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date: 28 September 2023

Race and Renaissance Literaturefree

Race and Renaissance Literaturefree

  • Dennis Austin BrittonDennis Austin BrittonDepartment of English Language and Literatures, University of British Columbia


There is no single understanding of race to which everyone subscribes; it is a protean concept, accommodating various notions of human difference at the historical moments in which they emerge. Literary texts therefore do not represent a singular racial epistemology shared among Renaissance authors, readers, and audiences; rather, they demonstrate conflicting views about race, how it is determined, and what it tells us about individuals and groups of people. Scholars of Renaissance literature have explored what concepts of race do in specific cultural contexts, and the various ways racial differences were represented and understood before the advent of racial science in the late 17th century. Renaissance usages of the words race, raza, razza, and their linguistic equivalents denote, in their most benign sense, genealogy and lineage. Usages of these terms, nevertheless, locate individuals within genealogical and biological networks and insist that such networks are important to social organization. Race works as a tool for social organization that justifies varied types of domination, and in the Renaissance it drew from and informed established discourses of power—primarily religion, gender, and class. The concept bares vestiges of the word’s original definitions, asserting that certain aspects of identity are inheritable and inalterable, and then uses those aspects of identity to naturalize social hierarchies—White over Black, Christian over non-Christian, European over non-European. Race thus is a concept that intersects with cultural, somatic, sexual, and religious difference, and the Renaissance may be understood as a moment when race competes for dominance as a system of classification, justifying the rights of individuals and groups to rule over, disenfranchise, violate, and enslave others.


  • Middle Ages and Renaissance (500-1600)
  • Enlightenment and Early Modern (1600-1800)
  • Western European Literatures

Religion and Skin Color

“Skin operates,” according to Nicholas R. Jones,

as a master signifier for the particularity of race. It is the object produced by what Frantz Fanon and Paul Gilroy call ‘epidermalization.’ It is the sign for race understood purely as a scopic sight and the skin as the object of a specularizing gaze.1

Indeed, much scholarship has examined the role of skin color in Renaissance literary texts. “Black” and “fair”/“white” skin are the most frequently studied. Early studies of race by Eldred Jones, Miriam DeCosta-Willis, Elliot H. Tokson, and Anthony Gerard Barthelemy drew attention to the demonization of Black Africans in literary texts.2 The focus on black skin does not mean that Renaissance authors did not represent and attach moral judgments to people with other skin tones. Yet, it is likely because of Christian typology and traditional oppositions between black and white that skin colors classified as such frequently appear in literary texts. The question is, what does a character’s skin color signify? Should we read a character’s skin color symbolically? Does a character’s skin color ask readers and audiences to make connections between that character and others with that skin color, thereby making skin a marker of racial identity? And, are understandings of real people with black, white, and other skin tones produced through both traditional moral associations and literary texts, and vice versa?

Black and white skin were often linked to evil and good, respectively, but there were exceptions to the rule. Literary texts featuring valiant Black heroes and saints, villainous White characters, and characters who change their skin color show that racial discourse then, as in the early 21st century, is full of contradictions; texts do not point to a single, universally accepted understanding of skin color as racial signifier. Yet, one should not take the outliers as evidence that racial stereotypes did not exist in the Renaissance, for one sees among texts a tendency both to invest skin color with symbolic meaning and suggest that skin color communicates information about real people.

Scholars commonly understand racial and religious identity as interdependent in the Renaissance. Jew, Turk, Moor, and Christian were understood as categories that not only classify people with specific religious beliefs but also people with shared cultural and genealogical origins. Consequently, much scholarship has examined the ways Renaissance authors drew from earlier Christian traditions that linked whiteness with spiritual purity and blackness with sinfulness, uncovering the ways religious identity was racialized through suggesting that it was passed from parents to children via blood, and the way skin color was read as a sign of one’s religious identity. Even so, scholars have also attended to fissures within logics of racializing religious identity. Non-White Christians, White Muslims, Jews, and religious conversion complicated the ability to know another’s religion via racial signifiers.

Biblical and Medieval Precedents

The Bible and Christian teaching provided numerous references to black and white that influenced the construction and interpretation of characters with black and white skin. For example, the Geneva Bible’s (1560) translation of Jerimiah 13:23 states, “Can the black More change his skin? or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” Although the passage says nothing about the actual spiritual conditions of peoples with black skin, the analogy nonetheless links blackness and sinfulness. The Geneva Bible’s gloss to Song of Solomon 1:4–5 also linked blackness to sin: “I am black, O daughters of Jerusalem, but comely, as the tents of Kedar, and as the curtains of Solomon. Regard ye me not because I am black: for the sun hath looked upon me” is glossed as “The Church confesseth her spot & sinne, but hath confidence in the favour of Christ.” In contrast, a passage like Isaiah 1:18—“though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool”—links whiteness with purity. Alongside scripture, Christian teaching and tradition also produced ideas about peoples with black and white skin. According to David M. Goldberg, “the church fathers in the third century began to allegorize the scriptural Black (the ‘Ethiopian’) as sin. . . .The common patristic depiction of devils as Ethiopians was of one cloth with the symbolism in the service of exegesis.”3 Black peoples and their skin, then, became figures, used to stand in for concepts and ideas that were seen as oppositional to Christian whiteness and purity.

Particularly influential in shaping Western Christian ideas about blackness were discussions of Noah’s curse of his son Ham/Cham. According to Leo Africanus, whose Della descrittione dell’Africa et delle cose notabili che ivi sono (1550) was widely disseminated and translated across Europe, there are two kinds of Moors: “white or tawny Moores, and Negroes or Blacke Moores . . . the greatest part of which are thought to be descended from Cham the cursed son of Noah.”4 Africanus elaborates a bit later:

For all the Negroes or blacke Moores take their descent from Chus, thes sonne of Cham, who was the sone of Noë. But whatsoeuer difference there be between the Negroes and tawnie Moores, certaine it is that they had all one beginning . . . the tawnie Moores fetch their petigree from the Sebeans, and it is evident that Saba was begotten of Rama, which was the eldest sone of Chus.5

While the curse of Ham was not exclusive to Black Moors, black skin nevertheless was understood to be a mark of cursedness.

