Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Justin Shaw


Scholar Profile by Jennifer Williams


Justin Shaw studies how people use loss and grief to make sense of their own and others’ racial identities. As a literary critic, he teaches and researches how melancholy drives both oppression and resistance in poetry, prose, and drama written in the 16th and 17th Centuries. His published articles, dissertation, lectures, and current book project are about how these issues manifest in Renaissance drama and intersect with representations of disability and gender in both the early modern period and in our own world.

Shaw works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He currently serves as a North Star Collective Faculty Fellow, supported by the New England Board of Higher Education, and a CU Advance Fellow, supported by Clark University. Shaw received his Ph.D. in English from Emory University in 2020, where he was also the Kharen Fulton Diversity Fellow and the James T. Laney Dissertation Fellow in the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. He also holds degrees from Morehouse College and the University of Houston.

Bio adapted from Justin Shaw’s website.


“‘Rub Him About The Temples’: Othello, Disability, and the Failures of Care” in Early Theatre 22.2(December 2019)

Dissertation: “Race and Melancholy in Early Modern English Literature”

Book Project: “Race and Melancholy in Early Modern Texts“

Full Interview Transcript

Shaw: I teach and research experience and early modern literature in general, particularly my research interests revolve around race and the history of science, emotions, and disability in that period. I’m particularly interested. I wrote my dissertation. I’ve been at Clark for two years. This is my well, this is my second year. So, I haven’t been there for a full two years, but I wrote my dissertation, and the work that I’ve been engaged in for the past couple of years, is around the intersection of race and melancholy and how, in the early modern period of the 16th, 17th centuries, writers, literary writers, particularly like Shakespeare, like Marlowe, all the way up to Aphra Behn. Oroonoko, for example, in the later 17th century, would use language medical language around melancholy and grief as a means for kind of stereotypically understanding and categorizing black people.  

Shaw: And so this kind of anxiety but also, the excitement around melancholy at the turn of the 17th century coincided with this emerging, reemergence, and evolution of a lexicon around racial difference. So, I’m really interested in how literary writers, dramatists, poets, and prose writers are finding ways to attach the language of melancholy to Black bodies, behavior, and Black minds. And vice versa in ways that help to understand people, ultimately. One thing that this work came out of was my kind of general interest in graduate school, and probably back into undergrad–I started out as a psychology major. In college, I went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, and I started college as a psychology major because I wanted to understand how and why people do the things that they do.  

Shaw: I was really interested in the behavior and somehow, I still kind of study psychology in a weird sort of way, but not real people. And so, I’m very fascinated with the ways that people have used the language and diagnoses of psychology and behavioral sciences to enforce racial difference and fictions of racial difference and power in the world. That transcends the early modern period, but that goes through the Enlightenment and 19th century up all the way until now. We just saw the American Psychological Association just release their so-called statement about, you know, kind of addressing their history or racial harm. There have been many critiques of that in the intervening weeks. And so, this is work that I’m finding quite generative in the early modern period, particularly around this issue of melancholy. Which is different from the kind of depression and melancholia of Freud in the 19th and 20th centuries. But I find that people are really interested in the intersections of the behavior of race and racial idealization.  

Williams: Thank you. I think that’s a perfect segue into my first question. I’m excited to include you in this database as well. This makes a lot of sense that you were previously interested in psychology. I can see a lot of intersections in your work. So, my first interview question for you is about melancholy. I want to begin with getting a handle on the basic concepts that you engage within your work and your analysis of these concepts. Starting with that melancholy, you make an important distinction between the depression that we think of today and how our contemporary understanding of depression differs from the melancholy you describe in your work.  

On one level, it’s the psychological dispositions and is clinical in that sense. But on another level, depression has particular cultural expressions like you describe and a different significance across those cultures and different periods. So, this question is around the cultural construction of melancholy. I understand the way you define melancholy as a “sadness without cause,” “without occasion,” and an unproductive affect as it would have been viewed in the early modern period. I want to ask you to talk about and narrow down how you’re defining melancholy in your work. 

