Introduction

By Hendricks, Margo | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Introduction


Hendricks, Margo, Shakespeare Studies


When asked to organize this forum, "Race and Shakespeare Studies: Is There a Future," I was both honored and hesitant. Did we, Shakespearean and early modern scholars and critics, truly need another discussion on "race" and its importance to Renaissance and/or early modern English studies? Has the argument for attention to the "matter of race" not already been made? Yet, after I invited the six contributors to offer their thoughts and had read their essays, I realized that there remains much to be done. In very different ways each of the contributors arrives at the same general conclusion: despite the appropriation of post-structuralist and post-modern theoretical apparati, critics of early modern English culture have yet to comfortably situate the "problem of race" in an early modern historiography that fully adumbrates the complexity, fluidity, and problematic nature of the discourses of race that prevailed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Each of the essays that follow suggestively acknowledges, as David Theo Goldberg has argued in his seminal work Racist Discourse: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning, that "race is a fluid, transforming, historically specific concept parasitic on theoretic and social discourses for the meaning it assumes at any given moment" (74). What this means is that in order for race to be understood, it must pretend to universality, engendering commonality by negating or effacing the disparate interests of disparate subjectivities. However, there is an inherent paradox in this activity: in order to inflect race with meaning, modern social formations must frame visible (and, quite frankly, minor) differences among people in terms of antithesis: race is simultaneously transcendentally immutable and historically mutable. This at-times-contradictory "truth" becomes preternaturally productive in sustaining itself in and through an illusion of essentialism.

Comprehension of this theoretical avatar produces different sets of questions than one might normally ask with regard to early modern English literature: for example, we might well inquire why literary works such as Shakespeare's Othello and Titus Andronicus or John Webster's The White Devil are treated as texts that deal almost exclusively with race and racism, while Philip Sidney's Arcadia or Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene are treated as primarily concerned with matters of nationalism and Englishness. …

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