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Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World.

Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World

By Patricia Akhimie

New York: Routledge, 2018

The observation that conceptions of race were fluid enough to include not only the familiar modern marker of skin color, but religion, region, kinship, and climate has been a commonplace in early modern race studies. Patricia Akhimie's Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference (which I first read in an early manuscript form) sets out to complicate this truism by first pointing out its social implications: if race could inhere in so many different domains, then Shakespeare's England was deeply racialized in ways that we may not have noticed, and that have nothing to do with how many nonwhite, non-Christian people there actually were in the country. To such commonly recognized racial domains as somatic types or "blood," Akhimie adds her particular interest in doctrines of social cultivation--visible in documents ranging from ars apodemica, discussions of the art of foreign travel, to conduct books, records of country-house entertainments, and manuals on household management.

Akhimie argues that the belief in social mobility built into lessons on proper self-cultivation map over and are visible through race's multiple manifestations, in ways that make us see the pitfalls of losing one's essential Englishness, the limited possibility that some people have of improving themselves, and the bedrock intractability of racial identity despite its varied surface presentation. In her four chapters, she demonstrates her guiding conviction that the possession of a "mutable body"--one that could be trained and disciplined to comport itself in ways that gave it a new kind of social value--was in fact dictated by the period's conviction that differences in physical appearance were morally "indelible": the "stigma" attached to certain kinds of bodily markers polices "access to cultivation, impeding those who might otherwise be able to make themselves over into social elites" (9). Over and over again, she points us to places in the plays she studies where characters have markers of difference imposed on them, either because of who they physically are, as we see with the Moor of Venice, through force (as in the case of the unfortunate Dromios in The Comedy of Errors, who are constantly being beaten black and blue), or by the circumstances of their birth. Repeatedly, we see them try to navigate the ideological roles into which their marked bodies have thrust them.

Sometimes, trying to keep track of how race mutates in Renaissance drama feels like playing critical whack-a-mole; you pin it down in one place and it just pops up somewhere else with new whiskers and fake teeth. In contrast, Akhimie's connection of race to conduct and status provides a larger perspective. Rather than listing individual examples of where ideas about race or racial difference appear in a text, she concentrates on how a range of "fluctuating ideas about human differences" (9) intersect with structures of authority and hierarchy, and on the social effects that these intersections cause. Chief among these differences are bodily markers that include but are not limited to the color of one's skin. Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference wants to examine how a variety of marked bodies are used by these structures of authority to affirm and preserve existing social order, and how race can therefore become more materially available to our reading.

Its attention to bodies--bodies that are not only born a specific color, but laboring bodies marked by effects of the work they perform for the society that holds them in the place that will sustain its own operations--distinguishes Akhimie's discussion of race. Because of its interest in how certain bodies become the instruments through which a hierarchical order preserves its structures of privilege, Akhimie's book is also interested in the conjunction of race and class, which I think makes it stand out even more among current treatments of her subject. Despite the promise of upward social mobility held out by the doctrine of self-cultivation, she notes, the characters she studies are prevented from rising by the ways in which their bodies are marked--not only by color, but by the evidence of the work they are relegated to doing. The injustice these characters suffer and the physical and emotional pain they experience in their thwarted attempts to rise are where we can see race in action, Akhimie argues. For her, only "race," with the kinds of confining, exclusionary thinking it promotes, seems a protean enough term to account for the different stories of oppression her chapters detail.

Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference begins with a chapter on Othello, as so many books in early modern race studies must. Akhimie's understanding of the text details a story about the limits of cultivation. A traveler who has survived many strange adventures, Othello has both profited from his exposure to foreign worlds--his stories' wonder is what catches Desdemona's imagination--and, as Akhimie's reading of period debates over the value of travel reveals, been damaged by it. Travel analysts like Fynes Morrison believed that even if travel could make you polished and sophisticated, it also created the risk of eroding the national identity into which you were born, turning you into a stranger in your own land. Othello himself is already a stranger in Venice, as well as separated from his own native land, wherever that might be. Without a place of his own, he is vulnerable to the "new vices, new staines, new diseases" Morrison saw as the ill effects awaiting the traveller insufficiently bred to his own country's ways. But of course, Othello is already literally stained by his dark skin--marked, that is, in ways that already suggest his natural imperviousness to all attempts to cultivate his character and quality of discernment. His predicament is further complicated by what Iago calls the "curse of service." If we are all indeed condemned to serve a social order that rarely (he says) rewards us as we deserve, it may well be true that it does not make any difference how well we perform. Whether we are excellent or merely serving time until we are cashiered, the notion of a meritocracy that will fairly judge our accomplishments is a laughable fiction. When Othello compares himself to a "base Judean" (or Indian) before his suicide, Akhimie says, the more important term in the phrase is 'base,' because it speaks to this sense of irreparable relegation to an ordained place and role in society. Here, we see her combining her insights into the contradictory doctrine of cultivation with her interest in the social implication of racial markers, to subtle and persuasive effect.

