Shakespeare’s Colors: Race And Culture In Elizabethan England

By James Schultz


In the old age black was not counted fair,

Or if it were it bore not beauty’s name;

But now is black beauty’s successive heir,

And beauty slandered with a bastard shame,

For since each hand hath put on nature’s power,

Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,

Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,

But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.

Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,

Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem

At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,

Slandering creation with a false esteem:

Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,

That every tongue says beauty should look so.


Sonnet 127 by William Shakespeare


Were a latter-day sojourner to suddenly stroll the streets of Elizabethan London, not every experience would be a pleasant one. Expect, for instance, to encounter the intense stench of refuse thrown directly onto and rotting in the streets, as well as the overwhelming odor of untreated sewage flowing in open culverts. Bathing, while not unknown, is infrequent, and the majority of those you meet will pay little attention to personal hygiene. With primitive sanitation and high population density, disease is common. Under such conditions, it wouldn’t be difficult to agree with the mid-17th century writings of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who observed that human life is naturally “nasty, brutish and short.”

There would be compensations, however: the beauty and quiet of the countryside, the easy camaraderie of the inn, the vivacity of your fellow travelers. Perhaps, one mid-afternoon, you could even run into William Shakespeare himself. And one thing is certain: Despite your preconceptions, Shakespeare’s London is not simply English and not simply white. For you will inevitably meet people of different nationalities.

“Until now people have assumed that the Elizabethans did not know people of color,” says Shakespeare and English Renaissance scholar Imtiaz Habib, Old Dominion associate professor of English and author of Shakespeare and Race, a book that examines the political, social and cultural impact of Shakespeare’s approach to the racial issues contained within his plays. “We now have documented proof of the residences of black people, which must be reckoned into the colors of Shakespeare’s world, in a very literal sense. Shakespeare knew people of color. He walked through their neighborhoods every day.”

Habib’s research has led to a significantly new understanding of the role of cultural politics in Shakespeare’s time, with close examination of the ways race and colonialism affected, and were affected by, Elizabethan society. For his landmark studies, Habib has received accolades from the Shakespeare Association America, and is one of a handful of experts interviewed by noted documentarian Michael Wood for an upcoming British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) series on Shakespeare.

From the beginning, blacks were not willing European travelers. Habib points out that Elizabethan adventurers John Hawkins, John Lok and Martin Frobisher were among those raiding African coastal villages, kidnapping inhabitants and bringing them back to England in the mid-1550s. Although initially a small population, these involuntary exiles were the forerunners of much larger numbers who would eventually be enslaved in the Caribbean and the American colonies. Initially, Habib concludes in Shakespeare and Race, the transported Africans “existed initially as a miscellaneous assemblage of exotic, personally possessed decorative fetishes and human curiosities, and constituted a totally culturally unrecorded and hence silent and invisible community.”

That invisibility would gradually diminish, as blacks were gradually absorbed into society, given Christian names, acquired skills, and dispersed into roles as, usually, laborers, menial workers, servants, maids and, for the aristocracy, entertainers. Yet because there was no official categorization for race, few other than diarists remarked on that distinction. A visible minority in Shakespeare’s London, blacks attempted to carve out lives for themselves in what must have seemed an often bizarre majority culture in which they found themselves ensconced.

Incorporating Race

Only within the last decade, and owing to the work of several American scholars, including Habib, who examined primary documents of Elizabethan social history, has it been established beyond a doubt that blacks lived in London in the 17th century. In particular, Habib’s ongoing, careful study of parish registries in urban neighborhoods has already furnished conclusive evidence. Because of laws mandating the banishment of papal Catholicism and the establishment of the Church of England, documentation is exhaustive. Some conscientious clerks went beyond what was required, providing personal details, as well as employment and health histories. As Habib points out, the community indicated by the records includes people of different professions and both sexes, and perhaps most interestingly, offers certain glimpses of the kind of tentative social relationships that were being established.

Other supporting evidence comes from private accounts. Habib notes that one diarist, Lady Anne Clifford, mentions her black laundress, Grace. Others note and reflect on the presence of interracial couples and of the offspring such unions produce. Shakespeare himself would incorporate race into at least eight of his plays, examining the inevitable frictions in a way palatable to theatergoers.

