Book Review

Alexander, Catherine M.S. and Stanley Wells, eds. Shakespeare and Race. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Reviewed by Rachel Williams | March 19, 2004

This book consists of a selection of essays on topics relevant to race in the works of Shakespeare. It is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the presence of foreigners in Elizabethan England, the way English nationalism gets defined against racial others in Shakespeare’s canon, and/or the performance history of racialized characters in works like Othello, The Tempest, King Lear, and The Merchant of Venice. The collection is useful not only because of the broad range of subjects covered under the heading of “Shakespeare and Race,” but also because it includes works spanning the last forty years of scholarship on this issue up to the year 2000. As such, the work as a whole provides an overview of developments in the study of “ ‘Shakespeare and race’ as an epistemological query’” (2), while the individual essays offer insightful research on race in the Renaissance.

There are thirteen essays total. Of these several stand out as particularly helpful for research purposes. The first, Margo Hendricks’ “Surveying ‘race’ in Shakespeare,” acts an introduction to the collection. It provides a brief overview of each text, and contextualizes it in relation to the other works in the book as well as to major trends in literary criticism. Bernard Harris’ “A Portrait of a Moor,” a piece on the famous painting of Morocco’s ambassador to Elizabeth’s court, is also useful. Based on this portrait and the history surrounding it, Harris argues for the “acquaintance of the Elizabethans with real, as distinct from fictional Moors” (24). Another outstanding text is G.K. Hunter’s “Elizabethans and Foreigners” which, in contrast to Harris’, is concerned with “the framework of assumptions” (37) upon which the Elizabethan concept of foreigners was based, regardless of the actual presence of foreigners. Finally, Celia R. Daileader’s piece, “Casting Black Actors: Beyond Othellophilia,” presents a fascinating discussion of the politics behind cross-racial casting in contemporary live productions and films of Shakespeare’s plays. She explores the implications of what she calls “Othellophilia” for both black actors and white actresses, basing her argument on Kim Hall’s concept of the “overlap between racism and misogyny in early modern representations of gender and racial difference” (178). The remaining 9 essays cover such topics as “the Jewbill” of 1753, King Lear and the South African Land Act 1913, and the performance history of Merchant in Nazi Germany. Overall, this is an excellent collection, and a great starting place for work on the topic of Shakespeare and race.

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