Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Urvashi Chakravarty


Scholar Profile by Kashaf Qureshi


Urvashi Chakravarty is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toronto whose work focuses on early modern English literature, critical race studies, queer theory, and histories of slavery. Chakravarty has written on a range of topics, from racial biopolitics in early modern political theology to queer natalities and reproductive futurities in Shakespeare. Chakravarty’s forthcoming book, Fictions of Consent: Slavery, Servitude, and Free Service in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022) examines how ideologies of slavery were produced in the everyday life of early modern England, exploring how racial thinking was embedded and engendered in spaces such as the classroom, the theatre, and the household. Chakravarty is working on a second book project which deals with the reproduction of racial ideologies and slavery in the larger Atlantic world, taking into consideration the construction of white womanhood and white childhood in these contexts.


“Race, Natality, and the Biopolitics of Early Modern Political Theology.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 18, no. 2 (2018): 140-166.

“‘I Had Peopled Else’: Shakespeare’s Queer Natalities and the Reproduction of Race.” In Queering Childhood in Early Modern English Drama and Culture, edited by Jennifer Higginbotham and Mark Albert Johnston, 57-78. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 

“More Than Kin, Less Than Kind: Similitude, Strangeness, and Early Modern English Homonationalisms.” Shakespeare Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2016): 14-29. 

“Livery, Liberty, and Legal Fictions.” English Literary Renaissance 42, no. 3 (2012): 365-390.

Full Interview Transcript


Qureshi: Hi Urvashi, thank you for joining me to talk about your work today. I’m really interested in hearing more about the kind of work you do in the field of early modern critical race studies, hearing more about your archive. And you work a lot with Shakespeare, and queer theory, and the natality, and I’m especially interested in hearing about how those intersect with early modern critical race studies. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this.


Chakravarty: Thank you so much for speaking with me. It’s really lovely to meet you and learn more about your work, and its just really exciting to see the different kinds of work and research being done so thank you for making time to speak with me. There’s a kind of chicken and egg problem with critical race studies and Shakespeare, right, which is that when we think back to some of the work that we’ve seen under the late 80s and 90s, there’s kind of truism which has arisen around maybe the last 25 years—so, 30 years—of work in premodern critical race studies, that a lot of it is centered around Shakespeare. But when we think back to some of those texts, like Things of Darkness, to Hendricks and Parker, that edited volume, a lot of it is actually not about Shakespeare, right. So there’s a way in which I think disciplinary considerations and the way the larger field evolved and what people were teaching and the kinds of disciplinary imperatives that were in place sort of lead to a significant amount [of work] that worked in and around Shakespeare. I think for me what’s really generative is—its twofold: the first is obviously the kind of, sort of a genealogy of critical possibility and interpretation. Shakespeare is sort of the place where a lot of these strains of inquiry and lines of inquiry meet. So it can be a kind of productive space for, for instance, queer theory and critical race studies, because often there has been a kind of interest from multiple directions around a clustered body of primary work. So that’s sort of a kind of very logistical, structural benefit, perhaps, to working on Shakespeare and thinking about Shakespeare. That its such a fruitful field of so many different lines of inquiry that is becomes, I think, a really productive body of work to think with. And it’s obviously a body of work that is constantly being reimagined performatively and pedagogically, so that’s one aspect of it. I would say that my own work has increasingly become more multi-generic over the past several years. My first book obviously has certain amounts of Shakespeare—I would not say [its about] Shakespeare—but my second book certainly isn’t. And there is a kind of—I’m sure this is something you discussed as well in your class—there’s a way in which there is now a kind of impetus to think about different lines of inquiry with regard to authors who perhaps have not been available to us in the past. So I’m thinking of Spenser, Milton, etc. But also, Shakespeare and drama, although again part of what I’m always struck by is how much of that early work was really invested in a kind of multi-generic body of primary literature. It’s interesting to think about what brought me to queer theory. If I had to say two things about it, the first would be, the tension I’m really interested in or have always been interested in, it’s the way in which the presumptive whiteness of queer studies has evolved, and there is I think a sense of that in early modern critical race studies, as well, versus the genealogies of queer theory, the role of Black feminism, the role of the Combahee River Collective, all of those longer genealogies which have sort of risen out of how we understand queer studies now. And so, on the one hand, a consideration of queer studies and critical race studies […] and also, they’re co-articulated from the beginning. So I’m really, really interested in how certain kinds of critical genealogies have been written in and out of these fields. I think what really brought me to queer theory was thinking—particularly thinking about the intersection of queer theory and early modern critical race studies—was actually thinking about the phenomenon of homonationalism, and the way in which particular kinds of—to put it very bluntly—particular kinds of solidarities also serve the ends of, in this case, white supremacy or whiteness, right, or particular kinds of national ends, or particular kinds of—in this case—larger frameworks of islamophobia. So how does that nexus of race and religion and sexuality and queerness sort of intersect, and how do they sort of work to elide the presumptive forms of power at their core?


