Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Queen, Quean and Welfare Queen

 Black queenship, Shakespeare & Fletcher’s Henry VIII, and our modern cultural moment

6 minute read

Our cultural moment is saturated with what Treva B. Lindsey, Sonja Drimmer, and I call the phenomenon of ‘The Royal Turn’.

From Meghan Markle’s inclusion and departure from the British monarchy; to Beyoncé’s Queen Bey; to Golda Rosheuvel’s historically dark-skinned Portuguese Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton, examples of Black queenship are abundant. Indeed, the meaning of the word ‘queen’ has been appropriated and recreated to signify feminist resistance, Black solidarity, and racial pride.

Actor Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton. They wear a sumptuous lilac gown, with a white ruffled corset and white gloves. A wig of curls is piled high on top of their head. They sit on a lavish red sofa, starring into camera.

Golda Rosheuvel plays the historically dark-skinned Portuguese Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton. Photographer: Liam Daniel for Netflix ©

For example, when the Black icon, Beyoncé, took over the Louvre Museum in the music video of Apeshit, she anointed herself and her retinue of Black women as queens on par with Empress Josephine, portrayed in Jacques-Louis David’s painting, The Coronation of Napoleon (1807). The music video offers a harmonious and collective vision of Black queenship that supplants whiteness as the exemplar of feminine regality.

Beyoncé and Jay Z stand in front of the Mona Lisa painting a the Lourve. Beyoncé is wearing a pink suit, with a statement necklace and earrings, her hair blonde and curly in a high ponytail. Jay Z wears a sage coloured suit with a statement gold necklace.

Beyoncé’s music video for Apeshit offers a harmonous and collective vision of Black queenship. Photographer: Robin Harper

Why, then, does racism rear its ugly head whenever a Black or minoritised actor plays a historical role on television or in theatre? As a scholar working on racialised queenship in the framework of premodern critical race studies – a field convened by the Black feminist critic Margo Hendricks – I grapple with this question frequently.

Even though historical records and bioarcheological research  have shown that Black and other non-white people lived in premodern London, that diversity has until very recently been ignored. School curricula, museums, television and cinema have long chosen to remember the past as a whitewashed one populated by white Europeans only. More nuanced and inclusive representations of previous centuries stand as a contrast to the fantasy of an entirely white past.

What about the place of race in the dynastic dramas of Europe’s kings and queens? My research shows that race shaped monarchical unions, where ideas on lineage, religion, rank, and nation ​​morphed and overlapped to create hierarchical relationships.

Three actors wearing blue Elizabethan corset gowns line up behind each other on the wooden floorboards of the Globe Theatre stage. The actor to the font holds their hands at their waist, smiling. The second actor stands directly behind, whist the third sits o a ladder staircase filled with red bound books.

As we see in Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’ Sonnets, a woman’s sexual knowledge was enough to mark her as non-white, even Black. Emilia (2018). Photographer: Helen Murray

Despite matrimonial contracts that limited their participation in policy making, foreign queens destabilised the fantasy of a white Protestant Christian commonwealth by virtue of their proximity and access to power. From drama, to poetry, to court masques, to religious sermons, early modern texts speak of non-white, non-Christian queens as a direct threat to a true national English ideal. As foreign queens moved across borders – and with them moved language, material objects, and human subjects – their racialised bodies became the locations of competing ideologies on which the success of a dynastic alliance, incorporation, and succession hinged. As we see in Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’ Sonnets, a woman’s sexual knowledge was enough to mark her as non-white, even Black: the lady’s ‘dun’ breasts and wiry black hair stand in diametrical opposition to chaste white womanhood.

To illustrate my point, let’s look at the racial undertones informing the linguistic slippage between the word ‘queen’ and its homophonic counterpart, ‘quean’ (an early modern term for a promiscuous woman or a sex worker). I’m going to suggest that the evolution of both these words has – over time – helped to create the dehumanising contemporary stereotypical figure of the ‘welfare queen’, a derogatory term used in the United States for a woman (usually of colour) who exploits the social security system.

To do so, I will focus on the racialisation of Anne Boleyn (or Bullen) in William Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Henry VIII(1613), currently playing as part of the Globe’s Summer 2022 season. As Henry VIII’s second wife, Boleyn’s legitimacy as a royal woman existed alongside a transgressive and racialised sexuality linked into her identity as a foreign-raised noblewoman. In his contemporary account the French diplomat Lancelot de Carles foregrounds Anne’s long service as a maid-of-honour in the French court: ‘her graces grew so that no one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but a native Frenchwoman.’  Anne came to figure in the English imaginary through the particular modes that documented historical French queens, including Katherine of France in Holinshed’s Chronicles; Shakespeare’s Joan La Pucelle and Margaret of Anjou in the three parts of Henry VI; and a few decades later, William Prynne’s Henrietta Maria in Histriomastix: French, spectacularly sexualised, and always power hungry.

A portrait of Anne Boleyn

As Henry VIII’s second wife, Boleyn’s legitimacy as a royal woman existed alongside a transgressive and racialised sexuality linked into her identity as a foreign-raised noblewoman.

The play participates in this process. An observer at Anne’s coronation procession absolves the King from blame for his course of action in divorcing Katharine and desiring Anne:

Our King has all the Indies in his arms,
And more, and richer, when he strains that lady.
I cannot blame his conscience.

Anne (a born Englishwoman) is presented as a racial outsider, in a metaphor that links the performance of masculinity, sexual conquest, settler colonial expansion, material extraction, and the theft of indigenous lands.

