Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Black Shakespeare: Reading and Misreading Race

Ian Smith

Our knowledge of Shakespeare in English-speaking countries has been shaped mostly by classroom instruction and to a much lesser extent by a few breakthrough films and live theater performances. His resulting reputation has remained stable for the last two hundred years, the writer acknowledged as the great English national poet and eminent darling of elite culture. The fallout is that while Shakespeare is greatly admired, he remains distant from modern students and readers, elevated above contemporary issues in ways that always seem to beg the question of relevance.

We should note, however, the striking comparisons between Shakespeare’s time and ours. As we brace ourselves for the renewed escalation of fear around race in our social and political lives, we might also recognize the destabilizing impact of race on early modern English society. Many playwrights responded negatively to the impact of Africans and blackness on the English consciousness, economy, demography, and culture. Dramatic works bear witness to this moment in early modern history when Africans entered the lives of white Europeans whether through trade, travel and exploration, immigration, and, perhaps most widely in various texts and the staged cross-cultural encounters in the theater or as transported enslaved persons, black household servants, royal musicians, weavers, porters, mariners, and other laborers among the varied professions. In the works of many playwrights reckoning with these developments, blackness was a thing to be feared and denigrated as foreign and un-English. The circumstances of such an outlook are recognizable and familiar today.

Despite the historical and textual evidence, Shakespeare scholarship and instruction have consistently denied the significance of race, leading to the tension Black Shakespeare: Reading and Misreading Race identifies. Confronted with the racial evidence, readers have too often resorted to denial. Faced with plays that bear witness to an increasingly race-aware society, modern scholars have displayed a diminished racial literacy, a compromised ability to see, note, and evaluate the racial content of Shakespeare’s plays because as readers they have been conditioned in a manner producing racial blindspots.

This intellectual conditioning, the book argues, is the product of a white epistemology that resides at the core of modern, western educational, legal, medical, religious, economic, political, and military systems. Missing from the traditional accounts of Shakespeare, therefore, is the concept of the racialized reader. The white epistemology does not equate to skin color, though its historical roots are often intertwined with personal racial identity. Rather, it speaks to the cultivated desire to see the world through a particular white racial lens and to misread Shakespeare as above or antithetical to blackness. Black Shakespeare invites readers to grapple with race in some of Shakespeare’s best-known works, and in the process re-discover a playwright who, unlike some of his peers, engages us in the kinds of dialogue that can be mobilized for modern antiracist goals.

Black Shakespeare By Ian Smith

About The Author

Ian Smith

Ian Smith is the Richard H., Jr. '60 and Joan K. Sell Professor in the Humanities at Lafayette College. He is the author of Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors (...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!