(Re-)Editing the Renaissance for an Antiracist Classroom

Ann C. Christensen and Laura B. Turchi

[print edition page number: 505][1]
In the spirit of John Lewis and making good trouble, our collaboration has supported and gently provoked our students and English-teaching friends with what we call the “sticking places” of Shakespeare plays: that is — to embrace the intellectual and emotional work of grappling with textual snarls and disturbing meanings.[2] Rooted in the social-justice engagement demanded by the material, this embrace necessarily troubled our students and the teachers whom we prepared and engaged. For two years, we co-edited the column, “Teaching Shakespeare,” for the NCTE’s (National Council of Teachers of English) flagship publication for secondary school teachers, English Journal.[3] Before that, we co-founded Teaching Shakespeare in Houston, a teacher network intended to spread news about local productions and connect teachers to visiting scholars, workshops, and other professional development opportunities. Our Shakespeare column advanced teacher voices, writing with them on casting, #MeToo, on teaching to counteract educational inequities, and more. For local teachers and others, we sponsored a viewing and talk-back on a powerful documentary about young people in Richmond, CA, who recast the story of Romeo and Juliet as a protest against gun violence Romeo is Bleeding.[4] We organized mini-conferences, such as Strangers and Exiles at The University of Houston in 2018 with funding from a faculty research grant, which offered English teachers alternative approaches to plays [506] in the curriculum, highlighting compelling scholarship on early modern globalism and constructions of race as replacements to textbook-centric whitewashed histories. And we co-led a seminar for the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA 2018 Los Angeles) on projects where scholars use Shakespeare in community organizing. All this work foregrounded both the complexity of Shakespeare and our confidence that teachers and their students can engage and appreciate, if not totally resolve, textual and other kinds of problems.

Given our ongoing commitment to exploring these sticking places, this essay is part reflection on our sense that while much scholarship denies the “absolute historical boundaries between early modern and contemporary constructions [of race],” as the contributions to the 2016 Shakespeare Quarterly special issue on “Shakespeare and Race” attest, and though scholars invoke the impact on classroom practice, that practice often lags behind.[5] We as a profession still too often leave historical background on race at the threshold of today’s racism rather than inside the secondary school and college curricula. To paraphrase Kim F. Hall, one of the co-editors of that ground-breaking special issue, Renaissance texts have race in them, as do our classrooms; denying this “serves to maintain white privilege” in our field.[6] As much as our own scholarship and activism commit to antiracism, we know, too, as white teachers we have challenging work to do in our respective classroom spaces. As we recognize sticking places in the texts we teach, we are developing approaches for making difficult conversations fruitful, turning challenges into opportunities for important individual and communal learning.

Last year Ann piloted her edition of the anonymous domestic tragedy, A Warning for Fair Women, with her Shakespeare class (the 1599 play [507] is in the Lord Chamberlain’s repertory, which was the theatre company for which Shakespeare wrote and performed) and her students did a full read-through of the play aloud. When the only Black student in the class happened to enter late during the reading, Ann watched him settle into the vast circle of readers and find his place in the text at the precise moment when his peer, playing the lover/murderer, Browne, delivered a random line about a “foul Negro.” With the eyes of everyone else cast downward on the page, that student looked up just then; he and Ann locked eyes, and she found herself mouthing pathetically, “I’m sorry.” She was instantly filled with shame, for though her edition did gloss the phrase in some detail and with attention to the racial slur (to be discussed below), she knew she missed the chance to connect more meaningfully with the class as a whole at that moment. How could she have interrupted the flow of words just then to question the way that such an insult imbedded itself in this text?

This essay proposes the idea of “re-editing the Renaissance” (following the spirit of literary scholar and editor Leah Marcus’s germinal work, “Unediting the Renaissance”) with our Shakespeare students and future teachers as a better framework than best intentions and with better results than painful failures.[7] By building research, discussion, and writing assignments that take on references to race, we model ways for students to enter the work of editing for current times. We can proactively locate the places in the text that seem racist, as Ann did, and yet not be quite prepared to address what we might otherwise want to apologize for or avoid. Good teaching connects the hard work of textual analysis (sticking places) with the equally hard work of cultural responsiveness. More than responding with apologies, we seek to be proactive. Shakespeare instructors at the university level should consider themselves not only early modernists, but also teacher educators, modeling the intellectual and cultural engagement required in their own classrooms and for the [508] diverse classrooms where their students may one day teach. This sometimes gets personal, like making eye contact at a painful moment, but we have to go public too and lead the class to new and relevant Shakespeares. We are energized by the recent “Call to Action” for early modernists to recruit and mentor students of color, engage in race studies, and create a field that is antiracist, and by the BLM activism in and out of the academy.[8] In order to make our field relevant, critical, and thriving (not only enduring), we need to face race, own it, and get students involved in it. In this way, our textbooks and classrooms teach and learn about the past, grapple with the present, and act for a future that is different from both.

