Embodying Race and Language: Geohumoralism and Renaissance Proto-Linguistics in Shakespeare’s Othello and The Tempest

Ryan J. Croft, University of Wyoming

Renaissance notions of how race and language are embodied contrast with the assumptions of later historical periods. At the same time, writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wrestled with issues that are still controversial today, such as the hierarchy of dialects in a society. Thus, a survey of Renaissance understandings of race and language not only enables a deeper analysis of Shakespeare’s plays but also encourages classroom discussion about the relationship between these earlier notions and ones held today.

As Mary Floyd-Wilson has shown, some Renaissance writers used the interaction between climate and the four humors to explain both the physical and cultural differences between peoples—a concept known as geohumoralism. This understanding of race was different from the pseudo-biological approaches of the nineteenth century, which saw race more as the result of heredity than of the environment. Most importantly, in the European Renaissance the earth’s people were categorized not simply in a binary manner (white vs. colored), but rather in a tripartite schema as Northerners, Southerners, and Middlers.

A seventeenth-century English edition of Pierre Charron’s De la sagesse (Of Wisdom, originally published in France in 1601), provides a chart of these three kinds of people and their different mental and physical traits. For example, the chart identifies Northern people as phlegmatic or temperate with a strong voice, while Southern people are deemed to be melancholic with shrill voices. At the same time, while Northerners are heavy and obtuse, Southerners are ingenious and subtle. This assigning of attributes demonstrates that Renaissance geohumoralism did not simply make Northern peoples superior to those from the South. Rather, there was a more complex understanding of racial characteristics at work.

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In fact, the “best” race, if such a thing could be said to exist in the Renaissance, would be the middle peoples, for as the chart notes they are “indifferent and temperate in all those things…” This is why, in a second chart, Middlers are said to be skilled in discourse and reasoning, while Northerners excel in imagination and Southerners in understanding. Out of the three races, then, it is the Middlers, with their greater reason, who are superior to both the Northerners, who “execute and obey,” and the Southerners, who contemplate and philosophize.

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These schematic charts become even more interesting when juxtaposed with Shakespeare’s plays, especially The Tempest and Othello. For example, might Caliban’s acceptance of Stephano and Trinculo as gods be related to Charron’s notion that Southerners are superstitious? On a more positive note, might Caliban’s dreaming and enjoyment of the island’s sounds relate to the chart’s identification of Southerners as contemplative? As for Othello, the first chart in Charron provocatively identifies Southerners as “jealous,” whereas Northerners are said to be free from this fault. Moreover, the second chart associates Southerners with the pursuit of truth, as well as age and melancholy, which might explain Othello’s obsession with “ocular proof” and his continued insistence that he is old and the youthful desires in him are “defunct.”

Nevertheless, any purported links between Shakespeare’s Moor and these geohumoral stereotypes are complex, for, as Floyd-Wilson points out, it is debatable how quickly Othello becomes jealous compared to such Northern characters as Posthumous in Cymbeline. For that matter, is Othello really “no warrior, idle, and unchaste”? Finally, in the more specific terms of linguistic expression, few who read Othello likely imagine the titular character’s voice as “shrill” considering his nobleness of speech and massive “O’s.”

Another example, and a notion important when considering both “island plays,” is the description of “they that live upon Sea coasts [as] subtle, deceivers by reason of their commerce & traffic with diverse sorts of people.” This belief in the cunning of island or coastal peoples is present not only in Charron, but also in Thomas Wright’s famous Passions of the Mind (1601), and may explain Iago’s comment to Othello:

I know our country disposition well;
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown.


Here, Iago characterizes Venetians as subtle and devious, unlike Othello, teh naive native of an island country. Charron’s tripartite grouping of peoples, then, allows for a conversation about whether or not Shakespeare’s representations of Moors and the Mediterranean are typical of his time.

Beyond physical and mental characteristics, the intersection between race and language is also marked. Read alongside Charron, Juan Huarte’s popular The Examination of Men’s Wits provides an approach to discussing these twinned concerns. Ostensibly, Huarte’s book sets out to guide children to vocations that best fit their temperaments. While giving advice to educators and parents on this matter, Huarte also presents some interesting case histories and speculates regarding the effects of humor and body temperature on speech. Huarte recounts, for instance, how persons unequipped for either rhetoric or poetry were suddenly eloquent and even spoke in verse after falling sick with fever—the greater humoral temperature granting them a greater vigor in speech than usual. Recalling Ben Jonson’s famous command, “Speak, that I may see thee,” we can suppose that when Renaissance audiences heard a play they understood that how characters spoke revealed something not only about their mental state but also about their inner humoral balance (Johnson 574).

Huarte also considers how an entire language can agree with, first, the humoral temperature of an individual and, second, the average humor of an entire people. Of the several questions he raises about these matters, two deserve particular attention. I will paraphrase both. First, Huarte asks, “Why is Latin so hard for the Spanish to learn, when French, Italian, Dutch, English, and other northerly nations take it up so easily?” Second, he raises the question, “Why do things spoken or written in Latin sound better, carry more loftiness, or have greater delicacy, then in any other language how ever good?”

Huarte is able to turn the first question to the advantage of the Spaniard. For Huarte, Spain lies at the center of the world, and thus the Spaniard is one of those middle races gifted with understanding, as we saw in the chart accompanying Charron’s work. Whereas the Northerner possesses the “moist” imagination and memory necessary for learning languages, the Spaniard does not. However, his “hot and dry” brain makes up for this with its ability to pursue such reasonable disciplines as law or medicine.

