The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0597 Tuesday, 13 March 2001
Date: Monday, 12 Mar 2001 16:34:20 -0800
Subject: Blackness and the Renaissance (Was Cleopatra)
It has been suggested that blackness in the Renaissance had no
association with Africa, that black often referred to brunettes and
people with Mediteranean complexions. I argue that while it is true
that black functions in these ways, it was often associated with Africa
even when referring to non-Africans.
In 1635, William Brereton describes Jews as "most black." This could
refer to dark hair or Mediterranean complexion, but as Shakespearians,
surely we ought to take The Merchant of Venice into account when Jessica
explains that she has heard Shylock "swear / To Tubal and Chus, his
countrymen" (III.ii.284-5); Chus (Shylock's "countrym[a]n") was thought
to be the forefather of all Africans (see the Renaissance retellings of
the Noah story). Thus, Judaism is closely linked to Africa. This is
perhaps a rhetorical move to naturalize the Jews otherness, to connect
Judaism with a visible marker of difference.
As for black as referring to brunettes without association to Africa,
what are we to make of Lysander's exclamation to Hermione, "Away, you
Ethiop!" (MND III.ii.257)? Not that Hemione was an African, but that
dark hair was associated with the blackness of Ethiopians.