• • •

To illustrate what we mean by re-editing, we take a play that hangs upon the high-school curriculum like drips of Elmer’s school glue. We consulted popular classroom editions and online study guides for their treatment of racialized language in Romeo and Juliet, in particular, Romeo’s metaphor that Juliet “hangs upon the cheek of night / Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear” (1.5.42–43). This line may alert students of color (and international students) to early racial constructions while white students, teachers (and perhaps the editors of the texts we teach) are oblivious. As a way to include questions and comments about such phrases, we propose a series of small assignments that introduce students to textual analysis as antiracist intellectual work. These can be done in class, in small groups or independently, and over the course of a unit. [509]

a. Research various versions of the play for interpretations/glosses that may be more and less aware of race.
b. Un-edit to unpack the historical and contemporary biases and power structures that may have informed this textual history.
c. Re-edit to address how this play functions in modernity and engages the zeitgeist.

Research. Most texts that we consulted offered no gloss at all.[9] Some doled out a neutral-sounding claim: “In Romeo’s metaphor, a jewel shines brighter against an Ethiopian’s proverbial dark skin.”[10] No Fear Shakespeare translates the line to “she stands out against the darkness like a jeweled earring hanging against the cheek of an African.”[11] Some student editions and “guides” engage and dismiss racism in one fell swoop. Cliff’s Notes, published by the textbook company Harcourt Brace, engages with the racist import of the phrase by asking and instantly answering: “Is this phrase racist? Most likely, by today’s standards.” But the authors hastily reassure, “Shakespeare’s audiences, though, would not have given the underlying ethics of the phrase a second thought.”[12] Setting to one side the problematic assumption about what Shakespeare’s audiences might think, we do give thought to this, as do our students. We want them to recognize pre-modern constructions of race and pay attention to these as a legacy of canonical texts.

Un-edit. The Cliff’s Notes version, to cite only the most obvious example, giveth and taketh away the chance to talk about racism and the no-gloss texts seem to assume the line is merely an aesthetic claim that speaks for itself. Shakespeare’s imagery does present light and black as aesthetic foils, but No Fear’s “African” narrows the lobe onto a Black person from a particular continent in a way that “Ethiope’s” etymology leaves it open, as we shall explore below.[13] So, although “African” might work [510] as a synonym, that replacement silences the noise of an echo we hear in another familiar early modern phrase: “to wash the Ethiope white,” which the OED (the Oxford English Dictionary) quietly cross-references (you can click on “wash” in the online version and get to centuries of antiblack statements).[14] Editors can quash the cultural inheritance that labels black skin as inferior just as Cliff’s Notes quashes curiosity about audiences’ responses to racism, but students can un-edit and respond as twenty-first-century readers and viewers. Imagine students from their various positions, being called (or allowed) to undo assumptions that go into glossing such terms and phrases as they locate texts in their own time.

For example, per the OED, “Ethiop” bears a surprisingly jumbled etymology with Greek roots meaning ‘kindle,’ ‘burnt-face,’ and ‘fiery looking’ (thus independent of the association with the African continent), though Italians and other Europeans traded in North Africa. The word implies phenotype information (many Ethiopians are dark skinned, though so are some Italians) and bears some implication of racial inferiority (the jewel is ‘better’/prettier in contrast to the ‘backdrop’/foil). Romeo’s line posits a comparison that we could syllogize as earring/Juliet/white/light/valuable(rich)/beautiful::cheek/Ethiope/black/dark(less valuable)/ugly.

Re-edit. While many of us ask students to use the OED for such multivalent terms as “black” and “fair” or uncommon terms like “blackamoor,” in order to nuance them historically, we are often less successful in bridging racism back then and racism now. This is why we need the perspectives of [511] Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in class and in footnotes. Inviting students to take on editorial decisions like this shows that multiple perspectives are valued. We recommend prompts like the following to spur such interventions, followed by an assignment on “do it yourself” footnotes:

  • Ask why an English playwright like Shakespeare or an Italian youth like Romeo might have such an image at the ready.
  • Search Opensource Shakespeare for other racially marked terms in plays from the same period such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Merchant of Venice.[15]
  • Imagine audiences of students worldwide chancing upon phrases about “foul negroes” and “old black rams” and try to account for these imagined students.
  • Ask students to explain where in current pop culture (or high culture) are comparisons like this still entrenched; how are they being (re)written?
Student activity — DIY footnotes
Gloss Romeo’s line with race in mind by locating and summarizing information about early modern Anglo-African relations. Add a map to your note.
Review footnotes and ‘translations’ in other editions and ask your readers to consider what is gained or lost when such a phrase goes unremarked or treated as if race did not matter.
Use Source Shakespeare to scour the play for references to “black.” What is significant about the fact that in Romeo and Juliet it modifies melancholy “humor,” “fate,” “strife,” and funeral cloths, while “fair” mostly concerns beauty?
Explain how these color conceptions impact or contextualize the earring image. How do they make you feel?

