Sight-Reading Race in Early Modern Drama: Dog Whistles, Signifiers, and the Grammars of Blackness

Matthieu Chapman and Joshua Kelly

[print book page number: 43]


On Sunday, July 14, 2019, United States President Donald Trump tweeted the following:

“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly … ” (1/3)

“ … and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how … ” (2/3)

“ … it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!” (3/3)[1]

The progressive Democratic Congresswomen to whom he is referring are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Representative from New York’s 14th district), Ilhan Omar (Representative from Minnesota’s 5th district), Ayanna Pressley (Representative from Massachusetts’s 7th district), and Rashida Tlaib (Representative from Michigan’s 13th district). These four women have [44] many things in common. Each of them won their congressional seat in 2019. Each of them is an American citizen (all of them except for Ilhan Omar was born in the United States. Omar naturalized from Somalia in 2000 when she was seventeen years old). Most importantly, however, each of them is a woman of color.

Many news outlets including CNN, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times immediately called out the tweets for what they were: a racist attack designed to mobilize Trump’s white supremacist base through “dog whistle politics.”[2] In their article “Populism as Dog-Whistle Politics: Anti-Elite Discourse and Sentiments toward Minorities,” Harvard professor Bart Bonikowski and University of California–Berkeley professor Yueran Zhang illustrate the concept of dog-whistles:

“Dog-whistle politics” refers to the use of ostensibly innocuous discursive cues that prime more insidious outgroup hostilities, particularly among those who share the ideological predilections of the speaker. In practice, such coded language often evokes racially charged attitudes, but it has also been used in religious and anti-immigrant discourse. The metaphor is a reference to high-pitched dog-training whistles that use frequencies inaudible to humans.[3]

Donald Trump, while not explicitly mentioning race, deployed discursive tactics that listeners would invariably hear as a remark on race while still giving himself plausible deniability.

Although the phrase dog-whistling became popular in relation to political campaigns of the 1980s, the linguistic processes and discursive ambiguity that produce the dog-whistle effect have a history that go as far back as the Elizabethan Age. This essay uses psychoanalyst Jacques [45] Lacan’s theories of semiotics, along with other models, and contemporary critical race theory to reveal how certain signs performed on the early modern stage engaged in visual dog-whistling, which allowed early modern audiences to sight-read race; to “see” race where it may not have been explicitly performed through blackening cosmetics and materials — or by Black bodies.

Such an analysis will serve not just as a necessary inquiry for scholars of performance philosophy, theatre history, and race studies, but also as an accessible tool for teachers of Shakespeare and Renaissance theatre to better help their students understand the complex and underdiscussed performances of blackness on the early modern stage. In teaching and discussing race in Renaissance England, it is important to not only address the period in a vacuum, but to also acknowledge the continuum of racial thinking that began in the medieval period and continues to today. While simply reading today’s conceptions of race onto the past would, of course, be too simplistic, ignoring the afterlives and echoes of early modern racial thinking would be far more dangerous.

We will begin with a brief explanation of visual cues and semiotics — a system of recognizable codes — to show how Trump’s tweets function as dog-whistling, and then will explore how we can use textual cues from early modern historical sources to read race in bodies that may otherwise be considered to be unraced. After an overview of numerous primary documents and dramatic sources which create a genealogy of racial semiotics — textual dog-whistles — we will use an analysis of the witches in Macbeth as our case-study to show how those cues persevere in the Shakespearean canon. We’ve chosen this play because the witches of Macbeth exist chronologically and semiotically at the intersection of “black” and “female” in a way that reinforces racial thinking of the Black woman as foreign, dangerous, and impossible to incorporate into civil society — in other words, in a way that foreshadows the political attacks of Donald Trump. Also, because Macbeth is still a commonly used touchstone of the English-speaking theatrical canon and frequently required reading in undergraduate English and drama courses, it is doubly useful as a starting point for demonstrating the necessity of understanding (and teaching) racial semiotics in Shakespeare: to learn to hear dog-whistles when they are blasted in our most-used texts. [46]

Visual Signs, Linguistics, and Semiotics in Early Modern England

The history of signs is one of endless replacement: in order to understand one series of symbols, one needs another language of interpretation. Accepting that the quest for a universally understood language is a pipe-dream, we are left with are genealogies of interpretation — crossroads of expression in signs and symbols which allow us to follow meaning as it is defined from one instance to another. This field is called semiotics.

