Like any other words, “white” in the modern, racial sense, was invented. And it is possible to pinpoint the first popular appearance of the idea that the English are “white people” in a piece of London street theatre, in 1613.
Drama was the only mass media in the England of that time. The largest print run for a book allowed by law was less than the number of spectators for a single performance at the Globe. Urban pageants and commercial plays reached a much larger and more varied population than books. So it was here, in drama, that new words and new meanings were popularised - as we know from Shakespeare.
But it wasn’t Shakespeare who decided that the English were “white”, despite his racist caricatures of oversexed black males (Aaron, Morocco, Othello, and - almost certainly - Caliban). For one thing, Shakespeare himself was not white. The only full-colour portrait with any claim to authenticity, the funeral monument in Stratford-upon-Avon, reveals a very brown bard: his family obviously did not idealise whiteness. More important, Shakespeare did not contrast the black men in his plays with “white men”. Instead, he routinely contrasted black men with white women.
The idea of a white woman seems blatantly racial to us, 400 years later. But when Shakespeare and his predecessors praised a lady for her white hand, white neck or white breasts, that colour coding was gender (and class) specific. In all ethnic groups, women are paler than men: statistically, globally, women have less melatonin in their skin, less haemoglobin in their blood, and less body hair. Like other bodily features that tend to differentiate the sexes, the relative pallor of women was, in Elizabethan England, fetishised, exaggerated and faked. Elizabeth I - like many other well-to-do women in classical, medieval and Renaissance Europe - painted her face white.
But while whiteness was gendered, it was not racialised. Elizabethan male idols did not wear white makeup or wigs, did not avoid sunburning and did not want to be called white. Applied to men, “white” described a corpse or a coward. Or a eunuch: the hormonal changes caused by castration made the skin of a eunuch as soft and white as an aristocrat’s pampered indoor trophy wife. To call a man “white” was to impugn his masculinity.
So when Iago tells Brabantio that Othello has run off with Desdemona, and that “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”, Shakespeare and his character are being simultaneously racist (“black ram”) and misogynist (“white ewe”). We tend to see only the racism, because we assume that Iago considers himself as “white” as Desdemona. But he doesn’t. Neither Iago, nor any other man in the play, describes himself as white.
There are no white men in Othello . There were no white men in Shakespeare’s acting company. There were no black men in that company either, and no women. When the King’s Men performed Othello, one of the male actors blacked up to play the Moor of Venice, and one of the male actors whited up to play the “whore of Venice”. None of the actors thought of black, or white, as their own natural, biological, “racial” colour. White was a colour that actors put on when they wanted to assume a different - and inferior - identity.
You can see the same bias against whiteness in Titus Andronicus. The black “barbarous Moor” Aaron derides Chiron and Demetrius for their cowardice, and specifically associates their timidity with their skin tone: “Ye white-limed walls, ye alehouse painted signs.” The words “white-limed” and “painted” both indicate that the characters’/ actors’ pale complexions are not natural, but the result of makeup (“painting”). Obviously, the stupid rapists Chiron and Demetrius do not represent an idealised “white race”. The play calls them “barbarous Goths”, and Goths were associated with uncivilised regions in the far north. The tragedy shows the classic Roman civilisation idealised by the Renaissance crumbling under the attack of two demographic extremes: southern black barbarians like Aaron (associated with Islam), and northern white barbarians like Chiron and Demetrius (associated with the Goths).
If Shakespeare, his fellow male actors and the men in his audiences did not regard themselves as white, how did they imagine themselves? The paired and rejected extremes of black and white in Shakespeare’s plays put the male writer/actor/spectator in a position celebrated by the male authorities of classical and Renaissance culture: in the middle. The “via media” was the declared justification for the English church, rejecting the Charybdis of Catholicism and the Scylla of Puritanism. Proverbially, “the merry mean” (or simply “the mean”) is best, “the middle way of measure is ever golden”, and man should “observe the golden mean”.
Note the colour attributed to that ideal state. It is not white. It is golden. “Golden” may be used figuratively, but so could “white”, and the choice is hardly random. The phrase “golden mean” is ubiquitous in English literature from the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 17th century. Classical, medieval and Renaissance art often used gold to represent idealised human or divine figures. In the golden age, men lived in a golden world, under a golden sun. The “golden mean” was the preferred stance of authority, centrally positioned to evaluate the extremes represented by effeminacy and savagery, white and black.
To find racial whiteness in English theatre we have to fast forward to the generation after Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s last work for the stage, The Two Noble Kinsmen (co-written with John Fletcher), probably opened the London season at the Blackfriars theatre in September 1613. A few weeks later, on October 29, London spent a record-breaking amount of money on a pageant to inaugurate its new mayor: one of the founding members of the East India Company. That same autumn, four East India Company ships returned to London, carrying more than 1m lbs (450 tonnes) of (fantastically profitable) pepper.
The celebratory pageant, called The Triumphs of Truth , was written by the playwright Thomas Middleton, 16 years younger that Shakespeare. In the middle of The Triumphs of Truth , “a strange ship” appears, carrying “a king of the Moors, his queen, and two attendants of their own colour”. The black king addresses the London crowd: “I see amazement set upon the faces/ Of these white people, wond’rings and strange gazes./ Is it at me? Does my complexion draw/ So many Christian eyes that never saw/ A king so black before?”
A socially and morally undifferentiated crowd of English men and women is here characterised as “white people”, their individual and collective white identity asserted by a black stranger. From the perspective of his alien blackness, they are all “white”.
This first occurrence in a popular text of a positive sense of collective English whiteness contradicts a lot of our assumptions about the history of racism. Shakespeare was a racist, but he didn’t think he was white. Middleton thought he was white, but he wasn’t a racist. Middleton’s Black King is the first unequivocally positive representation of a black speaker in the entire surviving corpus of English dramatic texts. He is not lustful, not jealous, not a liar, not a murderer; he does not belong to the police line-up of violent black men arraigned in the preceding decades by dramatists such as George Peele, Thomas Dekker and Shakespeare. He is not called ugly or foul. Middleton’s Black King is - as the African American scholar Eldred Jones noted decades ago - less “shallow” than the black figures in other pageants. Moreover, Middleton’s Black King stands beside his Black Queen, who also speaks. This is the first positive portrayal of a black marriage in English literature. Indeed, it is the first portrayal of black monogamy. (And still one of the few.)
The notion that Anglo-saxons were “white” did not originate on slave plantations in the American colonies. The modern racial sense of the word entered the London popular vocabulary in 1613. There were few English colonists at all in 1613, and no slave plantations. English whiteness was not originally defined in contrast to the blackness of African slaves, but in contrast to the blackness of civilised monarchs in India, south-east Asia, and the spice islands. The Great White Bard was not white at all. And racial whiteness is not a biological fact, but a historical invention.
· Gary Taylor is the author of Buying Whiteness: Race, Culture, and Identity from Columbus to Hip-Hop , published by Palgrave Macmillan.