Cover art by Fynn Wadsworth

Beauty and Monstrosity: Race in Early English Literature

By Quinn Deahl ’23

ENGL 251: Monsters and Monstrosity in English Literature, 800-1785

In this exceptionally well-researched final project, Quinn reads three course texts from different periods in English literary history alongside extensive scholarship on pre- and early modern race in order to trace a long history of anti-Black racism. She deftly refutes scholars who argue we cannot study race in early periods and contends that understanding how race and racism were constructed in the past can help us combat systems of oppression today.

-Dr. Valerie Billing

The medieval and renaissance periods of British history mark the point in time when England began developing its national identity. This evolution coincides with the increasing contact between the English and different national groups which allowed them to truly distinguish themselves. Early English literature reflects these developments and the subsequent attitudes that the English began to advance about themselves and their perceived others. An important example of these attitudes can be seen in the descriptions of black and white that are evident in a broad range of medieval and renaissance texts. Although the notion of race as we know it today didn’t define these distinctions at the time, descriptions of monstrosity as dark and beauty as light in early English literature reflect the racialization of cultural otherness in England that laid the foundation for our modern conception of racial difference. The development of this racial discourse in early English literature began with the Christianization of Europe and evolved with the rise of colonialism and transnational trade in England.

Using critical race theory to analyze literature from the early modern period has been highly controversial and remains so today. Ayanna Thompson and Ian Smith explain that their work in early modern critical race studies has often been met with backlash because some scholars believe that since the term “race” in the modern sense didn’t exist and wasn’t conceived of until later than the early modern period, it is inaccurate to deploy the term in critical studies of this time (“Othello and Blackface”). However, this argument delegitimizes the fact that the attitudes that the English developed towards dark-skinned people in the medieval period were foundational to the racial oppression being perpetrated by the English in the 18th century and what became our modern conception of race. As Smith argues in response to accusations about critical race studies of Shakespeare specifically, “this narrow thinking somehow did not and does not give due credence to the fact that there are patterns of behavior and sort of practices that Shakespeare was clearly calling attention to, to which we may give the term ‘race’” (“Othello and Blackface”). I argue that descriptions of dark and light regarding monstrosity and beauty in early English literature are racialized, and are the medium that gave way to the attitudes that eventually allowed for the English enslavement of African people in the 1700s. In order to make this argument, I will analyze the progression of racialized language in Beowulf, Queen Elizabeth I’s speeches, and Shakespeare’s sonnets before drawing conclusions about the implications of this racial discourse using Olaudah Equiano’s 1772 slave narrative.

The Christian Origins of English Racial Discourse & Beowulf’s Monsters

The origins of the dark/light binary in English culture trace back to Christian representations of good and evil. England converted from paganism to Christianity during the 7th century with the Germanic invasion of Europe and subsequent missionary operations of the Europeans they were able to convert (“The Middle Ages” 6). Christianity began mixing with the rest of Anglo-Saxon culture and by the beginning of the 8th century, Christianity was the dominant ideology of England. This conversion greatly impacted English literacy as no books existed before Christianity was established (“The Middle Ages” 6). Thus, the literary output of the time was highly intertwined with Christian ideology and illustrates the beginnings of what became racial discourse in England through the biblical binary of good and evil (Gayle 41). Traditional Christian symbolism equates blackness with death, sin, and ugliness while whiteness is associated with purity, hope, and holiness. Addison Gayle explains that these symbols translated into English literature in that “the villain is always evil, in most cases the devil; the protagonist, or hero, is always good, in most cases, angels or disciples. The plot then is simple; good (light) triumphs over the forces of evil (dark)” (41). These representations are evident in Beowulf.