The second, more difficult, question brings Huarte to a debate between Aristotle and Plato on the nature of names: can any name be said to identify the thing itself? Aristotle would say no, citing the fact that “all names are devised and shaped after the conceit of men” (118, quoted from the 1594 edition; STC 13890). For Huarte, the issue is complicated by Scripture, which records how Adam gave to all the animals “the proper name that best was fitting for them.” And so, although Huarte admits that wine and bread have sixty names in other languages, he ultimately sides with Plato, supposing that “the first devisers” of language

feigned the words at their pleasure and will, yet was the same by a reasonable instinct, communicated with the ear, with the nature of thing, & with the good grace and well founding of the pronunciation, not making the words over short or long, nor enforcing an unseemly framing of the mouth in time of utterance, feeling the accent in his convenient place, and observing the other conditions, which a tongue should possess, to be fine, and not barbarous.

Huarte then tells a story of a Spanish author of romances who, looking for a name for a giant, stumbled upon the Latin command “tra qui tantos,” and seized upon it as the name for his monster. Huarte comments:

The curiosity of this gentleman in calling the Giant Traquitantos, had also those first men, who devised the Latin tongue, in that they found out a language of so good sound to the ear. Therefore we need not marvel that the things which are spoken and written in Latin, do sound so well, and in other tongues so ill: for their first inventers were barbarous.


For Huarte, then, all languages are not created equal. Some agree more with reason and Nature than others. Barbaric language, in short, is the product of humoral and mental imbalance, of which it is the primary symptom. “Speak, that I may see thee.” Testifying to the lingering effects of a Roman-centric view of history, Huarte would seem to identify the originators of Latin as a middle people in the mold of Charron’s tripartite organization of the race. As for Spain, she is an heir to Rome in accordance with the historical doctrine of translatio imperii—seen in humoral terms that, while certainly associated with idiosyncratic individuals and the stock characters of drama, are here transformed into a wider racialist discourse.

Huarte’s comments on the connections between language, the humors, race, and barbarism helps us understand the tremendous concern with mixed languages in the writings of Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and others. As Spenser has Irenius say in the View on the Present State of Ireland, about the mixing of the Irish and the English on that island:

I suppose that the chief cause of bringing in the Irish language, amongst them [the earlier English colonists], was specially their fostering, and marrying with the Irish, which are two most dangerous infections; for first the child that sucks the milk of the nurse, must of necessity learn his first speech of her, the which being the first that is inured to his tongue, is after most pleasing unto him, insomuch as though he afterwards be taught English, yet the smack of the first will always abide with him; and not only of the speech, but of the manners and conditions.

(modernized text, based on CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: A project of University College, Cork College Road, Cork, Ireland —http://www.ucc.ie/celt)

Here miscegenation is not so much biological as linguistic. Or to put it another way, the linguistic mixing is equally—or even more—important than any “physical” mixing. Indeed, Spenser goes on to explain how language and one’s inner humoral constitution agree in a fashion similar to Huarte:

for the mind follows much the temperature of the body; and also the words are the image of the mind, so as, they proceeding from the mind, the mind must be needs affected with the words. So that the speech being Irish, the heart must needs be Irish; for out of the abundance of the heart, the tongue speaks.

Spenser advances from Huarte, though, by charging that the relationship between temperature and language can work in reverse; like magic, a barbarous tongue can reduce the bodily humors to a barbarous state, essentially changing someone’s race. Spenser here anticipates the science fiction writings of a figure like Samuel Delany, whose fictional language Babel-17 raises its user’s metabolism.

Charron, Huarte, and Spenser suggest looking more closely at how a character’s speech reveals something not only about their humors but also about their belonging to a particular ethnic group as understood through the racialist discourse of geohumoralism. For example, does Othello’s noble speech at the beginning of his play fit audience expectations for what a Moor should speak like? And is Iago’s breaking down of Othello’s language thus a fall into old stereotypes? Our answers to these questions might cause us to reinterpret the noted scene at the beginning of Act 4 where Othello seems to suffer an epileptic fit (Huarte’s fever, perhaps?) after taking more of Iago’s “medicine.” Does Iago’s language infect Othello in a humoral way, leading to barbarism?

Let us conclude with an example from The Tempest. Commenting on her teaching of language to Caliban, Miranda claims:

I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known. But thy vile race,
Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures
Could not abide to be with…


Caliban’s “nature,” although it learns her language, contains something in it that resists Miranda’s wholesale indoctrination. Shakespeare captured this resistance not only in Caliban’s use of language to curse but also in his lines that are often a syllable too long. And yet, what are we to make of the fact that later in the play he utters some of the most beautiful lines of all the characters on the pleasures of the island?

Questions concerning how language impacts the body and intersects with race are ones that haunted Renaissance thinkers such as Shakespeare and are still with us today. Plays like Othello and The Tempest, then, might contribute to conversations about issues such as Ebonics and whether or not countries should have an official language. As Bill Ashcroft shows, they also find a place in discussions about translation and the ability of one language to express another culture’s beliefs and ethos. The reading list below can help instructors and students continue to compare and contrast modern and Renaissance discourses of race and language.

Suggested Reading

Ashcroft, Bill. Caliban’s Voice: The Transformation of English in Post-Colonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Charron, Pierre. Of Wisdome. Trans. Samson Lennard. London, 1620.

Delany, Samuel R. Babel-17 London, Gollancz, 1967.

Floyd-Wilson, Mary. English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Huarte, Juan. The Examination of Men’s Wits. Trans. Richard Carew. 1594.

Johnson, Ben. “Timber, or Discoveries.” Ben Johnson. Ian Donaldson, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. 574.

Spenser, Edmund. A View of the State of Ireland. 1633.

Wright, Fr. Thomas. The Passions of the Mind. 1601.