• • •

While scholars now attend to the range of possibilities within and between textual variants to correct for sexist and racist interpolations that have constrained period texts for centuries, teaching editions of the [512] plays rarely reflect this work (as seen with No Fear). Leah Marcus argued that centuries’ old editorial suppositions shape our reception of Shakespeare — from listing all the male character names before the female characters, regardless of relative importance, to “downplay[ing] possible instances of female authority,” and ignoring colonialist editorial legacies that whitened or blackened or othered the language of the plays (“Shakespearean,” 2–3). Whereas Marcus and others’ editorial remediation “un-edits” the renaissance, stripping away ahistorical — or worse — editorial baggage, the kind of re-editing that we are calling for prioritizes frank talk about race that is student directed.[16] We must respond with more than apologies to students who happen to “look up” from the book; we must perform the requisite preparation and accept our obligation of instructors to bring all students into dialogues about race, not only BIPOC students. Thus, we design our assignments to build from un-editing projects to move outward, claiming editor’s prerogatives to pointedly invite students to connect their observations and experiences with race and racism in their own and the world of Shakespeare. We offer ways to present (or “package,” if you will) classroom editions of early modern texts and to create classroom activities that recognize and acknowledge racism. Our purpose is to encourage Shakespeare instructors to model responsive and responsible teaching, present our field as one that is relevant, and invite students to investigate problems of racism today though historical material. All of these are possible through the practice of re-editing with our students.

Re-editing Shakespeare requires the instructor to teach explicitly the very deep and long history of the association between whiteness and purity on the one hand, and blackness and sin, on the other — and the fact that variations on these associations persist today, implicating early modern studies in ways that we do well to confront. We note that this editing approach is equally appropriate whatever play one is teaching; “race” need not be a central theme, as David Sterling Brown has demonstrated [513] with his category of “the other race plays.”[17] One of the editors of this volume, Matt Chapman, along with other scholars, shows that these ideological oppositions informed the color concepts as racialized categories. For Chapman, these racialized meanings that emerged in early modernity on various fronts, including stage blackface, helped “create the world … and … notions of humanity.”[18] As Shakespeare scholars Peter Erickson and Kim Hall show, “our own historical moment shapes our questions” about race, the significance of which changes over time. They urge scholars to think “‘cross-historical[ly]’” not as a “conflation of past and present,” but as coordination of “two historical moments with distinct ideas of race … in interpretive relation to produce a comparative perspective.”[19]

Given the heft of these premises that race has shaped the very idea of the human and that a comparative historical perspective is vitally important for understanding the “intractability” of current racial problems, students today can learn to reject neutral, etymological footnotes and blasé historical mini-lectures, and seize the chance to confront racism with us. This new kind of editorial work, especially when done with students, better accounts for/responds to twenty-first-century students’ needs, granting their curiosity about and responses to phrases such as tawny Tartars, old black rams, and white ewes, to name a few (from Midsummer Night’s Dream and Othello, respectively). Such practices underscore both the need for and the limits of history (and the scholarly tools, including the OED, that mediate that history), as well as the validity of engaging with [514] the present in order to promote an antiracist pedagogy. As literary critic Barbara Sebek explains, “keeping a critically inflected Shakespeare in the curriculum performs important work, given the historical uses to which ‘Shakespeare’ has been put” as the quintessential sign of Englishness, or as a container of ‘timeless’ human values.”[20]

• • •

High school students often resort to, and many entire school districts adopt, No Fear Shakespeare-type materials for classroom use. These and popular college editions, including the Folger and Bedford, as we showed, minimize, neutralize, ignore, or explain away racist phrases. Thus, they miss opportunities to teach history and Shakespeare, and to create an antiracist pedagogy.[21] When race-based slurs, insults, and epithets pop up, students notice and want to know, “Is this racist?” When those sometimes-bizarre instances are simply rewritten or unnoted, so goes the inevitable discomfort and horror that students and teachers feel and ought to confront. Critical introductions, editorial glosses, and in-class editing activities that prioritize race present a Renaissance that is both “the facts” and inevitably more interesting. These practices address Ayanna Thompson’s detection of “a certain anxiety about … the critics’ own identity politics through the employment of prologues, forewords, afterwords, afterthoughts, and epilogues.”[22]

