Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism

By Ania Loomba | Go to book overview

1
The Vocabularies of Race

Shakespeare uses the word 'race' barely eighteen times; like most of his contemporaries, he usually finds other terms to convey differences of religion, ethnicity, nationality, and colour. Moreover, his usage often suggests meanings not usually associated with the term 'race' today. This chapter will examine some of the ways in which this word was inflected in Shakespeare's writing and in early modern times. As we shall see, its usage was both distinct from, and laid the ground for, later deployments of the word, and of the concept. But early modern ideas about racial difference that feed into the modern idea of race cannot be inferred only from the use of particular words. After all, a rose by any other word can smell as sweet! The real question is whether and in what form the concept of racial difference existed in Shakespeare's time. That is why this chapter will also consider historical and conceptual issues about racial ideologies that confront us as we move backwards in time.


Lineage

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'race' was first used in English by the Scottish poet William Dunbar in a poem called 'The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins' (1508) where the followers of Envy included 'bakbyttaris of sundry races'.1 Here the word means 'groups' but does not tell us much about what kind of groups these might be. John Florio's Italian-English dictionary of 1598, A World of Words, defined 'razza' or 'race' as 'a kind, a brood, a blood, a stock, a pedigree'.2 And indeed the word 'race' was most commonly used in

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