Linguistic Racial Representation and Metalanguages of Race in the Global Renaissance

Robert Hornback, Oglethorpe University

In The Tempest, one way the conventional “discovery” narrative describing the encounter between different cultures figures is via the transfer of language from colonizer to colonized. Just as the isle’s spirits are identified as “islanders” by virtue of their mute “dumb discourse,” the account of Caliban’s acquisition of language reflects assumptions about limitations in so-called natives’ rational capacity. In 1.2, Caliban recalls how Prospero did “teach [him] how / To name” the sun and moon; Miranda reports that she “taught” Caliban when he “[did] not, savage, / Know [his] own meaning, but wouldst gabble like a thing most brutish”; and Caliban famously replies, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” Significantly, Caliban’s supposed “savage[ry]” is further marked by his foreign appearance; he is called not just a “devil,” but a “demi-devil,” offspring of his Algerian mother and the Devil, in an era in which Algerians were simply “Moors” and stage devils were likewise represented in blackface. Therefore, Caliban, whose very name plays on “cannibal,” and who is also identified as an “islander” and rebuked as “a thing of darkness,” I would argue, likely appeared in blackface. His portrayal, then, raises questions about emergent racialized ideologies and the literary uses of language in proto-racial representation across Europe in the Global Renaissance.

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Beyond what Stephen Greenblatt calls “‘Europeans’ contemptuous dismissal of natives as ‘parrots,’” one key context for considering Caliban’s relationship to language is the trans-European representation of foreign or pidgin dialects in long-overlooked early blackface traditions’ stereotypical comic representations of blackness. Notably, comic black characters, speaking a caricatured pidgin Afro-Hispanic dialect, so-called habla de negros (“black speech”), were likewise common in Golden Age Spanish theatre, while Portuguese playwrights introduced black characters in plays speaking an ungrammatical Afro-Portuguese pidgin dialect or fala de preto (again, “black talk”) for comic effect by at least the 1520s. By contrast, English authors took a century to represent racial impersonation via anything approximating recognizable pidginized dialect, the first known use appearing in Richard Brome’s comedy The English Moor (1637).

Heretofore, while employing blackface, English authors had instead resorted to a variety of strategies aimed at suggesting racial impersonation, from dance to malapropisms, halting provincial dialects, and “broken” English. Consider John Redford’s The Play of Wit and Science (1534), a court moral interlude written for Paul’s Boys featuring a black fool named “Ingnorancy.” This blackfaced figure partakes in a language “lesson” (l.452), parroting the Vice, Idleness, who “play[s] the schoolemystres” (l.450). With difficulty, Idleness attempts to teach Ingnorancy to say his own name (pronounced “Ing—no—ran—s—I”), syllable by syllable. Ultimately, Redford’s comic language “lesson” constructs an imitative black character, in proto-racial fashion, as inherently impervious to learning. Consistent with European misrepresentations of natives as mere parrots, Ingnorancy nonsensically echoes the instructions and curses of the Vice as well as each syllable he is meant to parrot. When asked what he has learned, Ingnorancy can thus only reply, in a provincial dialect, “Ich cannot tell” (l.494).

Throughout, Redford gives Ingnorancy a Southwestern dialect of British English, which fellow Englishmen were already describing as “barbarous” and “foreign,” and which came to be associated exclusively with clowns, ignorance, and linguistic backwardness. Here, we witness Redford’s construction of the Southwestern dialect Paula Blank describes as “the most foreign of English dialects.” Yet, Redford also makes common English idioms such as “Put back thyne arme, foole!” (l.508) alien to an implicitly foreign Ingnorancy; as Idleness helps him remove his fool’s coat, Ingnorancy asks uncertainly, “Put backe?” (l.508). Nor can Ingnorancy understand simple questions; when repeatedly asked, “Shall I beat thine arse now?” he responds with bewildered versions of “Um-m-m-m” (ll. 445, 463, 464, 520, 533). So, too, in his repeated mimicry of “hys” as some elongated version of “Hys-s-s-s-s-s-s” (ll.472, 474, 477, 480, 481, etc.), his parroting is crudely exaggerated. Elsewhere, Ingnorancy even resorts to broken English; in response to the question, “What sayth the dog?” (l.467), he replies, “Dog barke” (l.467), dropping the article and using the wrong verb form.

