Pop quiz: Which of the following Shakespeare works is about race? (A) Hamlet, (B) Othello, (C) Romeo and Juliet, (D) the sonnets. If you answered B, you’re not alone. Many of us have been taught that Othello is Shakespeare’s primary race play, because, of course, it focuses on a Black character. You might also recall that Shakespeare wrote a few other plays with nonwhite characters: the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice, a suitor to the heiress Portia, who begs her, “Mislike me not for my complexion.” Or Cleopatra, the African queen whom Roman soldiers blame for seducing their general, Antony, with her “tawny front.” Or Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, a schemer alternately villainous and compassionate, who asks, “Is black so base a hue?” Or even Caliban, the island native in The Tempest whom Prospero, his enslaver, calls “this thing of darkness.”
These works compose the lineup typically billed as Shakespeare’s race plays. A limitation of that understanding, however, is that it assumes that race applies only when people of color are present. Such a view is definitively rejected in the revelatory new essay collection White People in Shakespeare. It’s cannily edited by Arthur L. Little Jr., a UCLA professor and notable scholar of Shakespeare and race, and even the title is a doozy. White people in Shakespeare? Isn’t that, well, redundant? That reaction is part of Little’s and his fellow essayists’ point: White people have for so long been taken as the universal norm in the Western canon that to name them as white is to engage in critical race study. White People posits that Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and the sonnets are just as much about race as Othello, because they’re all involved in defining whiteness. Shakespeare’s work, the collection argues, was central to the construction of whiteness as a racial category during the Renaissance, and white people, in turn, have used Shakespeare to regulate social hierarchies ever since.
This is not, to be clear, a book that tries to demonize Shakespeare or vilify folks who relish him. The complexity and power of his dramatic verse are givens in these essays. The collection contends, though, that what’s beautiful in Shakespeare—or what Shakespeare’s speakers take as beautiful—is often cast in racial terms. A striking example comes in the first essay of White People, by the late Imtiaz Habib, a founding scholar of race in early modern England. He takes up the opening line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 1,” which implores a handsome young man to reproduce: “From fairest creatures we desire increase.” The key word here is fairest. In Shakespeare’s day, fair could mean physically attractive or morally just. It could also refer to complexion. More influential, it could be used to link attractiveness and justness to whiteness. When the Duke of Venice approves of Othello’s virtue, for instance, he calls him “far more fair than black.” (Is it any coincidence that the answer to the fairy-tale question “Who’s the fairest of them all?” is “Snow White”?) The scholar Kim F. Hall, another contributor to White People, demonstrated the racial valence of fair almost three decades ago in her field-defining study, Things of Darkness—a dynamic work whose implications are still contested. Although I’m in Hall’s camp, not all Shakespeare scholars agree with her ideas. As a result, it’s still common for people to read passages such as those that open “Sonnet 1” without acknowledging that a paraphrase could basically be “We want the whitest people to have more babies.” Habib calls the “Sonnet 1” opening a “declaration of the desirable eugenic privilege of white breeding,” which is the kind of bracing take, both unsettling and compelling, that this collection offers at every turn.
This method of race scholarship often attracts the charge of anachronism—that it’s imposing contemporary categories on the past. That objection tends not to bother me; every era generates its interpretive questions from its own concerns, and an anti-racist approach to Shakespeare is long overdue. On historical grounds, though, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that even if people in the 16th and 17th centuries didn’t use racial categories in quite the same ways we might, they were wrestling with the construction of social hierarchies based on emerging categories of race that went on to shape our world.