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...
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Criticism: Race And Colonialism
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.]
Remember First to possess his books.
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 more localized nationalist movements. Between 1957 and 1973 the vast majority of African and the larger Caribbean colonies won their independence; the same period witnessed the Cuban and Algerian revolutions, the latter phase of the Kenyan “Mau Mau” revolt, the Katanga crisis in the Congo, the Trinidadian Black Power uprising and, equally important for the atmosphere of militant defiance, the civil rights movement in the United States, the student revolts of 1968, and the humbling of the United States during the Vietnam War. This period was distinguished, among Caribbean and African intellectuals, by a pervasive mood of optimistic outrage. Frequently graduates of British or French universities, they were the first generation from their...
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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 experiences determined the meaning of the utterances they heard. A perspicacious few in the audience could have seen that this play was more than a story about how Prospero was sent into exile with his daughter, Miranda, took possession of an island inhabited by Caliban, and redeemed himself by marrying Miranda to the king's son.1
Indeed, The Tempest can be approached as a fascinating tale about the creation of a new society in America. Seen in that light, the play invites us to view English expansion not only as imperialism but also as a defining moment in the making of an English-American identity based on race. For the first time in the English theater, an Indian character was being presented. What did...
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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 Night's Dream performed by the Shakespeare Santa Cruz repertory company (hereafter SSC). In a camp rendering of Shakespeare's text, director Danny Scheie sought to illuminate what he viewed as the sexual politics of the text. Featuring a variety of pop-culture motifs (ranging from 1950s American teenage attire and behavior to Disney's Snow White), the production obstructed any possibility of seeing the play as merely a romantic idealization of courtly behavior (though it did reinforce the centrality of marriage as a solution to social discord). While segments of the production were noteworthy for their playful disruption of tradition (particularly in treating the young lovers), the production also exhibited disturbingly unexamined...
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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.]
CALIBAN AND DECOLONIZATION
I cannot read The Tempest without recalling the adventures of those voyages reported in Hakluyt; and when I remember the voyages and the particular period in African history, I see The Tempest against the background of England's experimentation in colonisation … The Tempest was also prophetic of a political future which is our present. Moreover, the circumstances of my life, both as colonial and exiled descendant of Caliban in the twentieth century is an example of that prophecy.1
There is just one world in which the oppressors and oppressed struggle, one world in which, sooner than later, the oppressed will be victorious. Our [Latin] America is bringing its own nuances to this struggle, this victory. The tempest has not subsided. But The...
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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 America? When it is Ireland, or North Africa, or Europe itself, or the no-man's-land (really every man's desired land) of the Mediterranean in-between. Just as the formal literary elements of a text—metaphors, puns, patterns—may signify in multiple ways, context, too, may be polysemous. By exploring other contexts for the insistent colonial concerns of Shakespeare's island play, I hope to show how a multiple historical interpretation can unpack the condensed layers of colonialist ideology. This type of reading depends not only on recent Tempest criticism—what one might call the American readings—but on studies of England's colonial role in Ireland. My aim is, first, to provide descriptions of the contemporary colonial...
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Criticism: Race And Gender
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 Elizabeth, who, at the age of sixteen, was being married to Frederick the Elector Palatine. The marriage masque within The Tempest may have been added for this occasion. In any case, the Goddess Ceres' promise of a life untouched by winter (“Spring come to you at the farthest / In the very end of harvest!” IV.i.114-15)1 and all the riches the earth can provide (“Earth's increase, foison plenty”) was offered to the living royal couple as well as to Ferdinand and Miranda.
Elizabeth had fallen dutifully in love with the bridegroom her father had chosen for her, the youthful ruler of the rich and fertile Rhineland and the leading Protestant prince of central Europe. Within seven years...
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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 threat of interracial desire, although only one element in the myriad contests over social control in the play, is key to the establishment of an ideal of patriarchal authority. Perhaps because of his indeterminacy (to which I shall return later), Caliban has been read alternatively as black African, Afro-Caribbean, and Native American; however, in all these permutations, he embodies and resists ideologies of dark and light even as he is continually read as dark other.2 Ania Loomba proposes that “explicitly social-Darwinist, racist and imperialist productions indicated Caliban's political colour as clearly black” (143). The text itself locates Caliban on one side of a binarism in Prospero's final pronouncement...
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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 ‘now turne / The Office and Devotion of their view / Upon a Tawny Front’ (I.1.6-8), Cleopatra's self-definition as ‘blacke’ assigns a clear racial difference from the Romans to the Egyptian queen.2 Except for an appendix in Janet Adelman's 1973 study of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, however, sustained critical attention to the question of his Cleopatra's blackness has been rare.3 Indeed, Michael Neill, its most recent editor, declares in his thoughtful discussion of the play that ‘the issue of racial difference in Antony and Cleopatra’ is ‘relatively insignificant’.4
In part, I think, Neill's conclusion follows from his rejection of a previous tendency to read...
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Criticism: Titus Andronicus: Aaron
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 Lucius Jr. in the wings, represents the solution to Rome's dilemmas, the renewed life after tragic events.1 But despite Lucius' alliance and coronation at the end, it is black Aaron and his child who signal new hope for this tragic world, thereby undermining the play's representation of blacks as stereotypical dramatic emblems of evil.2
Aaron's role as a barbarous black infidel is rendered ambiguous by his relative merits and by subtly subversive patterns of dramatic action in the text. Thus in a tragedy of blood that presents fourteen on-stage murders, we see only one slaying carried out by Aaron, the play's so-called arch-“fiend.”3 More significantly, while...
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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 apologist, he is quite comfortable with his hue, never mind that the play's other characters find in his blackness a symbol of negation. A complex and compellingly suave character who revels in inflicting pain on others, he marches to the sound of no drumbeat except his own. Aware as is Morocco of the social stigma attached to nonwhites, Aaron knows that overcoming his racial stereotype is well-nigh impossible in the color-conscious Roman society in which he finds himself. Conditioned to wedding darkness to wickedness like the Romans, Shakespeare's audience would have had no problems with equating a character of ebony shade to human depravity at its very worse. To the Elizabethans, in fact, blackness and evil were so synonymous that this...
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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.”
Hamlin, William M. “Men of Inde: Renaissance Ethnography and The Tempest.” Shakespeare Studies XXII (1994): 15-44.
Views The Tempest in the contexts of Renaissance colonial discourse, regarding Caliban as a culturally distinct and ambivalent figure.
López, Judith A. “‘Black and White and “Read” All Over.’” Shakespeare Studies XXVI (1998): 49-58.
Disputes the critical tendency to reduce racial and religious conflict to binary opposition when evaluating such texts as The Merchant of Venice.
Smith, Ian. “Barbarian Errors: Performing Race in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49, No. 2 (Summer 1998):...
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