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A white woman lies in bed as a Black man stands near her.
A scene from Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello.’ Universal History Archive/ Getty Images

What Shakespeare can teach us about racism

William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy “Othello” is often the first play that comes to mind when people think of Shakespeare and race. And if not “Othello,” then folks usually name “The Merchant of Venice,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “The Tempest,” or his first – and bloodiest – tragedy, “Titus Andronicus,” my favorite Shakespeare play.

Among Shakespeare scholars, those five works are known as his traditionally understood “race plays” and include characters who are Black like Othello, Jewish like Shylock, Indigenous like Caliban, or Black African like Cleopatra.

But what did Shakespeare have to say about race in plays such as “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” where Black characters do not have a dominant role, for example?

As Shakespeare scholars who study race know, all of his plays address race in some way. How could they not?

After all, every human being has a racial identity, much like every living human being breathes. Said another way, every character Shakespeare breathed life into has a racial identity, from Hamlet to Hippolyta.

The playwright wrote about many key subjects during the late 15th and early 16th centuries that are relevant today, including gender, addiction, sexuality, mental health, social psychology, sexual violence, antisemitism, sexism and, of course, race.

In my book “Shakespeare’s White Others,” I explore the intraracial divisions that Shakespeare illustrates in all his plays.

Here are four things to know about Shakespeare and race.

1. No one should fear Shakespeare

For a long time, I was afraid of Shakespeare. I am not the only one.

In his 1964 essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” James Baldwin detailed his initial resistance. Like many people today, Baldwin wrote that he, too, was “a victim of that loveless education which causes so many schoolboys to detest Shakespeare.”

A major part of Baldwin’s loathing of Shakespeare had nothing to do with the English writer specifically, but rather the white elitism that surrounded his work and literature.

But as Baldwin eventually realized, Shakespeare was not the “author of his oppression.”

Just as Shakespeare didn’t create misogyny and sexism, he didn’t create race and racism. Rather, he observed the complex realities of the world around him, and through his plays he articulated an underlying hope for a more just world.

2. Shakespeare’s work reveals social injustice

Titus Andronicus” featured the playwright’s first Black character, Aaron. In that play, written near the end of the 16th century, the white Roman empress, Tamora, cheats on her white emperor husband, Saturninus, with Aaron. When Tamora eventually gives birth to a baby, it’s clear Tamora’s baby daddy isn’t Saturninus.

Consequently, the white characters who know about the infant’s real father urge Aaron to kill his newborn Black son. But Aaron refuses. He opts instead to fiercely protect his beloved child.

A white man with a sword is chasing a person covered in cloth carrying a baby.
Vintage engraving of a scene from Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus.’ Getty Images

Amid all the drama that occurs around the child’s existence, Shakespeare momentarily offers a beautiful defense of Blackness in the play’s fourth act.

“Is black so base a hue?” Aaron initially asks before challenging the cultural norm. “Coal-black is better than another hue, in that it scorns to bear another hue.”

In other words, at least to Aaron, being Black was beautiful, Blackness exuded strength.

Such words about the Black identity are not uttered elsewhere in Shakespeare’s plays – not even by the more popular Othello.

3. The power of whiteness

In plays such as “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet,” race still figures in the drama even when there are no dominant Black characters.

Shakespeare does this by illustrating the formation and maintenance of the white identity. In a sense, Shakespeare details the nuances of race through his characters’ racial similarities, thus making racial whiteness very visible.

A book is opened to a page with an image of a white man and a note to the readers.
An image of what is considered the most important book in English literature, William Shakespeare’s ‘The First Folio 1623.’ Scott Barbour/Getty Images

In Shakespeare’s time, much like our present moment, the presumed superiority of whiteness meant social status was negotiated by everyone based on the dominant culture’s standards.

In several of his plays, for instance, the playwright uses “white hands” as noble symbols of purity and white superiority. He also called attention to his character’s race by describing them as “white” or “fair.”

Shakespeare also used black as a metaphor for being tainted.

One such moment occurs in the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.”

A young white woman, Hero, is falsely accused of cheating on her fiancé. On their wedding day, Hero’s groom, Claudio, charges her with being unfaithful. Claudio and Hero’s father, Leonato, then shame Hero for being allegedly unchaste, a no-no for 16th-century English women who were legally their father’s and then their husband’s property.

With Hero’s sexual purity allegedly tainted, her father describes her as having “fallen into a pit of ink.”

Sex before marriage violated the male-dominated culture’s expectations for unwed white women.

Thus, in that play, Hero momentarily represents an “inked” white woman – or a symbolic reflection of the stereotyped, hypersexual Black woman.

4. The future of scholarship on Shakespeare and race

Today, scholars are publishing new insights on the social, cultural and political issues of Shakespeare’s time and our own. In fact, there are dozens of scholars and theater practitioners devoting their professional lives to exploring race in Shakespeare’s literature and time period.

In his 2000 book “Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice,” UCLA English professor Arthur L. Little Jr. explored British imperialism, racialized whiteness and the sexual myths about Black men.

In 2020, playwright Anchuli Felicia King wrote “Keene,” a satirical riff on “Othello” that offers a modern-day critique on whiteness. In “Keene,” Kai, a Japanese musicologist, and Tyler, a Black Ph.D. student, meet at a Shakespeare conference where they are the only two people of color at the elite white gathering. While Tyler is focused on writing his thesis, Kai is focused on Tyler. A romance ensues, only to see Tyler – much like Othello before him – betrayed by his closet white confidant, Ian.

In 2019, British actress Adjoa Andoh directed Shakespeare’s “Richard II” with a cast of all women of color – a production that she called “a thought experiment into the universality of humanity.”

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