- Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England
This book is an elegantly written contribution to the growing body of criticism on race in early modern English literature. Seeking less a wholesale reorientation of race studies in the Renaissance — as recent criticism focusing on early theories of embodiment has asked of us — Iyengar brings her exceptional strengths as a subtle reader of a range of genres to bear on this exchange. She describes her project as one that "attends closely to material contexts and discursive networks" as well as one that seeks to avoid generating "overarching statements of early modern beliefs about skin color and human differences" (7). To the extent that she does this, she modifies postcolonial accounts of race for the period that [End Page 289] describe the period as something of an originary point for modern racialism. Iyengar, by contrast, attempts to work from an open-ended model of history, one that can account for "change and multiplicity" (15). For Iyengar, "loose mythologies of color" only gradually and unevenly become a "systematic mythology of race" (10-11).
Of the three sections that compose the book, I found the first to be both the most rigorous and most provocative. In this section, called "Ethiopian Histories," Iyengar considers how early modern writers refashioned ancient texts entangled in languages of white and black. The first chapter surveys early modern rewritings of Heliodorus's Greek romance Aithiopika. She focuses on how a range of translations, dramatic adaptations, and histories vary in their representations of both Chariclea, the romance's fair-skinned daughter of Ethiopian royalty, and Andromeda, the mythical love-object of Perseus, whose picture provides the occasion for Chariclea's unusual conception. In reading texts that span 1569 to 1640, Iyengar helps us see that skin color is often not the anchor of identification we expect it to be, subordinate in one of the texts she surveys to notions of race as "rank and kinship" (42) and at times coding unfamiliar embodied notions of desire.
A similar set of findings emerges from her exemplary overview of how early modern exegetes and poets translate the heroine of the biblical Song of Songs as alternately "black," "dark," "brown," "comely," or "beautiful." The scholarship on display here is impressive, leading us through the Song's translation in the Geneva, Bishops, and KJV Bibles, through countless commentaries on the Song, and through explications of how the Hebrew itself engenders many of the Song's textual conundrum that critics have read as expressing "melainophobia" (50). By placing discussions of skin color in the context of Reformist debates, Iyengar complicates the notion that white and black translate categorically as good and evil. For Anglican commentators, for instance, a union of these oppositions embodies the ideal. Surprising, too, is her demonstration that whiteness was often used by extreme Protestants to denote the "painted" ceremony of Catholicism. She also shows how blackness was a language that negotiated the shift from an old poetry of narrative form to a new lyric poetry that confidently embraced blackness to denote interpretive richness. Colors, she reveals, often elude the referents that modern racial logic would propound.
The second section of the book, "Whiteness Visible," suspends this more overt engagement with skin color as expressing or defying racial logic and considers how modulations of facial color — specifically, blushing and face-painting — connect with notions of gender and sex difference. Iyengar's skill in contrasting the varying motives of different genres is here on display, where blushing in the hands of moralists describes a mechanism of social control, while the same trope in poetry signals hermeneutic rupture. In further treating the dynamics and technologies of stage blushing, Iyengar covers familiar critical terrain, but with an important difference: she connects the illegibility of painted women with that used to describe blackness.
In the book's final section, "Travail Narratives," Iyengar concludes her survey [End Page 290] of the shifting sands of race in this period by turning...