For the instructor, teaching a critically inflected Shakespeare means preparing for sticking places, the textual and performance problems that we are often tempted to ignore. We see two equally important strategies to avoid leaving intellectual exercises about race at the threshold of today’s racism: 1) proactively engage students to react to these words and phrases (rather than waiting to see if race ‘comes up’), and 2) purposefully [515] direct their reactions in and out of the text (highlighting and annotating while also inquiring and expressing). We find the footnote and other textual apparatus are productive and inclusive spaces where antiracist work can happen. Explanatory and discursive notes, introductions, and sidebars are freer spaces than formal essays, where these editorial and pedagogical commitments can flourish. This is not to suggest that glossing race is marginalizing it; rather this practice uses the local or concrete as an entrée into the abstract and general.

Below we will illustrate this practice by considering editing choices for some of the seemingly “throw-away” racist lines from early modern plays. A look at questions posed on the internet and engaged in discussion forums like Reddit about the color of Shakespearean characters shows that teachers and students are hungry for the chance to name the problem, find definitions for the offensive references, and unpack the implications for then and now.[23] These are important conversations, and if we don’t welcome them in class, students will pick up information on the street, as it were, from the information superhighway where certainty and anger often trump ambiguity and social justice. The practice we advocate also helps our students to see their own interpretive labor as contributive. We chose these local expressions rather than, say, Othello, that centrally thematizes racial difference with a major Black character, or the sonnets’ “fair friend” and “dark lady,” because the suddenly appearing “Ethiope” or “foul Negro” strikes like a micro-aggression that can stun, shock, and stump some readers, while also potentially being overlooked by others, including, as we have shown, editors and instructors. Antiblack racism that is literally marginal (as in not obviously central to a given play) but culturally central for us need not be marginalized in texts and classrooms.

In our teaching, we begin with modeling our own editing. In Ann’s edition of A Warning for Fair Women, she created an extensive footnote [516] attendant on one of those seeming gratuitous lines. The lover-figure Captain Browne weighs the pros and cons of murdering his rival by proclaiming:

And if I do [fail], let me be held a coward,
And no more worthy to obtain her bed
Than a foul Negro to embrace a Queene.[24]

Proverbial sounding, this was the phrase that caused Ann’s one Black student to look up and Ann to issue an awkward apology. Although the footnote in her edition had re-edited the line to address the racist content, students in the moment were fixed on the text and anxious about their pronunciation of words. Here is what they would have seen at the bottom of the page in a more in-depth reading:

Clearly racist, the comparison is meant to express the insurmountable disparity between Browne, afraid to commit murder, and his beloved, in the same way that a Black man (of any rank) has no right to ‘embrace’ (touch, have a relationship with) a (presumably white) queen. Embedded in such language is a fear of miscegenation and a sense of white/English superiority, though it is also true that Englishmen travelled to, were taken captive, or voluntarily resettled in areas throughout the Mediterranean, where they might turn “renegade” (abandon Christianity) and marry local non-white, non-Christian women. Another phrase for “that will never happen” was anti-Semitic, illustrated in Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress,” where the male lover jokes that a woman might refuse to comply with his desires indefinitely, or “until the conversion of the Jews” (line 10). Theatre historian Andrew Gurr suggests that the negro/queen saying in A Warning may be an allusion to Aaron, the black Moor and his lover, Tamara, the Queen of Goths, both taken captive to Rome in Shakespeare’s [517] first tragedy, Titus Andronicus performed by the same theatre company as A Warning (The Shakespeare Company 134). Also notable is that Aaron appropriates anti-black racism to claim his own racial pride:

Coal-black is better than another hue,
In that it scorns to bear another hue;
For all the water in the ocean
Can never turn the swan’s black legs to white,
Although she lave them hourly in the flood. (4.2.103–107).

Finally, consider the fact that in the play Browne is Irish, another kind of “other” in the sixteenth century, when English people occupied and ruled colonies (or “plantations”) in Munster, the southwest part of Ireland, which was also called “the Pale.” English texts and maps frequently represented Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, not unlike Africa and the Atlantic world, as the uncivilized, “dark corners” of the land, often brutally treating native inhabitants. The play is not specific about what Captain Browne’s Irish parentage, but he elsewhere defends Ireland as civil, orderly, and law-abiding. See Ohlmeyer, Jane. 2002. “Literature and the New British and Irish Histories.” Edited by David J. Baker and Willy Maley, 245–55. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.uh.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mlf&AN=2002581478&site=ehost-live.