The completely surprising second chapter, on The Comedy of Errors, shows the breadth and versatility of Akhimie's belief in the flexibility of racial marking and its baleful utility in maintaining social orders of privilege. Errors contains no characters who are identified as not white, yet, she argues, the bodies of Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse--marked by the bruises of the beatings they both constantly catch from angry masters--provide, for a society in which household servants were routinely beaten,' evidence of their own fault. The household management manuals she draws on in this chapter emphasize servants' abject natures and masters' almost forced resort to beatings as a way of controlling them. Servants' bruised bodies manifested a set of beliefs in which domestic workers were always "positioned at the margins of the family and the borders of the household," (93) constantly wrong, constantly in need of correction. Unlike the disciplines a young gentleman might acquire through travel, the beatings a servant might receive were not aimed at improving his or her nature. The manuals emphasize that beatings were about masters' obligations to maintain an orderly household and not about servants' capacity to learn from being beaten; in that way, beatings were much more about the expression of mastery than the hope of reformation. The Dromios' battered appearance, Akhimie argues, offers a constant kind of physical evidence of the state of error in which they live; it marks them as permanently exiled from the polite, self-controlled society of masters, and as permanently relegated to an irrational, debased substrate of the human race. This debased status and "the prejudicial treatment" it elicits from their social betters, she argues, "is best described as racism," (89) given that it cannot be changed! that it is regarded as natural, and that the bruises that mark them as unruly and stupid point to their shared possession of certain "limitations, and moral qualities" that have nothing to do with their religion, place of origin (they come from different places, after all), or skin color. The self-evident need to segregate the Dromios from normal, orderly people and their lack of meaningful recourse for their abuse provide a clear illustration of how marked Shakespearean bodies can determine their own social places regardless of phenotype, and of how the use the plays make of marked bodies can be understood as instances of racism.

The third chapter, on A Midsummer Night's Dream, continues chapter 2's interest in class and status with its focus on the "hard-handed men" Peter Quince recruits into his acting company, but does not make as bold a claim about racism and racialization in the play. Quince's actors' bodies bear the immutable marks of the work they do, with their rough hands and generally rustic demeanors Akhimie suggests that their hands' hardness is the physical token of a kind of intellectual impermeability to the powers of imagination or cultivation that successful art requires, so that once again their bodies point the way to a kind of exclusionary racialization that relegates them to the station they currently occupy, no matter what steps they take to try to raise themselves above it. The sound of Theseus and Hippolyta's hunting horns the morning after the young lovers' night in the woods marks a clear border between who the rude mechanicals hope to become and who the older generation of royals are and will always be, the author argues, because hunting was so strictly reserved for the aristocracy. No matter how confused things get during the long night in the forest, those sudden horns remind us that normal order has never truly been superseded. One night of playful freedom over, normal roles will be resumed, with Peter Quince's amateur actors retaking their proper places as suppliants for aristocratic favor, which may or may not be granted. The wood that hosts the actors' rehearsals as well as the lovers' confusion appears to be a "medial zone" (119) beyond the reach of the court, but in reality is merely another staging area for the demonstration of the degree to which both young lovers and aspiring actors exist under others' watchful eyes. After the final performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe" mutates Ovidian tragedy into slapstick--as though Peter Quince's company would be capable of anything higher--Theseus ends by reminding Hippolyta of his own "capacity" and "might" in condescending to accept the actors' offering at all. Especially useful here is Akhimie's use of recent scholarship on country house entertainments, which supports her argument that Dream's interest in the contrast between aristocratic leisure and aristocratic power provides a place where we can see working men's relegation to their foreordained role of kissing the hand that minimizes their efforts. "This," Akhimie remarks trenchantly, "is the cultivation of difference; the ideology of cultivation distinguishes between people by evaluating the quality of their conduct even as it endorses insurmountable barriers for some groups to the very practices that might earn them higher esteem" (144). The actors' hard hands mark their bodies as incapable of executing the kind of performance that could raise their status, because their bodies' markings tell us that they cannot be raised or changed. Once again, race inheres in the body, but not always in the manner modern sensibilities assume it will.

