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Race and Blackness in Elizabethan England, with Ambereen Dadabhoy

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 168

When did the concept of race develop? How far should we look back to find the attitudes that bolster white supremacy? We ask Dr. Ambereen Dadabhoy, an assistant professor of literature at Harvey Mudd College, and the author of a chapter in the monumental new Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race called “Barbarian Moors: Documenting Racial Formation in Early Modern England.” Dadabhoy takes us back to Shakespeare’s London—a more diverse city than you might imagine—to look at racial ideologies reflected in two plays: George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar and William Shakespeare’s Othello. Plus, we learn more about race in medieval crusade and conversion romances, and get a sense of how Dadabhoy approaches issues of race in her Shakespeare classes. Ambereen Dadabhoy is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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FolgerShakespeareLibrary · Race and Blackness in Elizabethan England

Dr. Ambereen DadabhoyDr. Ambereen Dadabhoy is an assistant professor of literature at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. Her chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race is called “Barbarian Moors: Documenting Racial Formation in Early Modern England.” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race was published by Cambridge University Press in 2021. Dadabhoy held fellowships at the Folger in 2011 and 2016, and participated in a Folger NEH Summer Institute “Shakespeare from the Globe to the Global” in 2011. 

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published May 25, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “In the Old Age, Black Was Not Counted Fair,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

Previous: Paul Edmondson on All the Sonnets of Shakespeare | Next: Geoffrey Marsh on Shakespeare’s Neighbors


Critical Race Conversations: Race and Pedagogy
Watch Dr. Dadabhoy and Dr. Nedda Mehdizadeh in the first of the Folger Institute’s Critical Race Conversations, then check out the rest of our conversations on YouTube.

Performance, advertising, and Anglo-Maghrebi diplomacy in Restoration and Augustan London
Early 18th-century London theater audiences paid close attention to the ambassadors from the Maghreb who occasionally joined them as spectators. In fact, the press treated their presence as part of the spectacle itself. 

Shakespeare Lightning Round: Ambereen Dadabhoy
Head over to Instagram TV to learn which Shakespeare play is Dadabhoy’s favorite and which one she thinks is overrated.

The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race: “Racist Humor and Shakespearean Comedy”
Read an excerpt from Dr. Patricia Akhimie’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race.


MICHAEL WITMORE: How far should we look back to find the attitudes that bolster white supremacy? It turns out, we should look back pretty far.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. We’ve been engaged here at the Folger in a series of Critical Race Conversations. And a question that comes up a lot is this: When did the concept of race begin to appear? As you can imagine—like pretty much anything involving the subject of race—that’s a controversial question. Including in the world of Shakespeare studies. But it’s one that a cadre of younger scholars is diving into these days—building upon work done by the pioneering Black feminist and premodern critical race scholars who came before them.

One of those thinkers is Ambereen Dadabhoy, an assistant professor of literature at Harvey Mudd, the liberal arts, engineering, science, and mathematics college in Claremont, California. Dr. Dadabhoy researches the role of identity and difference in literature, and she has a chapter in the monumental, new Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race that’s called “Barbarian Moors: Documenting Racial Formation in Early Modern England.”

The material she gathered for that chapter, and frankly, a large portion of her entire academic career, are based around the idea that students can and should be moved toward a new way of looking at concepts of race in the plays of Shakespeare and in all the writings of his contemporaries.

She joined us to talk about all this for a podcast we call, “In the Old Age, Black Was Not Counted Fair.” Ambereen Dadabhoy is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I’d like to start with talking about what the Black presence was in London in Shakespeare’s time. What do we know about who they were and where they came from? And how Shakespeare’s audiences would have come in contact with darker skinned people and what their impressions might have been?