This extensive footnote is explicitly written to acknowledge that the phrase is disturbing, imagine students’ questions, furnish examples from contemporary texts both of antiblack racism and resistance, and lead back to the text and to the related “Irish problem.” In fact it was this other racist, colonialist issue that led to a productive class discussion later about “colorblind” casting. Ann assigned a video recording of the world revival of A Warning for Fair Women performed by the Resurgens Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia, in November 2018 and using her draft edition; the cast members for this show were white with the exception of South Asian Tamil Periasamy, who played Browne and spoke the line about the “foul negro.” In their initial reviews of the show, some students [518] criticized it as racially biased (or insensitive) casting of “the black man” as the villain, though, as we processed the casting choices together, we also considered that his height (tall) and fit physique suited his role as the romantic rival, noting too that his excellent performance as the male lead “stole the show.” This was a nuanced analysis in which skin color was one of other markers. Looking further at details from the play about character’s Irish origins and using information about the Munster plantation, the class concluded that Periasamy’s dark skin in a cast of otherwise white actors emphasized his outsider status as an Irishman in London. Following the in-class reading with this investigation of sticking places and fruitful complexity also took the pressure off the one Black student in the class (a common occurrence in predominantly white institutions) and widened the topic to casting and color in film and television.

The task is for Shakespeare instructors to proactively plan to highlight, probe, and question, and to give space and time for students to have a guided part in this same work. By lecture, discussion notes, or hand-outs, the planning creates a sort of “teacher’s edition” to have at the ready the kinds of textual information and additional resources necessary to point to and then translate and contextualize potentially racial or racist implications but not explain that material away. Of course, time and intention are required to demonstrate to students that they should not be expecting an easy acquisition of answers.

• • •

Shakespeare instructors must do the kind of preparation/proactivity that makes for what social science describes as culturally responsive pedagogy. According to social scientist Carol Lee,

… robust learning environments must address goals beyond cognitive skills alone … [must] draw from extant research on how people learn: the importance of drawing on relevant prior knowledge, of making problem solving public and explicit; the need to address generative concepts and to socialize epistemologies, to [519] facilitate dialogue and metacognition; and opportunities to interrogate multiple points of view and misconceptions.[25]

In the last thirty years, teachers and teacher educators have worked to develop viable antiracist strategies for classrooms, using the perspectives of critical race theory. Some preparation programs provide courses or seminars that use social justice frameworks, asking teacher candidates to become conscious of the institutional structures that systematize racial thinking and unacknowledged discriminations.[26] Surely Shakespeare studies can be allied with this effort. Our notions of re-editing are in line with Carlin Borsheim-Black and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianide’s proposal that teacher education needs a conception of “racial literacy,” so that future teachers recognize expressions and expectations of race, language, literacy, and power.[27] Because future-teacher knowledge is essential but not sufficient, culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) as both a theoretical basis and strategic method addresses and meets the needs of marginalized youth in schools.[28] Such pedagogy for Shakespeare means pointing out the language that is part of the foundation of what has previously excluded certain students.

Just as the “BlacKKKShakespeareans” call for dramatic change for the good of the early modern scholarship and the professoriate, teacher educators and social science researchers are similarly eager to support significant pedagogical change. Julia Schleck’s essay on the antiracist classroom [520] acknowledges that “we need to change this impression” that an early modern curricula covers a period remote from our own when race wasn’t yet invented, taught by white instructors with texts “explicitly and exclusively” by white authors, if we hope to have a more inclusive profession and more inclusive classrooms.[29] Shakespeare instructors can do better than endorsing “resources” that merely shake up or shut down race talk. In So you want to talk about race, educator Ijeoma Oluo warns that talking is necessary but insufficient without action to counteract racism.[30] For editors and instructors, tackling words such as Ethiope is action.

• • •

Proactivity, or preparation, for such teaching is important, because of the promise and peril of “teachable moments.” Drawing on influential psychologist Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity, Stephen R. White and George Maycock find “intense, insightful, and meaningful learning” that occurs when teachers are ready and able to respond to the unexpected in their instruction.[31] Educators who take advantage of teachable moments have developed their professional identities in ways that are flexible, focusing less on command and control and allowing for change and improvisation within their orchestration of a classroom discussion.[32] White and Maycock focus on college teaching and the instructors who “empathetically put themselves in the place of the learners.”[33] However, there is a danger in assuming that troublesome or even distressing textual [521] moments will be equally obvious to all, will organically “come up” in class, and that the wise instructor will be able to respond in the flow of the discussion. In reality, as educators Mary Mueller and Dina Yankelewitz write, taking advantage of perfectly timed opportunities to intervene, seizing on just that moment when a learner appears ready to engage in an important topic — leaves too much to chance.[34] Instead, Shakespeare instructors can and should predict what words in their text selections can and should expect a response. English language arts specialist Valerie Kinloch describes how this preparation takes the pressure off the diverse students who might voice a question, making central their “language, literacies, and cultural practices,” that dominant practices might relegate to the margins.[35]

