out into fractions:

Some of her blood still pure and red remain’d,
And some look’d black, and that false Tarquin stained.(13)

Lucrece's death is needed, in effect, to undo the internalized moral stain that is already tantamount to biological admixture. Only the most limited resemanticization would be needed to turn the “false” Tarquin who taints Lucrece's blood into an anxiously guilty yet sexually violent “colored” man, and Lucrece into the raped white woman. This resemanticization would still require Lucrece's noble death, not merely to uphold Roman honor in the abstract, but to forestall the birth of a child of mixed blood, an outcome strongly foreshadowed in the lines quoted above.

The initial purification-scenario, however, in which Lucrece's and Tarquin's blood separate out after flowing from the common purple source, proves revealingly insufficient. The red and the black components turn out not to be the only ones, while the diacritical antithesis between them in terms of purity and impurity requires further elaboration. Contemporary “experimental” knowledge of the bodily humors apparently supplied the basis for a further refinement:

And as there are four elements out of which our bodies are compounded, so there are four sorts of humors answerable to their natures, being all mingled together with the blood, as we may see by experience in blood let out of one's body. For uppermost we see as it were a little skim like to the flower or working of new wine. … Next we may see as it were small streams of water mingled with the blood. And in the bottom we see a black and thicker humor, like to the lees of wine in a wine-vessel.14

Each of these blood-fractions represents one of the four humors, blood containing all of them in varying proportions.

One could argue that in “The Rape of Lucrece” this humoral observation, the empiricity of which is confirmed by its non-distinction from viticultural observation, undergoes moral allegorization as Lucrece's spilt blood composes itself into an emblem. I believe it would be more accurate to say, first, that a fateful empirical ligature is being produced here between humoral physiology and race, and, second, that unstably hierarchized physiological and moral elements are present in the matrix, along with a strong personifying agency that is also proto-racial:

About the mourning and congealed face
Of that black blood a wat’ry rigol goes,
Which seems to weep upon the tainted place,
And ever since, as pitying Lucrece’ woes,
Corrupted blood some wat’ry token shows,
And blood untainted still doth red abide,
Blushing at that which is so putrefied.(15)


As regards the previous diacritical antithesis between red and black, purity and impurity, it appears that untainted red blood is an irreducible oxymoron (it will “abide”). Yet the oxymoron will apparently be tolerable for ordinary moral and potentially procreative purposes (untainted blood can “abide” red). It is of this pure blood that the white woman will remain the primary vessel. Red blood cannot itself, however, be the signifier of purity. That at which it blushes is also its colored self. The signification of purity additionally requires that a completely untainted “wat’ry rigol” be separated out, and remain separated from, blood in any of its compromised colors. It is this colorless essence, of which the tears that forever bewail the tainted human condition also seem to be composed, that remains wholly antipathetic to any admixture with the blackness it also circumscribes.16 Perhaps it is on this strange essence that the projection of a full-blown white racial ideology will eventually depend. Here, however, the only human face that materializes is the one into which the dark Tarquin-blood congeals. Essential purity has no picturable face, or, perhaps, human embodiment. This emblem's strange condensation of darkness, sexuality, loss, melancholia, death, sanctity and taint recurs in Sonnet 127, to which I shall turn in due course. It is in this knot or complex, however, that the human image is simultaneously precipitated and disavowed as black.

It is not only in this passage that a discourse of “color” is produced in the poem. Before the poem's tragic resolution transpires, another field of color has been negotiated through conventional Petrarchan troping of the red and the white:17

When at Collatium this false lord arrived,
Well was he welcom’d by the Roman dame,
Within whose face beauty...

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Criticism: Race And Colonialism

Rob Nixon (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Caribbean and African Appropriations of The Tempest,” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 557-78.

[In the following essay, Nixon focuses on the anticolonial interpretations of The Tempest set forth by African and Caribbean intellectuals of the period from the late 1950s to early 1970s.]

First to possess his books.

The Tempest

The era from the late fifties to the early seventies was marked in Africa and the Caribbean by a rush of newly articulated anticolonial sentiment that was associated with the burgeoning of both international black consciousness and...

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Ronald Takaki (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “The Tempest in the Wilderness: The Racialization of Savagery,” in The Journal of American History, Vol. 79, No. 3, December, 1992, pp. 892-912.

[In the following essay, Takaki probes The Tempest's relation to the English colonization of America, interpreting Caliban as representative of a “savage” American Indian figure.]

“O brave new world that has such people in’t,” they heard Miranda exclaim. It was 1611 and London theatergoers were attending the first performance of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. In the early seventeenth century, the English were encountering what they viewed as strange inhabitants in new lands. Those...