Beowulf’s depictions of light and dark as well as its attitude toward non-Christians demonstrate that the racial discourses some argue didn’t develop until modernity are already present in this oldest of English texts. Beowulf was likely written between 700 and 900 CE and is written about a period of time several centuries before this. This would place the story told within Beowulf at around the point in time when Christianity was beginning to infiltrate English culture, while the writer would be reflecting on this period after England–and likely the author–had been almost completely Christianized (“Beowulf” 37-38). This context sheds light on the perspective that Beowulf presents regarding dark and light symbolism and otherness. Kim Hall explains that
the origins of racial discourse derive from “the traditional association of blackness in conventional Christian
symbolism with death and mourning, sin and evil” (“Introduction” 4) which are clearly seen in Beowulf’s descriptions of the monstrous. The author describes Grendel as “a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark” (Beowulf 86) and then goes on to explain that “a fiend out of hell, / began to work his evil in the world. / Grendel was the name of this grim demon” (Beowulf 100-102). There is a very clear connection between darkness, hell, and evil in this initial description, which demonstrates the way that Christian ideology associates these three notions in the way that Hall describes. On the other hand, when Beowulf is describing his victory over monsters that he’d battled in the past he boasts that “light came from the east, / bright guarantee of God” (Beowulf 569-570). This imagery that Beowulf associates with his own heroism stands in stark contrast to the imagery that is associated with monsters. Beowulf is related to light, brightness, and God, all of which prevail over the evil of darkness.

Furthermore, Beowulf marks the dark and evil monsters as outcasts, which illustrates a form of “othering” that is prevalent in racial discourse. Hrothgar describes Grendel and his mother as “prowling the moors, huge marauders / from some other world” (Beowulf 1348-1349). A moor is defined as a “wasteland” and “uncultivated” (“moor, n.1”), and is also associated with North African and Indian people (“Moor, n.2”). Hall argues that this form of othering reflects anxieties over the security of social institutions and power in England and is reflected in that “whiteness and fairness must be made visible with the addition of ‘Moores’ whenever the opportunity arises and that the black/white binarism shapes social occasions as well as discursive practices” (“Introduction” 9). This othering can be seen through Hrothgar’s distancing of his own society from that of the monsters to distinguish between himself from what he perceives as “other,” which is already being related to darker-skinned people or eventually was. Hrothgar also claims that “one of these things [monsters], / as far as anyone ever can discern, / looks like a woman; the other, warped / in the shape of a man” (Beowulf 1349-1352). He compares the monsters to what English society would have defined as human but describes them as less than that, calling them “things,” again distinguishing between himself and the other. English expectations for the way people should look are here being used to differentiate between categories of beings and mark themselves as superior, which lays the foundation for future racial categories in English society.

Beowulf also demonstrates the way that gender and race work together to construct otherness. Hall maintains that in early English society, “threatening female sexuality and power is located in the space of the foreign: male, Grecian order is opposed to the dark, feminine world” (“Introduction” 22). Identities associated with female authority are closely intertwined with that of darkness—both of which portend to jeopardize the white, patriarchal social structures of English culture. This anxiety is revealed in Beowulf’s description of the monsters’ affiliation with femininity. The author writes that Grendel derives from an “unnatural birth” (Beowulf 1353) and that he and his mother are “fatherless creatures” (Beowulf 1355). The monstrosity of Grendel and his mother are described in terms of their lack of masculine authority and are categorized as different and dangerous for this reason. The author insinuates that because Grendel doesn’t have a father, his birth is abnormal and perverted, and that his mother’s lack of male authority has allowed her power to extend into the realm of evil. Moreover, Grendel’s mother remains unnamed throughout the epic, further demonstrating the menace and otherness associated with femininity. Hall argues that the interconnectedness of gender and race is crucial to understanding the racial discourse of the early modern period because “notions of proper gender relations shape the terms for describing proper colonial organization” (“Introduction” 4), which shaped the oppressive ideologies that the English supported throughout this period and into today.

Elizabeth I’s English National Identity & Whiteness as Beauty in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Soon after Beowulf was written, England became involved in the Crusades, in which the English increasingly came in contact with foreign people and further developed their distinction between self and other. These Christian conquests of the Middle East took place between 1096 and 1291 and were derived from European’s sense of religious and cultural superiority. The Crusades led to the development of “aggressive territorial ambitions, the consumption and discipline with alien communities, and the nascent, overarching impulse toward the formation of the medieval nation” (Heng 137). Attempts at territorial expansion at the expense of foreign communities led to a type of nationalism that was based on the superiority of the English self to the Muslim and Jewish others. By the end of the Crusades in the 13th century, England had begun developing a true sense of national identity and racial discourse subsequently became clearer and more targeted. Geraldine Heng asserts that “the emergence of a distinctive racializing discourse in the later medieval period specifically attests the instrumentality of racialized categories in the formation of a medieval nation” (139). The establishment of English national identity is in part due to the racialization of other cultures, which lays the foundation for England’s colonial ambitions.

