Analysing Race in William Shakespeare’s Plays
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Published: Wed, 21 Feb 2018
This dissertation provides a critical discussion of the issues of race in such William Shakespeare’s plays as The Tempest, Titus Andronicus and Othello. Analysing the context, in which these plays are created, and applying to such theoretical tools as the qualitative research method and the social constructionist approach, the research evaluates different perceptions of race through the principal characters of the plays and investigates in depth various critical views. The received results reveal that William Shakespeare interprets the issues of race in a close connection with religious beliefs, politics and social events in Elizabethan period. Although some findings of the research are consistent with the previous studies, other results provide new interpretations and valid data as to the racial issues in Shakespeare’s plays.
The issues of race constitute one of the most important themes in world-wide literature. Although in Elizabethan England the ideas of race were much ignored due to the confusion and lack of knowledge in regard to foreigners, William Shakespeare usually applied to the issues of race and racism in his plays. On the basis of such portrayal, it is clear that people of different races lived in England in those times, and that Shakespeare was aware of the complex relations between English people and foreigners. Through his characters, the dramatist uncovers the negative aspects of Elizabethan social ideologies that created a gap among races, alienating foreigners from other members of English society and contributing to their destruction. However, even today the researchers continue to dispute about the implications of race in Shakespeare’s plays. Some scholars maintain the notion that the differences in religions and cultures aggravated the alienation of various races in England, while other researchers oppose to this viewpoint, claiming that the colour of skin influenced the complex relations between Englishmen and foreigners.
Thus, the issue of race is rather controversial and it should be discussed through religious, cultural, social, political and ethnic contexts in the plays of William Shakespeare. To some extent, such controversy can be explained by the fact that the race has always been utilised to substitute the established social systems for new social hierarchies that reflected their own norms and principles. In this regard, in Elizabethan times people were socially divided into one or another race, taking into account the colour of skin, religious beliefs and cultural traditions of various individuals. Another controversy concerns the origin of the word “race” that usually dates back to 18-19th centuries; therefore, Shakespeare’s researchers prefer to substitute the term “race” for the term “otherness” in their analyses of Shakespeare’s plays. However, such shift from one term to another term is not able to eliminate Shakespeare’s unique interpretation of racial issues in the selected plays.
William Shakespeare wrote many of his plays in Elizabethan period, the era when, contrary to the commonly accepted view, people of various races began to arrive to England. Some recent findings provide valid evidence as to the existence of black people in the 16th-century London. In this regard, the issues of race, to which the dramatist applies in such plays as Titus Andronicus, The Tempest and Othello, provide a new vision on the impact of these races on cultural and social life of English people. At the beginning, black people were taken by force and brought to England as exotic creatures that possessed no rights, but finally they became the members of English society who were called as the Moors. However, such racial integration soon resulted in rather complex tensions among different races, and Shakespeare reflected these relations in his works. As Bernard Harris puts it, “To Elizabethan Londoners the appearance and conduct of the Moors was a spectacle and an outrage, emphasising the nature of the deep difference between themselves and their visitors, between their Queen and this ‘erring Barbarian”1.
Thus, English people could rarely distinguish one race from another race. However, Shakespeare, who took an active part in public life and visited various cultural and public-service institutions, had an opportunity to observe foreigners and attitude of the English towards them, depicting his observations in his literary works. In addition, Margo Hendricks claims that various economic and social changes occurred in England in the middle of the 16th century2. In particular, England established constant relations with Morocco. As a result, various merchants and military people of different races began to arrive to the country and acquire certain positions among the members of English society. All these non-English people, who arrived from Africa, Israel, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and some other places, were called as ‘aliens’ or ‘outsiders’. Despite this integration, many Englishmen revealed racial biases towards these foreigners.
