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date: 07 August 2020

(p. 151) Race and Ethnicity in Local and Transnational Contexts

In an effort to hone in on the specific mechanisms by which race, ethnicity, and racialism are constructed in the early modern period, the six essays included in this section roam across disparate discourses, from botany to theology; they consider plays long understood to be ‘about’ race and those for which race has not been considered relevant. Each of the contributors acknowledges the differences and similarities of early modern understandings of race to those of modern racism, but pursues that complexity from a different set of questions and methodological frameworks. As a group, they offer critical orientations focused on the local and the national, on the one hand, and the global and transnational, on the other.

Responding to Ania Loomba’s call to ‘adopt a complex understanding of the relationships between the so-called social and the so-called biological discourses that are marshalled by racist discourse and practice’, M. Lindsay Kaplan proposes that medieval theology’s concept of Jewish servitude as both spiritual and physical condition offers one valuable avenue of approach. Tracing articulations of a divinely imposed, hereditary, somatic Jewish inferiority across scriptural and patristic texts, Kaplan exposes their efforts (p. 152) ‘to construct a physical barrier capable of preventing the spiritual transformation and degradation of Christian into Jew’. What began as a theology of Jewish spiritual inferiority comes to mark the Jewish (male) body as inherently subordinate to the Christian (male) body. It is when Shylock attempts to rule over Christians from a place of authority that the play defensively traffics in the inferiority of the Jewish body. And yet, Shylock’s powerful counter-discourse takes effective aim at precisely such notions, representing subordination and servitude as socially constructed (and sometimes self-knowing) performances. Moreover, Portia’s recourse to secular law rather than religion, Kaplan argues, ‘indicates the play’s rejection’ of the theological foundation of inherited physical inferiority.

That religious, ethnic, and racial differences solicit efforts to secure both legibility and subjugation through material signs is also the focus of the next two essays. Focusing on the early modern ‘theatre of racial impersonation’, Ian Smith’s analysis of a liveried form of blackface utilizes The Merchant of Venice as ‘internal evidence of a literary kind’ to supplement evidence gleaned from royal masques regarding the material embodiment of race in early modern performance. His analysis of performers’ use of ‘two of the most consistently documented early modern materials of racial impersonation: cloth and animal skins’ to prosthetically materialize blackness expands the archive of racial technologies while providing a novel reading of Morocco as a ‘prosthetic man’ whose skin is literally a ‘shadowed livery’. Smith’s reading and its attendant historicizing of the ‘materials, methods, and techniques of performing blackness’ opens onto ‘a cultural collective to which membership is granted or denied on the basis of skin colour’. At stake in the material history of blackface is a broader historical analysis of ‘the conceptual and commercial conditions for the emergence of a dehumanized subjectivity whereby black bodies are construed as material objects’.

The idea of an indelible physical mark capable of denoting an incontrovertible subjugating difference lies at the centre of Patricia Akhimie’s exploration of racialism in The Comedy of Errors. Akhimie is particularly motivated by the idea that ‘ “race” is just one name for what was in fact a highly adaptive and varied system of social differentiation, the forms and features of which remained in constant flux throughout the early modern period’. Given this flexibility, she reads ‘not for race, precisely, but for the physical and epistemological violence that racial ideology effects’. The bodily mark that serves as ‘evidence of pain or oppression that is justified in the eyes of a society’ is the ‘bruise’—named first by Adriana in a gendered complaint about the sexual double standard, but literally embodied in the beaten flesh of the play’s two slaves, Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse. The horrors of mistaken identity experienced by these slaves reveal ‘the ease with which individuals may be grouped with others who merely share the same somatic markers, and the ease with which somatic markers may be stigmatized’. But these processes are, significantly, present as well in the differential experiences of privilege and dispossession experienced by their masters. Reading for both oppression and privilege, Akhimie explores how the multiplications of identity in the play make visible ‘the suffering the system causes to anyone for whom meaning has attached to their body without their consent or knowledge’. Indeed, she demonstrates the means by which race is constructed through ongoing processes, as well as ‘communal work that produces and adjudicates its material signs’. Tracking such evidence allows us to see ‘the strangely uncharted sideways move in the logic of racialism, the shift from understanding race as a kinship relation to understanding race as a distinction between large populations that share physical traits’.

Continuing to shift the focus to plays that have had little uptake in readings of race, the next two essays challenge critical paradigms based on an exclusive consideration of (p. 153) England’s ‘others’. Like Akhimie, they expand understanding of the manifold ways race and racialism were defined, reproduced, and supported by reading plays populated with characters whose race is not obviously marked. For Bartels, one of the most salient aspects of the racial system has to do with how, even for certain ‘white’ characters, ‘race does not always go without saying’; this observation draws analytic attention ‘to what is not being said and by whom’. Hamlet’s performative proclamation, ‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane!’, implies that race is

… not something Hamlet has or is, once and for all, but something he must assert, in a particular instance for a particular, if not always decipherable, cause. Race, that is, seems to be circumstantially inscribed not essentially given—a matter not of body or bloodline, the potential provenance of women, but of voice, predominantly the provenance of men.

It matters that Hamlet’s self-identification is voiced over the corpse of Ophelia; here, ‘gender meets race’ in ways that enforce gender asymmetries of power and privilege: ‘There seems to be a notable disconnect between the representation of men who have or get race through women, and women who, though they give race, don’t get it, at least not in the same way.’ The foreclosing of Ophelia’s role in reproductive marriage colludes with the ‘racial future’ of the Danish state when it is handed over to Norway, thereby demonstrating that reproduction is both a racial technology and its deconstruction: ‘the female body, in its reproductive capacity, carries the promise of the future and disturbs the fantasy that race is not of woman born; without that body, there can be no more race—no more tribe, nation, or people’.

A contrasting approach to racialism and reproduction informs Jean E. Feerick’s assertion of a ‘green logic’ to explore how racial futures depend on the hybridity celebrated in the horticultural technique of grafting. Her analysis of grafting as one of the vocabularies that early modern writers drew upon to describe the ‘benefits of conjoining unlike bodies’ challenges the view that it is only a discourse of purity that governed early modern concepts of race. Tracing the fate of the grafted scion in Henry V and Cymbeline, she considers how imperial conquest and expansion depended on ‘strategically combining with’ a colonized population … ‘to form a stronger and more resilient racial hybrid’. Appreciation for the possibilities of the graft, however, is linked in these plays to their assimilation of comic form; in other plays, the mixing of peoples across boundaries of nation, race, and social status more often leads to tragedy.

Bartels’s insistence on the specificity of Denmark registers the impact of a transnational optic on studies of early modern race. Ania Loomba’s perspective on empire explores how England’s encounters with the peoples of Asia, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Arab-Muslim world, and the New World open scrutiny to the pervasive implication of sexuality and gender in racial ideologies. Observing that early modern scholars still tend to consider gender and sexuality separately from race and histories of global contact and noting that ‘ “sex” was sometimes … used in the sense of a species, or race, or nation or religious group’, Loomba suggests that the ‘overlap in these concept-categories’ might direct attention to how ‘every category of social analysis bleeds into another’. Examining writings that link the physical attributes of the black body to inner qualities of religious faith and morality, she shows that these texts ‘illuminate the organic intermeshing of the vocabularies of race with those of gender and sexuality’, often by the explicit comparison of racial attributes to sexual behaviours. (p. 154)