Teaching Renaissance Literature and Race

Two knights on horseback in a glad face one another with spears in hand

What does an early modern literary scholar have to say, what do early modern literary studies have to say, to Black History Month? Black writers are notable on English Renaissance literature modules by their absence; if you pick up your Norton Anthology of English Literature, you won’t find any before Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative (published 1789). Does this make the literature of the preceding centuries irrelevant to readers and students interested in questions of racial identity? Worse: is there something wrong with early modern literary studies as a discipline if its period focus leads to its excluding black voices?

It would be foolish to be complacent about these questions. The Renaissance, as a potent cultural myth, can easily be put to dubious political purposes, potentially authorising an elitist and Eurocentric vision of the past. (As a brief but alarming internet trawl quickly showed me, the word ‘Renaissance’ also seems to exert a certain fascination for white supremacists, although I doubt that they’re thinking of Erasmus or Montaigne.) That makes it all the more important that historians and literary scholars offer a nuanced picture of that past, one that doesn’t – for example – elide the presence of people of colour in early modern Britain. Texts such as David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, or Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors, which focuses on the lives of ten people of African descent in early modern England, offer a corrective to historical whitewashing; so does Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677, which includes an array of sources testifying to the presence of black people in London and beyond. (You can currently access his essay, ‘The Resonables of Boroughside, Southwark: An Elizabethan Black Family Near the Rose Theatre’ for free at http://explore.tandfonline.com/content/ah/rshk-shakespeare-and-race. Full disclosure: I am an editor of the journal in which it appeared.)

Literature scholars face a different situation from historians, of course: the absence of black authors from the literary corpus for our period of specialism. However, it remains the case that Africans, Asians, and inhabitants of the New World are a widespread presence in the texts we study, albeit – and it’s a big albeit – voiced, troped, and represented by white people. Some examples of this are obvious: Othello, of course, or Aaron in Titus Andronicus. Others are less so. Here are some ways in which non-Europeans figure in texts taught on the second-year Renaissance Literature module:

  • In Astrophil and Stella 8, where Cupid is said to have come to England because the Turks have conquered Greece, and 30, where courtiers discuss the growth of the Ottoman empire.
  • In The Faerie Queene, Book I, where Redcrosse follows Duessa after killing her lover Sansfoy, ‘A faithlesse Sarazin’; Sansfoy’s brother Sansjoy will seek revenge, and his other brother Sansloy will go on to abduct Una.
  • In Volpone, where Mosca tells Corvino (not necessarily inaccurately) that Volpone has over a dozen children ‘that he begot on beggars, / Gipsies, and Jews, and black-moors, when he was drunk’, and where Volpone fantasises about dressing Celia up (for sexual purposes) like ‘the Persian Sophy’s [i.e., Shah’s] wife / Or the Grand Signior’s [Ottoman Emperor’s] mistress … Or some quick Negro, or cold Russian’.
  • In Pamphilia to Amphilanthus 25, where Mary Wroth’s speaker compares herself and her experience of love to ‘the Indians scorched with the sun, / The sun which they do as their god adore’: both are wounded (in Wroth’s view of blackness, disfigured) by the object of their worship.

Moments like these can cause problems for lecturers like me. Firstly, how do we – should we? – integrate into our teaching of other topics (genre, narration, history, subjectivity, gender) references that can be marginal and fleeting? Secondly, how can we do so responsibly, given the way they articulate offensive views of race, religion and sexuality that continue to influence discourse in 2017?

As my students will testify, I don’t think I’m anywhere near a satisfactory response to those questions. In the context of this blog, though, I think the instances above offer grounds for comment. Sidney’s poems are a reminder that in the 1580s the Ottoman Empire was England’s military superior: there may be phobia, but there is not condescension in Astrophil’s references to it. Spenser’s stanzas may leave us asking: what does it mean for Duessa, who allegorically figures the Pope and the Catholic Church, to be the lover of a Muslim? How are attitudes that we would consider Islamophobic shaped by the anti-Catholicism that pervades The Faerie Queene? Volpone’s alleged sexual history, however dismissive of black women as the objects of his drunken lust, also testifies to the cosmopolitanism of seventeenth-century Venice – and, by extension, of seventeenth-century London, for which it stands as a surrogate. And Wroth’s unthinking characterisation of blackness as not beautiful demands that we review the valorisation of whiteness in so much of Renaissance poetry, whether in Stella’s alabaster skin or Leander’s neck, which ‘surpassed / The white of Pelops’ shoulder’.

None of this is to mitigate the racist assumptions that underlie textual moments like those I’ve identified. But focusing on them does two things. Firstly, it asserts the textual presence of people of colour in Renaissance literature, just as the work of Habib and others asserts their presence in early modern Britain. And secondly, it helps us see how preconceptions about race (and, in the cases of Spenser and Sidney, about Islam and the Ottoman empire), shaped the way early modern people thought about politics, about religion, about sexuality, and about beauty.

The above is a reflection on my experience of teaching Renaissance literature at the University of Sheffield; I am very far from being an expert in the specific topic of race in Renaissance studies. For those seeking expertise, here is some suggested reading:

  • Catherine M. S. Alexander and Stanley Wells, eds, Shakespeare and Race (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000)
  • Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (London: Allen Lane, 2016) and see also Marcus Nevitt’s review at https://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/04/gloriana-and-the-sultan-englands-unlikely-alliance/
  • Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995)
  • Mary Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003)
  • Margo Hendricks, ‘Race and Shakespeare Studies’, Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998): 19–20
  • Arthur Little, Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002)
  • Joyce Green MacDonald, ed., Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1997)
  • Nabil Matar, Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (New York: Columbia UP, 1999)
  • Daniel J. Vitkus, Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570–1630 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

You might also be interested in the ‘reading list of scholarship by people of colour on slavery and colonialism, c.1500-1750’ put together by Brodie Waddell of Birkbeck: https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2017/07/25/a-reading-list-of-scholarship-by-people-of-colour-on-slavery-and-colonialism-c-1500-1750/

Written by Tom Rutter 22 October 2017

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