According to Ania Loomba, “Jews, Moors and Christians were never simply religious categories, but variably articulated with nationality, and ethnicity, and often colour”3. Thus, on the one hand, English people accepted foreigners in their country, but, on the other hand, they treated them as outsiders, if these foreigners acquired more power and knowledge in comparison with native citizens. Various violent attacks were initiated by English people against these foreigners; such hostility was intensified by Church that pointed at the poverty of Englishmen as a result of foreigners’ integration into social, political, economical, religious and cultural life of English people. In this regard, English society either rejected these foreigners or forced to assimilate to them, paving the way for racism. This can be explained by the fact that Englishmen were afraid of acquiring culture and traditions of foreigners, as they became engaged in economic relations with them. As Margo Hendricks claims, “Beginning in the middle ages, the English engagement with ‘foreigners’ often functioned on two levels: spiritual and material”4. Although Englishmen realised that they could receive material profits from their interactions with people of different races, they made everything to preserve their superior position. It was in this environment of racial tensions and complex relations that William Shakespeare created such plays as The Tempest, Titus Andronicus and Othello.
The aim of this dissertation is to analyse the representation of race in the selected Shakespeare’s plays on the basis of different perceptions and viewpoints. The research is divided into sections. Chapter 1 presents a statement of the problem that reveals the core of the analysis. Chapter 2 provides a general overview of the issue, observing the context, in which the plays are produced. Chapter 3 offers a survey of the works that have been written on the issues of race in Shakespeare’s plays. Chapter 4 points at the research methods that constitute a theoretical basis for the conducted analysis. Drawing upon earlier findings and evidence, Chapter 5 observes in detail the issues of race in such plays as The Tempest, Titus Andronicus and Othello. Chapter 6 makes a summarisation of the results, while Chapter 7 stresses on the limitations of the dissertation and provides some suggestions for further research.
Due to various controversies and ambiguities that emerge during the analysis of William Shakespeare’s plays, the researchers provide different interpretations of the dramatist’s portrayal of race. For instance, Hunter points at the impact of the existing religious and cultural norms on the attitude of Englishmen towards foreigners in Elizabethan times5. Thus, the researcher considers that Shakespeare’s plays reflect the spirit of that period and relations among various races. Although some viewpoints of Hunter are of considerable interest to understanding of Shakespeare’s presentation of race, his analysis is limited only to the religious explanation of racial differences. Hunter pays no attention to social and cultural changes that occurred in England in the 16-17th century, shaping the relations between Englishmen and foreigners. In his analysis Hunter suggests that Elisabeth had rare contacts with foreigners, but this is not really true, if taken into account her edicts that she issued at the end of the 16th century, according to which foreigners had to be expelled from England. This fact points at Elisabeth’s awareness of foreigners and her fear of them; however, on the other hand, the Queen continued to admit black people to her court and, to some extent, supported the spread of slavery.
More contradictory findings are presented in regard to individual Shakespeare’s plays. Discussing the “moorishness” of Shakespeare’s play Othello, Barbara Everett provides “a challenge to [our] perhaps too simple “African” sense of Othello”6. Everett claims that the dramatist wants to uncover racial tensions in the 16-century England, thus “Othello is, in short, the colour the fiction dictates…the Moor may be quite as much “Spanish” as “African”7. In this regard, Everett applies to the discussion of political, religious and social contexts of Elizabethan period in her interpretation of racial issues. Virginia Mason Vaughn regards Othello’s blackness as the reflection of his otherness, as she states, “The effect of Othello depends… on the essential fact of the hero’s darkness, the visual signifies of his Otherness”8.
While Arthur Little points out that Othello’s tragedy can be explained not only by his different race, but also by his marriage to Desdemona, a white female, and by his jealousy9. Davison goes further in his analysis of Shakespeare’s play, in particular, he suggests that “Othello is not ‘about’ race, or colour, or even jealousy. It dramatises the way actions are directed by attitudes, fears, and delusions that rule the subconscious than by evident facts”10. Analysing Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Curt Breight points out that in this work the dramatist’s portrayal of race reveals colonialism and terror of James I, thus Prospero’s attempt to achieve the superior position over other people is a simple reflection of King’s actions11. Paul Brown expresses the similar opinion in regard to the play, claiming that The Tempest interferes into colonialism, and “this intervention takes the form of a powerful and pleasurable narrative which seeks at once to harmonize disjunction, to transcend irreconcilable contradictions and to mystify the political conditions which demand colonialist discourse”12. Further, Brown points at the fact that Caliban’s rape and assault are explained by his intensified sexuality that was considered to be a characteristic feature of Indians and other races, except white people. Thus, Prospero’s control over Caliban reveals the suppression of Caliban’s sexuality as well.
William Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus has been considered as his most unsuccessful literary work for a long time; however, the inability of researchers to understand this play can be explained by the fact that Titus Andronicus is rather ambiguous and doesn’t conform to a particular classification. Here, Shakespeare interprets the racial issues in their connections with religious beliefs of Romans and provides two-fold vision on morality of both ‘civilised’ people and barbarians. Charles Martindale and Michelle Martindale point at Seneca’s influence on this play, uncovering the dramatist’s utilisation of classical sources and claiming that “Seneca was the closest Shakespeare ever got to Greek tragedy”13. Although all these critical works provide different interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, taken in integrity, they generate rather accurate data.
This dissertation applies to two research methods – a qualitative research method and a social constructionist approach. As crucial theoretical research tools, these methods provide an opportunity to discuss the issues of race in Shakespeare’s plays through various perceptions and viewpoints. The qualitative method is aimed at analysing different interpretations of race, generating valid data that have been rarely mentioned in the earlier studies. According to Taylor, “Interpretation… is an attempt to make sense of an object of study. This object must, therefore, be a text, which in some way is confused, incomplete, cloudy, seemingly contradictory”14. Drawing upon certain qualitative data, the research uncovers controversial arguments in regard to the discussed issue and evaluates cultural and social events in Elizabethan times. The principal sources are taken from various literary texts and critical researches on Shakespeare. The social constructionist approach allows to investigate social, cultural and historical contexts of the period, in which Shakespeare’s plays are created. This approach is especially appropriate for this research, as the term “race” is regarded as a social construction phenomenon. This means that the social constructionist approach challenges the conventional biological interpretation of race, evaluating race through the social perspective. Thus, the method provides a basis for analysing the unity between race and social environment in Elizabethan era.
5.1. The issue of “Moorishness” in Shakespeare’s play Othello
Although many contemporary critics and playwrights make attempts to disregard the issue of race in Shakespeare’s play Othello, the dramatist himself considers this aspect to be crucial for understanding his characters. The principal protagonist Othello belongs to the race of the Moors, and as Everett points out, “moorishness” was a condition that had a meaning, for Shakespeare and his audiences once casually familiar though long lost to us”15.
According to Barbara Everett, the word “Moor” is thought to originate from mauri who lived in Mauritania province in North Africa16, but English people preferred to apply this term to all foreigners who differed from them either in race or religious beliefs. As Emily Bartels claims, the ‘Moor” was usually associated with “similarly ambiguous terms as “African”, “Ethiopian”, “Negro” and even “Indian”17, because the origin of the Moors was rather ambiguous, either the mixture of Berber and Arab or Muslim. In this regard, when Shakespeare calls Othello a Black Moor, he accentuates the blackness of the principal hero, because the Moors were both white and black. By presenting the black character, the dramatist uncovers the existence of racism in the 16-century England and reveals his awareness of the complex relations between black and white people. According to Harris, “When Shakespeare chose, for this audience, to present a Moor as his hero, he was… simply more aware than his contemporaries of the complex pattern made by white and black”18. Othello demonstrates the biases of English people, in general, and Queen Elizabeth, in particular, towards the Moors. For them, black colour of these people symbolised evil and disaster.
Thus, as Margo Hendricks claims, “In the writing of the day, the Moors were described as ‘subtle’, ‘stubborn’, ‘bestial’ and intolerant”19. Othello’s blackness emerges as a result of his relations with other people who reveal certain biases towards this protagonist. Roderigo claims him “a wheeling stranger”20 with thick lips, “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor”21. Iago evaluates Othello through his racial biases, pointing out that jealousy and sexuality are characteristic features of the Moors. As Edward Berry states, Othello’s moorishness “is not only a mark of his physical alienation but a symbol, to which every character in the play, himself included, must respond”22. Brabantio also expresses his negative attitude towards Othello, claiming that he is disappointed with Desdemona who “fall in love with what she fear’d to look on”23. Desdemona herself seems to reveal certain racial biases to the person she loves. Othello’s words admire Desdemona, but she is not physically attracted to him. Such prejudices prevent her from understanding Othello who is obsessed with beauty of Desdemona.