The English explorer George Best provided a more detail discussion of the curse of Ham in A true discourse of the late voyages of discoverie (1578):

Blacknesse proceedeth of some natural infection of the first inhabitants of that Countrey, and so all the progenie of them descended, all still polluted with that same blot of that infection. Therefore it shal not be fare from our purpose, to examine the first originall of these black men, and how by lineall discente, they haue hitherto continued thus black. . . . And of this blacke & cursed Chus came al these blacke Moores which are in Africa … the cause of the Ethiopian blacknesse, is the curse & natural infection of bloud, & not the distemperature of the clymate.6

In addition to using “black” and “Moor” (and “Ethiopian,” too) interchangeably, Best argues that black skin signifies an “infection of bloud” passed from Chus to all of his descendants; black skin was seen as proof that an individual was part of a cursed lineage, a cursed race. Best implies that one can know blood and race by looking at the skin.

Renaissance authors also inherited a tradition of linking black skin with evil and non-Christian identity from medieval romances and mystery plays. Chanson de Roland, for example, repeatedly links black skin with evil, in one instance describing “Ethiope” as a “cursed land / Whose black-skinned people are beneath his sway, / They have large noses and great outstretched ears,” and just after that describes “infidels / —Each one of them is blacker far than ink.”7 In Medieval mystery plays, which continued to be performed in the Renaissance, Lucifer and his devils often experience a change of color from light to dark after they are expelled from heaven. In the Chester cycle, after their fall Lucifer and Lightborne become “towe feendes blacke.”8 Virginia Mason Vaughan suggests that these transformations were manifested in performance, and

Lucifer’s blackened complexion indicates his transformation from moral norm of God’s whiteness and his exclusion from the community of believers. [Blackness] is an easy and convenient signifier for the amateur actor because he needs only don a vizard or smear some soot on his face.9

Renaissance Anti-blackness

Christian tradition shaped what black skin signified in medieval romance and mystery plays, which in turn shaped what black skin signified in Renaissance texts—the antithesis to Western Christian mores. In canto 43 of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Anselmo receives an indecent proposal from a Black man who offers him a sumptuous palace in exchange for sex. Not only does Anselmo agree to have sex with a man, demonstrating that his greed overruns both what we are to assume are his sexual inclinations and his Christian culture’s condemnation of sodomy, but also agrees to have sex with “an Aethiopian with a broad nose and thick lips; he had never before or after seen a more foul and disagreeable face.”10 Although the scene’s moral may be clear (Sir John Harington states in his 1583 English translation that the tale teaches us to “learne to loth beastly covetousness”), the moral is clarified through employing prejudice against Black Africans and their bodily features.11

Jo Ann Cavallo provides a useful close reading of the Ethiopian’s features:

The Ethiopian is never given an individual identity but is referred to generically and pejoratively as ‘il negro’ (‘the negro’) . . . and ‘il bruto moro’ (‘the ugly Moor’). . . . His licentious proposal explicitly exposes his nature as ‘bestiale’ (‘brute’) rather than human.12

Ariosto’s description also links racial difference with sexual difference, an example that, as Jonathan Burton and Ania Loomba observe, “Gender reversals as well as ‘abnormal’ sexualities—intemperance, hermaphroditism, lesbianism, and ‘sodomy’ in its various forms—were systematically attributed to people from across the globe” and note that in the Renaissance authors claim “Chinese, Native Americans, Turks, and Negroes are given to sodomy.”13 The episode from Orlando Furioso may provide a moral lesson, yet it also effectively communicates its morality by positioning White Christian values in opposition to sexual licentiousness, which are embodied in a Black man.

Figurative readings of blackness as sinful and evil alongside explanations of the origins of black skin, then, doubly damned people with dark skin. The Renaissance theater did much to reproduce ideas about Black people and distribute those ideas to a wider audience. The theater, after all, traffics in visual spectacle, and producing differing skin colors in a play provides the audiences with additional information for assessing characters. Not surprisingly, giving a character black skin became an easy way to signal a character’s villainy. When George Peele tells the story of the conflict between Abd-el-Malek (Abdelmelec, “King of Morrocco”) and his nephew Mohammed El-Mesloukh (Muly Mahamet), the playwright emphasizes that Muly Mahamet is the villain by giving him black skin. The Battle of Alcazar (1591), the first English play with a Black Moorish character, opens with the Presenter telling the audience that it is the “barbarous Moor, / The negro Muly Hamet, that withholds / The kingdom from his uncle Abdelmelec.”14 Just a few lines later the Presenter adds that Muly Mahamet is “black in his look, and bloody in his deeds.”15 In contradistinction to his uncle, Muly Mahamet is “barbarous,” “negro,” “black,” and “bloody,” and the play even goes so far to suggest a connection between the villain’s “black looks” and “bloody deeds.”

The blackening of Muly Mahamet was not Peele’s invention. The source for the play, John Poleman’s The Second Part of the Booke of Battailes (1587), a translation of Thomas Freigin’s Historia de Bello Africano (1580), notes the skin colors of the history’s hero and villain. In Poleman’s translation, Muly Mahamet is described as “of coulour so blacke, that he was accompted of many for a Negro or black Moore. He was of a perverse nature, he would neuer speak the trueth, he did all things subtlety and deceitfully.”16 Poleman does not explicitly link the color of Muly Mahamet’s skin with his deceitful character, but mentioning skin color in close proximity to character nevertheless suggests that there is a relationship between them. Such a relationship is further suggested when read alongside the description of Abdelmelec, who is

of a fine proportion of bodie, with brode shoulders, white face, but intermixed with read, which did gallantlie garnish his cheeks, a blacke beard thicke, and curled, great eies and graie. In summe, he was a verie proper man, and veriy comelie in all his actions and iestures, and verie strong: the which strength he conserued by continuallie excising of himself in skirmishes. . . . And although he professed Mahamet, yet he so loued Christians, and of them Spaniards, that I cannot express with words the loue and good will which he showed towards many captiues & prisoners.17

As Ambereen Dadabhoy argues, “the text transforms him into the perfect picture of chivalric gallantry” through noting his behaviors and his love of Christians.18 Conveniently, the characters of Muly Mahamet and Abdelmelec, in both Poleman and Peele, coincide with the traditional moral attachments associated with black and white. Poleman’s history and Peele’s play both suggest that skin color communicates vital information about an individual’s nature.19 Drama borrowed from already established discourses about black and white skin to establish a visual vocabulary for communicating information about characters to the audience.

