Shakespeare's Birthday Lecture: "Making Blackness"

This article is about the annual Shakespeare Birthday lecture. View the full list of all Shakespeare Birthday Lectures to date here. For other articles about Shakespeare's Birthday, see Shakespeare's Birthday (disambiguation).

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

Listen to the lecture.

Read the transcript.

This was a lecture given by Ian Smith on April 22, 2023, postponed from April 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The lecture was presented at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library as part of "Searching for Shakespeare: Celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare’s First Folio."

Recently, more scholars have become interested in examining early modern “blackface,” emphasizing the kinds of cosmetic agents that have been used to create or make blackness on the early modern stage. Such an emphasis relies, in part, on our modern familiarity with face painting that derives from nineteenth century minstrelsy in the United States. The early modern theater recognized another aesthetic, based in textiles and other materials, that highlights an entirely different dimension of “making blackness” and presents new critical histories between the theater and social practices that produced manufactured black bodies, subdued and fashioned according to prevailing political need. In this lecture, I will concentrate on the untapped resource of royal entertainments in this history of making blackness, using Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost as a dramatic point of departure in unearthing and expanding our knowledge of early modern race.

Ian Smith, Professor of English and Richard H., Jr. ’60 and Joan K. Sell Professor in the Humanities in the department of English at Lafayette College, discovered Shakespeare while studying French classical theater at the University of Paris before completing his Ph.D. at Columbia University. He is the author of Race and Rhetoric in Renaissance England: Barbarian Errors (2009) and collaborator on Othello Re-imagined in Sepia (2012). His most recent monograph Black Shakespeare: Reading and Misreading Race has been published by Cambridge UP (2022). He is the recipient of multiple fellowships in support of his scholarship and currently holds the Los Angeles Times chair in the History and Culture of the Americas at the Huntington Library. In 2016 he was a guest on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast for an enduringly popular episode about Shakespeare, race, and early modern theatrical practices. He is also the Vice President of the Shakespeare Association of America.