While semiotics has developed into a discipline with its own specializations and philosophies of thought, more broadly it incorporates all forms of interpretive abstracts, from letters to sounds to metaphor. As Umberto Eco says in his pivotal Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1986):

A specific semiotics is, or aims at being, the ‘grammar’ of a particular sign system, and proves to be successful insofar as it describes a given field of communicative phenomena as ruled by a system of signification. Thus there are ‘grammars’ of American Sign Language, of traffic signals, of a playing-card ‘matrix’ for different games of a particular game (for instance, poker). These systems can be studied from a syntactic, a semantic, or a pragmatic point of view.[4]

It is important to understand how a semiotic grammar is identified by its legibility among those who understand its signs — it is not labelled as a cogent sign system by any other body save those who can read it. If it can do this, then it can have predictive and explanatory power about (and for) those capable of that reading. Signifiers and referents (symbols that stand in representation of ideas — from words to numbers to abstract codes) [47] exist in a relationship with one another, but they also exist within a grammar in which they are constructed in relation to one another.[5]

The most accessible form of related grammar comes, of course, from common language, and the “existence of a certain rule (or code) enabling both the sender and the addressee to understand the manifestation in the same way must, of course, be presupposed if the transmission is to be successful,” that we “take as signs also words, that is the elements of verbal language.”[6] In this way, semiotics both incorporates — and is separate from — linguistics, for it includes verbal language but allows for the fact that any modality of sign carries interpretive potential. So, while we interpret signs that we speak and see, we are also able to interpret the grammar through which these signs are produced. Reading these grammatical slippages between spoken/represented signs and other signs with which they discursively relate to a deleterious effect produces the dog-whistle.

Semiotics bursts into sociopolitical and psychological discourses when it is assumed that we recognize our social and political selves, as well as our psychological Selves, by legible signifiers that we share with others. It is for this reason that semiotics and Lacanian signifiers (a system of signs whose meanings are understood by specific audiences) become primary methods for performance philosophy and criticism: a practice based entirely on varying modes of symbolism and representation. It is often the case in drama that what is presented to an audience are not simply intended or unintended messages, but messages simultaneously intended for different audiences or even legible codes otherwise implanted. It is this very concept of Otherness which brings us to Lacan.

In his paper given to the Rome Congress at the Institute of Psychology, University of Rome, in 1953, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan outlines the “temptation that presents itself to the analyst to abandon the foundation of speech, and this precisely in areas where its use, verging on the ineffable, [48] would seem to require examination more than ever.”[7] Aware of the separation between real, imaginary, and symbolic conditions, Lacan underscores the necessity for the psychoanalyst of truly understanding speech. In particular, this is because speech has the potential to betray a semiotic system used by the unconscious (“The unconscious is structured like a language,” in his famous formulation), which the analyst is bound to interpret:

Even if it communicates nothing, discourse represents the existence of communication; even if it denies the obvious, it affirms that speech constitutes truth … Thus the psychoanalyst knows better than anyone else that the point is to figure out [entendre] to which “part” of this discourse the significant term is relegated.[8]

For Lacan, such interpretation is an exercise in understanding the language of the Other, for which the unconscious is used as discourse.[9] In Lacan’s “big Other,” one finds the objective spirit of “trans-individual socio-linguistic structures configuring the fields of inter-subjective interactions,” including “ideas of anonymous authoritative power and/or knowledge (whether that of God, Nature, History, Society, State, Party, Science … ).”[10] That this relationship between signifiers and signs, constituted by the signifier and the signified, is ultimately subjective is part of the complexity of human socio-psychological development: “Language brings with it the arbitrary nature of the sign and differential relations among signs … So it is for Lacan.”[11] For Lacan, indeed, language itself is the act of differentiation. [49]

The first network, that of the signifier, is the synchronic structure of the language material in so far as each element takes on its precise usage therein by being different from the others; this is the principle of distribution that alone regulates the function of the elements of language [langue] at its different levels, from the phonematic pair of oppositions to compound expressions, the task of the most modern research being to isolate the stable forms of the latter.

