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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Margo Hendricks on Shakespeare, Race, and Romance

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 203

Margo Hendricks, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a pioneer of early and pre-modern critical race studies. She co-edited the landmark 1994 collection Women, ‘Race,’ and Writing in the Early Modern Period with Patricia Parker. In 2020-21, she was a Folger Institute research fellow. She’s well known in the field for her lively and provocative conference talks.

Under the pen name Elysabeth Grace, Hendricks has also written over a dozen romance novels informed by her knowledge of early modern literature. Her Daughters of Saria series is a modern retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Other novels take place in 16th-century England.

Hendricks joins host Barbara Bogaev for a wide-ranging conversation about her experiences studying race and Shakespeare, writing and reading romance novels, and what’s next for Shakespeare studies.

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Margo Hendricks’s latest book is Race and Romance: Coloring the Past, from ACMRS Press. Her essay “I Saw Them in My Visage: Whiteness, Early Modern Race Studies, and Me” appears in the collection White People in Shakespeare: Essays on Race, Culture, and the Elite, edited by Arthur L. Little, Jr. and published by Arden Shakespeare.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published February 14, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. 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 Abbey West Recording in Reno and VoiceTrax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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Race and Romance: Coloring the Past, ACMRS Press.



MICHAEL WITMORE: Hidden identities, forbidden loves, outlandish plot twists… turns out, Renaissance drama has a lot in common with romance novels.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.

Margo Hendricks is professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has been a pioneer of early and pre-modern critical race studies. She co-edited the landmark collection Women, ‘Race,’ and Writing in the Early Modern Period with Patricia Parker. In 2020-21, she was a Folger Institute research fellow. And she’s well known in the field for her lively and provocative conference talks.

But Hendricks has another calling as a writer of romance novels, informed by her knowledge of early modern literature. Her Daughters of Saria series is a modern retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Other novels take place in 16th-Century England. For these books, Hendricks uses the pen name Elysabeth Grace.

Hendricks’ latest nonfiction book combines her two passions. Race and Romance: Coloring the Past is an academic study of race and white passing through the history of the romance genre.

For all her acclaim, Hendricks’ relationship with the academy has not always been an easy one. Hendricks outlines her struggles over the years with the academic establishment in a new essay in the collection White People in Shakespeare, edited by Arthur Little. That essay takes the form of letters, some of which are playfully addressed to “Will” himself.

Here’s Margo Hendricks in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGEAV: Tell me about how you started writing an essay in the form of letters to Willie Shakespeare.

MARGO HENDRICKS: That was supposed to be the last talk that I gave at the Shakespeare Association. When I retired, I walked away from the academy for a while. I had also started writing romance. For me, moving from the romance genre to write this academic essay was not easy. But I wanted to do it in a form that was atypical for academic writing. That’s how you ended up with an epistolary essay of sorts.

BOGEAV: That’s wonderful. Do you—in your head—do you call him Willie?


BOGEAV: Yeah. Why? Because you’ve known each other for so many years?

HENDRICKS: We’ve known each other for, like, five centuries almost. No.

It’s… Okay, my heartthrob, my Renaissance/Elizabethan heartthrob is Christopher Marlowe. I’ve always had an oppositional relationship with William Shakespeare. It’s always been, “I hate this,” or, “I love this.”

As I—when I would write about his texts, calling him Willie created a space for me to not be swallowed up by the idea of “the Bard.” Me calling him Willie, is an act of resistance to the trope of “William Shakespeare.” To the pedestal that is William Shakespeare.

The essay goes from William to Willie, to William to Will. It moves in a kind of fluid way in terms of intimacy, and I wanted to capture a level of intimacy about my relationship with William Shakespeare.

BOGEAV: I really feel that. Just in terms of the essay, it almost feels like you’ve had this ongoing conversation with him, and you felt differently about him over time. You know, sometimes you feel really close. Sometimes you have to encounter him as the establishment, you know, the “William.”

It’s also interesting you opened this essay with a story about how you were teaching a class in South Africa in 1996. A student asked you, why should Black people read this tool of the colonizers and imperialists, this Shakespeare? How did you answer that student?


HENDRICKS: It wasn’t a class. It was actually a Shakespeare conference. So here you have these Black Americans who are working on Shakespeare. We had to let them know that in our academic space, we were told that we shouldn’t focus on Shakespeare. We were encouraged to do African American literature, to do Black studies.

BOGEAV: As if you couldn’t walk through that door. You didn’t deserve to walk through that Shakespearean door.

HENDRICKS: Literally, it wasn’t even that we couldn’t walk through the door. It was as if once we got into the room, we would know we weren’t welcomed, rather than having the door completely barred.