By contrasting black and white, the dramatist simultaneously uncovers the complex relations between two races, revealing that cultural differences may result in tragedy. On the other hand, such shift from whiteness to blackness or vice versa reflects the elements of racial attitude of Venetian people towards Othello. This can be explained by the fact that the Queen was obsessed with white colour, proclaiming it as a colour of goodness and virginity, while black colour was considered as a colour of evil and dirt. Such attitude resulted in the creation of the complex racial tensions between Englishmen and black people. For instance, almost all characters of Shakespeare’s play avoid calling Othello by name; instead they constantly address him as the ‘Moor’, implicitly rejecting him as the member of their society. Thus, Othello is treated as an object because of the racial differences between him and other members of Venetian society. This viewpoint can be explained by the social constructionist approach, according to which society initially establishes some norms and principles, and further it applies these rules towards certain personalities.
Othello makes constant attempts to integrate into this society, but it turns away from him. Despite the fact that he possesses some values and the rank of a general, society is not able to overcome its racial prejudices. As Everett puts it, “Othello is almost any ‘colour’ one pleases, so long as it permits his easier isolation and destruction by his enemies and by himself”24. In this regard, interpreting the racial issues of the play, Everett points at political and social situations in the country in the 16th century. In particular, moorishness of Othello may reveal his position as a foreigner, a person who differs from the rest of population and who is regarded as a damnable creature. According to Hunter, Elizabethan’s “awareness of foreigners was closely conditioned by a traditional religious outlook on the world”25. Therefore, the attempts were made to reduce the position of these people in society. In fact, Othello excels many respectable members of society, and he sincerely believes in the beginning that “My parts, my title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly”26. But racial prejudices appear too powerful, destroying Othello’s intentions to achieve an appropriate place.
Iago is the first person who rises against Othello, trying to prove that such people are dangerous for the existing social norms. As he claims to Desdemona’s father, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe”27. As a result, Brabantio’s initial attitude towards Othello is greatly changed under such racist words. He tries to prove that Othello has utilised some spell to make his daughter marry him. Such action reveals that in those times the Moors were regarded as people engaged in mysterious and awful affairs. Thus, the only reason for Brabantio’s accusation is Othello’s blackness. Although Othello seems to initially win the respect of Brabantio, Desdemona and some other people by protecting Venice society from Turks’ invasion, such racial prejudices do not allow them to accept Othello as equal to them. Despite the fact that they admire his courage and romantic nature, they are unable to admire him when society reveals its rejection towards Othello.
As a result, racism, inspired by Iago, destroys both Othello and Desdemona. Their racial differences appear too powerful and they prevent these characters from understanding each other. In this regard, Shakespeare seems to oppose to the existing social system and ideologies that are based on the principles of superiority. Othello, who is only racially different from other members of society, is regarded as inferior to them, and it is racism of these people that causes the character’s destruction. The ideologies of Elizabethan England were aimed at establishing such social norms that regarded other races as inhuman. Othello’s alienation occurs because of these social standards that shape the attitude of society towards certain individuals. The qualitative research method demonstrates that a literary text usually reflects cultural and social contexts of a certain period28; this is just the case with Shakespeare’s play, in which the dramatist portrays his characters of different races through specific contexts. Shakespeare reveals that, on the one hand, Othello’s military achievements allow him to socialise with the members of the upper class, but, on the other hand, the character’s blackness deprives him of the possibility to belong to this society. Such racial attitude of people negatively influences Othello who starts to experience uncertainty about his social stand.