In Act 2, Anne discusses her imminent queenship with an irreverent Old Lady, who brushes aside Anne’s hesitations about marrying the king. When Anne persists in asserting that ‘for all the riches under heaven’ she would not be queen, the Old Lady’s retort is:

‘Tis strange: a threepence bowed would hire me,
Old as I am to queen it. But I pray you,
What think you of a duchess? Have you limbs
To bear that load of title?

This short scene is rife with sexual implications: the pun on ‘bowed’ and ‘bawd,’ followed by the double entendre of ‘queen and ‘quean,’ evoke a circuit of sexual transgression and financial profit.

Two actors stand together, one wearing white and cream plain dress, helping the other out of their black gown.

In Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, Anne (a born Englishwoman) is presented as a racial outsider. Henry VIII (2022). Photographer: Marc Brenner

On one level, the Old Lady’s punning badinage mocks white heteropatriarchal denunciation of women’s sexuality. There will be other moments in the play where a foreign queen is posited as central to royal succession and the quality of royal blood. Yet the play on the word quean/queen indexes thinking that was already becoming racialised, equating non-white women with deviant sexuality and unruly reproductive bodies. Fast forward a few decades later, when technologies of subjugation institutionalised settler colonialism and chattel slavery, racialised sexualities would become codified in an ideology of anti-Blackness that rendered Black women’s reproductive bodies as the property of their white enslavers in the Virginia Hereditary Slavery Statute of 1662.

In the queen/quean formulation, then, we have an embodiment of both gendered monarchical power and transgressive racialised sexuality – and in both categories, the reproductive ability of the woman is key. Both seem to find expression in the racial construct of the welfare queen, a damaging idea that first surfaced in the US in the 1960s and remains entrenched in white psyche after Ronald Reagan adopted it as a slogan in the 1980s. Its premise is that a single Black mother defies the rules of white patriarchy, built on Christian heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family. Not only does this gendered and racialised figure con the state, but more damagingly, her sexuality and reproductive agency produces Black children, who are, in turn, also seen as a threat to a capitalist social order. Put differently, the stereotype of the welfare queen vilifies poor Black women by portraying them as exploiting state assistance programs; and most perniciously, as outsiders to the ideal of white heteropatriarchal families; their reproductive bodies as threats to the future of white dominance.

An actor wearing black corset dress, and golden feathered eye mask leans on a golden inflatable, smiling.

There are frequent moments in Henry VIII where a foreign queen is posited as central to royal succession and the quality of royal blood. Henry VIII (2022). Photographer: Helen Murray

Undoubtedly, to say that current systems of difference and configurations of power are identical to those of the premodern past is an oversimplification; however, the historical contextualisation of these tropes allows us to trace multiple tangents and pinpoint their important but erased adjacencies and divergences. Although premodern foreign queens were not subjected to the systematic misogynoir (Moya Bailey’s coined portmanteau) that oppresses Black women, whose ancestral traumas are marked by the tragedy of enslavement, human trafficking, family separation, and forced reproduction, the construct of promiscuous and deceitful queenship provide fertile ground for racist appropriation. Indeed, the linguistic association of queen/queen/welfare queen with an oversexualised, hypervisible, and most importantly, corrupt and corrupting form of gendered bodily sovereignty is hard to miss. Ultimately, the linguistic lineage of quee(a)nship shows how women’s agency, race, and sexuality occupy the same sphere of meaning whereby historical markers of gendered power and racialised sexuality are co-opted to foreclose the humanity of Black women in the present.

Further reading:

Susan Armussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (Blackwell, 1988)

Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Ashgate, 2008)

Yasmine Hachimi, ‘“A beauty not so whitely”: Anne Boleyn and the Optics of Race,’ Race-ing Queens special issue of The Scholar and the Feminist Online, guest edited by Mira ‘Assaf Kafantaris, Treva B. Lindsey, and Sonja Drimmer.

Yasmine Hachimi, “‘I have perused her well’: Popular Culture’s Appropriation and Hypersexualization of Anne Boleyn.” Shakespeare: Between Performance and Appropriation, Edited by Louise Geddes, Kathryn Santos, and Geoffrey Way. (Forthcoming, 2022)

Kim Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Cornell University Press, 1995)

“‘These bastard signs of fair’: Literary whiteness in Shakespeare’s sonnets,” in Post-Colonial Shakespeares, ed. Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin (Routledge, 1998), 64-83

Mira ‘Assaf Kafantaris, Treva B. Lindsey, and Sonja Drimmer, Race-ing Queens. Special Issue of Barnard Center for Research on Women’s The Scholar and Feminist Online, (Forthcoming)

Rebecca Redfern and Joseph T. Hefner, ‘“Officially absent but actually present”: Bioarchaeological evidence for population diversity in London during the Black Death, AD 1348–50,’ Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People, ed. Madeleine L. Mant and Alyson Jaagumägi Holland (Elsevier, 2019), 69–114

‘Bioarchaeological and forensic perspectives on population diversity in the Medieval world: a case-study from London, England,’ in Cultural History of Race in the Renaissance and Early Modern Age (1350-1550), ed. Kimberly Anne Coles and Dorothy Kim (Bloomsbury, forthcoming)

Dorothy E. Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Pantheon Books, 2002)


Henry VIII plays in our Globe Theatre until 21 October 2022 as part of our Summer 2022 season.

Learn more about Henry VIII on one of our pre-show Guided Tours.

Celebrate our 25th anniversary with a special gala performance of Henry VIII on 18 June 2022.

Mira ‘Assaf Kafantaris, Assistant Professor of English at Butler University, joins Writer Hannah Khalil to discuss race and social justice in Henry VIII as part of our series of free online Anti-Racist Shakespeare webinars, on 31 May 2022, 6.00pm. This series is generously sponsored by Cambridge University Press.