“Because I teach and do research both in the English Renaissance and in post-colonial literature and theory, my courses feed into my research and vice versa,” Habib says. “What I’ve discovered, I think changes the contours of existing knowledge on the English Renaissance. What I have tried, and am trying to do, is to use the urgent lessons of the present to correct and supplement the legacies of the past.”

Habib observes that race was then, and remains now, a difficult proposition to advance and expound. What, exactly, constitutes racial differences? Considering the present results of genetic studies, no substantial variations have been discovered that enable humans to be characterized racially. In Shakespeare’s time, Habib writes, “what notions of race the Elizabethans had were hopelessly confused, as they routinely combined Africans with Arabs, [and] Indians [with] south Asians and pre-Columbian Americans ... Indeed ... blacks and Indians were necessarily interchangeable in the Elizabethan popular mind.”

However superficial a role race might play likely didn’t occur to Shakespeare. With a keen eye for human behavior and attentive to detail, Shakespeare must have spent time pondering the differences between cultures as he passed or interacted with blacks in regular sojourns to see friends, visit pubs and attend rehearsals or performances at the theaters showing his plays.

Habib believes that Shakespeare had a very personal, intense sexual experience with a black woman living in London, most probably a prostitute living in an area of northwest London known as Clerkenwell, not far from Shakespeare’s neighborhood of Cripplegate, where he lived in the late 1580s and early 1590s. He could have met and gotten to know her, Habib points out, through his professional theatrical associations, since acquaintances were brothel owners, and prostitution flourished in areas adjacent to the theatrical district.

Shakespeare could well have fallen in love with the woman, but felt it was a relationship that he should not or could not maintain. In any event, Habib believes it was an experience that so affected Shakespeare that he went on to incorporate aspects of it in such plays as “Titus Andronicus,” “Othello,” “The Tempest,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Henry VIII,” “Pericles,” peripherally in “The Merchant of Venice” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and explicitly and extensively in his sonnets.

Domination And Dialogue

More than a troubling romance was on dramatic display, however. Looked at in their entirety, and in political terms, Habib characterizes Shakespeare’s plays as a kind of dialogue between the colonized and the colonizers, demonstrating the ways in which the colonized attempt to resist — but within the “performance of the colonizer’s cultural narrative,” Habib writes; that is, under the majority culture’s own terms.

Habib believes Shakespeare’s black characters struggle between the twin dangers of cultural catalepsy and historical petrifaction; that is, between colonial subjugation and assimilation and anti-/post-colonial resistance. His tormented black characters are, of necessity, at once object and subject, feminized and patriarchal, demonized female and demonic male, victim and oppressor. This split position, Habib asserts, defines an unstable line between the sexualization of race and the racialization of sexuality in the dominant early modern English colonial discourse that both “writes” Shakespeare and is written by him.

Nevertheless, and precisely through this system of control, of English language, history and civic behavior, the black subject, even though others are attempting to dominate him, manages to mitigate somewhat that domination. Blacks resist and, paradoxically, whites come to depend on aspects of that resistance. “In exercising power, the colonizer ironically loses power,” Habib says. “He arrives; his technology is superior. He cannot — and I use the pronoun ‘he’ self-consciously — be stopped. But he can be undermined over time. The actual exercise of power becomes far more difficult; it’s a process that guarantees deterioration.”

By employing race in his plays, Shakespeare may ultimately have performed a great service. On one level, the fates of his black characters affirm cultural imperialism and the unfortunate pattern of one culture dominating and subsuming the other. Look more deeply, though, Habib says, and one will find the beginnings of a turbulent, protracted dialogue, a “difficult negotiation” that continues to this day. Shakespeare’s very depiction of cultural intersection offers hope that apparently intractable difficulties may eventually be resolved.

“I can’t say Shakespeare reached a point of closure and an emancipated, enlightened view of people of color,” Habib says. “He didn’t. But he did put persons of color into European culture, there to remain. And that enriches the cultural discourse.”


Quest January 2002 • Volume 5 Issue 1