Qureshi: Thank you for such a thorough answer. That really answers—


Chakravarty: Sorry that I was rambling, I apologize!


Qureshi: No, it answers so much of what I was wondering about! Specifically, like, what is it about queer studies and queer theory in particular that’s so generative in dialogue with early modern critical race studies. And I think your answer unearths that it’s not even a matter of being in dialogue, but that these things are, like you said, co-articulated from the very beginning, and it is important to, you know, engage with these entanglements, because they’re already there, they’re not being kind of artificially constructed. And so that makes a lot of sense. And I was wondering if there’s anything more you could say about maybe the specificity of the wat that queer theory reimagines and dislocated futurity, as a project that is very much constituted with—in and with—early modern critical race studies as well, specifically with the early modern period. So I was just wondering if you could speak more about this very specific kind of dislocating of futurity that you see so productive when thinking about Shakespeare and the formation of race and race-thinking. 


Chakravarty: I’m really glad you asked that because I’m actually working right now on sort of ideas of racial futurity in early modern England, and part of what that arises out of is this sort of amazingly generative and brilliant work on queer temporality and queer futurity. How does one imagine futures? Where does on imagine futures? Also, this comes out my interest in anti-natalism, the ways in which reproductive futurity is both imagined and foreclosed. What I find really generative in queer theory is, and particularly in the idea of queer futurity, is the way in which—its sort of the conversation actually, and its sort of an older conversation now, but its one that I found really productive, around the racialized implications of thinking without or within particular modes of futurity and by extension temporality. Sort of to go back to that also larger point that Lee Edelman makes in No Future, right, around the kind of refusal of the figure of the child, refusal of the figure of futurity, and the response which Muñoz makes, which sort of points out the racialized implications of such a [future] and who gets to refuse, and what does it mean to think differently about notions of futurity. That’s something I’ve been thinking about obviously for a very long time and, at the moment, I’m sort of writing […] in my articles and in my second book about what the implications those incredibly productive lines of inquiry might have. Not just for the ways in which we think about sort of racial futurity today, but also for the kinds of futurity which are always already racialized in early modern England. So, when does white reproductive futurity become sort of possible or valorized or disavowed or foreclosed? What does it mean to imagine futures? What does it mean to imagine […] futures? Because those are always already bound up with a particular mode of racial imaginary, and so, this also of course has implications for representations of reproduction. In a moment, I think—because I’m also really interested in longer histories of slavery—I’m particularly interested in the ways in which this kind of racial imaginary of the future is bound up with the larger structures of enslavement and the kinds of real material forms of positing a future that both I think proposes and really challenges modes of racial fixity or racial clarity.


Qureshi: Right, and this leads to my next question, which is, I would like to hear more about your—so you have two book projects? 


Chakravarty: That’s right.


Qureshi: So I had a question about that book that’s coming out in 2022, about—it’s called Fictions of Consent: Slavery, Servitude, and Free Service in Early Modern England—and I was kind of interested in hearing more about the way that, in your article on race, natality, and the biopolitics of early modern political theology, you talk about race being at the center of biopolitical formations of political theology. I was interested in hearing more, like you just touched on, on the relationship between these changing conceptions of race, which lead to different biopolitical reorganizations in early modern England, because the meanings of bodies are changing in various ways, whether they’re blood-based, somatic, phenotypical, and so, so how these kinds of rearticulations of bodies require reorganization in terms of political theology, and how exactly this constitutes a prehistory of slavery, like you say in your article, and then how that relates to this book project, and then also this other book project that you’re alluding to that I don’t know about. 


