Eldred Jones's Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama

Friday, September 4, 2020


As the first monograph to examine representations of Africans in early modern drama, Eldred Jones’s Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama plays an important role in the history of premodern critical race studies.[i] Jones confronts a common scholarly misconception: “This investigation shows how greatly the Elizabethan’s knowledge of the continent and peoples of Africa has been underestimated by modern critics. Statements about Othello’s colour and racial identity are full of suggestions that Elizabethans did not know the difference between Moors and Negroes” (viii). Jones shows that in contrast to early modern plays, travel writing made careful distinctions between Black Africans and non-Black Moors. The book is often more documentary than interpretive, apart from an illuminating discussion of Othello. Yet, the survey of texts about Africa and the documenting of African characters and references to Africa in early modern plays, masques, and pageants remains invaluable.

 In chapter 1, “The African Image in Sixteenth-Century England,” Jones attends to depictions of Africans in classical pseudo-ethnography, medieval legends, and early modern travel writing. The chapter lays a foundation for his discussions of dramatic texts in subsequent chapters, arguing that “It was out of this mixed background of legend, fact, and fantasy that the stage image of Africans developed” (26).  Much of what Europeans knew of Africa through the first half of the sixteenth century came from Herodotus, Pliny, Mandeville’s Travels, and the legend of Prester John. Jones writes, “For poets and dramatists the most interesting aspect of Africa was its strangeness,” its landscape, its animals, and its (sub)humans (3). Travels to Africa often refuted classical and medieval narratives, but these narratives and firsthand reports combined to create the English image of Africa and Africans. Most useful in this chapter are Jones’s examinations of travel narratives. He argues that Shakespeare and his contemporaries drew much from Richard Hakluyt’s Principle Navigations and Leo Africanus’ Description of Africa for the crafting of stories set in Africa and African characters—such as in The Battle of Alcazar, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, The Masque of Blackness, and The Fair Maid of the West. In this chapter Jones also touches on topics that become of central importance to later studies of race and English engagements with Muslims and the Mediterranean. For example, he suggests that dramatists were especially interested in North Africa because it allowed them to produce plays engaging religious conflict between Christians and Muslims and religious conversion. He also notes that while playwrights who read travel writings would have noticed that Africans had a variety of skin tones, especially in North Africa, they usually give Moors black skin for dramatic effect. 

In chapter 2, “Africans in English Masques and Pageantry,” Jones traces the evolution of black characters from Henry VIII’s court festivities through Stuart masques. While there has been considerable attention to race and blackness in court masques, Jones’ survey suggests that there is work to be done in early Tudor literature. Drawing from Robert Withington’s scholarship, Jones also points out that the “King of Moors” in Elizabethan pageants is patterned after the medieval wild man or green man, a suggestion that allows us to consider how racial characterization develops alongside and through literary conventions. What Jones primarily notes in this chapter, however, is the development of black characters in courtly entertainment—from mere spectacle to figures who are intricately interwoven into the poetic conceits.

Chapter 3, “Dramatic Treatments of African Characters,” is the book’s core. Jones provides synopses and studies of African characters in Lust’s Dominion, The Merchant of Venice, The Tragedy of Sophonisba, The White Devil, The Knight of Malta, a number of plays featuring Cleopatra, The Fair Maid of the West,  All's Lost by Lust­, and especially The Battle of Alcazar, Titus Andronicus, and Othello. But Othello is his primary concern. Stunning close reading of the play uncovers, among many other things, insights such as, “Because of his isolation in Venetian society and the prevailing attitudes, Othello puts himself into the hands of Desdemona, the one who really belongs to the society. Hers is the stronger position socially, and this is the potential source of difficulty in the match. This is a factor which Othello’s mind is quick to seize upon, and which consequently Iago can exploit” (95). Jones’s analysis is attuned to the social inequities that Othello faces due to his race and, though rather subtly, draws attention to how Othello’s demise stems from the intersections of race and gender within the love plot. Jones’s analysis of Othello still shines; it is foundational to how we have come to understand some of the workings of race in the play.      

The final two chapters are brief, turning to the ways Africans were physically represented and how Africa is represented on the stage. Chapter 4, “Physical Portrayals—Make-up and Costume,” considers what we now understand as theatrical properties of blackness. Plays and theatrical records indicate that cloth, soot, and paint were variously used to blacken the white actor’s skin, and Jones offers that headpieces—to portray tightly curled hair—and costumes were also used to portray Africanness. He wonders as well to what extent cosmetics might have been used to represent what Europeans viewed as African facial features.  In chapter 5, “Africa and the Language of the Plays,” Jones examines references to Africa in plays that do not have African characters. He identifies recurring African tropes, including Black as not beautiful and undesirable, the whiteness of the “Ethiope’s” teeth, the indelibility of black skin, Egyptian crocodiles, Barbary gold and horses, and Moors diving for pearls. The book also contains an especially useful appendix that lists black characters in plays, masques, and pageants between 1510 and 1638.

In reading Othello’s Countrymen fifty-five years after its publication, I am struck by the fact that premodern critical race scholars are dealing with problems similar to those Jones confronted—the whiteness and anti-blackness of Shakespeare studies. In the book’s preface, Jones quotes and refutes the work of John Drape. To Drape’s “Shakespeare seems to have realized that unlike ‘Negro-land’ they [the Barbary states] were organized monarchies…,’” Jones responds, “Statements like these ignore the fact that among the published writings of English voyagers well before 1600 there were reports of contacts with West African kings like the king of Benin in ‘Negro-land’, and that in the pages of John Leo’s book several such kingdoms in ‘Negro-land’ were vividly described” (viii). (The rhetoric suggests just how Jones feels about Drape’s statement.) Peter Erickson and Kim F. Hall’s introduction to a 2016 special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly on race, and indeed various essays in the volume, point to the fact that 21st-century critics still confront racist arguments about race in Shakespeare.[ii] Beyond the preface, Jones does not often address anti-blackness in scholarship explicitly—though his critique in chapter 3 of Thomas Rymer as the man “who so frequently brings up the right questions but supplies the wrong answers” has to be one of my favorite scholarly clapbacks. Readers today will not always agree with Jones’s conclusions, but they will nevertheless see the various ways in which his arguments oppose antiblackness in early modern drama and literary criticism.


[i] Margo Hendricks describes the contours of Premodern Critical Race Studies in “Coloring the Past, Rewriting our Future: RaceB4Race.” Race and Periodization: RaceB4Race Symposium. 6 Sept. 2019. Folger Shakespeare Library, Lecture. https://www.folger.edu/institute/scholarly-programs/race-periodization/margo-hendricks.

[ii] See Peter Erickson and Kim F. Hall, “‘A New Scholarly Song’: Rereading Early Modern Race" Shakespeare Quarterly 67.1 (2016): 1-13.