The second network, that of the signified, is the diachronic set of the concretely pronounced discourses, which historically affects the first network, just as the structure of the first governs the pathways of the second. What dominates here is the unity of signification, which turns out never to come down to a pure indication of reality [réel], but always refers to another signification. In other words, signification comes about only on the basis of taking things as a whole [d’ensemble].[12]

The socio-linguistic structures of the Other are often documented in the artifacts which make up the study of history and literature, and careful examination can teach us the grammars involved in any given system. Conclusions by performance philosophers and theatre historians have already shown the potential of reading semiotics of blackness within these primary sources for the early modern period. In Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage (2008), Ayanna Thompson posits that “a racialized epistemology does not necessarily have to be based on a semiotically charged interpretation of color so much as a semiotically charged interpretation of bodiliness.”[13] Building from this, Matthieu Chapman’s study of the performances of blackness in the early modern period, Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama (2017), makes the case that subjectivity itself was racially based during this time and that recognition of one’s self was dependent on fluency in this particular grammar. [50] Those who lacked semiotic reciprocity were systematically inhuman, “a being that lacks the capacity for definition, a true anti-human, the antagonist against which all human identities find a stable base for identification.”[14] In (literally) other words, the Other in this sense is that which is not myself. For Renaissance England, alterity is one of the dominant grammars of blackness, and vice versa.

Absence, then, forms a sign by which early modern subjects understand “blackness” to be a substituted meaning — alterity, anti-human, or even “unthought,” as Saidiya Hartman writes: “that every attempt to emplot the slave in a narrative ultimately resulted in his or her obliteration.”[15] Contrast this against the observation of Lynda Boose, who writes in “The Getting of a Lawful Race: Racial Discourse and the Unrepresentable Black Woman”:

The black man is representable. But within Europe’s symbolic order of dominance and desire, the black woman destroys the system, essentially swallowing it up within the signification of her body.[16] [Italics, ours.]

Although from completely different fields and theoretical backgrounds, these two quotes intersect in their assumptive logic of blackness: that the symbolic order through which not only narratives, but also the notions of narrative itself, are constructed are incompatible with — and cannot account for — the emplotment of black flesh. Developing fluency in other signifiers of blackness within the early modern period, then, allows us to illustrate this incapability of direct representation for Black women. As Boose goes on to remind us about Shakespearean drama in particular: [51]

Even on occasions where the black woman-white male yoking occurs in the main plot, the racial narrative nonetheless remains repressed, retarded from full articulation by its dissipation into figures like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra or Marlowe’s Dido, both of whom are only by the remotest suggestion represented as being Negro … By contrast to the way that repeated allusions to both skin color and physiognomy foreground the racial identity of the black male figure in The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus, and Othello, the unrepresentability of Cleopatra’s racial status is what gets foregrounded by Antony and Cleopatra’s use of only two such allusions, both of which obfuscate rather than situate the issue.[17]

What Boose may be unintentionally framing for us is the fact that signifiers of blackness were, in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, no longer merely textual. It may be that in original performances of the play, grammars of blackness had developed into the Lacanian signified without the implicit use of mere language in the first network. In other words, blackness could have been signified in ways that the absence of direct text may not reveal, and in the disparity between dichotomous (or seemingly unrelated) meanings would exist a visual dog-whistle.

Our work will be to examine a different play. If we do not look at the linguistic product but rather the structures which undergird that labor — the black woman was represented through a confluence of signs — we will find that a series of dog-whistles are instantly cogent.

One such sign is the witch.