Race resides in the range of bodily markings that Akhimie notes, although other kinds of markings than the modern emphasis on skin color matter as crucially to the ways in which bodies can be racialized. In her final chapter, on The Tempest, which is also indispensable to a discussion of early modern formations of race, she returns to a full focus on cultivation with a discussion of how the play is compelled to contain two "competing theories" (152) of its efficacy. On one hand, Ferdinand, Miranda, and Prospero all exemplify cultivation's success, as they benefit from education and lessons in conduct. On the other, of course, Caliban cannot be raised above his identity as mere laborer, just as Stephano and Trinculo are born to serve. Akhimie suggests that the fact that Prospero pinches and punishes Caliban works both to punish him for bad deeds or poor performance in the domestic circle and to mark him physically as someone who has been punished. Like the Dromios, his battered and bruised body announces his inferiority. If an early modern understanding of "cultivation" includes the physical labor that created landlords' profit from the land as well as the ability (or inability) to improve one's conduct and behavior, then the question of Caliban's relation to cultivation foregrounds the role of labor-husbandry--in the colonial enterprises that The Tempest is so often understood as rehearsing. Akhimie is correct when she notes that the play "revises" (155) usual representations of colonial labor. Drayton's "Ode: To the Virginian Voyage," for example, celebrates the new land's bounty that "Without ... toil" will generate three generous harvests instead of the single one normal agriculture would expect to raise. By emphasizing that Caliban sweats to cultivate Prospero's estate, the play admits that the work "hard-handed men" contribute is what produces landlords' wealth and comfort. But by the play's end, while Ferdinand's cultivation through labor on the island is what makes him a suitable husband for Miranda, Caliban's labor and its central role in the island's cultivation is "effaced" (159). His "pinched" body ineradicably identifies him as someone suited only to a lifetime of servitude--a fate he freely embraces in his last words. It points as well to the limits of cultivation, of which certain bodies are simply not capable. The "natural" limits of racially marked bodies that the chapter describes would eventually be marshaled to justify slavery in the New World.

Two of Akhimie's chapters address plays which are absolutely canonical in early modern race studies. Two of her chapters take up plays which do not often figure in such critical discussions, which is why her discussions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and especially The Comedy of Errors feel so fresh and innovative to me. Even when the book approaches Othello and The Tempest, it does so in ways that do not replicate more common kinds of critical concerns with these plays. Akhimie gives us a Tempest discussion that is not particularly concerned with postcolonialism, for example; her Othello's experience of race is mediated through acculturation to invisible systems of social control. Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference combines deft local readings with its larger analytical commitment to unfolding how race manifests in bodies but also across class, and how these two systems of social differentiation work to maintain each other. Akhimie's dedication to tracing how the varied and multiple operations of race become visible in social practice (rather than in literary texts alone) is logically connected to the political work in the present she believes that early modern race studies is capable of accomplishing. She writes that one reason she wants to explore race's appearances in the past and to attend to the pain and oppression it caused "is to make it more recognizable in our contemporary moment" (11). In the midst of a current U.S. politics that often trades in denigrating nonwhite bodies, Akhimie's call for discernment, recognition, and attending to the pain of others that using race as a weapon causes feels refreshing. Regardless of any political insights that might further energize Akhimie's bold, detailed analyses in the minds of her readers, however, Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference is a significant, thoughtful, and original addition to the growing body of studies that consider how race signified in Renaissance England. I recommend it highly.

Reviewer: Joyce Green MacDonald
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Author:MacDonald, Joyce Green
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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