Peele’s play and Poleman’s history are unique, nevertheless, for how they disentangle skin color and religion. Medievalists and early modernists who study race now push against Antony Kwame Appiah’s influential assertion that before modern science,

stereotypes were based on an essentially theological conception of the status of both Moors and Jews as non-Christians; the former distinguished by their black skin, whose color was associated with Christian iconography with sin and the devil; the latter by their being, as Matthew’s account of the crucifixion suggests, ‘Christ killers.’20

While Appiah is correct that early modern texts often blacken Moors and other non-Christians, Renaissance texts equally created hierarchies of being, White over Black, independent of religious identity—in both Peele and Polemen, goodness and beauty are attached to white skin, while villainy and perversion are attached to black skin.

The connection between black skin and evil/non-Christian identity was so ubiquitous that non-villainous characters with dark complexions directly confront the assumptions made about them. Morocco in The Merchant of Venice, for example, enters the play stating, “Mislike me not for my complexion.”21 His “apologetic entry,” Ian Smith suggests, “attends to his awareness of his skin colour as a disability whose remedy can be found in the linguistic rationalizations he offers.”22 In Thomas Middleton’s London city pageant The Triumphs of Truth (1613), the “King of the Moores” similarly addresses the assumptions of White spectators:

I see amazement set upon the faces Of these white people, wondrings, and strange gazes, Is it at mee? do’s my Complexion draw So many Christian Eyes, that never saw A King so blacke before? *** I must confesse many wilde thoughts may rise, Opinions, Common murmurs, and fixt Eyes At my so strange arrivall, in a Land Where true Religion and her Temples stand: I being a Moore, then in Opinions lightnesse As far from Sanctity as my Face from whitenesse; But I forgive the Judgings of th’Unwise, Whose Censures ever quicken in their Eyes, Onely begot of outward forme and show, And I thinke meete to let such Censurers Know, How ever Darkenesse dwels upon my Face, Truth in my soule sets up the Light of Grace.

In addition to his speech containing the first known usage of “white people” in English, the king directly engages long-standing associations between white skin and Christian identity and between black skin and non-Christian identity. Middleton’s character almost seems to resist what it means to be the subject of the “white gaze,” which the philosopher George Yancy describes as “distortional ‘seeing’ that evolves out of and is inextricably linked to various raced and racist myths, white discursive practices, and centripetal processes of white systemic power and white solipsism.”23 The king indeed questions White racial epistemology, White people’s presumption to know Black people simply by looking at them—and one should note the heavy usage of sight imagery in the speech. The king’s speech places blackness and whiteness—as they are embodied in persons—as oppositional, even as it labels those who assume a Black person is not a Christian—that he does not have “truth in [his] soul” and “the Light of Grace”—as “Unwise.”

Religious Conversion

The king’s speech undermines the long-standing correlations between blackness and non-Christianity, but the pageant only seems able to do so through incorporating Black people into a narrative of mercantile expansion. The king explains how he, his wife, and his people became Christians:

My Queene and People all, at one time wun, By the Religious Conversation Of English Merchants, Factors, Travailers, Whose Truth did with our Spirits hold Commerse.

Economic trade is rendered as a means to spread Christianity, and the double meaning of “commerse” yokes economic and religious interests.

Although Middleton’s pageant suggests that a popular audience may have only been able to imagine the possibility of Black Christians when it was financially expedient to do so (and ignores the fact that there were Christians in Africa since the 1st century), the king’s speech nevertheless points to religious conversion as a trope that potentially unsettles the mapping of religious identity onto black and white skin. In literary texts, religious conversion created Black Christians and White Muslims. Commerce and piracy in the Mediterranean increased the possibility of interreligious contact and crossover, and scholars have documented numerous historical and literary examples of European Christians converting to Islam in the 16th and 17th centuries—there seem to be fewer instances of Muslims converting to Christianity.24 European romances had long featured the conversions of “infidels” to Christianity, but Dennis Austin Britton argues that “within (and outside) romances, conversions to Christianity are often predicated upon European modes of desire,” demonstrating that skin color and race make some converts desirable and others less so.25 For example, “The Captive’s Tale” in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote tells the story of the beautiful Zoraida’s conversion from Islam to Christianity. Because she has white hands, the captive first assumes that she is a renegade, a Christian who converted to Islam, explaining, “often the Moors are glad to marry slaves of this sort, whom they value more highly than women of their own people.”26 The captive eventually finds out that she is a White Moor who hopes to become a Christian. The tale at once points to the limits of reading skin color as a marker of religious identity, even as it points to how easily skin color is assumed to be such a marker. Arguably, however, religious conversion realigns skin color and religious identity. In numerous romances, white skin seems to be a prerequisite for conversion to Christianity—alongside Zoraida, consider Marfisa in Orlando Furioso, Clorinda and Armida in Gerusalemme liberata, Abigail in The Jew of Malta, and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice.27

Jewish to Christian Conversions

Although Renaissance texts frequently linked religious identity and skin color, Jewish identity presented a problem—European Jews had white skin. To be sure, Renaissance texts often replicate medieval anti-Semitic tropes, but the question scholars have grappled with is to what extent Jewish identity was understood as a racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural identity. Similar to representations of Black Africans, representations of Jews were informed by Christian tradition, especially as Christians had long grappled with their relationship to Judaism and Jewish people. Christendom needed to deal with its Jewish heritage and sought to differentiate itself from Judaism. The Pauline theological distinction between carnal and spiritual Israel—Jews are the carnal Israel of the Old Testament, and Christians are the spiritual Israel of the New Testament—provided a foundation upon which Jewish difference eventually became racial difference in the Christian imagination. According to Janet Adelman, “Insofar as Jews constituted both a lineage and a people, perhaps they were ideally situated to mediate between older and the newer senses of ‘race’ and hence to be early victims of racism.”28