AMBEREEN DADABHOY: We actually know quite a bit about the Black people who were living in London during Shakespeare’s time. Due to the research of scholars like Imtiaz Habib, whose Black Lives in the English Archives traces who these people were, where they lived, and really done a lot of that through court records and trying to figure out how early modern naming practices would have let us find out who might have been a Black person. So we know that there was a considerable community of Black people who lived and worked and died in Shakespeare’s London in the early modern period.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s fascinating. And there was a wide diversity, right? You had Moroccan African people in London. I think there was also travel writing, and was there a romance genre that had Black-skinned characters?

DADABHOY: Yes. We go back thinking about the Middle Ages and the popularity of certain kinds of romance forms. A lot of romances take place in the Holy Land. And the fact of the Holy Land, it’s also a place where you have a lot of encounter with people who are different culturally, linguistically, religiously, but also racially and ethnically. In many of those kinds of romances that are also, kind of, crusader romances, you do have African characters, Black characters, Moorish characters who might be Muslim characters, and this kind of cross-cultural encounter and exchange.

In some of those you have a, kind of, fixation on color, where some of them are also conversion narratives. So, if Islamic characters are converting to Christianity or Black pagan characters are converting to Christianity, they might also be turning white, sometimes literally, in these romances, but other times just symbolically.

So, we see that genre, it was quite popular in the Middle Ages. It’s also popular in the early modern period—Crusader, or Holy Land-encounter stories—they still have a little bit of those kind of conflict narratives. They’re transformed into other kinds of encounters now when we’ve traveled a couple of centuries forward.

BOGAEV: That is so interesting, that Shakespeare’s audiences would have some kind of familiarity with a population that’s so diverse, in terms of Otherness, I guess: non-white. But, I’m thinking of that famous edict by the queen in 1601, to collect and deport “Blackamoors” from England. That was specifically directed at people from Spain, right? And also directed at slaves?

DADABHOY: It was directed at the Black population, who are identified as having come from Spain. But we might want to think about how they got to Spain. In that period, the Spanish and the Portuguese, both being quite involved in the slave trade from the Atlantic into what Europeans called the New World. The Iberian kingdoms were practicing enslavement from about the middle of the 15th century.

We think about this population that in the edicts is identified as having come from Spain, but what were they doing in Spain? They were probably people who were kidnapped from Africa, either themselves, or their ancestors might have been.

BOGAEV: Right. So when the queen asks the lord mayor to deport the Blackamoors, it’s really directed at anyone Spanish, whether slave or not, and it has more to do with that animosity between the two countries than with actual skin color?

DADABHOY: I don’t know that I would say that. I would say that it has a lot to do with skin color. She is not talking about Spanish people in that edict, right? These would have been people who are in service to the Spanish and are racially distinct from Spanish people. The fact that she identifies them as Blackamoors suggests then that they were Black African people.

BOGAEV: It’s complicated. While we are talking about the slave trade, when did the slave trade start and who was involved in it?

DADABHOY: That’s a really complicated question.

BOGAEV: But we should know this! I mean, this is what’s so fascinating about your research, that there’s so much misinformation really.

DADABHOY: There is so much misinformation and there’s also just thinking regionally, right? If we think about the process of enslavement in the Mediterranean and we think about Mediterranean empires, enslavement had been going on for thousands of years.

Now, when we talk about Atlantic slavery, we are talking about a related but also, kind of different kind and form of enslavement. Because Mediterranean slavery was still slavery and there was a lot of African slavery that was going through the Mediterranean, but often that form of slavery wasn’t inheritable in the same way that the transatlantic program of enslavement becomes, right? So you don’t have a whole kind of…

BOGAEV: Generation after generation of enslavement, yeah.

DADABHOY: Yes. Yeah. I think there has been a resistance to thinking about how enslavement has been the engine for all of the glories of the European Renaissance and the sort of discoveries of the early modern period, and what then resulted in the kind of ascendency of Europe over the rest of the world. At least that’s how the narrative gets told, right?

BOGAEV: The myth of the glorious enlightenment.


