Some Maladies of Early Modern Race Study in Shakespeare

HomeArticlesSome Maladies of Early Modern Race Study in Shakespeare

The spring 2016 issue of Shakespeare Quarterly (67.1) updates the state of early modern race study in Shakespeare.  Guest editors Peter Erickson (Northwestern) and Kim F. Hall (Barnard), chairs of the 2015 Shakespeare Association of America seminar “Early Modern Race/Ethnic/Diaspora Studies,” introduce the issue with an overview of the field, its goals, and an agenda of “concerns” (5) for future work.  The writers of seven seminar papers revised for this issue are Urvashi Chakravarty (George Mason), Vanessa Corredera (Andrews), Ruben Espinosa (UTEP), Kyle Grady (Michigan), Arthur L. Little, Jr., (UCLA), Ian Smith (Lafayette), and Sandra Michele Young (Cape Town).  A review of the papers in this issue, on this topic, requires disclosure of the racial identity of the editors, writers, and this reviewer.  One editor is white, and one is black; all writers but one are people of color; this reviewer, an independent scholar in Shakespeare, is a 77-year-old, white man.  Notwithstanding the ad hominem response likely to color the reception of this critique, I offer it as a life-long advocate of racial equality and social justice.  I trust we do not all have to agree on what or how to advocate on behalf those causes.

According to the editors, “After years of being on the forefront of questions of early modern race…the conversation in the world of Shakespeare had clearly stalled.”  This issue intends to restart it.  The editors set ambitious benchmarks for “progress toward establishing the field of modern race studies with a stronger foundation through a wide spectrum of social issues, a broader scholarly framework, a larger academic audience, and deeper public engagement” (3).  If these papers are any indication, progress will be modest because the field suffers from problems reflecting academic conditions and professional considerations, conceptual confusions and methodological conflicts, and a self-inflicted, self-defeating rhetoric.  The latter suggests that race scholars are more likely to talk among themselves than to converse with, or convince, others.

My review focuses on these problems in race study in Shakespeare, not on matters of socio-literary interpretation or pedagogy.  Given the number, variety, and nuances of these papers, I cannot do justice to each in reasonable space; I refer to the introduction and a few papers, and analyze Smith’s “We Are Othello.”  This paper by a leading scholar in race study in Shakespeare reflects many of the problems in the field.

Had this special issue appeared two to three decades ago, it would have been au courant; now, it is passé.  The writers still manifest concern about the institutional and individual prevalence and perpetuation of race-based assumptions and attitudes, beliefs and practices, priorities and practices, in Shakespeare research and teaching; still exhibit an in-group versus out-group mentation which implies or insinuates racist mindsets or motives to white Shakespeare scholars little concerned with race in their research and teaching; still believe that race scholars can ameliorate, correct, or eradicate racist propensities; and still exhibit the haughty posturing of those presuming to be free of racist taint toward those whom they deem tainted, knowingly or not, by racism.

These continuities with the recent past indicate a lack of success of race studies in helping to reform racial injustice in American cities or perceived racism in English departments and Shakespeare scholars.  Several contributors note a lack of support for, and progress in the spread and standing of, race studies; and cite recent outrageous episodes of police brutality against black men and women.  They do not recognize that the gap between the domains is great and that efforts to effect reforms in each of them are also great.  They do not reflect on the possibility that race study cannot play an immediate role in ameliorating racism in either domain.  Instead, they imply that race study can do so but do not indicate how it might do so.  After many years, any link between race study in the early modern period and either terrible race-related events and deplorable race-related conditions or English departments, Shakespeare scholars, and traditional scholarship unresponsive to race study remains obscure or weak.  But this link must be obvious and strong to justify “politically engaged scholarship” (1) to scores of skeptics, not to the band of believers.  Otherwise, non-race scholars will continue to see purported links, not as scholarship, but as pretexts for political exhortation elaborated by erudition.

Three major complaints Vanessa Corredera clearly articulates: “if early modern studies ignores [sic] the presence of race in Renaissance literature, we may also be inadvertently entrenching white privilege by deterring scholars of color and scholars invested in race and social justice from work in our field” (46).  However, these complaints lack substantiation.  Contributors assert but do not support the claim that “white privilege”—meaning assumed but not defined—explains why non-race scholars in early modern studies ignore race; they never show that race is a necessarily constituent, significant, or relevant element in all such studies.  They also assert but do not support the claim that studies which ignore race deter race scholars; they never show that or how such studies deter them or crowd out their studies.  These three complaints lack any evidence demonstrating the existence or adverse influence of “white privilege” on race studies except by prejudging skin color, reading minds, or impugning motives of other scholars, some black as well as white, with different interests.