Witches in England

To understand how this grammar produces the unrepresentable Black woman in the early modern subject’s imagination requires a bit of history on the status of witches and devils in the early modern English imagination and the development of representations of blackness on the stage of that time. [52]

People living in Renaissance England were developing a remarkable semiotic awareness in terms of race and national identity, and the arbitrary interchange of those signifiers was not only wide-spread, but part-and-parcel of a strengthening need for social identity. As John Jeffries Martin maintains in Myths of Renaissance Individualism (2004), “Renaissance identities were almost always anxious identities, uncertain about the boundaries between … the inner and outer ‘self’” and whose boundaries were in constant flux and could be interpreted as “something that linked one person, by the logic of resemblance … to family, craft, city and nation,” or “a screen … behind which one should … conceal one’s thoughts and beliefs,” or “something remarkably permeable”.[18] As we add, such a subjectivity was eager to utilize an assumed ontology of blackness deeply inseminated in English cultural history by this time.

For centuries, blackness and evil were mutual signifiers in England, appearing in the Medieval period and deriving from the Manichaean doctrine that the universe was constructed along a binary between light and dark: that light is the province of godliness and darkness with evil.[19] Augustine of Hippo echoed this distinction in his work, “offering a proto-Lacanian analysis of the symbolic order” by equating that which was of God to be good, and “if things are deprived of goodness, they will have no being at all.[20] In Anti-Blackness in English Religion in 1500–1800, Joseph Washington explains how this Manichean schism persisted in Europe and shifted the social attitude toward various forms of blackness, describing “the propensity of the English in their public and private writings to equate black people not with humans but with devils.” [21] Accordingly, absence of direct representation and amalgams of black signification resulted in roughly four hundred years of “Moors, devils, witches, and the [53] black body all at one time or another occup[ying] the position of absence that defined English subjectivity.”[22]

In the case of witches, “blackness” becomes the linguistic sign by which their evil is recognized. The Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville describes witches as “transformed from humans.”[23] And, though it seems he was incorrect about this particular citation, Heinrich Kramer claimed in his 1486 Malleus Maleficarum that Isidore of Seville also said:

Witches are so called on account of the blackness of their guilt, that is to say, their deeds are more evil than those of any other malefactors. [Isidore] continues: They stir up and confound the elements by aid of the devil, and arouse terrible hailstorms and tempests. Moreover, he says they distract the minds of men, driving them to madness, insane hatred, and inordinate lusts.[24]

While — to the best of our knowledge — Isidore said nothing of the sort, the Malleus Maleficarum, with its astonishing number of black referents, became “the continental treatise most influential in England.”[25] King James I of England, in his 1597 witch-hunting treatise Daemonologie narrates a story in which “he granted that the deuill had appeared vnto him in the night before, appareled all in blacke.”[26]

The discourse on witches further reveals the psychic threat that the early modern subject associated not just with the sexualized female body, [54] but specifically with the female body’s potential for interbreeding with darkness. Such a fear is not purely misogynist, as Margaret Denike claims in The Devil’s Insatiable Sex: A Genealogy of Evil Incarnate (2003) but is also anti-miscegenation. In numerous instances, confessions from witch trials describe the devil with which the woman was said to have a relationship. In the 1645–1647 case of Elizabeth Southerne, for instance, the Dunwich peddler claims to have “met the divell midsomer last like a black boy 10 years old.”[27] Or, more vividly, from Marie “wife of Henrie Smith,” who “confirmed by her owne Confession” that the Devil “appeared vnto her amiddes these discontentments, in the shape of a blacke man, and willed that she should continue her malice.”[28]

On the matter of demonic miscegenation and its legacy in English consciousness and drama, Julia Garrett provides the most succinct overview:

[W]hile trials did not generally produce evidence about the most fantastical witch practices — including orgiastic sabbaths, copulation with the devil … such material was hardly absent from English culture altogether. Learned writers in England frequently addressed such matters in their treatises, while publishers made the major Continental tracts available in a variety of vernacular languages, occasionally offering English translations. King James I … provides an account of … the obscene kiss [on the arse] required of the Devil’s converts.

