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Essays, Spring 2016 (Volume 67, no. 1)


"A New Scholarly Song": Rereading Early Modern Race

Peter Erickson and Kim F. Hall

The editors’ introductory essay is a call for transformation. It critiques the recursiveness of discussions of race in early modern studies and suggests that we are in a third phase of early modern race studies in which a dispersal of energies and approaches has produced in Shakespeare institutions an excessive caution in addressing issues of race. It counters that the answer to calls for universalism, color-blindness, and other race-avoidant moves is more, rather than less, engagement with questions of race. The authors argue that new work within this field as demonstrated in the volume's essays has the potential to contribute to racial justice on a larger scale and suggests seven directions for future work. It concludes by calling for ongoing adjustments to some of the earlier grounding assumptions of the field (such as fluidity as a defining difference between race then and now) and for scholars to be more committed to interjecting the personal into their work.

More Than Kin, Less Than Kind: Similitude, Strangeness, and Early Modern English Homonationalisms
Urvashi Chakravarti


This essay mines the interstices between queer theory and early modern race studies to argue that current critical conversations in the field of queer studies around homohistory and homonationalism illuminate paradoxical shifts in the meanings of the early modern English family and Renaissance iterations of race. Drawing on the tension between sameness and alterity generated by discourses around the prefix “homo,” I examine the household’s “alien bodies” and their imbrication in blood-based ideas of race and family to ask how sameness can make us more attentive to the (so-called) “strange.” Kinship, I contend—as the proximate, the familial, and the lineal—situates the unkind, the unlike, and the alien at its very center. Looking at several key moments in Othello and Hamlet alongside Marlowe’s Edward II and Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, this essay argues that discourses of kinship and kind-ness register emergent racial formations rooted in the paradoxes of the familiar and the familial, the servant and the stranger, proximate alienation and racialized approximations.

"Not a Moor exactly": Shakespeare, Serial, and Modern Constructions of Race
Vanessa Corredera

As scholars of early modern literature know, Renaissance constructions of alterity were inconsistent and varied. This critical consensus regarding the fluidity of early modern conceptions of otherness has produced a dichotomy between “then” and “now” with which early modern race scholars in particular must grapple, and one that challenges all scholars and teachers of Shakespeare who engage with race in the classroom—if we concede we can talk about “race” at all. In the quest for responsible historical contextualization of early modern race, scholars have vigilantly attended to the differences between Renaissance culture and our own, leading to the assertion that early moderns conceived of race in a more protean way than our modern scientific, phenotypical, stable approach. In doing so, however, they enact a different methodological pitfall—imposing an assumed set of views about race upon moderns. This approach blinds us to the reality of our own racial discourses, which, I suggest, likewise depend on and perpetuate a fluid understanding of race. In turning to a specific example—the nexus of issues raised by a Shakespearean reference to Othello in season 1 of the hit NPR podcast Serial—we find that myriad factors like language, religion, and descent play pivotal roles in modern constructions of race. By recognizing this multiplicity, we can more effectively use nuanced understandings of early modern race to help us uncover the complexities of contemporary racial ideology. And just as significantly, we can employ current conversations about racial identity as a fresh way of reconsidering canonical Renaissance texts.      

Stranger Shakespeare
Ruben Espinosa

Latino/a engagement with Shakespeare presents a vital point of contact for us to reevaluate Shakespeare’s cultural currency in our contemporary, multiethnic society. By attending to dominant perceptions that shape Shakespeare’s iconic literary status, this essay explores how the dynamics of identity politics for Latino/as casts a novel light on the promise and the failings of Shakespeare studies amid the shifting demographic in America. This essay looks to the stranger—to a Latino/a audience and to Mexican Americans in particular—to examine how the anxieties and apprehensions that surround the Mexican American experience have the potential to lead us toward readings that both reimagine the valence of Shakespeare’s cultural capital and stand to enrich the future of Shakespeare studies. Through critical attention to linguistic differences, pressures of assimilation, perceived deficiencies and invisibility of Latino/as, accessibility and exclusion, and delineations of the way Shakespeare should look and sound, this essay opens the door to scrutinizing our academy’s seeming apprehension when it comes to issues of race, ethnicity, and diversity in our field. Such attention stands to guide us to see anew not only Shakespeare but also the future makers of Shakespeare. 

