Shakespeare and Early Modern Race Studies

An overview of the field

Authored by: Jason Demeter , Ayanna Thompson

The Shakespearean World

Print publication date:  March  2017
Online publication date:  March  2017

Print ISBN: 9780415732529
eBook ISBN: 9781315778341
Adobe ISBN: 9781317696193

10.4324/9781315778341.ch33

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Abstract

What did race mean in Shakespeare’s world? While it has become commonplace for scholars to intone emphatically that the concept did not mean the same thing in the early modern period as it does today, it is not exactly accurate to assume that race has a stable meaning in the twenty-first century either. If specialists from both the humanities and the sciences now generally posit race as a cultural rather than a biological phenomenon, even this profound revision is a fairly recent development in the term’s conceptual history, a revision on which there is in no way universal agreement. One need look only to the recent international controversy sparked by the 2014 release of Nicolas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, in which the former science writer for Nature and the New York Times challenges social constructivist views of race by positing genetic explanations for racial inequalities. Although Wade’s work was roundly and rightly criticized by segments of the popular and academic press, most notably in a critical letter signed by more than one hundred international scholars working in population genetics and evolutionary biology published in the New York Times, its presence is a sobering reminder that competing (even mutually exclusive) notions of race remain in wide circulation today. Indeed, to imply that its meanings have ever been either static or entirely congruous even within a particular historical moment belies the reality that race has never functioned as a unified conceptual field.

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