The glosses we imagine and create with our students need not resolve textual or racial problems, but they can at least identify them, furnish some information, and invite students to engage. We know these conversations happen outside of classrooms, and we need to make it clear they belong inside. For instance, we found a brisk debate on Reddit, the popular online forum, from 2017 spawned from one original poster’s (OP’s) question, “Is Midsummer’s Hermia black?” The discussion included voices of the kind of curiosity and open-mindedness we want to foster in our classrooms as well as the certainty more typical of Cliff’s Notes and footnotes, such as claims about “Shakespeare’s intent” and unambiguous definitions of what was considered beautiful (whiteness) and ugly (blackness) in the period. The OP was the user u/MsNyleve:

My colleague and I are teaching Midsummer to high school freshmen right now, and today we read the cat fight between Helena and Hermia. At one point, Lysander (under the influence of the flower juice) tells Hermia “Away, you Ethiope!” My colleague thinks [522] Hermia’s black. I assume not, since she’s nobility and black nobility would be preposterous at the time. What say you, is Lysander just insulting her, or is she really black? For what it’s worth, she’s also described as tawny elsewhere.

The ensuing Reddit comments called up external “evidence,” such as the notion that white skin stands for elite status (proof that a person does not labor outdoors and is hence “attractive”), and internal, textual “clues” about Hermia’s appearance. For our purposes, we appreciated how those who identify as teachers initiated and pursued the conversation about a character’s skin color, noting their professional and personal commitments to the topic of race prompted by the play. We suspect that the question arose in the forum because textbooks were silent on the matter. If teachers seek a community to debate a problem staring them in the face in class, and if students look up from reading for answers about an insulting word choice, why not acknowledge these needs in our editions? Editors and instructors can mentor students using these apparent one-off insults, such as “Ethiope,” where currently, they find either a one-word “clarification” as when The Bedford Shakespeare supplies “Blackamoor,” or through the spurious logic illustrated in the Norton Shakespeare’s explanation that “dark hair and complexion” = “Ethiopians or Tartars” = “ugly.”[36] Since unguided readers consult the Ouija Board of the Internet with questions like “What color is Cleopatra?” and “Is Othello black?,” the text books that we create could stimulate and guide, if not “control,” the way students encounter race in Shakespeare.

There was a heated exchange in that Reddit thread about Hermia’s potential blackness that illustrates some posters’ seeming ease with open-endedness and updating and others’ desire to close down possibility. The user called sprigglespraggle attests that “it is clear that Shakespeare’s [523] intent with this line was hyperbole” and Jacksaintmonica erases race in this way: “I think that since white as a color was considered more virtuous and truthful, being called an Ethiope was more of a reflection on Hermia’s character than her skin color.” Another member, the-roaring-girl, returns to the original post, “I like your colleague’s line of thinking! It’s 2017; Shakespeare is dead, so we can’t ask him what he thinks. If your colleague thinks Hermia may be POC, then let’s cast a POC actress in the role!” Rcrow2009 pushes against the other posters’ certain claims about Hermia’s whiteness and the standards of beauty: “Again, I just don’t see why people are so opposed to the notion that characters in this play could be non-white. Given the setting and textual clues especially … . But the play isnt set in britian. Its set in ancient greece and features hippolyta, an Amazon, and the fairies (who are mentioned being from india) … .She’s definately black. Not only is she called ethiope, but also a “nut” and a “raven”. Given that the play is set in greece, her being black and nobility truly usnt that unusual.” [37] Next, Iwillfuckingbiteyou asks for “a source” to support Rcrow’s observation that Greeks were not white; BeeDice closes down the thread with two words and signs for a frustrated face: “‘cat fight’? :/,” by which that they might mean to refer to the scene in Midsummer when Helena and Hermia skirmish or to the very discussion on Reddit.

You go, Rcrow![38] Unfortunately, teachers and students reaching for online aids and even mainstream textbooks for racial questions rarely find [524] debate. Much more common is the pattern illustrated in the York Study Notes and Revision Guide for A-Level students, for example, which uses the subject heading, “HERMIA’S APPEARANCE” to close down discussion:

Hermia is the darker and shorter of the two young women. ‘Who will not change a raven for a dove?’ asks Lysander (II.2.120), contrasting her complexion and hair colour with Helena’s. Later he calls Hermia an ‘Ethiope’ and a ‘tawny Tartar’ (III.2.257 and 263).

The Guide clinches the case thus without providing evidence: “Dark hair and skin were considered unfashionable in this period.” This explanation fails to account for Hermia as an exception to this rule; the York Study allows, “but before the magic juice distorts their reactions, both men still perceive Hermia as highly attractive.”