A fourth major complaint is perceived restrictions on race scholarship which wishes to extend the boundaries of traditional scholarship but does little to justify extensions and much to discredit traditional methods and standards.  Ian Smith smears scholarship based on the meaning of race in Shakespeare’s times and the motives of scholars who use this approach.  “Fetishizing historical accuracy is to claim the high moral ground of sound scholarship, a position from which to disguise resistance to race work, from which to promote a singular perspective and methodology as acceptable while placing firm restrictions on others” (120).[1]  Smith sneers at “sound” scholarship but suggests no alternative.  What generates such heat is conflicting definitions of scholarship.  Non-race scholars do traditional scholarship to ascertain, as best they can by traditional methods and standards, disciplinary truth.  Race scholars do “politically engaged scholarship” in the service of social purposes.  Understandably, they value scholars and scholarship in their field; unfortunately, they deprecate scholars and scholarship in other fields.  Their transvaluation does not persuade non-race scholars, so the conflict continues.

The definitional conflict may be irresolvable, but it does not justify race- or religion-based aspersions, even if the majority of race scholars are people of color, and majorities in English departments and of Shakespeare scholars are white.  The editors impute to non-race scholars “a pathological averseness to thinking about race” (2).  Arthur L. Little, Jr., writes, “I’m not interested in an ad hominem reading of any Shakespeare scholar”; unfortunately, his next word is “But” (86), and much of what follows attacks Stephen Greenblatt’s criticisms of “claims of racial memory” and adduces his religion with anti-Semitic insinuation: “In one fashion or another, we are all, he seems [I stress this weasel word] to suggest, Jews” (87).  Little resorts to a smear to respond to a threat: Greenblatt differentiates who one is from what one studies.  Little wants the difference denied.  Affirming “racial memory” warrants blacks’ special standing to interpret matters of race or black personae.  Since ad hominem attacks stifle, not stimulate, “conversation,” such rhetoric is self-defeating; it repels those whom it purports to wish to persuade.

Indeed, instead of addressing differences of opinion, priorities, and emphasis, as well as of interpretation and pedagogy, race scholars avoid “conversation” with those who disagree with their views, even in situations which call for it.  Smith’s account of an episode at a 2012 SAA Othello seminar led by Lena Cowen Orlin (Georgetown) shows Smith and a subgroup of race scholars disregarding a dissenting white participant.[2]  An analysis of his account shows race-scholar rhetoric in action.

Smith reports his responses to this participant who twice asserted, “Othello is not about race.”  First, he says that “The seminar was devoted to a discussion of the play, and, not surprisingly, some of the contributors, including me, had proceeded with [sic] the assumption that Othello constitutes a major intervention in the emergence of a racial discourse and examination of the attendant asymmetries of power in the early modern period.”  The play was the topic of the seminar; race was the topic of subgroup interest.  Yet Smith thinks that the subgroup interest justified disregarding the participant and the comment, and continuing the subgroup discussion as before.  Second, he sees the repetition “as a corrective, an attempt to stem the critical tide of a misguided and erroneous enterprise that identified Othello with race.  The speaker’s strong denial appealed to the fantasy of historical accuracy that would banish race talk as a dangerous anachronism” (119).  Smith’s interpretation imputes motives, opinions, and purposes to the dissenter without evidence and renders them in hyperbolic and pejorative terms.

Smith goes on to interpret, not the dissenter’s relevant point, but his interruption as a white power play which off-footed him and others, and to state unacceptable reactions:

“Was I, as well as other like-minded members of the seminar, supposed to recuse myself from the conversation, return to silence, and abandon the project of race in the early modern period because I had been duly chastised about a gross error in scholarship?  Was I, as a result, supposed to yield control over the proceedings to the bearer of the claim?  On my part, such withdrawal, imposed silence, and delegitimization within an academic and professional arena would epitomize the ‘off-balance’ racial experience…from which whiteness draws its superiority and power” (120-21).

Smith, though assuming a position of power in the seminar, represents himself as a black victim resisting white oppression.  Ironically, this black man had the power to “control” the “conversation” and used it to exclude from it a white participant in the seminar who was not a member of its usurping faction.