HENDRICKS: What we had to explain to the student [was] that for us, to do Shakespeare was extremely radical. It wasn’t that we walked away from Black studies, African American literature, any of that. Because our Blackness is who we are. It was that we really did love the writing and the work. We knew it was complicated. We knew how it’d been wielded. But when it comes down to it, there are some lines that just move you. And we followed, basically, our hearts.

BOGEAV: Well, one of the things you talk about and one of the ways that you grappled with this is, in the essay you write about it. “Imagining staging Othello in a world without white people,” is how you put it. It sounds like a thought experiment, you know?


BOGEAV: Yeah. What was the origin of that? This, as a thought experiment. And, what does your director do in staging Othello in a world without white people? What does this do for our understanding of Othello too, and of race and Shakespeare?

HENDRICKS: It was, for me, was how do we recognize a racialized body? Not a body that is raced, but a racialized body. We have to make a body racial in order to concoct an ideology of racism.

And, the way in which I wrote that section was, you know, they discover in the archives and they decide to produce it and suddenly there’s all of this tension around Othello’s color. It is a multicultural world, as I envisioned, and so the singular absence was whiteness. You have to invert that picture and you need someone to play Othello and stand out based on colorism.

BOGEAV: Okay, so help me understand the thought experiment. For instance, how do you interpret Desdemona’s line, “I saw his visage in my mind,” in this world?

HENDRICKS: What they’d have to do is to construct a notion of Blackness that is inferior, which would necessarily go against the grain of the community. In doing that, Desdemona would then have to imagine Othello, not as Othello is, but as this negative, and then turn that negative into a positive, which is what she does.

I think this could only be acted because it requires that actor to go through that process, just as Black actors perform “white”—in quotation marks— characters: Henry V, Richard II, Richard III. There’s a way in which they have to grapple with the idea that this prince is “white,” in quotation marks, and they are “Black,” in quotation marks. But their Blackness has to be concealed, effaced, hidden as they perform this white prince.

BOGEAV: It’s to get to this idea, which we’ve talked about with Ian Smith on this podcast, of the invisibility of whiteness.

HENDRICKS: Yes, absolutely.

BOGEAV: Yeah. So ,this is your thought experiment. And, especially if you act it, this is how you can live it.



HENDRICKS: They had to imagine the idea of whiteness, which in our world, we never do. We know it exists. It’s a priori. But no one ever starts with, “How did whiteness get imagined?”

BOGEAV: It’s really a provocative idea or exercise. The other really provocative idea, in at least this essay, and white people—and this goes back to 2011, I think—you write about a “Disturbance in the Force” and a problematic trend in early modern race studies.

So just make that… get us on the same page. What was going on there that got your goat?

HENDRICKS: Okay, I’m about genealogies, and there’s a history of race studies in relationship to the early modern period. There’s a history of race studies in relationship to Shakespeare.

One of the things that I noticed in the early 2000s, was an erasure of the genealogy of Black scholars and brown-skinned scholars who were doing pre-modern race studies, and an erasure of that genealogy.

What I saw was an absence, among white Shakespearean scholars, to grapple with thinking about race in terms of themselves. One of the things I think that happened with Black American Shakespeareans is that we never lost sight of ourselves as Black people doing the work of Shakespeare. We couldn’t erase that from our engagement.

BOGEAV: Well, you don’t really have that privilege. I mean, that is the privilege of divorcing yourself as a white person from your whiteness.

HENDRICKS: Exactly. You—yes. How do white people divorce their whiteness in order to bring it into relief?


HENDRICKS: So we’re getting these race studies that in effect, looked at other factors than skin color. They looked at other—

BOGEAV: You mean the humors? The humors and black bile? Or you mean religion and the black devil in those terms, that’s what you mean?

HENDRICKS: Exactly. Morality. The Blackness of morality. Well, how does it manifest itself into skin color, but only on one half of the page. Why? Or, if it manifests itself on the other side of the page, it is an attribute, a moral failing.

And when you want to talk about Black skin, you always go to the African, to the Negro, to the more… you never go to whiteness as skin color to the English.

In my opinion, if you’re going to talk about Blackness, you need to talk about whiteness and you look at yourself within that context. You need to write about white people and the emergence of white people and how white people came into existence.

It wasn’t happening. So, that part of the essay was out of both the frustration, disappointment, and anger at the absence of critical genealogies. Acknowledgement. Citational practice. Critical engagement in the conversation, in the body of these texts. You don’t just quote Kim Hall. You don’t just quote Peter Erickson. You critically engage them. You don’t relegate them to a footnote. You don’t quote Ayanna Thompson’s discussion of Blackness and trauma without thinking about the relationship between whiteness and trauma.

BOGEAV: You’re talking about, kind of, a systemic reaction to Black scholars. But what about a conference or at work and face-to-face? Did colleagues or, you know, conference organizers or Shakespeare powers that be, did they resist or object to your ideas?