Interestingly, concerns about linguistic “barbarism” have been identified by Ian Smith as having formed an early “discourse of racial difference in early modern England,” a sort of “metalanguage of race.” For instance, Puttenham’s influential Arte of English Poesie (1589) would link the term “barbarous” etymologically to Africans: “[Those] who haue digged for the Etimologie somewhat deeper … haue said it was spoken by the rude and barking language of the Affricans now called Barbarians.” Linguistic barbarism was further constructed as stereotypically African through fictitious descriptions of African peoples such as the “Trodlogitica,” who in The History of Travayle in the West and East Indies and Other Countreys (London, 1577) are said to “have no speache but rather grynnyng and chateryng.” At stake here is rational capacity, what Hamlet calls the “discourse of reason” differentiating man from beast. So, atlas-maker John Ogilby insists in his monumental Africa (1670) that “the Kaffers are … stupidly dull and clownish, and in understanding are more like Beasts than Men: but some by continual converse with European Merchants, shew a few sparks or glimmerings of an inclination to more humanity.” To Ogilby and many English, Africans were veritable Calibans.

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What might such would-be colonial discourses, alongside racial impersonation via blackface and language, reveal about the languages—and meta-languages—of race not only in Shakespeare’s The Tempest but in Othello? What are we to make, for instance, of Othello’s utter linguistic breakdown during his “trance”/“fit” at 4.1.35-43? How do we interpret the long-overlooked preponderance of irregular, 11-syllable lines in Caliban’s verse in imitation of his master Prospero’s language or his drunken mixing of such jangling verse with prose in the company of his clownish new “master” Stephano in F1 at 2.2?

Suggested Reading

Blank, Paula. Broken English: Dialects and the Politics of Language in Renaissance Writings. New York: Routledge, 1996.

de Kurlat, Frida Weber. “El tipo cómico del negro en el teatro prelopesco: fonética” Filología, 8 (1962): 139–68.

Edan, Richard, and Richard Willes. eds. The History of Travayle in the West and East Indies and Other Counteys Lying Either Way. London, 1577.

Gérard, Albert S. European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Vol 1. John Benjamin’s Publishing Company, 1986.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Gurr, Andrew. “Editing Stephano’s Book.” In Editing Shakespeare, Edited by Peter Holland, 91–107. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Hornback, Robert. “‘Extravagant and Wheeling Strangers’: Early Blackface Dancing Fools, Racial Representation, and the Limits of Identification.” EXEMPLARIA 20.2 (Summer 2008): 197–223.

---. “Emblems of Folly in the First Othello: Renaissance Blackface, Moor’s Coat, and ‘Muckender,’” Comparative Drama 35.1 (Spring 2001): 69–99.

---. “The Folly of Racism: Enslaving Blackface and the ‘Natural’ Fool Tradition,” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 20 (2007): 46–84.

Lipski, John. A History of Afro-Hispanic Language: Five Centuries, Five Continents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Ogilby, John. Africa: being an accurate description of the regions of Ægypt, Barbary, Lybia, and Billedulgerid, the land of Negroes, Guinee, Æthiopia, and the Abyssines, with all the adjacent islands, either in the Mediterranean, Atlantick, Southern, or Oriental Sea, belonging thereunto. London, 1670.

Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. Edited by Edward Arber. London: Alex Murray and Son, 1869.

Redford, John. The Play of Wit and Science (1534)
PDF File: © 2007 Ben Byram-Wigfield
Synopsis and Editorial Treatment: © 2007 Ben Byram-Wigfield

Smith, Ian. Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Vaughan, Alden T. and Virginia Mason. Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Vaughan, Virginia Mason. Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500–1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.