Earlier: How Did Shakespeare Use the Word “Race”?
March 10, 2023
Perhaps this is Cyrano de Bergerac rather than Romeo and Juliet? But close enough.
In 2021, I looked into Shakespeare’s every use of the word “race.”
It turned out to be that most of Shakespeare’s use of “race” had more to do with breeding race horses than with Critical Race Theory:
Shakespeare was very much not a French philosophe. He represented instead the apogee of the allusive English poetic tradition in which unexpected connections and metaphorical linkages are more prized than clarity.
Not surprisingly, then, the meaning of the word “race” keeps shifting in Shakespeare so that you can never pin him down to a single meaning. Yet, each shade of definition seems weirdly related to each other variant. …
Thus, Shakespeare’s understanding of the word “race” was messy but also thought-provoking, and it can help us understand race better than just today’s somewhat desiccated standard meaning of a continental-scale human regional group distinguished by skin tone, hair, and/or facial features, which allows science-denialist tropes that race does not exist to flourish.
Central to Shakespeare’s various uses of “race” are horses, their racing and their breeding, which tended to blur in the English mind. The old French word “haras” for stud farm had become the Italian razza, the Spanish raza and the French and English word “race.”
This led to an equine double meaning: A race is what horses run, and race describes breeds and families and lineages and pedigrees, whether horsey or human. It’s sort of a pun on the part of Shakespeare (and the English language), but he’s also calling attention to the similarity between horse breeding and human breeding, especially royal or noble lines. …
Other uses of race in reference to humans tend to be genealogical: race as dynasty. For example, in Richard III (V, 3), the princes in the tower tell the future King Henry VII:
Live, and beget a happy race of kings! …
This is not to say that Shakespeare was an etymologist. But he inherited from his culture a rich understanding of how sex and race are related, an insight that seems to have largely been lost in modern America—and because America now dominates global thinking about race, the world.
In the Does Race Exist? debates, it’s common for participants to assume that the word “race” can only have its current American meaning of a continental-scale grouping recognizable by surface features.
And yet that clearly is an imposition of the unusual history of the United States (in which people came from the far ends of the earth by ship) onto a word that traditionally often meant something smaller, subtler, and more genealogically based, such as lineage, breed, family, pedigree, or stud. I don’t see why this idiosyncratic recent American development should be wholly privileged in thinking about the concept of race over the older, richer traditions.