Nour El Gazzaz
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Poisoning and poisonous Black bodies
Egyptian magic on the early modern stage
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Poison, race and magic were materially and metaphorically linked in early modern English theatre. When Black bodies were racially simulated on stage, their characters were prevented from being accepted into what we might call the ‘white world order’ of their respective plays. That is, in cases of Black isolation – where Black characters were surrounded by an all-white, European, dramatis personae – Black bodies were seen as a poisonous toxin that contaminates the white populace, in particular white women. As such, Black bodies were themselves poisoned to preserve this white world order. This essay examines literal and ideological poisoning in Othello, William Berkeley’s The Lost Lady and Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet. Othello and The Lost Lady, two plays of the early modern period that were performed by the King’s Men theatre company, extricate Blackness from their white, female, romantic leads. Harlem Duet, a modern response play to Shakespeare’s Othello, presents an alternative Black world order that is contaminated by a white, female, romantic antagonist necessitating the dissolution of a marriage and subsequent poisoning of Blackness. This essay demonstrates the paradox of poisoning Black bodies as a result of identifying them as poisonous themselves, through the medium of magic, specifically Egyptian magic. In the early modern imaginaryimagination, Egyptians were not only renowned for their expertise in mummification but also for their abilities in deploying magic to subjugate their victims. In order to purify the white, female body and preserve the white world order, the Black, Egyptian and often magical body must be poisoned.

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Poison on the early modern English stage

Plants, paints and potions


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