English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama

By Habib, Imtiaz | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview
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English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama


Habib, Imtiaz, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama, by Mary Floyd-Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 256. Cloth $65.00.

Reviewer: IMTIAZ HABIB

Cued by Gail Kern Paster's success in her book The Body Embarrassed in reading early modern gender constructions through sixteenth- and seventeenth-century humor theory, Mary Floyd-Wilson sets out in this book to do the same for racial constructions. Drawing on a range of classical, medieval, and early modern texts-concerning what she calls ethnological geohumoralism-Floyd-Wilson contends that people from Africa and the wanner southern regions were regarded by classical and medieval writers as wise and balanced in contrast to northern people who were felt to be barbaric and mentally undeveloped. This typological mapping, which put the Anglo-European at a disadvantage, was, in a series of complex moves by early modern Anglo-European thinkers, manipulated and rearranged to make the northerners more balanced, sensible, and well formed in contrast with southern (African) people who were thought to be physically and mentally inferior. This mapping is reflected in popular early modern English drama, and it was perpetuated, as Floyd-Wilson demonstrates, in a representative selection of early modern English plays and masques by Marlowe (Tamburlaine the Great, Parts 1 and 2), Jonson (The Masque of Blackness), and Shakespeare (Othello and Cymbeline).

Specifically, the book's argument as Floyd-Wilson helpfully lays it out in the introduction is that the English were always aware of their disadvantaged position in classical geohumoral ethnological taxonomy as a barbaric northern people, but that they cloaked it throughout the Middle Ages in a national originary myth of descent from Troy. As descendents of Brut the son of Aeneas, the English could lay claim to a superior position of Mediterranean people in a classical schema. This position, however, was eroded when England severed its ideological ties with Rome in the Supremacy Act of 1534, leaving the English to face their barbaric northern identity once again (14). It is at this point that early modern English natural philosophers, aided and cued by their continental colleagues, set about to alter their ethnic position by claiming first that Caesar's conquest of Britain had purified and ennobled them, and that they were further improved by following the best of foreign customs. But, because this argument (typically made by William Camden) left the English too dependent on and imitative of foreign cultures, a subsequent argument was constructed, exemplified in the work of Richard Verstegan (1605), in which English ennoblement and purification was to have occurred without the Roman conquest of Britain but owing to Anglo-Saxon immigrations. Fundamental to both these impulses is the English anxiety to separate their own barbarism from that identified with their opposite-the southern (African) people-who were, in turn, reconstructed in a more demonstratively negative fashion. Thus, "blackness" was "reinterpreted as a sign of depravity at the same time that English people's northern roots are the subject of great scrutiny" and "their own sense of ethnicity and scrutiny was in flux" (18-19). According to Floyd-Wilson, most contemporary studies of early modern racial formations, following Winthrop Jordan's pathbreaking work, have "gloss[ed]" over, "obscure[d]" (5), and missed this "ethnological history" (11). English public theater is the natural "lightning rod" for these "ideological concerns" and these contradictory geohumoral taxonomic rearrangements (17) because the English are, in their own description (as in Thomas Wright's of 1604) like "stage-players" in their fondness for "aping and imitation" (17).

Within current studies of racial formations in the early modern period, this book offers an important new argument. It does so in two ways. First, Floyd-Wilson attempts to study early modern English racial formations not just descriptively, through an examination of modes of representational analyses, but also symptomatically, by studying the nature of racial formations and their origins as the constituents of a fundamental paradigm shift.

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