BOGAEV: Yeah. And we’re going to talk about that in a moment, but I should get back to what we were talking about, which is: in Shakespeare’s time, by the late 1500s or early 1600s, does this history mean that English people already associate dark skin with enslavement and servitude?

DADABHOY: English people are already trained—and we have scholars like Anthony Barthelemy has talked about this in his book Black Face, Maligned Race, where the image of blackness, as associated with sin, with the devil, all of these things, makes it quite easy to map onto then Black people these kinds of characteristics. Then, those kinds of characteristics allow for the argument that these people are fit to be enslaved.

BOGAEV: So, institutionalized? So, Shakespearean audiences, then, already had exposure to, or thoughts along, these lines, and they’re getting it from different aspects of culture. What I learned from reading your work is that Shakespeare was hardly the only playwright to write about non-English characters. You write that in his day at least 50 plays featured characters that were marked as racially or religiously different from their English audiences. So how does Othello compare to these other productions? Is it a similar depiction of otherness to what we see in these plays?

DADABHOY: I don’t think so. I mean one of the things about Shakespeare is he does something different than what other people are doing. So, in my recent article on The Battle of Alcazar—that is a play that predates Othello, and it really kind of was one that was really influential in showcasing Moors on the early modern stage. Certainly, I don’t think it was the first play to do so, but it was the play that really centered on Morocco, focused on presenting this Moorish villain character whose racial Blackness becomes… that Blackness gives the reason for his villainy. He is Black; therefore, he is a villain.

BOGAEV: You’re talking about George Peele’s play, The Battle of Alcazar, and it was from 1594. And as you say, it takes place in Morocco—and we’ll get back to Othello in a moment—but it’s really interesting what you have to say about this. It’s based on current events at the time. It’s a power struggle between three kings in 1578. Could you just fill us in and give us the thumbnail sketch?

DADABHOY: Sure. So the Battle of Alcazar is this famous battle of Alcàcer Quibir, which is famous in Europe because—and it’s called the Battle of Three Kings—because three kings end up dying in this battle. The King of Portugal, Sebastian, and two Moroccan kings end up dying. One is the pretender to the throne and one is the legitimate king. Then after this battle, we have a new king, who is al-Mansur. In the play he’s called Muly Mahamet Seth or Muly Seth. The English-izing of all these names is really confusing, yeah.

BOGAEV: Really problematic. Yeah.

DADABHOY: But al-Mansur ends up being the king who is the one who negotiates with Elizabeth I. It’s his ambassador who we have the famous portrait of, and who Shakespeare might have seen, because they were part of certain royal pageants.

BOGAEV: Ah. And, I mean, it’s complicated. You say in your writing that the play is very short and very strange, but what you really get into is the way in which the word “negro” in the play conveys so much. That it’s used as a keyword. So, how is it deployed and what does it connote, and what light does it shed on the topic we’re talking about today?

DADABHOY: Yeah. I think for me it was really interesting to follow the use and mobilization of that word in the play. Because I came to this play having read about it, before I even read the play. I had a preconceived notion of what I was going to find. A lot of the scholarship about it talks about, how in this play, we have white Moors and we have Blackamoors, and that the fact that we have all of these kinds of Moors suggests that race, as we understand it in terms of the symbolic loading of meaning onto skin, is not present in this play.

BOGAEV: Right. That’s the traditional scholarship. That’s what traditional scholarship says. That’s proof that race, as we know it, people weren’t thinking that way back in that time.

DADABHOY: That was my introduction to this play. But then, when I read it and I noticed the frequency of the use of “negro,” I felt that something was happening here, right? I felt that “negro” here was not a value-neutral descriptor. In this period, the use of “negro” in various European languages is always connected to the kinds of discourses that we associate with race. “Negro” has specific meaning that is tied to being made fit for a certain kind of dominance by European and white powers.

BOGAEV: Is this where you see that Moors are called Barbarians, meaning from Barbary, but also, they start to get the connotation of barbarians, less civilized?

