Shakespeare and the language of slavery

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

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.  

Enjoying a month as a virtual Folger Fellow

Dr Judith Spicksley

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

In January 2022 I finally managed to take up a virtual Folger Fellowship, and enjoy a month long virtual ‘visit’ to the Folger Library in Washington DC. My original plan had been to hold the fellowship in August 2021, but I contracted Covid-19 at the end of July, and had to take a month’s sick leave to recuperate. The Folger were happy to reschedule, as long as I could arrange it within the 2021-22 fellowship year. Given work commitments, and Institute events, I decided to reschedule for January 2022, when I would have the time to explore their collections.

Folger Library, Washington DC. Image at

The Folger Library Fellowships are a well-established and much sought after part of the academic ‘scene’, and are usually held onsite at the home of the Folger Library on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Library was established ‘as a gift to the American people’ in 1932 by the industrialist Henry Folger and his wife Emily, with the original design for the building being drawn by the architect Paul Philippe Cret, the French born industrial designer from Philadelphia. Numbering 82, the Library’s collection of Shakespeare’s First Folio is the world’s largest: published in 1623, the Folio included plays that up until that point had never appeared in print, including As You Like ItJulius CaesarMacbeth, and The Tempest.

The Folger Shakespeare Folio. Image at:

The Library is dedicated to the study of Shakespeare, his works, and the society he lived in. The founding collection consisted of rare books and manuscripts as well as more recent writings, art, and ephemera related to Shakespeare and the English drama of his age. It included prints, photographs, playbills, promptbooks, paintings, and reference books of many kinds.

But from the start, Henry and Emily Folger understood that neither Shakespeare nor the English drama of his age could be studied in isolation. The Library’s holdings were augmented to include numerous items bearing on Renaissance English culture and civilization as well as materials from continental Europe that influenced or reflected English thought and values. Over the years the field of acquisition has broadened further, to include materials on English culture into the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

Fellowships have been offered to support research and writing at the Library since 1935. Usually held onsite, the initiation of a major building renovation project in 2020 – to expand public space, improve accessibility, and enhance the experience for all visitors – encouraged the Library to consider offering virtual fellowships for research and writing whilst the Reading Room was closed for renovation.

Folger Library Reading Room. Image by David Reeve at

Included in the Library’s collections are a number of electronic resources, some of which are freely available. This includes the Folger Shakespeare, where you can explore all Shakespeare’s plays, poems and sonnets online, read plot synopses and brief textual histories, and see selected images from the Library’s impressive collection. Usefully there is a concordance for searching across all Shakespeare’s works for specific words, names or places for example, or any other term you might be interested in. I, for example, was keen to examine all the contexts in which the terms ‘slave’ and/or ‘slavery’ appeared.

Additional electronic resources are available by subscription to registered users of the Folger. These are normally only accessible onsite at the Library, but a big part of the attraction of the virtual fellowship was the opportunity to access all these resources from my desktop here in the UK. I enjoyed four lovely weeks of largely uninterrupted research mining data related to my topic: the language of slavery in early modern England, and more especially as it appeared in the works of Shakespeare.

Folger Fellows usually get to spend a month in Washington where they can explore the Library (and the capital!) and meet and talk with other Folger Fellows. This year there are nearly forty, and the breadth of their interests is quite staggering. As things turned out, the global impact of Covid-19 would have made travel to Washington difficult at best, so on balance I got a great deal – a month away from Institute duties, access to all the Library’s digital resources, individual online support from the Folger librarian, and an introduction to a new community of scholars, coordinated by the fellowship programme assistant via Slack, the virtual communication platform.

Aside from the missed opportunities associated with a visit to one of America’s leading cultural gems, my only disappointment was not having enough time to explore the vast amount of material in the Folger collections. A month flew by in no time! However, I can recommend the experience without hesitation. I would like to thank everyone at the Folger for their help and support, and I am hugely grateful to them for giving me this opportunity. If your research is in this area, and you are interested, why don’t you think about applying for a fellowship? This year’s competition (again for virtual fellowships) closed in mid-January, but the Folger has big plans in the works for their fellowships when the Folger reopens. You can subscribe to their Research Bulletin if you would like to keep informed.