European distrust of the sincerity of Jewish to Christian conversion stems from the belief that Jewish difference was heritable, residing in the blood, and thus unalterable. Christian Spain’s anxieties about conversos (Jews who converted to Christianity), its obsession with limpieza de sangre (blood purity), and the Inquisition all played a part in the racialization of Jewish identity. Spain’s so-called problem with conversos was known throughout Europe. Edward Grimeston’s 1612 Historie of Spaine, an English translation of a 1583 French history written by Louise de Mayerne Turquet, stated that due to Jewish “profession, either true or fained, of Christian religions,” “the noble families of Spain, allying themselves by marriage to that race, did wholly contaminate and pollute themselves both in blood and belief.”29 The text not only points to the distrust of conversos, but it also provides a commentary on interracial marriages. Here, “race” is primarily used to mean lineage. Although many converso families had been in Spain for generations, the text suggests that conversos are still not Spaniards; regardless of whether the converso’s profession is “true or fained,” a converso remains a Jew. Intermarriage between Spaniards and Jews pollutes Spanish blood and religion. Jewish blood is rendered an inalterable polluting agent.

Discussions of converted Jews played a significant role in Renaissance constructions of race and became a source of interest for literary writers as well. Deborah Skolnick Rosenberg notes that the converso was a recurrent figure in picaresque novels: “The presence of converso protagonists in several picaresque novels at the beginning of the seventeenth century testifies to the relevance of issues centered around inherited ‘Jewish’ traits, societal assimilation, and the religious salvation of New Christians.”30 Part 1 of Mateo Alemán’s enormously popular Guzmán de Alfarache (part 1 published in 1599, part 2 in 1604) went through twenty-three editions and was translated into French in 1600, Italian in 1606, German in 1615, English in 1622, and Latin in 1623.31 Alemán had converso ancestry, and his narrator is a converso protagonist who has been read as critiquing the racial politics of limpieza de sangre.32 In one instance, the protagonist reveals the wickedness of an innkeeper who attempts to pass mule meat as veal. The village officials then justify their right to pass judgment. Guzman, however, makes fun of their justifications:

they digg’d up their Grandfather’s graves, twitting one another in the teeth with their fathers and their mothers, not sparing one another’s wives, ripping up their faults, and the course of life that they led; wherein perhaps they did not lie (1:142).

Rosenberg argues that the mule is a symbol of the converso as miscegenated, and Emily Weissbourd, following Rosenberg’s observation, asserts:

The quarrel itself is presented as ridiculous, as a series of self-important local officials strive to assert their right to manage the situation—and one measure of that ridiculousness is the villagers’ reliance on flinging insults based on purity of blood (or rather lack thereof).33

Although Guzman makes fun of the villagers’ attempt to prove their racial purity, the novel nevertheless points to the real social effects of limpieza de sangre—a kind of violence done upon one’s ancestry in the pursuit of social assimilation and authority.

Indeed, Jewish converts to Christianity only seem acceptable—however precariously—when they adamantly disavow their Jewish parentage. Jessica in The Merchant of Venice not only escapes from her father’s house but also announces that she is ashamed of her Jewishness:

Alack, what heinous sin it is in me To be ashamed to be my father’s child! But though I am a daughter to his blood I am not to his manners.

Adelman has suggested that limpieza de sangre indeed provides a context for understanding the racialization of Jewish identity in Shakespeare’s play. Salerino’s insistence that “there is more difference between [Shylock’s] flesh and [Jessica’s] than between jet and ivory; more between [their] bloods than between red wine and Rhenish” is but one example of “the play’s repeated insistence that Jessica cannot escape her father’s blood,” putting

Jessica in the position of those conversos, who are Jewish whether or not they convert. The extent to which Jessica is trapped in this racializing structure even when she most seems to escape it can perhaps best be measured by the odd moment in the play when she posits a quasi-biological difference between her and her father.34

Jessica’s solution to having Jewish blood, Adelman argues, is to marry a Christian, yet the play still undermines Jessica’s ability to escape her Jewishness and become a Christian—she is remarkably unhappy at the end of a comedy that celebrates the Christian defeat of a Jew.35

Racial “Others” with White Skin

Arguably, it was the ability of Jews to pass as Christians due to their white skin that led to the elaborate racial politics of blood purity and fantasies of somatic difference—the Jewish smell (foetor judiacus), male lactation, and a variety of other physical deformities. Jews had long presented a problem to the fiction that white skin was the mark of Christian identity. The insistence that racial-religious identity was carried in the blood and expressed itself in “barbarous” behaviors provided an alternative to tropes of visible somatic difference. Indeed, anyone whose beliefs differed from accepted orthodoxy—Jews, Muslims, “pagans,” and even other Christians—could be depicted as racially different. This was especially true of Irish Catholics in English Protestant texts.

According to Christopher Highly,

in the Renaissance’s emergent discourses of race and ethnicity, the inhabitants of Ireland were reconceptualized as ‘a race apart.’ As a genealogically integrated group, occupying a bounded space, and displaying common linguistic and cultural traits, the Irish were not only constructed as different but also as socially inferior to the English.36

When it comes to the racialization of the Irish, Edmund Spenser looms large because of his work as a colonial administrator in Ireland, his extended discussion of the Irish in A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596), and the allegorization of Ireland and Irishness in The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). Spenser’s primary concerns were what he saw as the racial degeneration of the “Old English” settlers, who had become too much like the Irish, and the seeming inability of the Irish to be civilized through the English colonial project.37 His attention turns most explicitly to Ireland in Book 5 of The Faerie Queene, when Artegall liberates Irena (Ireland) from the tyrannical giant Grantorto (often read as Philip II of Spain), but scholars have noted allusions to and representations of Irishness in various episodes of the epic. The “salvage nation” of cannibals, for example, who abduct and attempt to eat the fair Serena in Book 6, have often been read as figuring the Irish:

Thereto they vsed a most accursed order,      To eat the flesh of men, whom they mot fynde,      And straungers to deuoure, which on their border      Were brought by errour, or by wreckful wynde.      A monstrous cruelty against the course of kynde.