HENDRICKS: I think the resistors basically died off.

BOGEAV: You’ve outlasted them.

HENDRICKS: Exactly. But it’s also… our work was being published in collections, in journals where the editors took some risks. Because, you know, we were told if we write about race and Shakespeare, we probably wouldn’t get tenure and we should leave it out. And younger scholars still face that fight.

So, this idea of changing the discourse—so we talk about humors, we talk about religion, we talk about blood, maybe we talk about geography as racial markers—is just another way of not confronting whiteness as a race.

BOGEAV: Well, I mean, that’s traumatic. As you said, you left Santa Cruz. You left academia, and you went back to something that you always wanted to do. And, this is your other hat: you write romance novels.


BOGEAV: That was always your passion. So, which did come first: a love of Shakespeare or a love of romance?

HENDRICKS: A love of romance.

BOGEAV: Did it get you into Shakespeare? Romance?

HENDRICKS: I was already a romance reader. Romance and science fiction and fantasy before I… Okay, I started undergraduate school late. I’m a late bloomer. So, I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always read things. I’ve read Shakespeare. I liked Shakespeare’s sonnets. I wasn’t crazy about the plays, and I didn’t get invested in them until graduate school.

BOGEAV: Now for those of us who don’t love romance novels, explain to me what you love about them and what drew you to them originally.

HENDRICKS: For me, the specific draw actually was early modern romance: Spencer, Sidney, et cetera, and the way in which romance played with all kinds of conventions and genres.

So, when I decided to write romance, I realized that romance still resists the confinement. It’s not necessarily a mystery, but it can be. It’s not necessarily science fiction, but it can be. It can do all kinds of things.

I think one of the reasons why people are resistant is, first of all, bad PR. But two, there’s a kind of guilt attached to reading romance and taking pleasure in reading that the academy has stripped out of us.

When we look at any novel, play, or lyric, we are told to read them as serious literature and not with the play that, I think, shaped their creation. Romance still engages in that play. If I were going to encourage someone to read romance, I tell them to read it as literature. Possess that critical perspective. It’s just a different format. Tells the same stories. Still about love, still about hate, still about all the things that human beings do to each other, just a different format.

BOGEAV: Do you think it’s a gendered bias?


BOGEAV: You’re making the case that Milton and all these early modern writers, really, they’re writing romance. We just don’t want to call it that because of this bias.

HENDRICKS: Thank you. That’s my hobby horse. You know, when people read Aphra Behn, most of them just read Oroonoko, but they don’t read her romance novels, which she called romance, which are amazing. They’re modern novels.

A woman gets pregnant, runs away, ends up with the man who got her pregnant and they get married. He didn’t know she was pregnant. He left for London. And the end of it is, they get married, they have the kid. We know the reasons why.

Someone writes that narrative now, people will be very critical of fostering immorality or hyping the sex. Now, we write sex because sex is beautiful. Sex is part of who we are. Let’s not pretend that it’s something that should be swept under the rug.

BOGEAV: And you write about sex—I mean, excuse me…

HENDRICKS: And we write about sex and love.

BOGEAV: And you write about race, is what I was going to say.

HENDRICKS: Yeah. In mine, I do.

BOGEAV: Yeah, in yours, you write about race. And, your thinking about the early modern period. You have said something really interesting about your approach to that—your writing—which is that the early moderns had a concept of race that was constantly being destabilized as they learned that it wasn’t as static as they assumed.


BOGEAV: Unpack that for me, please.

HENDRICKS: I think it has to do with… when you read early modern romances and late medieval romances, what you discover is that at this moment, class is what constitutes a kind of working, racializing category. You can’t marry him—not because he’s Black or brown or Asian or Muslim—you can’t marry him because you’re a princess and he’s a soldier.


HENDRICKS: The class dimension is often ignored and not thought of as a racializing taxonomy for any period of time.

So, part of what I do try to do is to destabilize that moment. In my paranormal romance Fate’s Match, she is the daughter of a king. She ends up with the—who appears to be a white Englishman, who is not of a similar status.

It’s deliberate on my part because I think we need to do serious intersectionality in our thinking about this period, so I’m trying to do it in the romances that I write set in this period.

BOGEAV: It’s interesting that you’re dealing with all the same issues in your romance writing that you deal with as an academic, but you have these two very separate identities. You have a pen name too, for your romance novel. Why do you have a separate name? Elysabeth Grace.

HENDRICKS: Elysabeth Grace is a borrowed name, it’s part of my daughter’s name. But writing under a pen name was an opportunity for me to set aside the academic Margo and write using the knowledge that I’ve gained in academia to do world building.