And it was none other than

Thomas Aquinas “who first propounded the possibility that a demon as a succubus could capture semen from a man and as an incubus subsequently use it to impregnate a woman” (18), and Stuart [55] Clark identifies such concerns about whether “demonic sexuality [could] result in genuine miscegenation” (190)[29]

In this way, witches came to symbolize a very real threat to assumptions about subjectivity by representing the threat of miscegenation between the subject and the abject (or in inhuman non-subject) upon which that subjectivity is constructed. This challenges the boundaries of what defines the human. The early modern English subject’s anxiety over the potential for miscegenation corrupting or destroying their being can be seen in the discourse of witches. Fearing the incorporation of blackness, which we have shown was already established as the binary opposition of the self and community, the early modern English subject was determined to avoid a collapse of both subjectivity and society.

This potential for incorporation, even if only available through supernatural means, was troublesome enough to constructions of humanity that it resulted in the blackening of the women, marking witches as null entities with no legal or ontological recourse because of their sexualized relationship with blackness. Evidence for the perceived blackness of witches exists in the legal process and punishment for witchcraft. When scholar Margaret Denike questions, “How is it that, despite their alleged incompetence and incapacity, which justified women’s exclusion from inquisitorial and legal processes in most European countries, women could be brought before ecclesiastical and secular courts in unprecedented numbers and convicted of crimes of witchcraft that bore the harshest penalties as yet known in Western legal history?”, she is referring to the fact that in most witch trials, the accused was completely at the mercy of society; men, women, and children all had equal status as witnesses against crimes of witchcraft.[30] Witchcraft was such a threat that it was labelled a crimen exceptum or “exceptional crime,” meaning there was “no restriction on the use of torture to extort confessions and no right for [56] suspects to appeal their convictions. Nor was there any process of appeal, and hence no scrutiny of the evidence and no procedure for recourse to a centralized higher court. There were also relaxed rules for the use of witnesses, which entailed, for example, that women and children could testify in trials for the first time.”[31]

What accounts for this exception? As opposed to other crimes, the association with blackness rendered witches guilty at the word of an informant; hence, upon accusation, the witch lost the capacity for interlocution. This made witchcraft (black arts and black magic) unique in that the accused was excommunicated from civil society; the crime was considered so severe an affront to accepted and expected bounds that participation warranted the removal of the accused from society. In many cases, the end result of a witchcraft trial was death, with “casual” estimates as low as 50,000 witches being killed in Europe from 1400–1700.[32]

This separation of witches from civil society and occupation of a position that coincides with blackness made its way from society to the stage and became readable in the scenes and signifiers of early modern drama. By the time witches began appearing on stage, with drama historian Thomas Berger citing Robert Greene’s 1587 play Alphonsus of Aragon as the earliest play with a witch character, the Black body already existed both in society and on the stage.[33] Witches, then, were no longer the corporeal manifestation of scandalized relationality, but rather became beings defined through their scandalous relations with blackness. Witches in drama, while blackened, are not Black, but rather inhabit a location outside of civil society but still within the symbolic order. Witches inhabit a space of severed relationality, not a priori absent relationality — removed from the discourse of Black semiotics but recognizable through dog-whistling Black grammar. Despite the appearance of [57] the Black body as the corporeal representation of blackness on the stage, the stage witch still maintained remnants of the Black ontology within its onstage presence.

The first appearance of witches on the early modern stage coincides with the appearance on stage of the black body, both occurring in 1587. As Virginia Mason Vaughan writes in Performing Blackness on English Stages: 1500–1800, “In the 1580s and 1590s a crucial shift took place from the simple display of blackened devils and Moorish kinds to the white actor’s impersonation of black characters.”[34] The fact that the dramatic practice of using blackface to directly portray the devil specifically and damnation generally was commonplace by this point can be seen in a number of production documents and playtexts themselves. Andrea Stevens records that:

Surviving guild accounts . . . list payments for black paint used in mystery plays, indicating that face-blackening agents number among the first known uses of theatrical paint. Drapers’ accounts from Coventry record payments for blacking the faces of devils and damned souls: “item payde for blacckyng of the Sowles facys ‘V’ Itm pd for Collering ye blacke Soils faces”; “payd for penttyng of the blake soles faces.”[35]

While the dramatic representation of witches functioned differently than the representation of devils in that they are not pure abjects, we can still see remnants of grammars of blackness manifested in their staging through their physical and narrative exile from civil society. The majority of witches in early modern English drama conform to two basic conventions that derive from the public perception: they maintain an association [58] with devils and blackness and exist separate from mainstream society.[36] It is in this connecting space between “witch” and “blackness” — a space well-traversed by this time in English subjectivity, that the dog-whistle exists. In Macbeth — it is of low enough pitch to be heard by human ears.