Scholars have linked this moment to 16th-century accounts of Irish blood drinking both in battle and in the Roman Catholic Eucharist, which to be sure propelled English Protestant views of Irish/Catholic barbarity.38 Scholars have also noted that this moment in the epic would have undoubtedly conjured the image of the supposed cannibals in the Americas, suggesting how racial differentiation employs “traveling tropes,” which, according to Loomba and Burton, “might be drawn from one location or people and conceptually assimilated to another to confer value or contempt, and in turn to facilitate political practice.”39 The racialization of the White Irish was assisted through images linking them to Spain and to non-White peoples outside of Europe.


Gender has been an especially fruitful category for understanding how race functions in Renaissance texts. Ania Loomba’s Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (1989), Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker’s edited collection Woman, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period (1994), Kim F. Hall’s Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (1995), Arthur L. Little Jr.’s Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice (2000), and Joyce Green MacDonald’s Woman and Race in Early Modern Texts (2002) were the vanguard, uncovering the ways Renaissance racial discourse emerges to authorize White patriarchy and police the sexuality of European Christian White women.40 In her analysis of “unruly” White women and their relationships with Black men, Loomba offers,

the operations of patriarchalism seek to extend the control and authority of man as father over women, and white man as father over black men and women. Both black people and women are in need of guidance, yet both threaten to elude and disrupt it.41

Shakespeare’s Tamora in Titus Andronicus and Desdemona in Othello serve as primary examples; arguably, these texts punish these women for pursuing sexual relationships with Black men. Loomba and others have shown that Renaissance constructions of race work alongside prevailing attitudes about women and seek to naturalize racial and gender hierarchies both at home and abroad.

Colonial ambition thus is understood as playing an important role in the development of race as a concept, but the concept relied upon already established discourses—religion and gender—to justify the subjugation of Africans, Asians, and the peoples of the so-called New World. As Kim F. Hall argues,

Positioned very early to be interchangeable, tropes of disorder, racial otherness, and unruly sexuality become the terms by which European expansion first appropriates the strange newness of the lands ‘discovered’ in the Renaissance.42

This interchangeability is easily witnessed in the period’s travel writing, in which explorers use gendered discourse to represent other lands and their peoples as receptive to intercourse with Europeans.43

These interchangeable tropes surface, Hall also demonstrates, in a variety of literary genres, from Petrarchan poetry to theatrical productions. Sonnet 3 of Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella serves as an example:

Let the dainty wits cry on the sisters nine, That bravely mask’d, their fancies may be told; Or, Pindar's apes, flaunt they in phrases fine, Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold; Or else let them in statelier glory shine, Ennobling new-found tropes with problems old; Or with strange similes enrich each line, Of herbs or beasts with Ind or Afric hold. For me in sooth, no Muse but one I know; Phrases and problems from my reach do grow, And strange things cost too dear for my poor sprites. How then? Even thus—in Stella’s face I read What love and beauty be; then all my deed But copying is, what in her, Nature writes.44

Sidney notes in passing that love poetry drew inspiration from travel writing and colonial desire; his praise of Stella is superior to the praise of other poets because he does not rely on classical models and “strange similes” derived from accounts of plants and animals in India and Africa. Moreover, the language of “gold,” “enrich,” and “cost” subtly points to the economic advantages Europeans hoped to acquire through colonial activity. Unlike other poets who find foreign sources of inspiration, Sidney’s Stella is a fair, White, European Petrarchan mistress. And like Petrarch’s, Sidney’s sonnet sequence repeatedly uses images of black and white, dark and fair, in its upholding of European values and beauty standards.45

For Hall and others, the value placed on specific figurations of beauty are essential components of racial formation in the Renaissance; the celebration of White, fair beauty intersects with religious typology that associated good and evil with white and black, respectively. Indeed, the desire to convert, and thus incorporate into Christendom, fair non-Christian women points to a drive to align whiteness, beauty, and Christianity. (If Jessica in The Merchant of Venice is considered truly a Christian, it is only because, scholars have argued, she is a beautiful woman who has white skin.46) To further elevate White beauty, literary texts repeatedly represent Black women as libidinous servants. “Spanish literature during the 16th and 17th centuries,” Balthazar Fra-Molinero observes, “presented a less than flattering image of Black women. . . . Starting with popular songs that ridiculed the speech of slaves and their troubles, popular theatre soon developed the stereotypical figure of the negra,” who is “characterized by her bad temper, ‘Black’ speech, illusions of grandeur, and ‘loose’ sexual morals.”47 Examples of such can be seen in the works of both Lope de Vega and Miguel de Cervantes—for example, in Cervantes’s novella The Dialogue of the Dogs (El Coloquio de los Perros), a dog named Berganza recounts a tale of his repeated skirmishes with an enslaved Black woman who he punishes for sneaking off to have sexual liaisons with her lover.

In John Fletcher’s The Knights of Malta, the Black servant Zanthia, who has an illicit relationship with the villainous Frenchman Mountferrat, is described as having “hel’s perfect character,” which serves as a description of both her skin and morality.48 Zanthia is nothing more than a receptacle for Mountferrat’s lust, a stand-in for her virtuous and unattainable White mistress, Oriana. Mountferrat describes the differences between the two: “What difference ‘twixt this Moor, and her fair dame? / Night makes their hues so alike, their uses is so.”49 Although it is clear that Mountferrat makes little distinction between Zanthia and Oriana as objects to gratify his lust, his language links illicit sexuality with darkness. Moreover, Zanthia’s body is understood to be easily accessible while Oriana’s is not. Zanthia, then, may be read as a literary relative of other sexually available non-White women, like the negras of Spanish literature and Shakespeare’s dark lady and his Cleopatra. Eroticizing darkness in this way—alongside the Petrarchism that perpetuated the image of the fair, chaste, and unattainable lady—certainly contribute to sexual stereotypes about Black women.50 As Imtiaz Habib suggests in his study of Black female servants in Renaissance drama:

The only cultural visibility she has is in her brutalized dramatic reproduction as the treacherous and lascivious blackamoor maid, and in which she is a tool in the reconstruction of the colonizer’s ideal homelife. She is the negative mark against which English colonial patriarchy builds its notions of compliant white womanhood.51

Racial, gender, and class discourses join forces in literary depictions of Black and white women to reify their sexual and social positions within emergent global capitalism.

