Shakespeare and the language of slavery

During my virtual fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library last year, I examined the language of slavery in early modern England, and more specifically, the use of that language in the works of William Shakespeare. I found 163 references to ‘slave’ and 3 to ‘bondslave’ in Shakespeare’s plays and poems, but there were only 5 places in all of his works in which he used the term ‘slavery’, even though four of his plays were set in Ancient Rome. This confirmed my suspicions that the meaning of ‘slavery’ amongst Shakespeare and his contemporaries needed further investigation.

The research forms part of my broader reassessment of the terms ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ as descriptors for a wide range of institutional systems of subjection that allowed people to be treated as alienable chattel. Although the use of the term ‘slavery’ continues to provoke debate, there is general acceptance that institutions supporting the reduction of people to chattel had ancient origins, and existed in almost every society at some point in the past.

Yet the language of slavery is relatively new. Derived in Europe from the medieval Latin term sclavus, which entered a number of European vernaculars from the thirteenth century, the English ‘slave’ first appears at the end of that century. The first uses of the term ‘slavery’ are much later, however, as they do not emerge until the sixteenth century.

The earliest example I have found so far dates to 1542 in a pamphlet by the Protestant reformer, Thomas Becon (A comfortable epistle, too Goddes faythfull people in Englande).  In this figurative rather than literal usage Becon added ‘ery’ to the root ‘slave’ to create the base state or condition in which the ‘slave’ existed. His aim was to demonstrate the absolute power of the Lord, who could transform the various negative condition of people’s lives into their positive counterparts – sorrow into joy, darkness into light, death into life, and ‘slavery’ into honour.

The use of the term ‘slavery’ in a pejorative manner is also visible in Ralphe Robinson’s 1551 translation of Thomas More’s Utopia (A fruteful, and pleasaunt worke of the beste state of a publyque weale, and of the newe yle called Vtopia). Here it does take on a more familiar literal meaning, but as a condition of labour, rather than an institution. For Robinson, ‘slavery’ represents a type of noxious and miserable work – ‘all vyle seruice all slauerie and drudgerye, with all laboursome toyle and busines’ – fit only for those of the lowest social condition.



If ‘slavery’ was associated with drudgery, it was more commonly employed as a critique of unjust power.  Edmund Gest’s A treatise againste the preuee masse (1548), talked of the delivery of the Israelites from the ‘slavery’ of Pharaoh, for example. Robert Crowley used the term ‘slavery’ in the context of the mid-century rebellions that rocked the English state, to challenge those in power to root out the rack renting landlords who were oppressing their tenants. His Way to Wealth incorporated into this critique the religious and political systems of Catholic rule in Europe – by not addressing the issue of tyranny at home English men would risk being ‘brought to the lyke slauery that the french men are in’. (The Way to Wealth Wherein is Plainly Taught a most Present Remedy for Sedicion, 1550).

Europe underwent a major fracturing of religious and political authority in the early modern period, and the challenges this presented provided the perfect breeding ground for the language of slavery. Extending the ‘slave’ to a condition of ‘slavery’ gave voice to a number of social concerns as religious allegiances changed, the balance of power shifted, and the role and duty of rulers to their subjects came under intense scrutiny. ‘Slavery’, which raised the spectre of tyranny, oppression, forced labour and unjust subjection, had huge imaginative potential. As a result the term became a metaphor for any form of absolute and arbitrary power, establishing the character of the power it defined on the one hand, while critiquing it on the other.

If we look at the five contexts in which ‘slavery’ appears in Shakespeare’s works, we can see how the Bard uses the term to invoke notions of arbitrary and absolute subjection over which the subject has neither control nor power to change. Notably, in all the contexts, its core purpose is to provide a critique of power.

We perhaps get closest to the institution of slavery as we know it in Othello, in which the eponymous hero is taken captive by the ‘insolent foe’ and sold into ‘slavery’ (Othello I. iii). As the sale of people as commodities was condemned in the Old and New Testaments, I take this use of ‘insolent’ to indicate that the foe was contemptuous of rightful authority, making the seizure arbitrary and unjust (Amos 3:6; Revelation 18:13). Moreover, the context draws on a major element in the semantic framing of the ‘slave’ – as a commodity that was to be bought and sold. By this time the activities of John Hawkins, one of the earliest English traders in humans as items of commerce, were already available in print – Hawkins is on record as having seized Africans for no other reason than to sell them for profit in the Americas.



A second case of ‘slavery’ that also has biblical connections, appears in The Tempest. Here it is the absolute power wielded by the sorcerer Prospero that is under discussion. The shipwrecked Ferdinand, ordered by Prospero to pile up logs, describes the task as his ‘wooden slavery’, a classic biblical reference to the Gibeonites, who were reduced to ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ in punishment for their deceit (Tempest, III.i; Joshua 9).

The other three uses are all figurative examples. In Henry VI Part II, Jack Cade uses the metaphor of ‘slavery’ to highlight the oppression of peasants living under the tyranny of a self-serving nobility (Henry VI, Part II, IV. Viii). The term also appears in Henry VIII – thought to have been a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher – in Act II, scene 2 (a section believed to have been written by Shakespeare). Here the author employed the metaphor in the context of subjection to a Catholic ruler – the Duke of Suffolk hopes to be freed from his ‘slavery’ to the French king.

The final appearance is in Sonnet 133, where the themes are those of a painful and tortuous relationship, in which the speaker is berating a cruel lover. Here the absolute and arbitrary nature of the power at work is suggested by the use of other terms including ‘pent up’ and ‘engross’d’, which not only imply that the poet is in the exclusive possession of the subject, but that the possession is unjust and damaging. Engrossing, which involved buying up goods wholesale to sell on at a profit, was at that time a punishable offence.

As noted earlier, there is no ‘slavery’ in any of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. This did not mean there were no ‘slaves’ however – Roman society was known to have participated in the purchase and sale of people as commodities. But the meaning of ‘slavery’ as it appears in Shakespeare went beyond this, and as a signal of arbitrary and absolute power it prefigures the eighteenth-century rhetoric that would drive abolition. That meaning also postdates the institutions of chattelhood that existed before the ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ were linguistic descriptors. Slavery, understood as an institution rather than a condition, was as yet in the throes of development.