Blackface in Shakespeare: Challenging Racial Allegories of Folly and Speech—Cleopatra, Caliban, Othello

  • Robert Hornback
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)


This chapter explores tropes of blackface from previous chapters as they appear in three of Shakespeare’s plays, Antony and Cleopatra (1607), The Tempest (1610–11), and, above all, Othello (ca. 1604–05). Each stages representations of black Strangers that bear affinities with moral allegories of protagonists named Youth or Wit tempted by Vices that draw upon Proverbs 1–9. Shakespeare’s plays include many of the tropes discussed in previous chapters that were common to the English morality genre and to Spanish Golden Age drama, including blackface as an emblem of folly and black misspeaking as a moral emblem. They do so, however, in ways that complicate audience responses to racial difference. Here, attempts to read these plays as conventional metaphysical allegories of race are challenged, frustrated, or even foiled.

Works Cited

  1. Adelman, Janet. The Common Liar: An Essay of Antony and Cleopatra. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.Google Scholar
  2. Barroll, Leeds. “The Allusive Tissue of Antony and Cleopatra.” In Antony and Cleopatra: New Critical Essays, edited by Sara Munson Deats, 275–90. New York: Routledge, 2005.Google Scholar
  3. Barthelemy, Anthony Gerard. Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks on English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1987.Google Scholar
  4. Bergeron, David, ed. “Thomas Middleton, The Triumphs of Truth.” In Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, general editors Gary Taylor and John Lavignino, 963–79. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.Google Scholar
  5. Beusterien, John. An Eye on Race: Perspectives from Theater in Imperial Spain. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2010.Google Scholar
  6. Blunt, Richard. “The Evolution of Blackface Cosmetics on the Early Modern Stage.” In The Materiality of Color: The Production, Circulation, and Apoplication of Dyes and Pigments, 1400–1800, edited by Andrea Feeser, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Beth Fowkes Tobin, 217–34. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012.Google Scholar
  7. Bosman, Anston. ‘“Best Play with Mardian’: Eunuch and Blackamoor as Imperial Culturegram.” Shakespeare Studies 34 (2006): 123–57; reprinted in Antony and Cleopatra: Authoritative Text, Sources, Analogues, and Contexts, Criticism, Adaptations, Rewritings, and Appropriations, Norton Critical edition, edited by Ania Loomba, 280–9. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.Google Scholar
  8. Bradshaw, Graham. Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.Google Scholar
  9. Cox, John D. The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350–1642. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Donnan, Elizabeth. Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, vol. 1 of 4 vols. New York: Octagon Books, 1965.Google Scholar
  11. Edan, Richard and Richard Willes, eds. The History of Travayle in the West and East Indies and Other Counteys Lying Either Way . . . London, 1577.Google Scholar
  12. Evans, G. Blakemore, Harry Levin, et al., eds. Riverside Shakespeare. New York: Houghton and Mifflin Co., 1973.Google Scholar
  13. Freeman, Neil. The Applause First Folio of Shakespeare. Vancouver: Applause, 2001.Google Scholar
  14. Freeman, Neil. The Tempest. Vancouver: Applause, 1998.Google Scholar
  15. Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.Google Scholar
  16. Gurr, Andrew. “Editing Stafano’s Book.” Shakespeare Survey 59 (October 2006): 91–107.Google Scholar
  17. Honigmann, E. A. J. “Introduction to Othello.” Othello, by William Shakespeare, Arden 3. Walton on Thames: Thomas Nelson, 1997.Google Scholar
  18. Hornback, Robert. “Emblems of Folly in the First Othello: Renaissance Blackface, Moor’s Coat, and ‘Muckender.’” In Comparative Drama 35, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 69–99.Google Scholar
  19. Hornback, Robert. “‘Speak[ing] Parrot’ and Ovidian Echoes in Othello: Recontextualizing Black Speech in the Global Renaissance.” In Othello: The State of Play, edited by Lena Orlin. London and New York: Arden Shakespeare, 2014.Google Scholar
  20. Hornback, Robert. The English Clown Tradition from the Middle Ages to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2009.Google Scholar
  21. Hunter, G. K. “Elizabethans and Foreigners.” In Shakespeare and Race, edited by Catherine M. S. Alexander and Stanley Wells, 37–63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.Google Scholar
  22. Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.Google Scholar
  23. Keller, Stefan. The Development of Shakespeare’s Rhetoric: A Study of Nine Plays. Tübingen: Francke Verlag, 2009.Google Scholar
  24. Lawrance, Jeremy. “Black Africans in Renaissance Spanish Literature.” In Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe, 72–73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Google Scholar
  25. Lowe, Kate. “The Stereotyping of Black Africans in Renaissance Europe.” In Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by T. F. Earle and K. P. Lowe, 17–47. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Google Scholar
  26. Martín-Casares, Aurelia and Marga G. Barranco. “The Musical Legacy of Black Africans in Spain: A Review of Our Sources.” Anthropological Notebooks 15, no. 2 (2009): 51–60.Google Scholar
  27. McCarthy, Jeanne H. The Children’s Troupes and the Transformation of English Theater 1509–1608: Pedagogue Playwrights, Playbooks, and Playboys. London: Routledge, 2017.Google Scholar
  28. Mowat, Barbara Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, Rebecca Niles, eds. Shakespeare’s Plays, Sonnets and Poems, Folger Digital Texts. Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library. Accessed December 31, 2016.
  29. Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. Edited by Edward Arber. London, 1869.Google Scholar
  30. Rhodes, Neil. Shakespeare and the Origins of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Rueda, Antonio. “From Bozal to Mulata: A Sociolinguistic Analysis of the Black African Female Slave in Early Modern Spanish Theater.” Critical Multilingualism Studies 5, no. 2 (2017): 87–110.Google Scholar
  32. Rutter, Carol Chillington. Enter the Body: Women and Representation on Shakespeare’s Stage. New York: Routledge, 2001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Smith, Ian. Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Stevens, Andrea. “Mastering Masques of Blackness: Jonson’s Masque of Blackness, The Windsor Text of The Gypsies Metamorphosed, and Brome’s The English Moor.” English Literary Renaissance (2009): 396–426.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Suárez, José I. The Carnival Stage: Vicentine Comedy within the Serio-Comic Mode. Rutherford: Farleigh Dickinson Press, 1993.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Hornback
    • 1
  1. 1.Oglethorpe UniversityAtlantaUSA

Personalised recommendations