Race is fundamentally a discourse of power, working alongside, drawing from, and bolstering claims that it is right and natural for certain types of people to have dominion over others. Although it is now common to acknowledge that race is a social construct, a system of stories told about different kinds of people, such an acknowledgment does not mean that the stories of race do not affect real bodies. Attending to gender and sexuality, moreover, reveals that discourses of race legislate even the most intimate human feelings and relationships. Because race in the Renaissance maintained concerns about genealogy and lineage, gender, sexuality, and the family became part of the concepts purview, even as race became “scientific” to provide additional justification for colonial domination and slavery.

Discussion of the Literature

The study of race in Renaissance literature has primarily been done by scholars working in English and Spanish literatures, with much of their scholarship examining representations of Black people, Jews, Muslims, and indigenous peoples in literary and non-literary texts—though scholars are more and more examining representations of other groups and the construction of whiteness. Broadly speaking, Hispanists have primarily attended to the relationship between literature and racialized others “at home,” while scholars of English literature have primarily considered the relationship between racialized others “abroad.” There are many more Spanish stories of cross-racial contact set in Spain than there are English stories of cross-racial contact set in England. This difference likely results from the two nations’ differing histories of contact and colonization. Spain, of course, has a long and complicated history of Jews, Moors, and enslaved and free Black Africans living in the Iberian Peninsula, and Spain began its violent conquest of the Americas in the late 15th century. Apart from Ireland, England was much belated to the colonial project, and, in contrast to Spain, had fewer Jews and Black Africans living in the colonial polis.52

From the late-1960s to the mid-1980s, Eldred Jones, Mariam DeCoasta, Elliot H. Tokson, and Anthony Gerard Barthelemy provided the first explorations of various ways Black Africans were represented—this work documented anti-blackness and variously showed how Black characters and Black people were often denigrated through associating blackness with various kinds of evils. Blackness, therefore, has been understood by scholars as not only a property of the body but also of the soul and spirit. In literary texts, Jews and Muslims especially, but other non-Christians as well, were usually represented as harboring internal blackness, one which was just as indelible and as heritable as black skin. As such, scholars have often considered how racial difference intersects with religious difference. John Beusterien, for example, observes the intersections of anti-blackness and anti-Semitism in Spanish theater, showing how plays “depicted blackness as a defiled religion and as a skin color.”53 But blackness could do more than just signify evil and bad religion; Matthieu Chapman, drawing from Afro-pessimism, argues that blackness on the English stage became the mark of the nonhuman.54

From the late-1980s through the early 2000s, gender emerged as a critical category for understanding racial difference. Indeed, this scholarship on the intersections of race and gender has proven central to establishing race as both a viable and necessary category for understanding Renaissance identity formation and power relations. Ania Loomba’s Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama and the essays in Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker’s edited collection Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period first brough together studies of race and gender. Kim F. Hall’s Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England, however, has arguably had the most significant imprint on the study of race in the Renaissance. Explicating images of fairness/whiteness and darkness/blackness, Hall illuminates how such images are informed by the slave trade, mercantilism, and colonial discourses, as well as worked to define power relations between men and women.

Skin color—especially black, brown, and tan skin—has thus played an important role in the study of race in the Renaissance. Yet, as Ian Smith observes, “Researchers now typically posit that race in the early modern period is the product of several, often interrelated, categories of identification, a complex amalgam of codes that can be mobilized to ratify group exclusion and marginalization.”55 Smith demonstrates that in England, language itself, especially within the context of the humanist valuation of eloquence, became an important marker of racial difference. The phenomenon of habla de negros has been of interest to scholars of Spanish literature. The phenomenon has conventionally been understood as little more than the White appropriation and mockery of Black Castilian, but Nicholas R. Jones has argued that despite the intentions of White authors, texts can “render legible the voices and experiences of black Africans.”56 Alongside language, literary scholars are also examining how race comes into being through discourses of blood, the humors, class, and behavior. Scholars continue to uncover the varied materials employed in Renaissance projects of race makings.

Further Reading

  • Akhimie, Patricia. Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World. New York: Routledge, 2018.
  • Alexander, Catherine M. S., and Stanley Wells. Shakespeare and Race. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Aronson-Friedman, Amy I., and Gregory B. Kaplan. Marginal Voices: Studies in Converso Literature of Medieval and Golden Age Spain. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.
  • Bovilsky, Lara. Barbarous Play: Race on the English Renaissance Stage. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
  • Branche, Jerome C. Racism and Colonialism in Luso-Hispanic Literature. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006.
  • DeCosta-Willis, Miriam, ed. Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essay. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1977.
  • Erickson, Peter, and Clark Hulse, eds. Early Modern Visual Culture: Representation, Race, and Empire in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
  • Espinosa, Ruben, and David Ruiter, eds. Shakespeare and Immigration. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2014.
  • Feerick, Jean E. Strangers in Blood: Relocating Race in the Renaissance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.
  • Floyd-Wilson, Mary. English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Fra-Molinero, Baltasar. La imagen de los negros in el teatro del Siglo de Oro. México City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1995.
  • Fuchs, Barbara. Passing for Spain: Cervantes and the Fictions of Identity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
  • Fuchs, Barbara. Exotic Nation: Maurophilia and the Construction of Early Modern Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
  • Greer, Margaret R., Walter D. Mignolo, and Maureen Quilligan, eds. Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • Habib, Imtiaz. Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial Praxis in the Early Modern Period. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000.
  • Iyengar, Sujata. Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
  • Loomba, Ania. Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Mariscal, George. “The Role of Spain in Contemporary Race Theory.” Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies 2 (1998): 7–22.
  • Singh, Jyotsna G., ed. A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
  • Smith, Cassander L., Nicholas R. Jones, and Miles P. Grier, eds. Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology. New York: Palgrave, 2018.
  • Spiller, Elizabeth. Reading and the History of Race in the Renaissance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Thompson, Ayanna, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021.
  • Thompson, Ayanna. Staging Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage. New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • Wright, Elizabeth R. The Epic of Juan Latino: Dilemmas of Race and Religion in Renaissance Spain. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.