Shaw: Thanks for that question. So, melancholy in the early 16th and 17th century, to go back to its medieval and classical antiquity roots, is quite different than what happens in the 19th, going into the 20th and 21st century when you get to melancholia or a major depressive disorder. However, when you read the medical literature of the medieval period and the early modern period, what you see in this clause “fear and sadness without cause,” that’s something that was identified quite frequently by writers in the medical literature. For example, Timothy Bright and Robert Burton, quite famously in his book The Anatomy of Melancholy from 1621.  

Shaw: That was quite a common kind of description of what melancholy was and how it affected the mind and behavior. But when you read modern ideas about depression and anxiety or legal understandings of insanity, or earlier problematic ideas of how madness affected people, they’re described in very similar ways—you see somewhat of a continuity. There is continuity over time with the development and evolution with the ways that early modern writers try to understand and grapple with the ways that the internal goings-on of the body are manifested in the world and manifested in the behavior.  

Shaw: What I’m quite interested in is what is manifested on the physical body itself in the external physiology and complexion. Melancholy is understood from Hippocrates and Galen, for example, Roman and Greek, medical writers as humor. One of the four constituent fluids of the internal body is black bile in association with yellow bile, coleric, blood and phlegm. Each of these had a certain control over what the body did and how people responded to stimuli, how they looked behaved. Certain genders would be associated with certain levels of certain humors. Humors categorized and classified bodies in space in all kinds of ways. Medieval and early modern writers picked up on this and struggle with this, also trying to map humors on culturally and in different spaces. From early modern Spain to Italy, Germany, France, the low countries, the Netherlands, Belgium, then finally to England and Scotland. You had these various negotiations of what bodies were associated with what humors. I’m drawn to Leo Africanus who was an African man who was converted to Catholicism. In his famous treatise, a geographical history of Africa, he writes about Africans quite despairing disparagingly. He’s translated in 1600 by a guy named John Pori, a colonizer. But, he talks about Africans in this in a way that suggests a kind of madness, a distractedness, a melancholy adjacent disposition, that may or may not be inherent.  

Shaw: I’m interested in how Black bodies and Black minds get associated with inherent disposition of melancholy. Women were often associated with being phlegmatic, for example, or nobility was often associated with being sanguine and having the best quality of blood. None of this was real, by the way. Looking at Gabriel Harvey in the late 16th to 17th century, he writes about new ideas of blood and circulation. Even look back to Andreas Vesalius, the Italian who’s writing about anatomy by way of opening up bodies to see what the entire body looks like. There are no four hours, it’s just blood. But there are these ideas that persist those certain things influence one’s behavior. Vapors that people like the famous Italian Renaissance dramaturgist and philosopher Marsilio Ficino puts forth. Ficino says that vapors, for example, affect the mind. Think about anti-smoking campaigns right now.

Shaw: This is something that goes back to the 16th and 17th century with someone like King James VI who had arguably the first anti-smoking campaign. King James VI said the English were in the “new world” which brought over tobacco to England. He claimed that overexposure to smoke would physically change the white body to Black and by doing so, make white bodies lethargic, lazy and therefore, melancholic. Melancholic was associated with laziness and lethargy. Similar things are associated with depression. I’m tracking here a complexity, but also continuity between these early ideas. What one might see as outdated, but these early ideas of the inner workings of the body, the mind, and what we now see and take for granted as behavioral disorders. 

Williams: No, that was great. Approaching the work of Shakespeare, it’s hard at first hard to see the line that can be drawn through Shakespeare that makes it relevant today. Some of the affect is something that I find productive in your work. Affect in your work is something that you can track but is also hard to pin down. The circulation is something that follows us through time and constructs imaginaries that are very real. 

This moves us into the next question. This is a question related to affect and the different dimensions of melancholy, or the affect that is ascribed to racialized people. Previously you’ve talked about the emphasis on the present or “the now” for characters in Shakespeare that are racialized, both white and people of color. “The ability and the license to exist through and in a space of melancholic disposition might be a marker of racial difference.” I’m interpreting this as you saying that there is an aspect of racialization that carries a temporal dimension.  

Williams: I’m interested in hearing from you, in more detail, what the temporal dimension is. What are the functions of this temporality for racialized characters within Shakespeare? As you mentioned, the anti-smoking campaigns that King James initiated are very similar to contemporary events. There seems to be a component of early modern literature that I’ve encountered that feels very in the “now”, the 21st century. How does this positioning of temporality for racialized characters within Shakespeare or people in the early modern period, reflect actual in the early modern period? 

