Gendered & Racial Others: Dehumanization in Shakespearean Literature

By Allyson H., Tabitha H., Colleen T., and Lauryn W.
During the Renaissance, high anxieties circulated concerning women and racial Others gaining independence or rising to positions of power. To combat these anxieties, men and dominant racial groups attempted to assert their power by defining what qualities made one person superior to others.
 
Historically, anxieties about women stemmed from the Biblical condemnation of Eve. As a result, upper class white males in Renaissance society attempted to control women’s independence of voice and action through laws like primogeniture and coverture, which placed women under the control of a man—either her father or her husband. Conduct literature was also produced to teach women how to behave in public.
 
Anxieties about “tawny-skinned” people in Shakespearean England also stemmed from the Bible story of Ham, who “committed a sin against his father Noah that condemned his supposedly black descendants to be ‘servants unto servants’” (Frederickson n.pag). As a result, feelings of distrust and hostility toward black people were fairly common, causing them to be Othered in society. Black-skinned people of the time had many stereotypes attributed to them, such as being quick to anger but full of pride and courage. Shakespeare calls these stereotypes into question.

During this course, our group focused on these anxieties in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The dehumanization of women and the attempt to combat female power occurs in works like The Rape of Lucrece, King Lear, and The Taming of the Shrew. Additionally, Othello focuses on issues of a racial Other in a position of power, and the stereotypes that can be used to prove the Other’s inferiority. Each text denotes the “inferiority” of Othered groups, ultimately expressing larger anxieties of white males who utilized dehumanization of women and racial Others to prevent their loss of power and superiority within Renaissance society.
 
Bibliography
Fredrickson, George. “The Historical Origins and Development of Racism.” PBS. PBS, 1 Jan. 2003. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.
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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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