Associate 2001-02

Ania Loomba


Shakespeare, 'Race' and Colonialism

Professor Loomba's book Shakespeare, 'Race' and Colonialism examines emergence of 'race' as a concept in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, especially England, and its relationship to Shakespeare's plays. It shows how Shakespeare's plays contribute to, and are themselves crafted from, contemporary ideas about social and cultural 'difference.' It considers how such ideas might have been different from later ideologies of 'race' that emerged during colonialism, but also from older ideas about barbarism, blackness, and religious difference. Although terms such as 'race' or 'racism,' 'xenophobia,' 'ethnicity' or even 'nation' may not seem immediately appropriate for analyzing community identities in early modern Europe, this book shows why such ideas, when appropriately historicized, are indeed pertinent to the period. Professor Loomba historicizes the idea of 'race' by examining a) medieval beliefs about blackness, barbarism, Jewishness, and Islam; b) the impact of mercantile and colonial journeys, piracy, and other forms of newer contact with America, North Africa, the Levant, Moluccas, and India; and c) early modern ideas about gender, class, and nation which at every point influences how people interpret or understand cultural boundaries. She shows how Shakespeare's drama plays with and upon such vocabularies. She examines in some detail the texts which are obviously central for such questions—The TempestOthello, The Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus—but also show how race or cultural difference might shape the language and themes of other plays such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, Love's Labour's Lost or Troilus and Cressida. Her aim is to open up the ways in which we read Shakespeare, as well as to re-think the question of 'race." Finally, the project aims also to comment on the relationship between the early modern period and our own, especially as Shakespeare's plays have constantly influenced the attitudes of subsequent generations.