Shaw: So I’m thinking about the ways that blackness was understood in that period compared to the ways that blackness is understood now and the difficulties in pinpointing either. What’s difficult about doing this work, and anyone who does his work might agree, what I have found difficult about this work is looking for black people in the archive and finding no one. Or, having to create them by Black adjacent people, so to speak, or trying to read between the lines. This is a different kind of work compared to those who are doing literary study in later periods. Not to say it’s harder but is different. You must do a kind of detective work and you must develop a kind of lexicon or vocabulary to know what language to look for to understand how these white writers are constructing blackness in that period. What’s funny is that even today, I’m always baffled that we don’t know how to talk about blackness now.

Shaw: So when I get discouraged [by the task of looking for Black people in the archive], I think, “oh, wow, it’s really difficult to talk about blackness, race, and whiteness in the early modern period,” and in relation to the temporality—well it’s also hard to talk about race now. We can’t agree on what blackness is right now. We can’t talk about whiteness now or then either. So, it’s always going unnamed and therefore, unexamined. I think melancholy, just like race, is productively difficult to pin-down. In this period melancholy was described as a number of different things. Robert Burton writes this book called The Anatomy of Melancholy, it’s enormous even in its modern printings. I love showing students this text. It was first printed in 1621 and it was edited and reprinted six, seven, eight different times throughout the century. 

ShawHe’s [Burton] not the first one to write about melancholy at all, but he’s compiling all this knowledge because he realizes, I believe, that there’s so much out there about melancholy. The funny thing about Burton is that he doesn’t come to one single definition or conclusion about what it is other than “fear and sadness without occasion.” A third of the book is about generic melancholy, about love melancholy. There is a part about religious melancholy, “oh, it’s a whole other thing.” I think what’s exciting is that melancholy is all over the place and therefore, productively difficult to pin-down. Race does the same thing.  

Shaw: What’s interesting about race and melancholy in that period is the etymology. Melancholy is melon, which means black or Greek, and color, which means anger or irritability, or bile, which is the Greek term black bile. I’m really interested in how inherent in this idea of melancholy is a messiness about blackness, about race, that I think persists to the current day. I love Aaron the Moor, for example, who describes himself by talking about a “cloudy melancholy.” What’s interesting about modern ideas about depression and major depressive disorder, for example, is how people describe themselves and their experiences in terms of darkness and cloudiness.  

I think about how darkness, cloudiness, and so forth are also terms that get ascribed to Black bodies that are been marked as racialized. These are all slippery terms in both our times. This is something that is productive. There are a lot of scholars and critics out there who will say that because there is this gulf of time, of temporality, there has to be a difference, right? There has to be some. I think there are some cultural nuances to absolutely consider. I’m not trying to do a psychological diagnosis here. I’m not doing what Freud did with Hamlet or formulating a whole new theoretical field based on a Shakespearean character.  

Shaw:  But I think that there is something we can look at in these earlier periods, in the messiness of what writers are trying to do by struggling with understanding race. Sometimes looking in all the wrong ways, in all the wrong places. Also, the ways that we struggle now with how we understand race and how we ascribe the racial difference to the language of something like grief. I am really interested in playing in the sandbox and in that messiness. Even in the etymology of melancholy, I see at least the language of color is inherent. 

There’s a sort of messiness right there at the core of the idea of melancholy that then gets ascribed to bodies that are performing a kind of sadness, grief, solitude – or, as Afropessimism would say – “social death.” How do those bodies then get marked as racially, Black? Then, how do bodies that aren’t melancholic get labeled as white?

That’s a key part of my analysis, I’m not just focusing on Black bodies, Black minds, or Black people, but also making sure that I’m not leaving out or leaving unattended the analysis of white people and whiteness. In the Othello article, I’m trying to pay attention to and draw attention to the mechanisms of whiteness. Everybody talks about Othello and are paying attention to him as a spectacle. What about the white people who put him on a pedestal, who put him on a stage, who leave him out to dry?

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