Book Review

MacDonald, Joyce Green. Women and Race in Early Modern Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Reviewed by Simone Chess | March 23, 2003

In this book, MacDonald examines the racialization of women’s bodies in early modern drama and literature (mostly dramatic texts), examining what she calls “the manifestations and disappearances of women’s racial identities in Renaissance culture” (2). Further, the book examines the ways in which women’s gendered bodies were appropriated for use in Renaissance discourses on race and colonialism. Macdonald grounds her inquiry into women’s bodies, their and their social and sexual agency. Further, by focusing her work primarily of drama and hence on performances of race, she considers audience, spectatorship, and manifestations of white social anxiety written on the stage. Through an analysis of race and gender in noncanonical dramas and works by women, MacDonald attempts to embody and interrogate early modern and contemporary discussions of race and gender.

The manifestations of race in early modern literature and drama that MacDonald takes on range from the obviously dark – characters written in racialized terms, or white women in blackface like Queen Anne in Jonson’s Masque of Blacknesse – to more subtle uses of race in subtext, like the problematic of the Petrarchan tradition of writing unspecified skin color or even attempting to “erase” race through “white” African female characters. She argues that gender, more than skin-color based racial identity, is being attacked, defined and critiqued through representations of raced and sexed bodies.

Towards that end, the book is divided into general sections. The first, including chapters on Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and Dido and Sophonsiba of Carthage, deals with English narratives about Rome. MacDonald argues that inherent in English Renaissance examinations of Rome’s rise to empire is a grappling with conflicts of race and culture. In these stories, MacDonald dissects the removal of women’s black bodies from representation, where women are generally defined by gender and only men are defined more racially. The second section of MacDonald’s book, then, turns to narratives that deal with British colonialism and questions of the New World. This section of the book consists of chapters primarily about women writers, and their modes of finding authorial authority and agency through their deployment of race and racialized gender in their work. These chapters include one on Behn’s Oroonoko, one on Thomas Southern’s adaptation of Oroonoko , one about Katherine Philips’ Pompey, and finally, one about Aphra Behn’s Abdelezer.

Among other things, MacDonald reads race as a vehicle for expressing gender issues, and looks closely at the work of English women writers around race, positing that these writers “achieved their authorship within colonialist as well as gendered contexts” (11), and at the ways that writing racialized characters allowed English women writers to discuss race, sexuality, and authorial legitimacy. Women and Race in Early Modern Texts draws together a wide range of writers, themes, and ideas. The cumulative picture is a varied and exciting one. MacDonald’s work allows and encourages an ideological approach to early modern writing and drama that allows for modern interpretations conditioned by chronological awareness. The book is a rare and important effort to incorporate contemporary theory, feminist criticism, and modern models of racial and performance analysis. At the same time, MacDonald is appropriately aware that many of these tools of analysis are sometimes impossible to apply to the early modern period. Similarly, MacDonald is careful to be specific about the exact political, colonial and imperial moments that each work takes place in, discussing race in the colonial process but never reading the colonial wrongly on a pre-colonial moment. MacDonald’s work is aware of and building on growing discourses of race, gender, and colonialism. For scholars interested in any of these fields, or in innovated hybrid studies of several interrelated approaches, this book is both a model and a new part of the growing canon of alternative tactics for new readings of familiar and less familiar early modern texts.

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