- Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism
Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism belongs to a series called Oxford Shakespeare Topics, which aims to provide students and teachers with short books on important aspects of Shakespeare criticism and scholarship. According to the series blurb, “Each book is written by an authority in its field, and combines accessible style with original discussion of its subject.” Race and colonialism have certainly become important Shakespearean topics in recent years and one could not hope for a more authoritative and accessible discussion of them than that provided by Ania Loomba.
An introduction and two substantial chapters deal with general historical questions, though often with reference to a wide range of Shakespeare’s plays; four further chapters focus on Titus Andronicus, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Merchant of Venice, and a conclusion touches briefly on The Tempest. These choices put the emphasis more on Europe and Asia than on the Americas, more on the late sixteenth century than on subsequent appropriations and readings of Shakespeare’s plays, and more on race than on colonialism. In fact, colonialism is less important to the book than gender and religion, both of which, Loomba compellingly argues, are intricately related to matters of race and colour. Loomba’s decisions would in any case have seemed logical enough, but they are triumphantly justified by the resulting text which, while providing an introduction to the topic lucid enough to recommend to an undergraduate readership, still manages to offer a string of original insights. In sum, this book offers a case study of how to write for a wide readership without betraying the complexity of the subject matter.
The first step is obviously to justify a discussion of Shakespeare and race against the argument that the modern meaning of ‘race’ only emerged in the nineteenth century. Here Loomba is clear that there is a history of racial difference, that even today the term ‘race’ doesn’t carry a precise set of meanings, and that in Shakespeare’s time and earlier social divisions were certainly characterized as if they were natural or biological. Throughout she makes an unfashionable but persuasive case for the centrality of skin-colour as an issue, which served to encode wider cultural, religious, and ethnic concerns in ways that certainly connect with matters we now consider under the heading of ‘race’.
Shakespeare emerges from this book as a European writer in the sense that the proper background needed to contextualize his work is that long and complex shift from Old World Christendom to a European secularism. The cultural reference points of the plays are therefore given proper weight within the imaginative geography, which Shakespeare shared with his contemporaries. The nascent British Empire is less important to the argument than those of Rome and Spain, with due emphasis given to the introduction of the Spanish laws concerning purity of blood (“limpieza de sangre”, which unfortunately appears throughout as “limpezia”). These are seen as a crucial turning point in the history of conceptions of race, one inseparable from ideas of religion and lineage. Here, as throughout, Loomba draws knowledgeably on recent scholarship in the area, but is just as likely to make her points through quotations from primary sources.
As always in books dealing with the relationship between literary texts and historical context, the telling words are the verbs, which enact the relationship between the two. Here Shakespeare’s plays “give us a sense” of the opening and closing of the European world (4); they “imagined and debated the idea of an English nation, and thus shaped its very birth” (12); they “raise controversial questions about the social and moral nature of blackness” (37); and they “bear traces of different attitudes to race” (44). More specifically, the elusivity of Jewish difference is “the dynamic encoded in The Merchant of Venice” (141); or, after looking with the help of Leo Africanus at the range of ways in which the figure of the Moor was regarded in the late sixteenth century, “Othello condenses this range of differences into a single individual” (109). After an account of contemporary debates about cross-dressing...