Smith’s responses divert attention from the obvious question: in a seminar of peers, even or especially in the face of sharp dissent, why did he—why did no one else—not ask the participant for his reasons for denying that the play is about race?  The answer might have had merit.  The dissenter might have argued: It depends on what one means by “about.”  If the play is “about” anything, most agree that it is about the relationship between Desdemona and Othello, particularly his jealousy: onset, operation, and outcome.  Most also agree that Othello’s race is one factor among many in the play, with its centrality or strength debatable, but not “[identify] Othello with race.”  The argument does not dismiss or deny Othello’s visible blackness; it merely prioritizes it.  If the dissenter’s priority is not Smith’s, it does not thereby signify racial prejudice or practice.

Smith’s actionable rhetoric aside, the question which he asks at the start and answers at the end of his paper—who speaks for Othello?—either reveals a disconnect between early modern race studies and historical scholarship or suggests racial bias in reverse.  Smith argues that Hamlet has Horatio to tell his story but that Othello has no one to tell his.  Hamlet and Horatio share race, education, and background; Othello’s resume is unique.  However, Cassio, brother in arms, trusted friend, and confidant in courtship, is well positioned to tell Othello’s story.  In one instance of erasure of contrary evidence necessary to enable his thesis, Smith never mentions white Cassio.[3]   He concludes that scholars must find ways to tell the story which no one in the play can.  On his logic, if Cassio cannot tell Othello’s story (well), white Shakespeare scholars are less likely to tell it (well).  He implies that only blacks can tell Othello’s story or tell it better than whites can because of racial resonance across centuries and cultures.[4]  However, if Smith believes that white scholars are no less capable than black scholars of telling Othello’s story, he must expect all scholars to exploit historical scholarship to do so.  It is perhaps the only scholarly basis for explaining Othello as he is in the play, neither excusing nor accusing him, as he requests.  But, as I noted above, Smith scorns such scholarship, at least as practiced by white Shakespeare scholars.

Other contributors also struggle with the relationship between race and racism in Shakespeare’s day, and race and racism in ours, and against the charge of anachronism.[5]  Their concern is critical in two senses: importance and interpretation.  They worry that, if race study shows that the past is different from the present, then they are not linked, and race study undermines their commitments to racial and social justice.  To prevent this conclusion and protect these commitments, they assume that Shakespeare’s views on race and racism must be similar to ours to be instructive—a weak assumption for two reasons.  One, his views and ours are different because respective histories of race are different.  The front cover map and the “Map Key and Documentary Sources’ (163-171) make this point.  Both locate residences of blacks in London, many scattered, many clustered, less like racial ghettoes than integrated housing.  Nothing documents race riots.  Shakespeare knew nothing of regional economics and national politics based on large-scale slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow laws; or of their consequences.  Both facts are significant points of historical differences.  Two, the counter-assumption—the greater the differences, the more instructive his race-related views—is more plausible and saves Shakespeare’s iconic status from use in product branding.  The irony is that, as racism denies individuals the integrity of their individuality, so the writers deny the past the integrity to be itself, not something else.

Notwithstanding, serious work in race in Shakespeare can be done to good purpose. Much can be learned about race and its operations today from knowing about race and its operations in his day.  Serious work will reflect a less polemic mentation and require a more precise conceptual framework.  First, it will either demonstrate a clear, direct link between Shakespeare’s day and ours, or articulate a better justification for race studies in Shakespeare.  Second, it will reassess the utility of the guiding phrase “early modern,” which implies links between past and present in matters of race, gender, class, and colonialism; and which continues to distort or misdirect much scholarship.  Third, it will re-examine the basic concepts associated with race.  When Kyle Grady cites a well-known scholar of race Virginia Mason Vaughn’s comment that “I think this play [Othello] is racist, and I think it is not racist” (69n7), everyone should recognize that conceptual confusions hinder the study of race.[6]  Fourth, it will abandon politically oriented erudition masquerading as scholarship and accept a traditional scholarship and a humanistic approach to Shakespeare; it will use race studies to help generate understanding of, and empathy with, literary personae like and unlike us—the real and growing challenges in interpersonal encounters in today’s world of demographic—cultural, ethnic, gender, and racial—changes.

If the subject of race in Shakespeare deserves in the future the attention which this special issue gives it, I hope that its contributors will not asperse other scholars, other subjects, or traditional scholarship; and will illuminate the subject of race in his plays and poems, with some more attention to Aaron, Cleopatra, and even the “Dark Lady.”



[1] Erickson and Hall use similar terms to impugn the honesty of scholars who do not address race “under the guise of protecting historical difference” (2).