This uncertainty is aggravated when he decides to marry a white female who belongs to the upper class. Gradually, Othello becomes obsessed with jealousy and doubts and acts like a real animal, forgetting his noble manners. Therefore, racism gradually destroys the protagonist and reveals the hate of such people as Iago to people of other races. Iago makes everything to alienate Othello from Desdemona, Brabantio and other members of the upper class, changing people’s attitude towards Othello with his racist words. Although at the beginning of the play, Iago’s wife Emilia doesn’t express her attitude to Othello, she explicitly reveals her racist views after Desdemona’s murder when she claims: “O, the more angel she, / And you the blacker devil!”29. Further Emilia calls Othello “as ignorant as dirt”30; this comparison allows Shakespeare to show the attitude of white people towards the black race. Like Othello, dirt is black, and dirt is thrown away, because it is nasty. Many people in Shakespeare’s play have the similar opinion of Othello, alienating from him and implicitly revealing their xenophobic nature. They even provide Othello with hot temper and increased sexuality. To some extent, such viewpoint is explained by the fact that Englishmen identified black people with the son of Noah who was punished for seeing his father naked and with Islamic religious traditions of polygamy. In this regard, William Shakespeare manages to realistically portray society of his time that rejects any person who belongs to a different race or adheres to different religious beliefs.
5.2. Racism and social domination in The Tempest
Although Caliban, the character of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, is not really black, he also experiences alienation because of his race. His mother comes from North Africa and is considered of Berber origin, that’s why many white people, who appear on the Caribbean island, express racial attitude towards Caliban. As a result, this protagonist is usually regarded as a devil and inferior to other characters. For instance, Prospero teaches Caliban the ways to live in the island; however, then he starts to treat Caliban as a “poisonous slave [and] devil”31, considering this vulgar barbarian as a threat to Miranda.
In this regard, Prospero implicitly reveals the existing stereotypes of the 16th-century when people with black colour of skin were thought to possess intensified sexuality, thus marriages between a black male and a white female were rarely accepted in European society. It is clear that such notion is greatly exaggerated, but Christian laws and moral principles of those times were rather strict, opposing to each display of otherness. Due to the fact that Caliban’s origin is not clearly identified in the play, the character falls under the category of “otherness”, performing a subordinate role throughout Shakespeare’s narration.
On the other hand, Caliban is important to Prospero who mentions to Miranda that they “cannot miss him. He does make our fire, / Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices / That profit us”32. These words prove that colonisation initiated by English people and utilisation of black population for their own benefits were crucial for England. Colonisation allowed the country to overcome many economic difficulties, such as unemployment and hunger, increasing England’s power among other European countries. Therefore, English colonisers utilised various measures to control these black people; however, Shakespeare reveals that Caliban doesn’t want to accept such treatment, he considers himself as the original owner of this place. Before the arrival of Prospero and Miranda to the island, Caliban is really perceived as a king, but the attempt of Prospero to civilise Caliban transforms the character into a slave. As Caliban states, “Thou strokst me and make much of me… / and then I lov’d thee, / And show’d thee all the qualities o’th’isle… / For I am all the subjects you have, which first was mine own king”33. Prospero makes an attempt to create a hierarchical structure in the island, according to which people are divided into superior and inferior on the basis of their race and position. Such behaviour of Prospero proves that the involvement of English people in slavery began in the middle of the 16th century when Englishmen realised the benefits of slavery, failing to understand the negative impact of this superiority on black people. For instance, finding himself in close relations with white people, Caliban starts to feel alienation in the place he lives.
According to Ric Allsopp, Prospero’s dominance over Caliban reveals the social structure that existed in England in that period and that deprived foreigners of the possibility to lead normal lives under racial prejudices34. Colonisation of the island aggravates these biases and provides Prospero with an opportunity to receive power over the islanders. As MacDonald puts it, “representations of racial identity and difference, similarly matter and show in early modern English literature, [are] itself the product of an age of slavery and colonial displacement”35. By applying to such claims as “Providence Divine”36, Prospero implicitly points at the fact that he has a control over the island and its inhabitants37. However, Caliban states that it is his mother who controlled the island and further transferred this right to Caliban. In this regard, Prospero, utilising various magic tricks, takes a control over the islanders by brute force, putting its inhabitants into positions of slaves38. In order to avert people’s attention from this control, Prospero claims that Caliban has tried to rape his daughter, simultaneously revealing the stereotypic vision on barbarians.
