Shakespeare and race: A personal story.

How racist and colonialist ideas in the past are inextricable from how they continue to shape our cultures now.

Alls Well in Gujarati
All’s Well That Ends Well performed in Gujarati by Arpana Theatre Company, part of Globe to Globe Festival, Globe Theatre, 2012. Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

When I arrived in Britain in the winter of 1983, I began to inhabit a body that was marked as visibly different from most others around me. For the first time in my life I was forced to think about race in the most intimate of ways. In India, gender and class were central to my experience of social relations, but the question of race seemed distanced by time, relevant only to an older colonial history, or by geography, and pertinent only elsewhere.

Life in Britain taught me new lessons about how these issues could not be demarcated from one another. At the immigration desk, the young white officer asked me what I intended to study during my PhD. When I said ‘Shakespeare’ he made no attempt to disguise his sneer. Shakespeare was white patrimony. He asked me to narrate the plots of some plays, and it gave me a perverse satisfaction to choose Titus Andronicus and linger over its gruesome details. He could barely contain both his incredulity and disgust as he cut me short and waved me on. Within a few weeks, I had been harassed by skinheads on a late-night train from London to Brighton, hailed by them as ‘Paki’. Soon after, a Sri Lankan friend auditioned for the role of Othello in a campus production. He told me how the white actress playing Desdemona flinched every time he touched her. This jolted me: feminist criticism of Othello was simply blind to questions of race; it concentrated on the misogyny that shapes the narrative, but ignored the racism that engenders it. I began to understand in the most personal of ways why the dissertation I had come to write had to be rethought, and why I could not write about disorderly women in the Renaissance, as I had planned to do, without talking about racial ideologies as well as colonialism. Then and forever after, racist and colonialist ideas in the past became inextricable from how they continued to shape our cultures now.


André Holland (Othello) and Jessica Warbeck (Desdemona) in Othello, Globe Theatre, 2018. Photo credits: Simon Annand

In the book that came out of my dissertation, Gender, Race, Renaissance drama (1989), I noted that while dominant Anglo-American criticism was at pains to prove that Othello (whose colour is explicitly discussed in the play) was not a black man, there was no real debate about Caliban’s colour (which is not mentioned in the play) though he was frequently depicted as dark-skinned on the stage. Because Othello was noble and heroic, he could not possibly be black, argued the critics. Even if black, surely he could not be “negroid” — there were many types of blacks, and some were more beautiful and noble than others. On the other hand, while Shakespeare does not tell us anything about Caliban’s skin colour, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Caliban’s blackness was taken for granted, both by his champions and by those who read him as a monster, because colonial history had made blackness synonymous with bondage and inferiority. I came to conclusion that whether or not he was literally dark-skinned, Caliban’s “political colour” was black. I was using a term that circulated in anti-racist organising in Britain at the time; as one organiser recollects, “we were more inclusive (than Black organisations in the US). Black was defined in political terms. Asian and African.”

The Tempest
Sam Cox and James Garnon in The Tempest, Globe Theatre, 2013. Photography by Marc Brenner

I was both wrong and right in interpreting Othello and Caliban as analogous. In Shakespeare’s England, a variety of non-white and non-European bodies were represented in travelogues, religious tradition, paintings, medical books, literature, and on stage. Often the early texts were quite specific about their locations, habits, bodies, and social organisations.

If we do not attend to this diversity, we cannot grasp the formation of racial ideologies of the time. English writings about the New World generate a view of non-Europeans as culturally naked, illiterate, uncivilised, as subjects who ‘cannot speak.’

This view was, at one period, generalised as encapsulating the truth of all English encounters with non-Europeans, but it severely distorts, because it ignores, the dynamics of English contact with people in Ottoman Turkey, Morocco, India, Java or other places in the East. The English were not in a position to colonise these people and were desperate to trade with them, even as they could — and that is an important difference — visualise their empire in the Americas. Thus, they could see Eastern peoples in all sorts of negative ways, but they could hardly visualise them as children in need of saving.

However, what complicates the picture further is the fact that despite being attentive to their differences, the books Shakespeare was reading could also represent all non-Europeans in similar or overlapping ways — thus dark skinned and “rude” “men of Inde” inhabited the Americas as well as India and Africa, people in all these places had different gender and sexual habits from Europeans, and Muslims as well as blacks could threaten the civility of Europe. To decode the meaning of such overlaps and differences is not easy. Yes, the same Europeans often traveled to different places and thus, in a comparative mode, often interpreted one set of “natives” in the light of others, or they relied on older accounts that generated some travelling stereotypes. But we can also trace the emergence of larger racial typologies in the period, which depended as much on erasing particular differences among non-Europeans as on amplifying some of them.

Shakespeare’s plays allow us to trace these patterns. His Othello is a figure who is a Moor in all the different senses of the term — various characters in the play (including himself) harp upon his ‘sooty bosom’ and his ‘thick lips’; recalling age-old stereotypes of black people, and they call him ‘a devil’, ‘old black ram’, and ‘a Barbary horse’, all images which attached to sub-Saharan Africans. At the same time, the ‘lascivious Moor’ with his ‘sword of Spain’ also evokes the image of the ‘turbaned Turk’ (the Ottoman enemy that threatened Europe at the time) to whom he compares himself at the end of the play. More than any other play of the time, Othello shows us that skin colour, religion, and geographical origin were often contradictorily yoked together in Renaissance pictures of racial others.

For instance, the figure of Caliban evokes still other histories. He is quite different from the eloquent and high-born Othello — Prospero claims he is a language-less savage who did not even know his own the meaning of his own sounds (or “gabble”) until Prospero and Miranda taught him how to speak. As is the case with Othello, his portrayal also does not neatly indicate any one location but combines images of new world peoples, Africans, the Irish, and English serfs. And different as they are, Othello and Caliban are both understood to be sexual threats to white women, albeit in very different ways. In my own writing, by collapsing the differences between Othello and Caliban, I had simultaneously downplayed the complex and varied histories of race in the early modern period, but had in fact correctly delineated their shared terrain.

It might well have been my move to the United States, where, despite its ideology of the ‘melting pot’, tensions between Blacks, Asians, Africans and people of Arab descent made collective organising hard, that made me more sensitive to these differences in the earlier period I studied. As I showed in my next book on this subject, Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism, Shakespeare’s plays allow us to explore the differences and overlaps between various racialised figures. For example, he uses the word ‘gabardine’ in relation to both Shylock (1.3. 111) and Caliban (2.2.37). Each usage indicates the specific histories of clothing as a marker of Jewish or Irish difference, but their overlap also indicates that the theatre often took liberties with these specific histories. Characters such as Caliban, Aaron, Othello, Cleopatra or Shylock unfold different elements of racism.

Jonathan Pryce

Jonathan Pryce in The Merchant of Venice, 2015. Photographed by Manuel Harlan.

Shakespeare’s plays and other writings of his time show us, as indeed out own world does, that racist ideologies can pick up on somebody’s skin colour, body shape, religion, cultural difference, or geographical origins to mark them as permanently different or inferior. Thus, as in Shakespeare’s day, in our world Muslims, Jews, Blacks, Dalits (or lower-castes), Asians and many other peoples, depending upon the context, are the targets of violence and hate. Today, with Donald Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, Narendra Modi in India, and the rise of right-wing fundamentalisms everywhere, it is more important than ever to understand both the spectrum along which racism works, its different histories, and its destructive power. ♦️

Professor Ania Loomba is the Catherine Bryson Professor of English at Penn Arts & Sciences, University of Pennsylvania.