Chakravarty: Thank you so much, I’m so grateful to you for reading that article. You know, as you were talking, I was actually thinking of Noémie’s brilliant article on Titus Andronicus in early theater. And one of the things I think is so amazing about that essay, which I teach to my students, which I read with my students—I’m currently teaching a graduate course called “early modern critical race studies” and we sort of read that earlier this term. What I find—there’s so much that’s wonderful about it—but one of the things that I’m particularly […] it’s the moment that she thinks about Aaron’s son called a slave and how it relates to sort of Roman versus Iberian versus soon-to-be Atlantic partus sequitur ventrem. I mention that because part of what my book is doing is thinking less about biopolitics or the body, actually. I think that’ll sort of come in again in my second book project which is about race and slavery and reproduction in the larger Atlantic world, and its also trying to think about the way in which notions of white womanhood and white childhood are also constructed in this context. What the first book is doing is thinking about early modern ideologies of enslavement and slavery, and so what its doing is thinking about the reception of, say, Roman ideas of slavery in the classroom or Roman representations of slavery and how they sort of lay the ideological and conceptual foundations for justifications and authorizations of racialized slavery. And so one of the things I’m thinking about is the way in which, for instance, English subjects are also being captured in Mediterranean contexts and they’re being redeemed. What increasingly becomes the case, I suggest, is that a kind of permanent inheritable slavery does not attach to them but it does attach to certain subjects, so you have others, and so part of what I’m trying to trace is the inheritances of classical slavery to make those institutions not just thinkable but possible, and also, how the particular attachments of somatic and epidermal legibility only apply to certain kinds of bodies over others. Right, so for certain kinds of bodies, that sort of “stain of slavery”—which is a term that I take from Roman ideas of slavery, where its not bodily, where its sort of a metaphor, its sort of figurative rather than corporeal—that language becomes corporeal in the case of certain peoples over others. And so what the book is also doing is makings a case, I hope, that the places where the ideologies of slavery are really sort of reaffirmed are first, sort of articulated and then repeatedly reaffirmed, are the kinds of everyday spaces of English life, so the grammar school where school boys might read and sort of read aloud Roman slave comedies, the space of family which I try to trace within this longer genealogy of slavery, and obviously the theatre itself, the household. The sort of larger argument of the book is that the kind of conceptual frameworks for slavery are actually seeded within these everyday relations within these everyday spaces of early modern England so that the work, the ideological work, of slavery is embedded in English life and then activated sort of readily. And part of what I’m trying to do these is think about really the place, and if I may say, the kind of culpability of these institutions not as sort of mutual sites of service or of liberty but as spaces where the kinds of prehistories of bondage are really being made and reaffirmed in these various ways.


Qureshi: That’s really interesting to hear about. I’m especially wondering, do you deal with the kind of religious dimensions of this bondage the way that you do in the “race, natality, and biopolitics” article? [Is that] something that you deal with in your book as well?


Chakravarty: I don’t talk too much about it, but of course, part of that sort of originary language of free service, service as perfect freedom, is in the book […] and so part of what I think is animating the book, or sort of when I think back to where the book began, was really in trying to think through that paradox. And so for a long time what I thought the book was about was sort of modes of consentual service, and in some ways, it is to me. But it was sort of when I started to turn the dissertation into a book, and it was sort of a few years into that process, that I realized what I was really writing was a book about bondage and slavery. And so the religious dimensions aren’t front and center in the way they are in the article that you’re mentioning, but of course there is a really particular kind of theological mandate, if you will, that’s also underwriting precisely the impulses that are complicit in and very much animating, I mean I would say “the prehistories,” except this becomes a running theme of course throughout the centuries of particularly Atlantic slavery, which is certainly animating these kinds of logics of bondage that are being articulated and reaffirmed and shored up, as I said, in these kinds of quotidian contexts


Qureshi: Well thank you so much for answering all of my questions. This has been really illuminating, especially thinking about how, you know, figures like Shakespeare that seem so kind of, like, concrete sometimes, it seems like there’s not more work to be done because that could have been written has been written but that’s absolutely not true, I think as your work testifies, and your work has also been really interesting for me in thinking about the productivity of anachronisms or so-called anachronisms, the ways in which thinking backward and thinking forwards can be done productively using contemporary terms that seem out of place for the past but can actually illuminate it and reconstitute it in meaningful ways. And so this conversation has been really helpful to continue thinking about that, especially with early modern critical race studies. So again, thank you so much for taking the time and talking about your work. It was really fascinating. 


Chakravarty: Thank you so much for talking with me, and I’m really excited to learn more about your work. If there’s one thing I would maybe just add its that genealogies are really useful. Not just the term—its useful for me not just as a term but also I think as a methodology. I’m really, really interested in sort of thinking about how, you know, put in the most simplistic ways, of how we got here, how did we get to the place where there can be these persistent British fictions that there was so slavery, etc, but I try to think with genealogy around the problem of anachronism. And I’m really excited to learn more about your work and read more of it. Thank you.


Qureshi: Yeah, thank you so much. I’ll stop the recording now and we can chat for a bit.

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