DADABHOY: Yeah. I think that’s one really interesting thing that happens in this play too because, again, the kind of ambivalence that you point out, in terms of, there are multiple meanings that are being conveyed at the same time through the use of “barbarian,” kind of engenders a kind of racial incoherence already in the play.

So that, you know, the noble Moor Abd al-Malik, he’s also called a barbarian and he calls himself a barbarian. But in that context, it’s usually, “I am from Barbary and therefore I am calling myself a Barbarian.” But then when it’s applied to Muly Hamet, it’s in connection to “negro,” and so the “negro barbarian,” and in that context it means barbarian in the sense of how we use the word now, right? Uncivilized. And then also, Black.

And so those are the moments where we can put pressure and see how race is being mobilized to make it very clear that this is the villain and he’s a villain because of his Blackness and his Africanness.

And here is a good guy. The good, so-called “white Moor,” who in the play is not really described as a “white Moor” but that’s how critics have read him.

BOGAEV: Oh, I see. Well, is it that there’s a negro Moor and then just Moors? I mean, does “negro” becomes the freighted word or a slur or a conflation of color into race?

DADABHOY: Yes. That is exactly what is happening in this play.

BOGAEV: Wow. So, is that the origins of racial thinking? Is that how you see it?

ELIZABETHAN BLACKNESS 5-18-21 [00:16:05]
DADABHOY: I don’t think it’s the origins of racial thinking, but I think it’s a very powerful example of how race is already being understood, operating in a shorthand that is legible to audiences. Blackness working in concert with villainy, untrustworthiness, fit for servitude, But also a warning, right? There’s this moment where at the end of the play where the new king says that Muly Hamet should be skinned and his skin should be displayed as a warning to those who might follow, right? In the early modern period, we had lots of forms of corporal punishment and, sort of, the display of the heads of traitors and things like that on the walls of the city. Those things were quite common. Yeah.

BOGAEV: But interesting that it’s being skinned. I mean, he could have been drawn and quartered or any of the other nasty, nasty things.

DADABHOY: Mm-hmm. Yes, exactly. And that’s the point, right? That his skin becomes the sign of his villainy and a sign of warning.

BOGAEV: Right. But somehow scholars look at this play and argue that race and racism as we understand it are present in it because the term “Moor” is so inexact and ambiguous.


BOGAEV: They kind of invert there, invert what you’re saying.

DADABHOY: Yes. But, you know, and here’s the benefit of studying scholars of race like Stuart Hall, for example, who very clearly tells us that race is a discourse, and it is a shifting discourse. That part of how the discourse accrues its power—because that power is always historically contingent—is in its malleability. It is not something that is fixed.

Certainly, later centuries will try to fix race into certain kinds of concrete meanings, but even those won’t hold, right? We don’t hold to the 19th-century biological explanations of race anymore, and yet we still try to fix race even now. We know that it is an unfixable thing, and it is about power and domination.

BOGAEV: Yes, and colonialism and all of this stuff. Well, now we do have a fuller picture of the context for Othello. Speaking to colonialism and power and geopolitics in the play, Venice and Cyprus are very important to the action. What does each place represent?

DADABHOY: In a lot of traditional scholarship on the play, Venice has very much represented the site of European order and a European city that is besieged by a dangerous enemy… that we never see, but that we hear about a lot, especially in Act I. That is, of course, the Ottoman Empire.

Then Cyprus represents being in that border region where one can potentially “go native” in a certain context. If we’re talking about the imperial contest between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, and if Venice is supposed to stand for Europe and the Ottoman Empire is supposed to stand for the dangerous eastern Other, then we see in Cyprus how one is endangered by being in close proximity to that dangerous Other.

BOGAEV: Okay, so we take that understanding of geography or the geopolitics and apply it to the themes in Othello. How does it shape or inform for instance our understanding, your understanding, of Othello’s character?

