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Black Aeneas: Race, English Literary History, and the “Barbarous” Poetics of Titus Andronicus


“Black Aeneas” reads Titus Andronicus in relation to early modern historiography on Britain’s racial past and the transmission of letters out of Africa and into Europe in order to argue that the play is an aesthetic manifesto of the most effective kind: an assertion of a commitment to a “barbarous” poetics through a practice of theatrical barbarism that recovers a theatrical “poesie” not tied to Roman letters. In the painted figure of a white actor playing its “Moor,” a “swart Cimmerian” linked to the legendary figure of Aeneas, the play finds a figure of immense iconoclastic force, through which it resists the “white-liming” of literary history and representational forms to recover in performance the idea of the body as a medium from which one may “wrest an alphabet.” A revenge of form, the play furnishes a more capacious idea of the literary and Shakespeare’s relationship with it than other accounts where the literary Shakespeare and the drama are defined purely in relation to the verbal. Against Sidney’s subscription to Roman authorities in his Apologie for Poetrie, the play harnesses the power of the nonverbal in a fleshly hieroglyphics to recover for its poesie the barbarous letter of the human body.

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