Is Black so base a hue? Is Hermia Black? These questions trouble us as scholars, high-school teachers, Shakespeare fan forum users, and students. The re-editing that we advocate is a hands-on way to question and refute assertions endlessly repeated that non-whiteness was unfashionable and unattractive and to counter bullying silence and pallid apologies with text and intellect. With this kind of work, future students might indeed look up and find connection to peers and teachers and look down to textual notes and see their questions valued.

Discussion Questions for Instructors

  1. Reflect on a time that you seized a “teachable moment” on a difficult topic in class. How might you ensure the treatment of this topic in future classes? Alternatively, recall a time that you missed such an opportunity. What do you see as the “promise and peril” of these classroom moments?
  2. Discuss some ways to adapt your current writing and in-class activities to focus on race. How can you keep students’ attention on both what they sometimes imagine as a very different “back then” and now?
  3. Create a “side-bar” assignment for your class using “race words.” Include a model to illustrate the kind of apparatus you hope your students will create.

  1. Ann presented a version of this paper, titled “The Loss of Gloss: Re-editing the Renaissance” at the MLA meeting in Seattle, 2020.
  2. For a discussion of John Lewis and his achievements, see Wilburn’s essay in this volume.
  3. “Teaching Shakespeare” appears in volumes 108 and 109.
  4. Russell Simms (Executive Producer) and Jason Zeldes (Director), Romeo is Bleeding. (Leo Persham Pictures 2017).
  5. See Peter Erickson and Kim F. Hall, eds., “[Special Issue on Race].” Shakespeare Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2016): 1–135.
  6. Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1995), 255; see also Kimberly Anne Coles, Kim F. Hall, and Ayanna Thompson, “BlacKKKShakespearean: A Call to Action for Medieval and Early Modern Studies,” MLA: The Profession. Modern Languages Association, November 25, 2019. https://profession.mla.org/blackkkshakespearean-a-call-to-action-for-medieval-and-early-modern-studies/.
  7. See Leah Marcus, Unediting the Renaissance: Shakespeare, Marlowe and Milton. Routledge, 1996. ProQuest Ebook Central, www.ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uh/detail.action?docID=168237 and “Shakespearean Editing and Why It Matters.” Literature Compass 2, no. 1 (2005): 1–5.
  8. Coles, Hall, and Thompson, “BlacKKKShakespearean.” This was a public forum piece printed in a publication of the Modern Language Association (MLA): Profession.
  9. Dympna Callaghan, ed., Bedford Texts and Contexts (1.5.43); Lena Cowen Orlin and Russ McDonald, eds., Bedford (p. 288, 1.5.45); and David Bevington, Norton Complete (p. 886, 1.5.43).
  10. Gordon McMullan, Norton Critical edition, 1.4.161, 24n2.
  11. “No Fear Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet: Act 1 Scene 5 Page 2.” Sparknotes, sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/romeojuliet/page_60/. On the debate about the validity of “modernizing” Shakespeare’s language, see Mike LoMonico. “Shakespeare … in other words,” esp. Julia Perlowski comment. January 6, 2012, at 5:40 pm.
  12. Annaliese F. Connolly, CliffsNotes on Romeo and Juliet. Accessed 15 July 2021. /literature/r/romeo-and-juliet/romeo-and-juliet-at-a-glance.
  13. Teachers could show students the following illustrative citations from the OED, and discuss the centrality of Shakespeare and the negative cast to the examples: 1. Of or relating to Ethiopia; Ethiopian 1600 Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing V. iv. 38 “Ile hold my mind were she an Ethiope” 2. Black or dark (literally or figuratively) a1616 SHAKESPEARE As You Like It (1623) iv. iii. 36 “Ethiop words, blacker in their effect /Then in their countenance.” The coloring of Juliet/earring underscores a related pedagogical matter — the “West-Side-Storification” of the play that renders the “two households both alike in dignity” instead two races irreconcilably different. See Carla Della Gatta. “From West Side Story to Hamlet, Prince of Cuba: Shakespeare and Latinidad in the United States.” Shakespeare Studies 44, (2016): 151–56; and Laura B. Turchi and Ann C. Christensen. “When the ‘House’ (of Montague) Is a Color, Not a Clan.” English Journal 108, no. 1 (November 1, 2018): 111–14.
  14. “Ethiop, n. and adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/64772. Accessed 19 October 2021.
  15. https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/concordance/
  16. Marcus. Unediting, esp. Introduction “The blue-eyed hag,” 1–37.
  17. David Sterling Brown, “White Hands: Gesturing Toward Shakespeare’s Other ‘Race Plays,’” Shakespeare Association of America Conference, Washington, D.C., April 2019. The excellent critical work on race in the early modern period that we consulted for this essay includes Loomba and Burton, Charry, Hall, Little, Erickson and Hall, Newman, and Thompson.
  18. Chapman, Matthieu. Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama: The Other “Other.” (Routledge, 2017), 10. Chapman discusses the generalized history of black/white opposition to concur with Loomba and others in that “notions of whiteness as pure and blackness as sin in religious doctrine predate discourse on whiteness as racialized categories” (7, 29n20, 21).
