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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt: "White People in Shakespeare", edited by Arthur L. Little, Jr.

The Arden Shakespeare. White People in Shakespeare. Essays on Race, Culture and the Elite. Edited by Arthur L. Little Jr.
The Arden Shakespeare. White People in Shakespeare. Essays on Race, Culture and the Elite. Edited by Arthur L. Little Jr.

White People in Shakespeare is a new collection of essays that examine what part Shakespeare played in the construction of a “white people” and how his work has been enlisted to define and bolster a white cultural and racial identity.

“Expressing ideas that have developed over several decades of brave and tenacious scholarship, this collection opens a new chapter in the study of Shakespeare and the study of race,” writes Folger Director Michael Witmore in a review of the anthology.

White People in Shakespeare was published in January 2023 by The Arden Shakespeare, a Bloomsbury imprint. Read an excerpt below from the introduction by Arthur L. Little, Jr., the anthology editor and Associate Professor at the Department of English, UCLA.


Shakespeare never uses the term ‘white people’, but he remains quintessentially pivotal to its formative history for a range of theatrical, historical, and contemporary reasons. He was one of the period’s most prolific writers and was most especially active when the theatre – not just the Globe – was arguably at its height artistically and culturally. Of course Shakespeare was one of the main reasons why theatre enjoyed such prominence, even though we must still acknowledge a confluence of things, including the growing national importance of London, its commercial growth, the exponential rise in its population from 1550 to 1600, and the rise in its urban delights and blights, as well as the increased stature of the sophisticated urbanite for whom the theatre provided a telling space for carrying out their own corporeal, ideological, and hegemonic performances. While we can argue that ‘the birth and meteoric growth of England’s commercial theaters’1 is thoroughly implicated in the zeitgeist of the period, we can argue with even more confidence that Shakespeare – whom fellow playwright Ben Jonson would eulogize as the ‘Soul of the age’ and as ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’2 – would by the end of his career become the embodiment of the zeitgeist of the early modern theatre world itself. And with what is now Shakespeare’s ‘near-mythic’ status as the human through whom ‘we’ are all interpellated,3 it’s difficult to imagine taking a critical account of whiteness not just in the United Kingdom and the United States but globally without accounting for Shakespeare’s contributions to the same.

More emphatically, this volume argues that Shakespeare’s nearly unparalleled talent for assembling, rescripting, and repurposing the English body at a minimum opened up a phenomenological and epistemological space for the transformation of the English body into a ‘magical’ and ‘miraculous’ assemblage of whiteness, that is, into a property belonging to an assembly of a ‘white people’.4 If Shakespeare more than any other writer may be said to have stretched and shaped the possibilities of language to give us us, the modern human, the human, by ‘expand[ing] the poetic range of the English language itself ’,5 then Shakespeare remains key to any study of the further emergence of a ‘white people’ in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. At a most evidentiary lexical level, for example, the word ‘fair’ occurs more than nine hundred times in Shakespeare, often in relationship to a woman’s skin and beauty,6 and the word ‘white’ just under two hundred times, with many of those also referencing the ‘natural’ beauty of a woman’s skin and beauty. Moreover, the lexical and rhetorical wheelhouse of white-people-making extends far beyond these terms, as evidenced quite conspicuously and efficiently in a few lines from Shakespeare’s long poem Venus and Adonis (1593):

O what a sight it was, wistly to view
How she came stealing to the wayward boy!
To note the fighting conflict of her hue,
How white and red each other did destroy!
But now her cheek was pale, and by and by
It flash’d forth fire, as lightning from the sky.

. . . With one fair hand she heaveth up his hat,
Her other tender hand his fair cheek feels:
His tend’rer cheek receives her soft hand’s print,
As apt as new-fall’n snow takes any dint.

Oh what a war of looks was then between them!
. . . His eyes saw her eyes, as they had not seen them,
. . . And all this dumb play had his acts made plain
With tears, which chorus-like her eyes did rain.

Full gently now she takes him by the hand,
A lily prison’d on a goal of snow,
Or ivory in an alablaster band:
So white a friend engirts so white a foe.
This beauteous combat, wilful and unwilling,
Show’d like two silver doves that sit a-billing.7

Whiteness manifests itself here in a rich assemblage of language, eroticism, exhibitionism, the sensorial, ecological, celestial, the epical, the theatrical, and so on. ‘White people’ emerge from this scene as universal embodiments of the ecstatic and phenomenal universe they supposedly inhabit. The poeticized, white body increasingly comes to masquerade and operate in the early modern period as a kind of centripetal, universal-determinant force, something noted, too, in the first half of the twentieth century by E. M. W. Tillyard: ‘the idea of man summing up the universe in himself had a strong hold on the imagination of the Elizabethans’.8 More commonly than exceptionally, then, as embodied white subjects, Venus and Adonis emerge from Shakespeare’s poem as racialized assemblages, claimants at once to a cosmological, singular, and aesthetic and biopolitical superiority. However, as most of the contributors here demonstrate, it’s in Shakespeare’s plays and on his stage, where he makes his most indelible contributions to white-people-making, where he does his most ‘noting’ of ‘angel whiteness’ (see first epigraph).

Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury, ©2023.

  1. Pollard, Shakespeare’s Theater, x.
  2. Ben Jonson, ‘To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare’ (1623). Throughout, Jonson’s eulogy boasts plenty of white and light imagery (racialized or otherwise).
  3. ‘near-mythic’: Pollard, Shakespeare’s Theater, x; ‘we’: for an incisive discussion of this universalizing humanist ‘we’, see Ian Smith, ‘We are Othello: Speaking of Race in Early Modern Studies’, Shakespeare Quarterly 67.1 (2016): 104–24.
  4. ‘Magical’ is borrowed from Stephen Orgel, ‘Marginal Jonson’, in The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque, eds. David Bevington and Peter Holbrook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 144–75, where Orgel discusses ‘the magical power of Renaissance theatre . . . by persuasion or seduction and says it ‘is both a quality of language and a way of establishing oneself, of rising in society, a way for servants . . . to become masters’, 144–5 – or, I would add, for the same servants to become white. ‘Miraculous’ from Vaughan, Performing Blackness, 109–10.
  5. Pollard, Shakespeare’s Theater, xxii. The making of the early modern humanist human necessitated not just a focus on the ‘man’ created (so often the focus of liberal humanism) but those being excluded or having their humanity significantly qualified – those found to be less universal. For further discussion, the reader may see Ian Smith, ‘We are Othello’, esp. 104–9.
  6. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare’s Freedom (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010), 25. Greenblatt puts the number of occurrences around 700; the number I’m using comes from For a groundbreaking discussion of ‘fair’ as a racializing term, see throughout Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), especially ‘Fair Texts / Dark Ladies: Renaissance Lyric and the Poetics of Color’, 62–122.
  7. William Shakespeare, ‘Venus and Adonis’, The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works, ed. Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson and David Scott Kastan (London: The Arden Shakespeare 2011), lines 343–66.
  8. E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture: A Study of the Idea of Order in the Age of Shakespeare, Donne and Milton (New York: Vintage, 1959), 91.