William Shakespeare and His Influence

In addition to marking the introduction of the essay as a literary genre, the period fostered remarkable creativity in other branches of literature. England—especially in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—witnessed remarkable literary expression.

The undisputed master of the period was the dramatist William Shakespeare, whose genius lay in the originality of his characterizations, the diversity of his plots, his understanding of human psychology, and his unsurpassed gift for language. Born in 1564, Shakespeare was a Renaissance man with a deep appreciation of classical culture, individualism, and humanism.

Like Montaigne’s, Shakespeare’s work reveals the impact of new connections between Europeans and peoples of other cultures. The title character of Othello is described as a “Moor of Venice.” In Shakespeare’s day, the word moor referred to Muslims of Moroccan or North African origin, including those who had migrated to the Iberian Peninsula. It could also be applied, though, to natives of the Iberian Peninsula who converted to Islam or to non-Muslim Berbers in North Africa. To complicate things even more, references in the play to Othello as “black” in skin color have led many to believe that Shakespeare intended him to be a sub-Saharan African. This confusion in the play reflects the uncertainty in Shakespeare’s own day about racial and religious classifications.

The character of Othello is both vilified in racist terms by his enemies and depicted as a brave warrior, a key member of the city’s military leadership, and a man capable of winning the heart of an aristocratic white woman. Shakespeare’s play thus demonstrates both the intolerance of contemporary society and the possibility for some individuals to look beyond racial stereotypes.

Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, displays a similar interest in race and race relations. The plot involves the stranding on an island of sorcerer Prospero and his daughter, Miranda. There Prospero finds and raises Caliban, a native of the island, whom he instructs in his own language and religion. After Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda, Prospero enslaves him, earning the rage and resentment of his erstwhile pupil. Modern scholars often note the echoes between this play and the realities of imperial conquest and settlement in Shakespeare’s day. It is no accident, they argue, that the playwright portrayed Caliban as a monstrous dark-skinned island native who was best-suited for slavery. However, Shakespeare himself borrows words from Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals,” suggesting that he may have intended to criticize, rather than endorse, racial intolerance.