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Shakespeare, Othello, and Science in America: An Argument I Might Make (If I had the time)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Literary Theory & Criticism, Shakespeare on September 27, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Kris Collins interrogates the mutually affirming racial discourses of the theater and the natural sciences in nineteenth-century America.

“The nineteenth-century scientific community’s fascination with the black body,” Collins explains, “provides a contemporary analytical template for the racialized anxieties expressed in both minstrelsy and mainstage productions of Othello: white America’s struggle to define and defend the whiteness of their own bodies” (88).

Collins focuses on the work of several white Euro-American scientists: George Gliddon, Josiah Nott, Herman Burmeiter, Cesare Lombroso, Samuel G. Morton, and Louis Agassiz. All of these men classify races hierarchically and by taxonomies putatively dependent on racial intelligence. Because of the inherent differences between the races, these scientists argue, the white population should not mingle, sexually or otherwise, with the black population. Collins thoroughly debunks these claims, which she relates to nineteenth-century minstrel performances of Othello that solidify racist significations of the black body.

While the scientists that Collins identifies opined on racial distinction, another scientist, the young Charles Darwin, dissertated on theories of natural selection and evolution. One wonders whether Darwin’s ideas about genetics and heritable traits influenced the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stage as much as Collins’s subjects influenced the stage in the preceding era.

More to the point, Herbert Spencer’s appropriations of Darwin—epitomized by the phrase “survival of the fittest”—may have justified and authorized racial divisions at the same time that high brow / low brow and elite / popular distinctions began to congeal. This simultaneous segregation (scientific and socio-cultural) was not so much coincidental as mutually (re)affirming.

Bardification and Shakespeare idolatry proliferated along with scientific discourses suggesting that whites were “better adapted” or “more advanced” than people of color. Shakespearean performances—most notably blackface performances of Othello but also early twentieth-century performances starring African American actors as Othello—gradually and perhaps unwittingly reflected the Spencerian drive to “preserve” the “favored” races.

This argument is the logical extension of Collins’s work; it compels a look at the continued influence of natural science on the next generation of American actors, directors, and theater-goers. Although the display of scientific racism and its corresponding effect on the theater may have changed, the underlying idea of racial superiority remained in place.

For further reading:

Collins, Kris. “White-Washing the Black-a-Moor: Othello, Negro Minstrelsy and Parodies of Blackness. The Journal of American Culture 19.3 (June 2004), pp. 87-101.

  1. An interesting idea, but may I suggest that you would also need to make a clear distinction between Darwin himself and the Darwinists who came after him. Darwin explicitly repudiated racism in his works. This would make sense from the man who was after all blurring the distinction between humans and animals, let alone among the races (which, with more recent genetic research, has been proven to be almost nonexistent, as humans genetically border on being clones of each other). The Social Darwinism of the time was in fact part of the Progressive movement, which opposed the classical liberalism that preceeded it — and of which Darwin was an adherent.

    Beyond that, I would argue that Collins is attempting to over-intellectualize what is part of our basic human nature, which is to be racist. We are biologically programmed to hate anyone not in our tribe. Ethics expands as we expand the idea of who properly belongs in our “tribe” — a point made by Darwin, in fact. In this expansion, racism vanishes. Such an interpretation strikes me as being reflective more of the author’s proclivities than the author’s subjects’. In other words, I would argue that your idea is good — but it needs a stronger foundation than Collins.

  2. Troy,

    Thank you for this suggestive and insightful comment. Would that literary types, myself included of course, understood the hard sciences beyond mere surface level. I do not mean to sound territorial about disciplinarity–merely to suggest that a sustained study in “outside” fields seems necessary for one to write intelligently on a subject incorporating knowledge and know-how from those fields. (Which, as an aside, is why I admire the work that you do at the intersections of various so-called “disciplines.”) The problem with much of literary theory that works at the nexus of race, gender, identity, and so on, is that too often it pivots on assumptions preceding any engagement with text, culture, or realities on the ground. And it is severely limited in its approach because it preordains certain views as worthy of consideration and refuses to admit, indeed does not invite, alternative views because of often unwarrented presuppositions about the allegedly “political” freight that those alternative views carry. Worse, those who haven’t been initiated into academic discourse (those whose thoughts and theories are probably most important to race relations in America) are never invited to join in the race conversation, and when they are, their comments are–and in some cases rightly so–dismissed as mere babble or worse.

    Because our American culture reduces all phenomena to labels of “left” and “right,” the study of racism as a product of progressive policy has not played out. What you say about Collins “overintellectualizing” has to do, I suspect, with her complicating of a simplistic argument so as to justify her want of scientific knowledge.

    These are all speculations, of course–long sentences on what are probably minor points. At any rate, you’ve suggested some issues that I would have to consider if I were to proceed with this paper (which I’m not going to do), and unfortunately I couldn’t unpack those issues in a short blog post (or in the even smaller comment section beneath the short blog post).

    All of this is to say that I appreciate your input, which, I think, is spot on.

  3. Another thing that would get one closer to the truth of what was happening with the minstrelsies and parodies is explained by F. H. Buckley in his “The Morality of Laughter.” In it he explains that the comic invites you to join him in laughing at someone who is morally inferior to himself, and yourself. Thus, such comic versions of Othello would be playing up to the audiences’ belief in their natural racial superiority. Certainly, it’s an ugly thing — especially from our perspective — but it doesn’t require a more complicated (or complicating) explanation than that.

    There is a bit of an ironic/funny example of what Social Darwinism was up to, which involves the theory of neoteny. According to the theory of neoteny, humans are physically immature apes — which explains our physical makeup, tendency to play even as adults, and other behaviors. Some “Darwinian” racists loved the idea, and began measuring everyone to prove that the white race was the most neotenous, and thefore the most advanced. This caused those opposed to racism to reject neoteny as a racist theory. However, the racists discovered, much to their dismay, that the people with the most neotenous features was a tribe in Africa! As a consequence, they dropped the theory, too. It took decades for the theory to return, because the anti-racists rejected it as racist, and the racists rejected it as anti-racist! Thankfully, a century later, we can actually take the theory seriously without such nonsense surrounding it (I say thankfully because I’m certain it’s correct).

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