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Barbarous Play

Barbarous Play: Race on the English Renaissance Stage

Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Barbarous Play
    Book Description:

    Barbarous Play examines English Renaissance understandings of race as depicted in drama. Reading plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, and Middleton, Lara Bovilsky offers case studies of how racial meanings are generated by narratives of boundary crossing—especially miscegenation, religious conversion, and class transgression. In the process, she argues that understanding just what is false and figurative in past depictions of race can clarify the illogic of present-day racism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-5656-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION Race on the Renaissance Stage
    (pp. 1-36)

    In 1870, the Italian actor Tommaso Salvini began a North American tour in the United States. His first performances were as Othello, his signature role since he had popularized it in Italy in 1856. In New York, Salvini performed before a (primarily) English-speaking audience, but he himself spoke in Italian, with an Italian company. Despite the language barrier, Salvini felt Americans grasped his performance: “[it] mattered little; they understood me all the same, or, to put it better, they caught by intuition my ideas and my sentiments.”¹ Still, by Salvini’s own account, this acceptance and understanding were hardly instantaneous. In...

  5. ONE Desdemona’s Blackness
    (pp. 37-66)

    Waiting for Othello to arrive at the Cyprian harbor, Iago and Desdemona pass the time by trading bawdy quips. In rhymed couplets provoking appreciative groans from Desdemona, Iago serially pokes fun at wise and foolish, “fair” and “black” women. According to Iago, all these women scheme for sexual encounters. Rife with chiasmus and antithesis, the tropes that heighten oppositional logics—social as well as rhetorical ones—Iago’s generalizing couplets draw attention to pairings of complexion and sexuality. Surprising parallels between the continuums of chastity and color emerge in his banter as his epigrams run through all the possible combinations of...

  6. TWO Exemplary Jews and the Logic of Gentility
    (pp. 67-102)

    Shylock and his Jewishness have occupied an increasingly privileged place in the criticism ofThe Merchant of Venice. At times, the bulk of critical writing onMerchantcan read like an extended referendum on Shylock’s character, and consequently on the existence of a Shakespearean bias against Jews.¹ Shakespeare is excoriated or exculpated in due proportion as Shylock comes to figure a quasi-demonic (or simply anti-Christian) vengefulness, a harassed and sympathetic humanist universalism, a villain not thoroughly let off the hook by being partly formed by social intolerance, or even, as in one study, a Jew who doesn’t live up to...

  7. THREE The English Italian
    (pp. 103-134)

    When she disguises herself as a young doctor of the law during the trial scene ofThe Merchant of Venice, Portia takes the name “Balthazar” (4.1.153), the name of the youngest Magus to visit the Christ child, a Magus conventionally represented as African. It is also the name of her trusted servant (3.4.45), who, because of his name, is possibly African as well.¹ Portia’s selection of this particular name can help specify some of the associations her cross-dressing might possess for a sixteenth-century English audience. In particular, “Balthazar” supports an interpretation in which cross-dressing is seen as generally analogous to...

  8. FOUR Race, Science, and Aversion
    (pp. 135-158)

    In this chapter I return to some of the concerns about the periodization of race and racism with which I began. In my Introduction, I argued that an overzealous identification of race with the epistemological protocols and classificatory expressive styles of post-Renaissance science tends to occlude both Renaissance and modern racialist meanings and operations. Instead, reading for the multiple, often illogical or contradictory discourses and logics that sustain beliefs in group differences, and for the shifts in individual racial identity that permeate Renaissance texts, we find racial meanings to be pivotal within the period’s understandings of gender, nation, religion, sexuality,...

  9. Coda
    (pp. 159-162)

    We have just seen the eagerness with which characters inThe Changelinggreet supposed objective confirmation of and material explanation for their personal prejudices. Such “conflation of natural with the social kinds”—a belief or will that purely human distinctions originate in nature—is identified by David Theo Goldberg as the key component of racialism. Both this conflation and the racialism it enables were therefore fully available to the culture of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, and Middleton and Rowley.¹ In plays that vary plots of interracial desire, conversion, and disguise, these authors employ conflation of the natural and social to produce...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 163-196)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-210)
  12. Index
    (pp. 211-218)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 219-219)