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Margo Hendricks (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “‘Obscured by Dreams’: Race, Empire, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 37-60.

[In the following essay, Hendricks examines Shakespeare's “figurative evocation” of India in A Midsummer Night's Dream, probing “the play's complicity in the racialist ideologies being created by early modern England's participation in imperialism.”]

“There’s no such thing as ‘England’ any more … welcome to India brothers!”1

In July 1991 I was engaged as a textual advisor for a production of A Midsummer...

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Jyotsna G. Singh (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Caliban Versus Miranda: Race and Gender Conflicts in Postcolonial Rewritings of The Tempest,” in Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects, edited by Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 191-209.

[In the following essay, Singh studies postcolonial readings of The Tempest, which emphasize the role of Caliban as a prototype of the modern revolutionary due to his engagement in a power struggle with Prospero.]


I cannot read The Tempest without recalling the adventures of those voyages reported...

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Barbara Fuchs (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Conquering Islands: Contextualizing The Tempest,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 45-62.

[In the following essay, Fuchs extends typical colonialist interpretations of The Tempest to include the play's references to European imperialism in Ireland and the Islamic Mediterranean.]

It is an axiom of contemporary criticism that The Tempest is a play about the European colonial experience in America. While this perspective has generated enormously enriched readings of the play, it runs the risk of obscuring the complicated nuances of colonial discourses in the early seventeenth century. When is America not...

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Criticism: Race And Gender

Lorie Jerrell Leininger (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “The Miranda Trap: Sexism and Racism in Shakespeare's Tempest,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 285-94.

[In the following essay, Leininger discusses the oppression of women and non-whites—personified in the characters of Miranda and Caliban, respectively—in The Tempest.]

Shakespeare's Tempest was first performed before King James I at Whitehall in November of 1611. It was presented a second time at the court of King James early in 1613, as part of the marriage festivities of James's daughter...

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Kim F. Hall (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Marriages of State: The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra,” in Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England, Cornell University Press, 1995, pp. 141-60.

[In the excerpt below, Hall evaluates the racial and sexual threat to imperial culture posed by Caliban and Cleopatra in The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra, respectively.]

Colonialist readings of The Tempest have shown the text to be a fertile ground for exploring issues of race, cultural contest, and authority in English encounters in the “new world.”1 They have been less attentive to roles of women in colonial structures. The...

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Joyce Green MacDonald (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Sex, Race, and Empire in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,” in Literature & History, 3rd Series, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 60-77.

[In the following essay, MacDonald explores the implications of a black Cleopatra who uses her sexuality to thwart Roman imperial power.]

In Act I of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, sweetly torturing herself with thoughts of her absent lover, implores Antony to

Thinke on me,
That am with Phoebus amorous pinches blacke,
And wrinkled deepe in time.(1)

Along with Philo's disgusted observation as the play opens that Antony's formerly martial eyes...

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Criticism: Titus Andronicus: Aaron

Edward T. Washington (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Tragic Resolution in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus,” in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, June, 1995, pp. 461-79.

[In the following essay, Washington argues that the figure of Aaron transcends the Renaissance representation of blacks “as stereotypical dramatic emblems of evil.”]

At the end of a tragedy the waters close over the wreck-age of the tragic figures. Those who remain pay tribute to the fallen, inviting the sense that life shall move on, the community having learned something useful from the sad events. Most critics assert that in Titus Andronicus, the new alliance between the Andronici and the Goths, with Lucius in the lead and...

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Jeannette S. White (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “‘Is Black So Base a Hue?’: Shakespeare's Aaron and the Politics and Poetics of Race,” in CLA Journal, Vol. XL, No. 3, March, 1997, pp. 336-66.

[In the following essay, White contends that Aaron in Titus Andronicus subverts the Elizabethan notion that equates blackness with evil.]

“Mislike me not for my complexion,” the Prince of Morocco passionately implores Portia in the Merchant of Venice.1 In sharp contrast, Aaron, Shakespeare's first Moor, who makes his unforgettable appearance in Titus Andronicus, cares little about how others perceive him, finding in his color no reason for embarrassment of self-loathing. No...

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Further Reading


Callaghan, Dympna. “What's at Stake in Representing Race?” Shakespeare Studies XXVI (1998): 21–26.

Examines the representation of non-white characters in modern productions of Shakespeare's plays.

Erickson, Peter. “The Moment of Race in Renaissance Studies.” Shakespeare Studies XXVI (1998): 27-36.

Considers the pitfalls of scholarly investigation into race in Renaissance studies. Erickson uses Othelloamong his examples, arguing that while “the drama begins by disrupting and temporarily suspending racially based stereotypes, it ends by reimposing them.”


(The entire section is 178 words.)