Dog-Whistles and Blackness in Macbeth

That Macbeth is an early modern English play containing witches at all would, from the argument above, require one to accept the text as part of the legacy of Black semiotic performance. However, some useful insights and supportive arguments can be found in previous scholarship on blackness in Macbeth, as well as through new interpretive reading. The seemingly contradictory nature of the witches’ blackness has been commented on by scholars, but not thoroughly addressed. The 2010 collection Weyward Macbeth, edited by Scott L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson, insightfully analyses the racial aspect of the play Macbeth, with the first two contributions to the book by Thompson and Celia R. Daileader addressing the blackness of the witches. Daileader’s article “Weird Brothers: What [59] Thomas Middleton’s The Witch Can Tell Us About Race, Sex, and Gender in Macbeth” interrogates the early modern conventions surrounding the staging of witches in a manner that signals the liminal space of witches in the semiotic system of blackness. Daileader raises the issue of the witches being referred to as Black, but not being presented as Black, stating:

Though Macbeth calls the witches ‘secret, black, and midnight hags’ (4.1.64), neither they nor ‘black Hecate’ (3.2.42) seem to have been blacked up. On the one hand, this is not surprising given the moral blackness of the human characters … On the other hand, the Renaissance commonplace about the Devil’s blackness would seem to require it.[37]

The convention of black devils cited by Daileader is one of the factors that allow witches to exist simultaneously as structurally blackened and theatrically non-Black. The relationality between witches and conceptions of abject blackness reveals ways in which the early modern subject could conceptualize abject blackness independent of aesthetic blackness; on the stage, one does not have to be “blacked up” to be Black, but rather the social energy circulated through the stage allows witches to be perceived as abjects in spite of their aesthetics — this is the early modern version of a dog-whistle.[38]

While the individual performances of those signifiers may be difficult to track, textual and linguistic cues do still appear in the play itself. Serving as double entendre able to rouse collective social memory of blackness, passages adopt striking new poignance when viewed through this historical lens. These include Malcolm’s description of “Devilish Macbeth,” who like the Devil unto witches, “By many of these trains hath sought to win me / Into his power.” At a servant who comes to bear news of [60] the approaching army, Macbeth screams: “The devil damn thee black … ” “Black spirits” accompany “black Hecate” during the witches’ dance. And, of course, upon first seeing the witches, Banquo famously describes their inhumanity as they who “look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth, / And yet are on’t? Live you?”[39]

So strong is this recognition of Black grammar that it has even created these associations without intent. Moralizing on the separation between black magic and miracles in 1932, a scholar for The Journal of English and Germanic Philology writes: “The witches exude evil. Essentially they are linked with whatever forces of evil exist … The same mysterious evil is in African wizardry today, unconnected with any of the existing religions, a malignant power that defies analysis.”[40] Such connections raise questions about the ways in which many popular representations of witchcraft in commercial drama have further Otherized semiotics of blackness from general spellcraft to distinctly Black traditions of “dark magic” such as voodoo, hoodoo, and African shamanism.

Dog-whistling is ultimately the defining convention of blackness in Macbeth as well as a thematic device, for it is a play in which such blackness (the prophesying of the witches) creates an unchangeable plot of characters who see that which is/isn’t — the spectral dagger (which he has not, yet sees still), the ghost of Banquo, and others. Black magic, as much as blackness itself, exists at the threshold of those versed in its manifestations, and growing awareness of this parallax is articulated by Macbeth himself when he says:

Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires:
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be,
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.[41] [61]

That which is evil and inspired by evil incarnate is jointly manifested in blackness, that which would be left unknown, and is counterpoised against the known, the good, and the moral — the identity of Macbeth hangs in this balance. What the eye cannot bear to look at, the hand must still do in darkness, regardless, though the eye still knows what is happening. It is in this same balance that all the semiotics we have discussed find potential for understanding.

