Dr Judith Spicksley
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
In this blog, commissioned by the Folger Shakespeare Library earlier this year, and reworked for this platform, Dr Judith Spicksley argues that Shakespeare’s use of the term ‘slavery’ can tell us a great deal about what the term meant at the turn of the seventeenth century, and what we can take from it today.
During my virtual fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library last year, I examined the growth of the language of slavery in early modern England, and more specifically, the use of that language in the works of William Shakespeare. The research forms part of my broader reassessment of the use of the terms ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ by modern historians to describe institutions of subjection in the past. In searching through a concordance of Shakespeare’s plays and poems I found 163 references to ‘slave’ and 3 to ‘bondslave’, but there were only 5 occasions in all of his works in which he used the term ‘slavery’, even though four of his plays were set in Ancient Rome.
Much of this can be explained by the fact that ‘slavery’ was a relatively new term. Derived from the medieval Latin term sclavus, the English term ‘slave’ has been around since the end of the thirteenth century, when it was used to describe a captive in the absolute power of his or her captor. Already by then it was associated with the misuse or abuse of power. But the first examples of the term ‘slavery’ are not found until much later – they only emerge in the sixteenth century. The earliest example I have found so far is not a literal usage either, but a figurative one, dating to 1542 in a pamphlet by the Protestant reformer, Thomas Becon (A comfortable epistle too Goddes faythfull people in Englande). There is no sense at this point that he is talking about the institution of slavery as currently understood. In extending the root ‘slave’ by adding the ‘ery’ suffix Becon was creating a term that referred to the condition in which the ‘slave’ existed, not his status as chattel, and this condition was clearly ignominious. Becon’s aim was to demonstrate the absolute power of the Lord, who could transform the various negative conditions of people’s lives into their positive counterparts – sorrow into joy, darkness into light, death into life, and ‘slavery’ into honour.
In his 1551 translation of Thomas More’s Utopia (A fruteful and pleasant worke of the beste state of a publyque weale and of the newe yle called Utopia) Ralphe Robinson drew on the same portrayal of ‘slavery’ as a base condition, linking it in this case to menial forms of labour. For Robinson, ‘slavery’ represented a type of noxious and miserable work – ‘all vyle seruice all slauerie and drudgerye, with all laboursome toyle and busines’ – fit only for those at the lowest social level.
But the term ‘slavery’ really came into its own as a critique of abusive or illegitimate forms of power. Europe underwent a major fracturing of religious and political authority in the early modern period, so it’s perhaps not surprising to find that the language of slavery provided the perfect vehicle for the airing of religious and political grievances, sometimes brought together in one text. If we look, for example, at Robert Crowley’s The Way to Wealth Wherein is Plainly Taught a most Present Remedy for Sedicion (1550), we can see that the author turned to ‘slavery’ to criticise the actions of rack-renting landlords who were oppressing their tenants. But as a good Puritan, the connection between ‘slavery’ and popery was never far from his mind. He argued strenuously that by not addressing this issue of tyrannical landlords at home English men would risk being ‘brought to the lyke slauery that the french men are in’.
If we now turn to the five contexts in which ‘slavery’ appears in Shakespeare’s works, we can see that the Bard also introduced the term when he was intent on providing a critique of power.
A Shakespeare First Folio, courtesy of The Folger Shakespeare Library at https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare/first-folio
We perhaps get closest to the understanding of slavery as we imagine it in Othello, in which the eponymous hero is taken captive by the ‘insolent foe’ and sold into ‘slavery’ (Othello I. iii). As the sale of people as commodities was condemned in the Old and New Testaments, I take this use of ‘insolent’ to indicate that the foe was contemptuous of rightful authority, making the seizure arbitrary and unjust (Amos 3:6; Revelation 18:13). Moreover, the context draws on a major element in the semantic framing of the ‘slave’ in the early modern period – as a commodity that was to be bought and sold. John Hawkins is on record as having seized Africans for no other reason than to sell them for profit in the Americas, and by this time details of his activities were already available in print.
A second case of ‘slavery’ that also has biblical signposts appears in The Tempest. Here it is the absolute power wielded by the sorcerer Prospero that is under discussion. The shipwrecked Ferdinand, ordered by Prospero to pile up logs, describes the task as his ‘wooden slavery’, a classic reference to the fate of the Gibeonites, whose punishment involved performing the lowliest of tasks as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ in perpetuity (Tempest, III. i; Joshua 9).
The other three uses are all figurative examples, reflecting the huge conceptual power that ‘slavery’ had come to wield. In Henry VI Part II, Jack Cade uses the metaphor of ‘slavery’ to highlight the oppression of peasants living under the tyranny of a self-serving nobility (Henry VI, Part II, IV. Viii). The term also appears in Henry VIII – thought to have been a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher – in Act II, scene 2 (a section believed to have been written by Shakespeare). Here the author employed the metaphor, in one of its very popular manifestations, in relation to subjection to a Catholic ruler – the Duke of Suffolk hopes to be freed from his ‘slavery’ to the French king. The final appearance of the term is in Sonnet 133, where the themes are those of a painful and tortuous relationship, in which the speaker is berating the actions of a cruel lover. It is love itself that is here the absolute and arbitrary master of the lover’s fate.
So why is understanding Shakespeare’s use of the term ‘slavery’ important? First it means we have to think again about the development of language – terms have their own histories that change over time. In Shakespeare’s day ‘slavery’ was a social condition rather than a social status; it was only later that the term came to represent the institution of chattelhood we recognise today.
Nevertheless the elements that have become embedded in the institution following abolition – coercion, absolute subjection and arbitrary power – were all prefigured in Shakespeare’s use of the term. What this suggests is something fundamental for the historiography of the institution of slavery as we know it – it has not been around for thousands of years. ‘Slavery’, emerging in the sixteenth century as a condition of drudgery, and a measure of absolute and arbitrary power, is less than five hundred years old.