  • 1. Nicholas R. Jones, Staging Habla de Negros: Radical Performance of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019), 29.

  • 2. Eldred Jones, Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965); Miriam DeCosta-Willis’s edited collection Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Studies (New York: Kennikat Press, 1977); Elliot H. Tokson, The Popular Image of the Black Man in English Drama, 1550–1688 (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982); and Anthony Gerard Barthelemy, Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987). Also see Lemuel A. Johnson’s, The Devil, the Gargoyle, and the Buffoon: The Negro as Metaphor in Western Literature (New York: Kennikate Press, 1971), a study of 20-century Black literature but provides a catalogue of Black characters in Renaissance English, Spanish, and French literature.

  • 3. David M. Goldberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 3.

  • 4. Leo Africanus, The History and Description of Africa and of the Notable Things therein Contained (London: Hakluyt Society, 1896), 20.

  • 5. Africanus, The History and Description of Africa, 130.

  • 6. George Best, A True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discoverie, for Finding of a Passage to Cathaya by the Northwest, under the Conduct of Martin Forbisher Generall: Divided into Three Bookes (London: Argonaut Press, 1938), 34–35. For more on Blackness and Cush, see Benjamin Braude, “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods,” William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997): 103–142.

  • 7. The Song of Roland, trans. Howard S. Robertson (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1972), 1916–1918, 1932–1933.

  • 8. The Chester Plays, ed. Hermann Deimling (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1892), 13.

  • 9. Virginia Mason Vaughan, Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 21. Also see Barthelemy, Black Face, Maligned Race, 3–4.

  • 10. Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, trans. Guido Waldman (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1974), 4.135.

  • 11. Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, ed. Robert McNulty, trans. Sir John Harington (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).

  • 12. Jo Ann Cavallo, The World Beyond Europe in the Romance Epics of Boiardo and Ariosto (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 243.

  • 13. Ania Loomba and Jonathan Burton, “Introduction,” in Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion, ed. Ania Loomba and Jonathan Burton (New York: Palgrave, 2007), 1–36, esp. 18.

  • 14. George Peele, “The Battle of Alcazar,” in The Stucky Plays, ed. Charles Edelman (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005), 1.1.6–8.

  • 15. Peele, “The Battle of Alcazar,” 1.1.16.

  • 16. John Polemon, The Second Part of the Book of Battailes, Fought in our Age (London: Thomas East, 1587), 83r.

  • 17. Polemon, The Second Part of the Book of Battailes, 82v.

  • 18. Ambereen Dadabhoy, “Barbarian Moors: Documenting Racial Formation in Early Modern England,” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, ed. Ayanna Thompson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 30–46, esp. 37.

  • 19. Although Peele would have learned that Muly Mahamet had Black skin from Poleman, Virginia Mason Vaughan argues that we should attend to the ways Peele “transformed that blackness into a visual spectacle of strangeness” (Performing Blackness on English Stages, 41). Vaughan reminds us that we should consider how the theater uses visual spectacle to create meaning.

  • 20. Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Race,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 277–278.

  • 21. William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice,” in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 3rd ed. (New York: Norton, 2015), 2.1.1.

  • 22. Ian Smith, “The Textile Black Body: Race and ‘Shadowed Livery’ in The Merchant of Venice,” in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, and Race, ed. Valerie Traub (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 170–185, esp. 178.

  • 23. George Yancy, Black Skin, White Gaze: The Continuing Significance of Race in America, 2nd ed. (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), xxxii. Yancy builds upon Toni Morrison’s discussion of the White gaze in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992) and exploration of the issue in her debut novel, The Bluest Eye.

  • 24. On European traffic in the Mediterranean and Renaissance literature see, e.g., Nabil Matar’s, Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) and Britain and Barbary: 1589–1689 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005); Daniel Vitkus’s, Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570–1630 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Barbara Fuchs’s, Mimesis and Empire: The New World, Islam, and European Identities (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Matthew Dimmock’s, New Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005); Bernadette Andrea, Women and Islam in Early Modern English (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and Jane Hwang Degenhardt’s, Islamic Conversion and Christian Resistance on the Early Modern Stage (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).

  • 25. Dennis Austin Britton, Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern Romance (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), 23. Also see Jaqueline de Weever, who discusses the conversions of beautiful, White Muslim women in medieval French romance epics in Sheba’s Daughters Whitening and Demonizing the Saracen Woman in Medieval French Epic (New York: Garland, 1989).

  • 26. Miguel de Cervantes, The Adventures of Don Quixote, trans. John Michael Cohen (New York: Penguin, 1951), 357.

  • 27. Clorinda is an especially compelling instance because she is the daughter of Black Christian parents who has white skin. Arguably, however, although the epic recognizes the existence of Black Christians, it still participates in a trope that incorporates beautiful White women into Christendom.

  • 28. Janet Adelman, Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 116n25. Black Africans were another prototype.

  • 29. Louise de Mayerne Turquet, The Gennerall Historie of Spaine, trans. Edward Grimeston (London: A. Islip and G. Eld, [1583] 1612), 946–947.

  • 30. Deborah Skolnick Rosenberg, “The Converso and the Spanish Picaresque Novel,” in Marginal Voices: Studies in Converso Literature in Medieval and Golden Age Spain, ed. Amy I. Aronson-Friedman and Gregory B. Kaplan (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012), 183–206, esp. 186.

  • 31. See James Fitzmaurice-Kelly’s introduction to The Rogue, or the Life of Guzmán de Alfarache, ed. James Fitzmaurice-Kelly, trans. James Mabbe (New York: AMS Press, 1967), xxx (originally published in 1924).

  • 32. See, e.g., Rosenberg, “The Converso and the Spanish Picaresque Novel.”

  • 33. Rosenberg, “The Converso and the Spanish Picaresque Novel,” 194–195; Emily Weissbourt, “Translating Spain: Purity of Blood and Orientalism in Mabbe’s Rouge and Guzmánde Alfarache,” Modern Philology 114 (2017): 552–572, esp. 565–566.

