Aaron’s Black Skin

Aaron’s Black Skin

  [Aar.]  O how this villainy
Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it!
Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace,
Aaron will have his soul black like his face. 

Titus Andronicus, 3.1.202-05

Like Shakespeare’s representation of Richard III, that of Aaron the Moor displays the components of the figure of stigma that Shakespeare returned to time and again in his career: abnormality, villainy, irony, and tragicomedy. With respect to abnormality, Richard has his birth defects and Aaron his black skin. Regarding villainy, both Richard and Aaron are murderers, machiavels, and merry tricksters in the tradition of the Tudor Vice and the Middle English Devil before him. As for irony, each establishes an alarming intimacy with us, speaking directly to us in soliloquies and asides about both his abnormality and his villainy, eliciting our sympathy and securing our support, and both Richard and Aaron are narcissists who turn their abnormality into an object of affection. And on the point of tragicomedy, Richard is killed by the Earl of Richmond, who becomes the King of England, and Aaron by Lucius Andronicus, who becomes the Emperor of Rome, each an instance of virtue and vice getting their just deserts.

While one is physically marked and the other is racially marked, both Richard and Aaron do the same things, invoke the same themes, meet the same ends, and fill the same roles in their respective plays, which allows us to observe that Shakespeare used the figure of stigma to represent ultimately discrete kinds of outsiders. Insofar as Shakespeare associates them with each other, Richard and Aaron are identified not by what they are but by what they are not, which is, in a word, normal. That is, Shakespeare represented neither physical deformity nor racial minority but stigma, difference from cultural norms. From this perspective, studies of “Shakespeare and disability” and “Shakespeare and race” are equally limited because each, conceived of as such, is ultimately addressed to physical bodies as opposed to social interactions, which is the very error Shakespeare sought to expose in his treatment of stigma as drama. Shakespeare thought that stigma was not an object, but an event; not a physical feature of the body, but a social circulation of meaning; not nature, but culture.

Not only do Richard and Aaron align on the four points of the figure of stigma, but both experience and respond to stigma in the same ways: their enemies say their abnormal bodies are omens of an existential evil that was embodied when they were born, and they both use their bodies as a way to express the villainy they devote themselves to in the course of their lives. In other words, just as the representations of both Richard and Aaron show the elements of the figure of stigma, those representations also show the competing ways of conceptualizing stigma in the Renaissance – stigma as metaphor (as a sign of villainy) and stigma as metonymy (as a cause of villainy) – a competition that opens up a third way of thinking: stigma as drama.


Black Skin on the Elizabethan Stage
Black Skin in Early English Literature
Black Skin in Renaissance Italian Literature
Black Skin in Shakespeare


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