Shakespeare’s White Others
David Sterling Brown explores the racially white ‘others’ whom Shakespeare creates in characters – figures who are never quite ‘white enough’.
In this extract from Shakespeare’s White Others, David Sterling Brown explores the deconstruction of whiteness in Shakespeare’s plays, arguing that the ‘white other’ was a racialized category already in formation during the Elizabethan era – and also one to which Shakespeare was himself a crucial contributor.
I want to highlight briefly how Macbeth exemplifies several of Shakespeare’s White Others’ concerns in relation to gender, genre, domesticity, mental well-being, anti-Blackness, power, violence and, of course, intraracial tension.
Through the application of my intraracial color line theory and the white other concept, I discovered Macbeth has an interracial couple (beyond what Amy Scott-Douglass refers to), a pairing that always signals racialized conflict in Shakespeare. In this dramatic work, there is “fair and noble hostess” Lady Macbeth (1.6.24), who embodies masculine qualities, and “black Macbeth” (4.3.53), who fails to embody strong white patriarchal masculinity, as his wife complains (1.7.48-62).
“The integration of foulness and fairness, read respectively as synonymous with blackness and whiteness […], illuminate a gray area where whiteness polices blackness to negotiate its own meaning in the absence of Black people.”
The dark, less-than-ideal Macbeths are obvious white others, along with the play’s several murderers and Macdonwald, a Scottish rebel who is killed by Macbeth and does not appear in the play. What these different figures have in common, beyond revealing themselves as uncivilized, violent white people, a woman and men, are their sinful violations of whiteness.
The Macbeths execute the killing of their esteemed domestic guest, King Duncan, and violate hospitality code; Macdonwald, similar to the previously mentioned Robert Devereux, organizes a rebellion against Scotland; and the murderer characters noted in the dramatis personae are responsible for the deaths of Banquo and of Macduff’s family. For their betrayals of whiteness, one can in a sense consider them all “race traitors,” a topic I touch on in the Conclusion, as these characters do not adhere to contemporary standards and expectations of white hegemony.
Moreover, they engage in white-on-white violence. These are a couple of the reasons they appear darker in Figure 1.1, separated from the whiter-looking background figures and blending in color wise with the slaughtered beast on the banquet table that separates the Macbeths from their peers.
With respect to understanding the intraracial color line and the white other, Macbeth’s Three Witches—the “black, and midnight hags”—articulate what I read as a useful theory that underscores the potential for less-than-ideal, uncouth whiteness to exist (4.1.48). At the play’s onset, in unison, they declare: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.11). The integration of foulness and fairness, read respectively as synonymous with blackness and whiteness (synonyms I explore in Chapters 2 and 3), illuminate a gray area where whiteness polices blackness to negotiate its own meaning in the absence of Black people. Like Richard III, who finds himself “so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin” (4.2.64), Macbeth finds himself “in blood / Stepped in so far” by the play’s climax, reminding us on which side of the intraracial color line to situate him at that point (3.4.137-138).
While I will not analyze here everything that makes Macbeth a suitable text to (re)read through the critical lens that defines Shakespeare’s White Others, I must emphasize a key observation: Macbeth’s conflicts make him a fascinating case study because he crosses the intraracial color line and is, like the Romans and Goths in Titus, a convertible white figure. In his case, he begins the play on the right side of the intraracial color line, so to speak, policing villainous whiteness as a respected member of the dominant culture. Eventually, he becomes one who has “black and deep desires,” thus representing the kind of whiteness that needs eradicating, a blackened whiteness that Macduff eventually does destroy (1.4.51).
“Macbeth’s conflicts make him a fascinating case study because he crosses the intraracial color line and is, like the Romans and Goths in Titus, a convertible white figure.”
Unlike Malcolm, whose retained white goodness enables him to erase the “black scruples” from his “soul” (4.3.116-117), Macbeth can do no such thing after killing his King and Macduff’s family because he permanently mars his once presumably good white soul—“what’s done cannot be undone” (5.1.68). As Macbeth and Titus Andronicus demonstrate, through imagination, and through images, the white other becomes.
Through their diminished racial whiteness, the white other becomes metaphorically blackened. As a result, they may even become blackballed or blacklisted… black somehow, somehow black… in ways that perpetuate the casualness of anti-Black racism and that sustain the centuries-old myth of white superiority.
This is an extract from Shakespeare’s White Others by David Sterling Brown. This is available to purchase now from Globe Shop.