I think that’s probably the biggest reason for doing that, for doing that splint. I needed to not be an academic when it comes to writing romance.

BOGEAV: And Elysabeth Grace; That’s your daughter’s name?

HENDRICKS: Yeah. She sold it to me.

BOGEAV: She sold it to you. Wait, how does that work? Does she get a cut of your…?

HENDRICKS: Yes. She says when I make a lot of money, she gets 15%, when I first approached her about using it.

It’s also one of the things that I think we rarely reflect on when we’re writing essays. And when I—again, coming back to the letter to Willie, thinking of myself in a relationship with William Shakespeare in different ways.  As a romance author, I think about my relationship to the past in different ways. I’m not attempting to reproduce it. I’m attempting to engage it, to show a world that is perceived to be invisible, but there. To give a genealogy or genealogies to peoples who moved across geographic boundaries. People who loved, people who hated, people who, you know, lived, murdered, did all kinds of stuff. It seems to me that I need to be flexible in my imagination. That’s what I call my Aquarian chaos. So, when Elysabeth Grace sits down to any kind of fictional piece, she doesn’t channel Margo Hendricks. She borrows from Margo Hendricks. She takes from Margo the body of knowledge that she has about the past and uses it. Uses what she wants, tosses the rest away.

Okay. Can I tell you something? I’m writing this… I’ve got this little series that I’m writing. It’s historical cozy mysteries with a dash of kink. They’re all based on Shakespeare, on a half a dozen to a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays.

The first one is what I call Damaged Hamlet. In it, Ophelia lives, Hamlet dies. Ophelia and her lover, Sally, go off to Denmark to live happily ever after.

The second book is a retelling of Othello. Othello marries Casio. Desdemona’s been working in a brothel.

I just finished the third book, which is a damaging of Much Ado About Nothing where Beatrice and Hero become Beatrice and Henrietta. They don’t hook up with Claudio, or Claude, and Benedick.

And there are murders in all of these because they’re little cozy mysteries. They have been absolute fun.

BOGEAV: Oh, they sound like so much fun to read.

HENDRICKS: I mean, it is. It’s like, “Okay. Yeah, I can redo Shakespeare seriously, or I can just snatch from Shakespeare and do what I want.” One of the things that I think I’m doing is doing what Shakespeare and Marlowe and all of our early modernists did, which is that they borrowed.

BOGEAV: Borrowed and stole.

HENDRICKS: And recreated. They borrowed from them, and they told the stories. I feel like Shakespeare would have a great deal of—maybe an eyebrow raised or two—but respect for the borrowing, for the willingness not to reinvent, but grapple with differently. I really feel very strongly that sometimes we get stuck in our ways with Shakespeare.

BOGEAV: I couldn’t agree with you more. I do have one more question though. I’m going to ask you now to put on your Margo Hendricks hat, which is—

HENDRICKS: Oh, it’s always on.

BOGEAV: Okay, great, because we can’t—it’s the backdrop to this whole conversation. What is the way forward then for Shakespeare’s studies to get this better?

HENDRICKS: I don’t think the focus is getting it better. I think the focus is getting Shakespeare out of deity status. That there is much to learn. There’s much pleasure to be had. There’s much pain to experience. There’s much joy to embrace.

I think the way forward is we need to not beat people over the head with Shakespeare. Especially the range of students, readers, thinkers. People in this world. I’m a cis-, het-, Black woman who has lived quite a long time. And my relationship with Shakespeare is not going to be the same as a trans, brown, undergraduate student who was in foster home most of their young life. It’s just not, but they need to be able to find the same things that I have found.

I think we need to make space for discussions of those topics that are difficult. I think that pre-modern critical race studies is only one facet. We need to talk about pre-modern critical indigenous studies. We need to talk about pre-modern critical trans studies.

BOGEAV: And class.

HENDRICKS: We definitely—We need to start pre-modern critical class studies because we don’t do it. We just don’t do it.

We may talk about the royals and the aristos versus everybody else, but we don’t even talk about, you know, what that “everything else” is. We don’t talk about the laboring class, except in this monolith. We don’t look at them individually. We need to do archive work for that because their voices aren’t there. We need to bring their voices front and center.

BOGEAV: Well, thank you for the marching orders, and thank you so much for the conversation. Thanks for coming on.

HENDRICKS: You’re more than welcome.


WITMORE: Margo Hendricks’s latest book is Race and Romance: Coloring the Past, from ACMRS Press. Her essay “I Saw Them in My Visage: Whiteness, Early Modern Race Studies, and Me” appears in the collection White People in Shakespeare: Essays on Race, Culture, and the Elite, edited by Arthur L. Little, Jr. It’s published by Arden Shakespeare.

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. 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 Abbey West Recording in Reno and VoiceTrax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.