[2] Lena Cowen Orlin, Othello Seminar (for 2012), Bulletin, Shakespeare Association of America (June 2011), 5, offers a seemingly comprehensive list of topics.  “With Othello we engage issues of race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion in the Renaissance; women, patriarchalism, and domestic violence; sexual identity, sexual practice, and pornography; social distinction, occupational mobility, and class resentment; state aggression, imperialism, and surveillance.”  The important concerns are race and gender: “Was it racist then? Can it be anything other than racist now? Why are its sexual politics overshadowed by its racial politics?”  There is an interest in “What new questions should be asked of Othello?” but I wonder how different they would be in kind from these.  The dissenting white participant asserts what the first two question allow, but the seminar avoided any answers.

[3] In another, smaller, but tendentious, instance of erasure, Smith reverses meaning by omitting relevant text.  He says, “Othello is … sensitive … to the perception of the black, racial stereotype of being ‘easily jealous’” (111).  In the full text, even if—to be proven—Othello recognizes the stereotype, he perceives himself as “one not easily jealous”—a statement in which he speaks for himself, denies the stereotype, and thus corrects Smith.  If such erasures serve as an example of “politically engaged scholarship,” I do not think that scholars should follow it.

[4] Smith’s position seems strange.  He implies that black scholars are better able to speak for Othello than white scholars, though the latter, in denial of race or sympathetic to racism, might enhance their capability to do so after “a rigorous self-examination” (123).  Yet even after such self-reform (and allowing for scholarly interests having nothing to do with race), what could such white scholars add to the presumably more informed and sensitive work of black scholars?

[5] The editors are as bedeviled as the writers are:

Initial opposition to early modern race studies, associated primarily with New Historicism, was encapsulated in the single word “anachronism” and informally deployed as a scare tactic and conversation stopper.  As an automatic reflex, this response too easily slides into blanket denial.  Overemphasis on anachronism has run its course, and its persuasive power is now diminished.  Insufficient attention, however, has been given to the critical polar opposite—the motif of universality currently represented by Kiernan Ryan’s Shakespeare’s Universality.9  If New Historicism has a tendency to insist on the early modern period as so different historically as to be cut off from our contemporary culture, then universality imagines a period through [a] line so smooth and similar that it connects the early modern and the contemporary with virtually no disruptions or differences at all.  Ironically, both approaches produce the same result: the erasure of race.  In such narrow historicism the early modern period has no recognizable link to race in our current lives, while universalism as practiced by Ryan characterizes Shakespeare’s resolutions of the stress points and tensions of racial difference as readily carrying over and automatically applicable to the removal of race problems in our contemporary culture (4-5).

The editors pose this unsatisfactory dichotomy to explain opposition to early modern race studies, but the critical history proposed and the conclusion reached are grossly inaccurate and tendentiously expressed.  New Historicism, in reaction to New Criticism, imposed the term “early modern” on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England.  Beyond giving literature a historical context—nothing new, just previously under-emphasized—it situated literature in a political context whereby scholars could discuss such topics as race, gender, class, and colonialism in relation to modern concerns.  So the editors cannot accurately or fairly accuse New Historicism of cutting off the past from the present.  I cannot address Ryan’s argument because I do not know his book.   But I cannot imagine that Ryan or anyone else believes that Shakespeare offers “resolutions” of anything, much less race, and thereby pretends that the problems of race are settled.  Their conclusion—“Ironically, both approaches produce the same result: the erasure of race”—is at least half, if not entirely, wrong.  Whether cutting off or connecting race in the past and present, New Historicism and universality discuss, not erase, race.  This passage looks like an effort to blame others for the problem which race scholars have about the balance of similarities and differences between past and present in matters of race.

[5] My suggestion for dealing with similarities and differences is to view race as a social construction involving a culturally evolving selection and structuring of materials.  The charge of “anachronism” fits only when today’s ideas about race and racism, and racialized experience are retrojected into yesterday’s historical record.

[6] Grady interprets ambiguity as “characteristic of regimes of racial intolerance”—a characteristic not proven.  Vaughan’s verdict reflects artistic indeterminism, her balance of evidence.  His unsupported indictment of her opinion and casual insinuation about her prejudice are gratuitous slurs typical of reverse racism in this issue.


Also see “Emending Othello; Explaining Othello: A Critique of Contemporary Principles and Practices in Editing Shakespeare and A Historical-Literary Interpretation of Othello’s Jealousy.”

Michael L. Hays

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Michael L. Hays is formerly an independent consultant in defense, energy, and environment; a full- or part-time teacher for the past forty-five years under diverse auspices; a civic activist for public education as a columnist and blogger; and a retired independent scholar with his doctorate in English, specializing in Shakespeare.