But some critics consider this accusation as Prospero’s attempt to conceal his violent actions in regard to Caliban and other native people39. Thus, it is no wonder that Caliban rises against Prospero and his control; however, finally Prospero suppresses this assault, proving that white people are superior and more powerful than people of other races. Society is considered to exist on the basis of two ways of interaction: subjugation and mutual interchange of profits. In the case of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the relations between two races are based on subjugation that allows Prospero, as the member of a more powerful racial group, to enslave Caliban and other native inhabitants and utilise them for his own benefits. As a result, a race of white people appears in a more advantageous position than a race of the colonised black people. It is clear that their relations are not based on mutual interchange, that’s why the members of the second group are deprived of their freedom, former life and cultural roots.
However, by the end of the play Prospero realises that on a long-term basis such kind of relations can result in many negative consequences for both interacted groups. Therefore, despite the fact that Caliban usually acts as a barbarian black savage, Shakespeare reveals that, to some extent, Caliban’s actions are justified. When white people arrive to the island, where he lives and where he is thought to be a king, and deprive him of his rights and freedom, he rises against such subordinate position. Caliban, who collides with another culture and another race for the first time, is unable to understand the difference between these white people and native inhabitants. But for Prospero the difference is obvious; Prospero, Trinculo and other white people regard Caliban as a monster, and Trinculo even thinks of taking this beast to England and demonstrating him in specific shows. These shows were rather popular and beneficial for the country’s economy in the 16th century, as people of different races, mainly Indians or the Moors, were shown to English audience for a certain fee. As Caliban understands that Prospero transforms him into a slave, he opposes him by claiming: “I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island”40.
As Prospero makes an attempt to civilise Caliban, his major aim is to suppress Caliban’s nature and make the character serve him. Such dominance over wild inhabitants reflects the attitude of Europeans towards these people of different race. This attitude is especially obvious from the following words of Miranda, Prospero’s daughter: “Thy vile race – / Though thou didst learn – had that in’t which good natures / Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou / Deservedly confined into this rock, / Who hadst deserved more than a prison”41. Such judgement reveals serious racial prejudices; it is clear that Caliban is not able to withstand such attitude, and his rape of Miranda and his assault against Prospero are direct consequences of this racist treatment. However, Prospero manages to stifle a rebellion and change his attitude towards these black people. He leaves the island and releases Caliban. Such actions reveal Shakespeare’s views on colonisation and race; the dramatist proves that the relations among different races should be based on mutual benefits and freedom.
But if one race suppresses another race, this suppression will finally result in the destruction of both races. Despite the fact that Caliban acquires the language and manners of the colonisers, they do not change his nature, because racial attitude, suppression and enslavement deprive Caliban of adopting these norms. Simultaneously, these actions deprive Prospero of establishing good relations with native inhabitants, instead inspiring hatred in them. But as Prospero provides freedom to Caliban, he also achieves inner freedom and understanding of other people.
5.3. Interpretation of race in Titus Andronicus
Similar to Othello, Aaron, one of the characters of Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, also belongs to the race of the Moors and is portrayed as a black person. But, unlike Othello, this protagonist confirms to the stereotypic representation of a black villain who claims that “If one good deed in all my life I did / I do repent it to my very soul”42. Being the lover of Queen of the Goths, Aaron manages to ruin the Andronicii, as well as Titus Andronicus. Like Othello, he is also regarded as a devil, a symbol of evil and destruction. However, Aaron differs from Othello in many ways; above all, Aaron, this “barbarous Moor”43, applies to various actions and tricks in order to intensify his social position. But as Bartels puts it, although “Aaron has the freedom and ability to manipulate and maneuver close to the court circle, he is still an underlying servant with no possible avenue for advancement”44. Aaron himself understands that his appearance and race are serious obstacles to his acceptance in society, that’s why he wants to seclude himself from others and to “bring [his son] up / To be a warrior and command a camp”45. As a result, Aaron’s son manages to survive, while Aaron is murdered by Lucious, because Aaron is considered to be an absolute evil that deserves death. In this regard, Othello appears to perform a certain role in society, while Aaron’s position comes to simple adjustment to the existing environment. Therefore, contrary to Othello, the Moors in this play are presented as false and unfaithful. Both Aaron and his Moor lover deceive Titus and make him apply to cruelty in regard to his own family.
But the charac
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