The Subject, Semiotics, and Us

Semiotics morph over time, and the signifiers of blackness in early modern English drama are no exception. However, what has not changed is the fact that blackness and its association with evil as assumed by a measurable portion of English-speaking society is still prevalent enough to demand the use of dog-whistles in contemporary political discourse. It was Lee Atwater, campaign manager for President George H.W. Bush in 1988, who infamously revealed the G.O.P.’s coordinated use of the tactic in public spheres.

You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’[42] [62]

It is a small performative leap from the dog-whistling described by Atwater to the tweets of Donald Trump with which we opened.[43] Political conclusions aside, what the scope of this chapter demonstrates is that, in the history of Black signifiers, there exists a relationship between the obfuscation of Black humanity and this long history of dog-whistles. The early modern period of English drama is one moment in which that evolving saga of Black semiotics is documented — and Macbeth exists as one demonstrable artifact of that genealogy.

Our field is rife with discussion, argument, and engagement of the themes of representation, blackness, minstrelsy, and embodiment, yet in the rooms where such discourse seems most open and vibrant — our classrooms and rehearsal halls — those themes are conspicuously absent when exploring this popular text. Whether approached as a literary text or a playscript, Macbeth concentrates the interval of time between the early modern period and our own through its documented Black dehumanization. What’s more, while the practice of dehumanizing blackness through coded semiotics is widespread in modern political discourse, as examples from Atwater to Trump reveal, we find it all the more necessary for teachers, scholars, and practitioners of drama to examine how history has deafened us to such dog-whistles and break their spells. [63]


@realDonaldTrump. “So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly … ” Twitter, July14, 2019, 5:27 a.m.,