DADABHOY: So, I think a lot about Othello of course.

BOGAEV: I bet.

DADABHOY: I think that many of us who work on Shakespeare and race, of course, think a lot about Othello. But I think a lot about this play also because I work in the context of the Mediterranean and the context of the Ottoman Empire. Really, for me, one of the things that is interesting to think about with this character is that he also represents… like, this is a character that owes a lot to the kinds of issues that we see come up in George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar.

But also, this character, it’s very important to situate him within the context of the eastern Mediterranean and in the context of the Ottoman Empire. One of the things that I understand about how the geography works in informing Othello’s construction is that we’re deep in the eastern Mediterranean with this play; so we’re moving from Venice to Cyprus. And Cyprus is quite close to, sort of, the center of power of the Ottoman Empire, thinking about Istanbul. The Ottomans really control much of this eastern Mediterranean geography during the time that Shakespeare is writing this play but also during the time where Shakespeare might have set this play, which would be probably about 40 years before 1603.

Thinking through this geography, and then you have this Black Moor African character, and you’re wondering how this character fits in. The play kind of seems to want to ask, “What are his loyalties?” That comes out very clearly in the play at the end, where Othello talks about, you know, taking “by th’ throat the circumcisèd dog, / And smote him, thus.” And so he kind of destroys the internal Turk inside of him, through the hand of Venetian authority. Those are all the kind of competing forces that are playing upon him.

But that still doesn’t address the fact of Othello’s Blackness. I mean, that has, I think, troubled this play so much in terms of where does the Moor fit into this discourse about empire?

BOGAEV: Right, yes. Because these are all cultural imperatives that we’re talking about. Where does the actual the race, yeah, the skin color, come in?


BOGAEV: How do you understand that?

DADABHOY: For me, I think that the play asks us to think about how Blackness is actively being constructed by characters who have power in order to influence how we understand race. So I’m really thinking about the way that the play opens not with Othello, but with Iago and Roderigo shaping for us how we should interpret the Moor and Othello, and really relying on lurid imagery of Othello’s sexuality and the kind of potential violation of Desdemona that they conjure for Brabantio. We see here already Othello as kind of being hypersexualized and also criminalized in a way through the elopement.

Then when we finally see Othello, he is of course so different from what we have been led to believe by Iago. Yet Iago is so much in control of the narrative that as an audience we fall into his plots. We become complicit in reading Othello in the way that Iago wants us to read him, which means we also read his Blackness in the way that Iago wants us to read him.

I think Othello falls into that trap too, when he begins to doubt Desdemona’s love for him and one of the things—or her fidelity, when he talks about how nature erring from itself in terms of talking about Desdemona’s. It would be in her nature to love someone who was from her own culture. So in loving him, her nature is erring from itself. He also says in that same scene, “Haply, for I am black,” right? It must be because I’m Black that she is now unfaithful to me, right? So, you can see that he’s alienated, yeah.

BOGAEV: He’s internalized, yes, those in power, their way of thinking of his own Blackness. But then you have Desdemona’s line, “I saw his visage in his mind.” His true image.

DADABHOY: But even that is so problematic, right?

BOGAEV: Yeah, because it’s changing.

DADABHOY: Because it’s, “I saw his visage in his mind.” Does that mean you didn’t see his visage that the whole world can see? Right? That there is a difference between the visage in her mind versus the visage that is presented to the world. Is one white and one not white?

So I think for me the play kind of presents the illusion of what a tolerant society might be, but it’s really about the danger of letting others into the familiar and intimate spaces of your society. For me the play is really exclusionary and it’s not necessarily one that has a positive image. I feel this very strongly every time I see the play performed, that it just doesn’t work for me.