Othello, Colin Powell, and Post-Racial Anachronisms
Kyle Grady

Shakespeare’s Othello resists readings that consider the text quintessentially anti-black, but does that mean that we should not consider it a racist text? This essay engages the more equivocal contours of the play’s intolerance toward its Moor, arguing that it is precisely this complexity that characterizes regimes of racialism. Colin Powell provides a helpful point of juxtaposition because the former American secretary of state encourages debates about the prevalence of modern-day racism. To many, Powell’s ascent signals racism’s disappearance, because a number of his characteristics appear to extricate him from racialized stereotypes concerning African Americans. But critics of such post-racial perspectives have cogently demonstrated that an over-investment in narratives of racial transcendence hides and thus aids the persistence of more subtle and pernicious forms of racialization. In this essay, a study of Powell’s reception informs an approach to Shakespeare’s tragedy. Where much criticism on Othello argues against the text’s capacity for racism by emphasizing its more tolerant aspects—especially Othello’s social status, occupation, and irregular humoral description—this essay reads the Moor’s racialization as entangled with these complex, sometimes favorable features. Thus, it prompts the field to move away from conceptions of racism in which intolerance is too easily controverted by shows of tolerance, because such reductive notions inhibit the historicization of a nuanced early modern racialism.

Re-Historicizing Race, White Melancholia, and the Shakespearean Property
Arthur L. Little, Jr.

Is Shakespeare or the Renaissance/early modern period white property? My asking about whiteness as a Shakespearean or early modern property is not just about the instrumentality of whiteness in the period but also about whether there’s a working assumption in the field, one of the “unspeakable things unspoken,” not simply that the early modern period isn’t about race but that it is also, as a field, white property. This essay seeks to make salient what it argues is a “white melancholia,” a whiteness signifying outside the bounds of race, operating in much of the critical resistance in Shakespeare and early modern studies. It attends especially to how New Historicism has shaped our understanding of early modern race and has obscured a thriving racial literacy in Shakespeare and the early modern period. 

We are Othello: Speaking of Race in Early Modern Studies
Ian Smith

This essay probes our scholarly commitment to Shakespeare at a time when contemporary racial politics continues to test our resolve in mobilizing our scholarship in the cause of a just society. An intense public debate over the deaths of unarmed black persons has emerged at a time when the thesis of a post-racial, colorblind America had inserted itself into mainstream thinking as evidence of the growing sentiment to move beyond race and to erase its explicit and violent history. Among the most striking findings arising from the documentation of these killings is the split in the public reaction along distinctly racial lines. Othello’s dying speech raises related concerns insofar as he is anxiously aware of the possible outcome of having a white narrator tell his story. Such a narrator, the essay argues, is a prototype for the modern scholar in a majority white field like Shakespeare studies who must confront new data pertaining to white privilege and bias in the United States. Hazlitt and subsequent critics appear to have little difficulty affirming that “it is we who are Hamlet,” but the same has not been true of black Othello. By contrast, the essay’s appeal, “We are Othello,” is meant to disrupt the silence around whiteness in order to make visible and productively politicize the subject identities of critical practitioners in the field.

Race and the Global South in Early Modern Studies
Sandra Young

By reflecting on the turn to the “global” and its role in inscribing alterity in both the early modern period and today, this position paper extends the critical vocabulary with which early modernists might understand the operations of racism. Recognizing the construction of an early modern “global south,” I argue, brings into view the racialized imaginary at work in the period. As a term, the “global south” has developed theoretical purchase in recent years, but it also has a surprisingly clear foothold in early modernity. Early modern geography mapped a field of difference through the broad designations of cardinal direction, naturalizing pejorative assumptions about the peoples of the “southern nations” of the world. Today, Global Shakespeare’s openness to nontraditional Shakespeares has the potential to unsettle normative cultural practices and to bring into view the racisms that have structured global relations since early modernity. However, the field risks repeating earlier occlusions if it simply affirms, uncritically, the extraordinary reach of Stratford’s Shakespeare. This essay reflects on the emergence of an explicitly “global” Shakespeare in the pages of this very journal in the 1970s, when SQ editor John Andrews began to solicit materials that would enable what he called an “experimental” new form of Shakespeare scholarship based on “‘global’ coverage.”

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