- Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World by Patricia Akhimie
Recent work in Shakespearean drama has analyzed Shakespeare's critique of early modern discourses of race. Brendan Kane and Malcolm Smuts's "Politics of Race in England, Scotland, and Ireland" in The Oxford Handbook of the Age of Shakespeare (2016); Gary Taylor and Terri Bourus's introduction to The New Oxford Shakespeare (2016); and Jyotsna Singh's Shakespeare and Postcolonial Theory (2019) most prominently display this critical trend. Patricia Akhimie's Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World advances this critical conversation, and it is the first study to consider the intersecting discourses of race and conduct in the early modern era.
Four of this book's five chapters demonstrate how select Shakespeare plays critique an early modern ideology of cultivation—a philosophy of "class racism" (25) based on the stigmatization of somatic markers, such as skin color (Othello), bruises (The Comedy of Errors), hard-handedness (A Midsummer Night's Dream), and pinches (The Tempest). In each chapter, Akhimie establishes the relationship between one form of conduct literature and a dramatic play, arguing that "these pairings make visible the operations of the ideology of cultivation, the ways in which it produced not only perceived differences in behavior but also stigmatized somatic difference" (32).
The first chapter considers ars apodemica (art of travel) treatises and Othello, maintaining that the play critiques a system of meritocracy that promises its participants advancement through self-cultivation, travel, and merit, but simultaneously stigmatizes somatic markers, such as black skin. Iago's revenge plot reveals the meanings of marks as communally constructed and arbitrary, not innate, and he exposes and critiques an ideology of cultivation that connects good conduct with advancement (73). This is the only chapter that considers the process of marking itself, demonstrating how it begins before the subject is observed (64). This chapter also most directly contributes to Akhimie's "antiracist project" (10) in recognizing the pain and violence that racism causes. [End Page 297]
Turning to Shakespearean comedy, Akhimie next expands on previous work (particularly her essay, "Bruised with Adversity: Reading Race in The Comedy of Errors," in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, and Race ) by reading domestic manuals alongside The Comedy of Errors. She contends that the play reveals "the flawed logic of a system of racial differentiation, illustrating the process by which large numbers of people may be grouped together solely on the basis of shared somatic markers, and made subject to the sweeping generalizations of racial prejudice" (85). Focusing on the marker of the bruise, Akhimie's readings of domestic manuals address the use of harsh corporal punishment to admonish servants. As servants, or slaves, Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse are subject to this type of punishment, which marks their bodies as servile and "inferior" (86). Akhimie makes this point in her earlier work, but her new discussion of the domestic manuals illuminates how some ambiguous relationships between servants and masters in early modern England were intended to reflect "innate or hereditary inferiority" (88). In chapter 3, Akhimie analyzes hunting manuals and A Midsummer Night's Dream, contending that "Bottom and the other 'hard-handed' mechanicals of Athens are ... marked as lacking the intellectual rigor required either to desire or to appreciate mental recreation," differentiating them from the ruling elites for whom leisure is a performance of power (34). For Akhimie, the mechanicals' "'hard-handedness' is a somatic marker that naturalizes, and thus racializes, the exclusion of a working-class group" (118), signifying social immobility and suggesting an incapacity for self-improvement. Although hard-handedness appears on the body after birth, Akhimie associates it with racial prejudice when those who are hardened by labor are assumed to lack capacity of mind (135). Her analyses shed light on some of the troubling aspects of these otherwise lighthearted comedies.
Chapter 4 looks closely at early modern...