  19. Peter Erickson and Kim F. Hall, ed., “[Special Issue on Race].” Shakespeare Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2016): 7.
  20. Barbara Sebek, “Different Shakespeares: Thinking Globally in an Early Modern Literature Course.” Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross-Cultural Encounters, edited by Karina F. Attar and Lynn Shutters. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 115.
  21. The Folger Education Blog has an official stand on the kind of paraphrase found in Spark Notes products; see Caitlin Griffin, “More to Fear from ‘No Fear,’” February 23, 2012.
  22. Ayanna Thompson, “The Future of Early Modern Race Studies: On Three Ambitious (Enough?) Books.” The Eighteenth Century 49, no. 3 (2008): 259.
  23. Reddit is a popular social news website and forum for questions, comments, and advice. Users, called redditors, curate and promote material by voting. According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, 71% of Reddit’s audience is composed of men. See Christian Stafford, “Reddit Definition” Search CIO, December 2016 https://searchcio.techtarget.com/definition/Reddit.
  24. Ann Christensen, ed., A Warning for Fair Women. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021), 7.1–12.
  25. Carol Lee, “An Ecological Framework for Enacting Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy,” in Django Paris and H. Samy Alim, Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies : Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2017), 269–70.
  26. Conra D. Gist, Preparing Teachers of Color to Teach: Culturally Responsive Teacher Education in Theory and Practice. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 291.
  27. Carlin Borsheim-Black and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides, Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature Instruction for White Students. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2019), 24.
  28. See Geneva Gay, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. Third edition. (New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2018); and Gloria J. Ladson-Billings, “Preparing Teachers for Diverse Student Populations: A Critical Race Theory Perspective.” Review of Research in Education 24, (1999): 211–47.
  29. Julia Schelck, “Stranger than Fiction: Early Modern Travel Narratives and the Anti-Racist Classroom.” Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross-Cultural Encounters, edited by Karina F. Attar and Lynn Shutters. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 98.
  30. Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race. First edition. (New York, NY: Seal Press, 2018).
  31. Stephen R. White and George A. Maycock, “College Teaching and Synchronicity: Exploring the Other Side of Teachable Moments.” Community College Journal of Research and Practice 36, no. 5 (2012): 321–29. https://doi.org/10.1080/03601277.2010.500595.324.
  32. See, for instance, Hristina Keranova, “Grab Those Teachable Moments! (On Teacher Identities and Student Learning),” English Teaching: Practice & Critique 15, no. 2 (2016): 276–84.
  33. White and Maycock, 322.
  34. Mary Mueller and Dina Yankelewitz, “Teaching Mistakes or Teachable Moments?” Kappa Delta Pi Record 50, (2014): 124–29.
  35. Valerie Kinloch, “‘You Ain’t Making Me Write’: Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies and Black Youths’ Performances of Resistance,” in Paris and Alim, Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies, 38.
  36. See Bedford, 376n357 and Norton, 362n7. Since many editions now provide introductory and historical discussions of race, when a racially inflected term comes up in a given play, a footnote could direct readers to those sections and also provoke connections to modern lived experience closer to the reference itself. For example, the Bedford features discursive, historical “Context” chapters on topics such as “Race,” “Religion,” and “Empire.”
  37. Rcrow2009 brings up other “textual clues” re: the character: “I think she was depicted as short, definitely shorter than Helena. I just don’t see why we are discounting the reading of her being black despite several textual clues she was, when the only reason seems to be ‘Maybe it was hyperbole.’” iwillfuckingbiteyou objects: “But she’s referred to as a dwarf. She calls herself “dwarfish.” That’s pretty unambiguous, right? Those are definite textual clues.” Rcrow2009 counters with the idea that “Dwarfish has a much more metaphorical meaning within colloquial contexts than Ethiope.”
  38. Many scholars agree with Rcrow2009. See Armelle Sabatier “Eulogizing Black in Love’s Labour’s Lost.” Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare [En ligne], 32 | 2015, 10 March 2015. OpenEdition, 10.4000/shakespeare.2925. Sabatier looks at the pattern of “unconventional discourses on female beauty” that include blackness in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Love’s Labour’s Lost, noting the contexts of male rivalry and friendship.


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Teaching Race in the European Renaissance: A Classroom Guide Copyright © 2023 by Ann C. Christensen and Laura B. Turchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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