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  1. Trump, Donald. (@realDonaldTrump). 2019. Twitter, July 14, 2019. 7:27 a.m.
  2. Paul Krugman. “Racism Comes Out of the Closet.” The New York Times, July 15, 2019,
  3. Bart Bonikowski and Yueran Zhang. “Populism as Dog-Whistle Politics: Anti-Elite Discourse and Sentiments towards Minorities.”
  4. Umberto Eco. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 5.
  5. In structural explanations of these ideas — like that of Saussure — the sign is the sum of the signified (meaning) and the signifier (referent), which produces a message or significant for those capable of connecting the two.
  6. Eco, Semiotics, 16.
  7. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, translated by Bruce Fink. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 202.
  8. Lacan, Ecrits, 209.
  9. Lacan, Ecrits, 16.
  10. “Jacques Lacan.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified July 10, 2018.
  11. Paul H. Fry. Theory of Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 173.
  12. Lacan, Ecrits, 345.
  13. Ayanna Thompson, Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage (New York: Routledge, 2008), 4.
  14. Matthieu Chapman, Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama (New York: Routledge, 2017), 23.
  15. Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson III, “The Position of the Unthought,” Qui Parle, 13, No. 2. (Spring/Summer 2003): 184.
  16. Lynda E. Boose, “The Getting of a Lawful Race: Racial Discourse in Early Modern England and the Unrepresentable Black Woman,” in Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (New York: Routledge, 1994), 47.
  17. Boose, “The Getting of a Lawful Race,” 47.
  18. John Jeffries Martin, Myths of Renaissance Individualism. (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 13–14.
  19. Chapman, Anti-Black Racism, 35.
  20. Chapman, Anti-Black Racism, 35.
  21. Joseph R. Washington, Anti-Blackness in English Religion 1500–1800. (Lewiston: Edwin Mellon Press, 1984), 39.
  22. Washington, Anti-Blackness in English Religion, 39.
  23. Isidore of Seville. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Translators: Stephen A. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, and Oliver Bergof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 346.
  24. Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, The Malleus Maleficarum: Translated with an Introduction, Bibliography & Notes by the Reverend Montague Summers, accessed November 11, 2019., 39.
  25. John L. Teall, “Witchcraft and Calvinism in Elizabethan England: Divine Power and Human Agency,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 23, no. 1. (March 1962): 23.
  26. James I. Daemonologie in the Forme of a Dialogie Diuided into three Bookes. Robert Walde-graue, Printer to the Kings Majestie, 1597. Hosted by, 78. Accessed November 11, 2019.
  27. Clive Holmes, “Women: Witnesses and Witches” in New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic, and Demonology, Volume 4: Gender and Witchcraft, ed. Brian P. Levack (New York: Routledge, 2001), 133.
  28. Alexander Roberts, “A Treatise of Witchcraft … ” d. 1620, accessed November 11, 2019. Hosted by;view=fulltext.
  29. Julia M. Garrett, “Witchcraft and Sexual Knowledge in Early Modern England,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 13, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 36.
  30. Margaret Denike, “The Devil’s Insatiable Sex: A Genealogy of Evil Incarnate,” Hypatia, 18, no. 1 (January 2009): 14.
  31. Denike, “The Devil’s Insatiable Sex,” 33.
  32. Alan Kors and Edward Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400–1700: A Documentary History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 17.
  33. Thomas L. Berger, William C. Bradford, and Sidney L. Sondergard, An Index of Characters in Early Modern English Drama: Printed Plays, 1500-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 112.
  34. Virginia Mason Vaughan, Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 35.
  35. Andrea Stevens, “Mastering Masques of Blackness: Jonson’s ‘Masque of Blackness,’ The Windsor Text of ‘The Gypsies Metamorphosed,’ and Brome’s ‘The English Moor,’” English Literary Renaissance, 39, no. 2. (Spring 2009): 401.
  36. Garrett argues that “Renaissance dramatists such as Thomas Middleton, Thomas Heywood, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, and John Marston all incorporated [witches’ miscegenation] into their work” (Garrett, 36). Thomas Berger cites twenty-six plays from 1550–1660 containing characters listed in the dramatis personae or described in the text specifically as witches, as opposed to the terms conjuress, enchantress, and sorceress which have different connotations (Berger, 1998). Both Dietmar Tatzl and Stephen Greenblatt comment on the relationship, or lack thereof, between witches and civil society as they appear in drama. Greenblatt claims that “witchcraft functioned as an important factor in creating the average man or woman, who perceived themselves in relation to that concept but always from a dualistic distance” (Dietmar Tatzl, “Secret, Black, and Midnight Hags:” The Conception, Presentation, and Function of Witches in Renaissance Drama [Vienna: Wilhelm Braumuller Universitats-Verlagsbuchhandlung, 2005], 4); Tatzl argues that “the majority of witchcraft plays present witches as malevolent figures who interfere with the natural and divine order of the universe, threaten the stability of society or practice harmful sorcery” (Tatzl, 55). Both of these quotes mirror the position of witches in society at large, not only as existing in a space outside of civil society, but as entities upon which the subject and civil society can seek to establish definitions.
  37. C.R. Daileader, “Weird Brothers: What Thomas Middleton’s The Witch Can Tell Us about Race, Sex, and Gender in Macbeth,” in Weyward Macbeth. Signs of Race, edited by A Thompson and S.L. Newstok (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 14.
  38. For a discussion of social energy in early modern English drama, see Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 6–7.
  39. Act IV, Scene Three; Act V, Scene Three; Act IV, Scene One, and Act I, Scene Three, respectively. All quotes from MIT’s Shakespeare archive, The Tragedy of Macbeth.
  40. Mildred Tonge. “Black Magic and Miracles in Macbeth.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 31, no. 2. (1932): 236.
  41. Act I, Scene Four.
  42. Bob Herbert, “Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant.” The New York Times. October 6, 2005, accessed February 2, 2020.
  43. The use of dog-whistles continue to be an identity-resolving tool in British politics as well, as prime Minister Boris Johnson compared women in burqas to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.” Jessica Elgot, “Boris Johnson Accused of ‘Dog-Whistle’ Islamophobia Over Burqa Comments,” The Guardian. August 6, 2018. Accessed October 20, 2021. He is also reported to have referred to the fictional Kenyan ancestry of Barack Obama and described Black citizens as “piccanninies” with “watermelon smiles.”


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