  • 34. Adelman, Blood Relations, 82.

  • 35. Adelman, Blood Relations, 73. Some critics have suggested that Jessica is able to convert because she is a woman and that her female Jewishness can be suppressed by Christian patriarchy. See, e.g., Mary Janell Metzger, “‘Now by My Hood, a Gentle and No Jew’: Jessica, The Merchant of Venice, and the Discourse of Early Modern English Identity,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 113 (1998): 52–63; M. Lindsay Kaplan, “Jessica’s Mother: Medieval Constructions of Jewish Race and Gender in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 58 (2007): 1–30; and Dennis Austin Britton, “Flesh and Blood: Race and Religion in The Merchant of Venice,” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, ed. Ayanna Thompson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 108–122.

  • 36. Christopher Highley, Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Crisis in Ireland (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 3.

  • 37. See Jean Feerick, “Spenser, Race, and Ire-Land,” English Literary Renaissance 32 (2002): 85–177: “In the context of Ireland it was all too apparent that races could wax and wane, that they could ‘generate’—transmitting an inherited genealogy to offspring—or they could fall away from that lineage, ‘degenerating’ under the pressure of forces both cultural and physical” (94). On Spenser’s racialization of the Irish, also see, e.g., Andrew Hadfield, “In the Blood: Spenser, Race, and Identity,” Spenser Studies 35 (2021): 47–68; Thomas Herron, “Mixed Up: Race, Degeneration, and Irish ‘Old English’ Politics in Spenser’s Castle Joyous and Bower of Bliss,” Spenser Studies 35 (2021): 69–105; and Urvashi Chakravarty, “‘Fitt for Faire Habitacion’: Kinship and Race in A Vewe of the Present State of Irelande,” Spenser Studies 35 (2021): 21–46.

  • 38. See, e.g., Sheila T. Cavanagh, “‘Licentious Barbarism’: Spenser’s View of the Irish and ‘The Faerie Queene,’” Irish University Review 26 (1996): 268–280; and Richard McCabe, Spenser’s Monstrous Regiment: Elizabethan Ireland and the Poetics of Difference (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 57–78.

  • 39. Loomba and Burton, “Introduction,” 20. Clare Carroll notes that “Spenser describes the Irish as not only primitive and barbaric, but also as African and Asian, and pagan” (“The Construction of Gender and the Cultural and Political Other in The Faerie Queene 5 and A View of the Present State of Ireland: The Critics, the Context, and the Case of Radigund,” Criticism 32 [1990]: 163–192, esp. 178).

  • 40. Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1989); Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, eds., Woman, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period (New York: Routledge, 1994); Kim F. Hall’s, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995); Arthur L. Little Jr., Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000); and Joyce Green MacDonald, Woman and Race in Early Modern Texts (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

  • 41. Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, 45.

  • 42. Hall, Things of Darkness, 25.

  • 43. Theodor Galle’s 1580 engraving of Amerigo Vespucci “awakening” America is an often-discussed example. Margarita Zamora has provided an influential reading of this scene in Reading Columbus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 152.

  • 44. Philip Sidney, “Astrophel and Stella,” in Sir Phillip Sidney: Selected Prose and Poetry, ed. Robert Kimbrough (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 159–240.

  • 45. For a reading of how this sonnet racializes Petrarchan beauty, Hall’s Things of Darkness, 77–78. On race and Petrarchism, see Kim F. Hall’s “Beauty and the Beast of Whiteness: Teaching Race and Gender,” Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (1996): 461–475.

  • 46. See Metzger, “Now by My Hood, a Gentle and No Jew” and Kaplan, “Jessica’s Mother.”

  • 47. Balthazar Fra-Molinero, “The Condition of Black Women in Spain During the Renaissance,” in Black Women in America, Kim Maria Vaz (London: SAGE, 1995), 159–178, esp. 171. Fra-Molinero also notes differences between representations of the Negras and Mulatas, mixed-raced women: “White male playwrights decided to idealize the picture by exalting the ‘exoticism’ of these women, praising their intelligence but making them objects of illicit desire. These theatrical stereotypes reproduced the image that White society had of itself. On the one hand, the mulata’s intelligence was ‘due’ to her lighter skin color, on the basis of her ‘approximation’ to the ideal of whiteness. Her darkness, however, was a reminder not only of an ‘inferior’ nature and ascendancy, but also of a desire on the part of White men for that which represented inferiority: the Black woman” (173).

  • 48. John Fletcher, “The Knight of Malta,” in The Dramatic Works of the Beaumont and Fletcher Cannon, ed. Fredson Bowers, vol. 8 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 4.1.65.

  • 49. Fletcher, “The Knight of Malta,” 1.1.243–44.

  • 50. Focusing on cultural legacy of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Francesca Royster argues, “There are striking parallels between Cleopatra’s images as ‘courtesan queen,’ ‘betrayer,’ ‘dark exotic’ and ‘supermommy’ and the negative representations of African American Women. But most evocative of all to me have been the ways in which the Cleopatra icon evokes the availability of black women’s bodies and the figuration of their bodies as commodities” (Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon [New York: Palgrave, 2003], 9). Royster’s insights about Cleopatra also pertain to other Black female characters in Renaissance literature.

  • 51. Imtiaz Habib, “‘Hel’s Perfect Character’; or The Blackamoor Maid in Early Modern English Drama: The Postcolonial Cultural History of a Dramatic Type,” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 11, no. 3 (2000): 277–304, esp. 280–281.

  • 52. That said, scholars have argued that it is important to recognize that there was a Jewish and Black presence in England, and as such, literary representations of Jews and Blacks need to be understood in relation to real people living in England. See, e.g., James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); and Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archive, 1500–1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007).

  • 53. John Beusterien, An Eye on Race: Perspectives from Imperial Spain (Lewisberg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2006), 17.

  • 54. Matthieu Chapman, Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama: The Other “Other” (New York: Routledge, 2016).

  • 55. Ian Smith, Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors (New York: Palgrave, 2009), 3.

  • 56. Jones, Staging Habla de Negros, 5.