BOGAEV: This is really interesting because I want to step back now to the bigger picture. Because your work, it really puts a different spin on Othello, and it also puts such a different spin on the traditional thinking about The Renaissance, with a capital “T” and a capital “R.” I mean as you put it in your essay, “Empires built on exploitation, on bondage, on enslavement, on genocide of Indigenous people,” and you ask in that same paragraph, “How can we have this glorious, early modern period if it’s also implicated in all of those things?” How do you answer that question? I mean, it just requires really teaching this whole period differently, it seems.

DADABHOY: It really does. It requires, I think, teaching this period certainly differently from how I was taught. It requires understanding all of the kinds of violences that enabled these empires to exist. And if we don’t do that, we reconstruct history in a way that is dishonest and that gets us to the problems that we have right now in our own culture, where people don’t want to face the reality of the past; really kind of understand why we have all of the issues that we have with injustice and particularly racial injustice in this country, and also, I would say, in the UK.

BOGAEV: When you were coming up in the academy, you know, when you were writing your dissertation, were you coming up against the old way of teaching Shakespeare? Were people saying like, “Oh, if you’re interested in this race stuff, you’re in this niche?”

DADABHOY: Yes. “You’re in this niche,” or, “It doesn’t exist,” and so you’re talking about something that has no relevance.

BOGAEV: Someone said that to you?


BOGAEV: Your dissertation has no relevance to the period?

DADABHOY: Luckily, it wasn’t my advisor. But it really was in… how I got to my topic was really from a moment of teaching Othello really. That’s also another reason why I think about this play so much, is because even if race wasn’t relevant in the period or to this play, if I teach it right now, in the 21st century, it is relevant. It’s in the room with me, not just because of who I am, but because of the play that I’ve chosen to teach.

I think there is a preconceived notion for people who don’t go deep into the scholarship on race. Not just early modern scholarship but really kind of the scholarship on race done by Black feminist scholars or even post-colonial scholars. If you’re not conversant with that work, then you’re not going to understand that the things that you’re identifying as “not race” are actually deeply connected to race.

I don’t want to essentialize identity, but I think that for white scholars, if you’ve never had to think about race as a thing that you have to concern yourself with in your life, because you don’t think about whiteness as being a raced category, then you’re not going to have the tools to be able to even understand that race is in front of you when it’s just standing there.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and I think now we’re getting to this term that is so perfect, that I’ve never heard anyone really say it this way that you use. You say it’s the, “white way of knowing.”

DADABHOY: Yeah. I mean, I think that it’s the practices of how we read, how we think; that they’re all kind of regulated by the modes of whiteness.

BOGAEV: So is it a kind of deliberate colorblind notion? This notion of this is a colorblind way of knowing? Or is it just an unconscious, you know, lack of awareness?

DADABHOY: I think it is an unconscious lack of awareness, because I think, you know, for white people… like white people can just be people. Even the idea of objectivity: As a scholar I am just sort of a disembodied mind that is interpreting all of these things. And yet, I am a scholar who is located in a body, who is located in a race, who is located in a gender and a sexuality and all of these things that influence how I think.

BOGAEV: So you know, knowing this, seeing this, writing about this, how does it change how you teach your students?

DADABHOY: One of the ways that it definitely changes how I teach my students is that those influence the kinds of questions that we ask. I tell them that it’s okay to come from a certain kind of position, but it’s also necessary then for us to think about the positions that we can’t occupy and the blind spots that we might have. Right? We don’t know what we don’t know, and we don’t know what we haven’t experienced, and how that dialogue is really important because we might be overlooking something simply because we didn’t even know to ask that question.

BOGAEV: Well, We could go on for weeks, and I wish we could. I really love talking with you about this. Thank you so much.

DADABHOY: Thank you.


WITMORE: Dr. Ambereen Dadabhoy is an assistant professor of literature at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. Her chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race is called “Barbarian Moors: Documenting Racial Formation in Early Modern England.” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race was published by Cambridge University Press in 2021. Dr. Dadabhoy was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast, “In the Old Age, Black Was Not Counted Fair,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.