Emerging Ethnographies in Shakespeare's England (seminar)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive. For more past programming from the Center for Shakespeare Studies, please see the article Center for Shakespeare Studies program archive

This was a fall 2004 semester seminar led by Virginia Mason Vaughan.

Although the cultural descriptions offered by early modern English writers were never systematic or scientific in the modern sense of ethnography, they nevertheless demonstrate English interest in the appearance, customs, politics and religion of peoples other than themselves. A broad range of texts including travelers’ accounts, promotional tracts, poems, and plays reflect English writers’ perceptions of non-English peoples. Recent studies have generally focused on one ethnic category—Jews, for instance, or Turks—or one area of the globe, such as the new world or Africa. Others have attempted to provide a theoretical framework for understanding early modern cultural description. By reassessing such works, and by examining a wide array of primary sources, this seminar, sponsored by the Center for Shakespeare Studies, tried to see the world as Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw it. Using Andrew Borde’s The Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge, George Abbot’s A Briefe Description of the World, and John Speed’s The Theatre of Great Britain as touchstones, we examined how cultural description changed during Shakespeare’s lifetime as England became more involved with overseas trade and travel. Additional readings addressed a broad range of peoples—from America to Africa to India to the Ottoman Empire to Europe—in an attempt to tease out contradictions, conflations, and cross-fertilizations in England’s engagements with other cultures, elements that not only generated a discourse of ethnography but also contributed to the construction of an emerging English nationalism.

Director: Virginia Mason Vaughan is the Andrea B. and Peter D. Klein ’64 Distinguished Professor of English at Clark University and Director of the Higgins School of Humanities there. Her many publications on Shakespeare include Othello: A Contextual History (1994). Her most recent book, Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500–1800, is forthcoming.