Books on Shakespeare and race for Black History Month

Photo of books focusing on Shakespeare and race arranged on a table

This Black History Month, we wanted to read more about Shakespeare and issues of race. So we called the participants in Folger Institute’s Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies colloquium and asked them to recommend nonfiction works exploring race in Shakespeare’s works and the early modern era. They sent us back a list of five great books (including one that’s so new, we don’t have it in the Folger’s collection yet) and one exciting essay, along with a description of what they liked about each one.

Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies is a year-long Folger Institute colloquium that explores representations of race and gender in the early modern period. The program is directed by Kimberly Anne Coles, Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, and Ayanna Thompson, Professor of English at George Washington University. If you regularly listen to our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast (pro tip: you should), you might remember Ayanna from episodes like “Our Own Voices with Our Own Tongues,” which examines Shakespeare and the African-American experience from Reconstruction to the height of the Jim Crow Era.

Cover of Miranda Kaufmann's "Black Tudors"

Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Miranda Kaufmann (Oneworld Publications, 2017 | DA125.N4 K38 2017)

“Kaufmann, a historian by training, has written a book directed at a non-expert audience detailing the lives of black men and women in Tudor England. Each chapter offers a meticulously researched account of a black person’s life in England in the period.”


Cover of Ania Loomba's "Shakespeare, Race, and ColonialismShakespeare, Race, and Colonialism

Ania Loomba (Oxford University Press, 2002 | PR3069.R33 L66 2002)

“Written in language accessible to undergrads and the general reader, Loomba’s book offers an insightful guide to studies of race in early modern literature and culture. The first two chapters examine the broader cultural context of race in early modern England; subsequent chapters offer close readings of the Shakespeare plays most directly concerned with questions of race and empire (e.g. The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Titus Andronicus, and Antony and Cleopatra).”


Cover of Ian Smith's "Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors."

Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors

Ian Smith (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 | PR428.R35 S65 2009)

“The Renaissance earned its name for its revival of classical philosophers. Ian Smith demonstrates that the early modern English were also revisiting and revising an ancient Greek notion of barbarism as a supposed deficiency in speech characteristic of enslave-able peoples. Smith’s work opens the door for thinking about sites of early modern modes of racial differentiation beyond the legal and scientific realms on which scholars have historically focused. In addition, he provides compelling new interpretations of characters such as Othello, who bears the epithet ‘barbarian,’ and, as Smith argues, eventually speaks like one.”

Listen to our interview about Othello and blackface with Ian Smith and Ayanna Thompson on another great Shakespeare Unlimited episode, “Teach Him How To Tell My Story.”


Front cover of Ayanna Thompson's "Passing Strange"Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America

Ayanna Thompson (Oxford University Press, 2011 | PR3091 .T53 2011)

“A nuanced analysis of the intersection of constructions of race and of Shakespearean universalism in the U.S. today. The book’s focus on popular culture—from documentaries about Shakespeare reform programs in prisons and schools to YouTube clips—is especially fascinating.”


First page from Karin deGravelles essay "You Be Othello," from Volume 11, issue 1 of "Pedagogy"“You Be Othello: Interrogating Identification in the Classroom”

Karin H. deGravelles (Pedagogy, Vol. 11, Issue 1, 2011: 153-175)

“The central thrust of this essay asks all of the right questions about how to teach Othello ethically: ‘How are casting challenges negotiated and discussed in the classroom? Is there a difference between reading Othello’s lines and “being” Othello improvisationally?’ The author posits that there are three pedagogical ‘tendencies’ when teaching Othello: the ‘cultural artifact approach;’ the ‘cultural seismograph approach;’ and the alienation approach (my term, not the author’s). The author argues that these approaches all ‘lack . . . a specific focus on responsibility,’ and s/he then puts forward an approach that incorporates the concept of ‘historical trauma.’ An ethical approach that is sensitive to ‘historical trauma’ allows the teacher and students to focus on ‘responsibility . . . not to the characters, the text, or to Shakespeare, but rather to those who are harmed in and by the text.’ This is a wonderfully nuanced approach that will help many negotiate the difficult dialogues that so often occur (or are suppressed) when teaching Othello.”


Here’s the one we can’t wait to get our hands on. Patricia Akhimie’s first book was published in January of this year.

Cover of Patricia Akhimie's "Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race Conduct and the Early Modern World"

Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race Conduct and the Early Modern World

Patricia Akhimie (Routledge 2018)

“Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference reveals the relationship between racial discrimination and the struggle for upward social mobility in the early modern world. Reading Shakespeare’s plays alongside contemporaneous conduct literature—how-to books on self-improvement—this book demonstrates the ways that the pursuit of personal improvement was accomplished by the simultaneous stigmatization of particular kinds of difference. The widespread belief that one could better, or cultivate, oneself through proper conduct was coupled with an equally widespread belief that certain markers (including but not limited to ‘blackness’), indicated an inability to conduct oneself properly, laying the foundation for what we now call ‘racism.’ A careful reading of Shakespeare’s plays reveals a recurring critique of the conduct system voiced, for example, by malcontents and social climbers like Iago and Caliban, and embodied in the struggles of earnest strivers like Othello, Bottom, Dromio of Ephesus, and Dromio of Syracuse, whose bodies are bruised, pinched, blackened, and otherwise indelibly marked as un-cultivatable. By approaching race through the discourse of conduct, this volume not only exposes the epistemic violence toward stigmatized others that lies at the heart of self-cultivation, but also contributes to the broader definition of race that has emerged in recent studies of cross-cultural encounter, colonialism, and the global early modern world.”

One Comment


  • Thanks for this very timely list. Term-paper time approaches, and race in Shakespeare is always a big draw for my students at Montclair State. Some of these texts, of course, I know well and always recommend, but I’m thrilled to have some news ones that I hadn’t known before, e.g. Patricia Akhimie’s and Miranda Kaufmann’s brand-new books, and this intriguing article by Karin deGravelles. I’m eager to read them myself!


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