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Black Face, Maligned Race

The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne

232 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / no illustrations

Performing Arts and Drama

  Paperback / 9780807124857 / March 1999

Anthony Barthelemy considers the influence of English political, social, and theatrical history on the depiction of black characters on the English stage from 1589 to 1695. He shows that almost without exception blackness was associated with treachery, evil, and ugliness. Barthelemy’s central focus is on black characters that appeared in mimetic drama, but he also examines two nonmimetic subgenres: court masques and lord mayors’ pageants.

The most common black character was the villainous Moor. Known for his unbridled libido and criminal behavior, the Moor was, Barthelemy contends, the progenitor of the stereotypical black in today’s world. To account for the historical development of his character, Barthelemy provides an extended etymological study of the word Moor and a discussion of the received tradition that made blackness a signifier of evil and sin. In analyzing the theatrical origins of the Moor, Barthelemy discusses the medieval dramatic tradition in England that portrayed the devil and the damned as black men. Variations of the stereotype, the honest Moor and the Moorish waiting woman, are also examined.

In addition to black characters, Barthelemy considers native Americans and white North Africans because they were also called Moors. Analyzing know nonblack, non-Christian men were characterized provides an opportunity to understand how important blackness was in the depiction of Africans.

Two works, Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar and Southerne’s Oroonoko, frame Barthelemy’s study, because they constitute important milestones in the dramatic representation of blacks. Peele’s Alcazar put on the mimetic stage the first black Moor of any dramatic significance, and Sotherne’s Oroonoko was the first play to have an African slave as its hero. Among the other plays considered are Keker’s Lust Dominion, Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West, Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Knight of Malta, Marston’s Wonder of Women, and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Othello. In his provocative study of Othello, Barthelemy shows how stereotypical attitudes about blacks are initially reversed and how Othello is eventually trapped into acting in accordance with the stereotype.

The first work to study the depiction of blacks in the drama of this period in a complete cultural context,Black Face, Maligned Race will be informative for anyone interested in the stereotypical representation of blacks in literature. 

Anthony Gerard Barthelemy is associate professor of English at Louisiana State University.

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