The Norman Invasion in 1066 further sparked an English national movement with the beginning of the current Royal Family line taking power. By the time Elizabeth I took power in 1558, the English had begun traveling abroad and bringing Africans back to England as slaves, leading the presence of black people in England to grow (Ungerer 20). Historians agree that it was during Elizabeth’s 45-year reign that the English truly began to see themselves as superior to others (Billing), which Hall explains was likely due in part to the increasing number of foreign and dark-skinned people in the English population (“‘These Bastard Signs’” 68). Elizabeth’s speeches demonstrate that she was highly concerned with establishing English national identity and power. In her 1588 “Speech to the Troops at Tilbury” she maintains that she would “take foul scorn that Parma or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of [her] realm” (235). Elizabeth views England as a sovereign realm with set borders and believes that those who violate English land should be fought off by its soldiers. In another speech, Elizabeth asserts her power and national identity by asking English delegates “[w]as I not born in the realm? Were my parents born in any foreign country?” (“A Speech to the Joint” 226). She derives her power from the fact that she and her parents were born in the country, implying that if she was born in another place, she wouldn’t hold authority in England. Elizabeth makes clear the importance of English identity and Hall argues that this is because “England itself had a heightened nervousness about group identity and power and…was thus ripe for the development of race prejudice” (“Introduction” 3). Elizabeth was likely anxious about the growing presence of foreign people in England as a threat to English power and identity, which allowed for the racial difference to become an important signifier of people who were considered “other” than English.

The racial difference between the English self and other was further established during Elizabeth I’s reign through evocations of whiteness as powerful and beautiful. Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I exaggerate her fair skin, portraying it as almost completely white, and depict her body as both large and powerful and petite and womanly. She is also often illustrated with symbols such as globes and pearls which are meant to reflect her global influence and purity (“The Queen’s Likeness”). Hall argues that

Elizabeth herself is extremely white in these portraits, and if that whiteness reflects her virgin purity and Christian grace, it also, through the association of Elizabeth with the kingdom, represents England as white—as powerful and favored by the forces of good and a Christian God. (“These Bastard Signs” 68-69)

Queen Elizabeth and England are being explicitly linked with whiteness as goodness, which is a clear extension of the Christian symbols of lightness and holiness that Beowulf expressed. Hall also asserts that “this Africanist presence becomes a crucial part of a larger economy of whiteness in early modern England” (“‘These Bastard Signs’” 66). In other words, the increasing amount of dark-skinned African people in England is what evoked the overt association of fair-skinned English people with goodness, which exemplifies that whiteness is indeed becoming racialized.

Shakespeare’s sonnets reflect the developing notion of beauty as white in Elizabethan culture. In his 154 sonnets, Shakespeare writes of two love interests who are commonly called the “fair youth” and the “dark lady”. The sonnets juxtapose these two love interests, especially regarding their skin tone and gender. The fair youth is a young man with light skin and the dark lady is a woman with dark features. When describing the fair youth in Sonnet 18, Shakespeare writes,

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade… (5-12)

He evokes imagery of lightness and Christian goodness when describing the man, and contrasts it with darkness and death, similarly to the way Beowulf and portraits of Elizabeth I do. Shakespeare praises the boy by equating his fair skin with beauty and morality. Unlike Queen Elizabeth I, though, the fair youth is a man, not a woman. Hall contends that “if the early poems all insist on the uniqueness of the young man’s fairness, these sonnets create his singularity by insisting on its difference from (and superiority to) the fairness of women” (“These Bastard Signs”74). The patriarchal society of England would have understood a white man as superior to a white woman, both of whom are superior to a black woman. Through the use of a white man as the object of beauty in comparison to a black woman, Shakespeare further distinguishes the goodness and beauty of whiteness from that of blackness.

Shakespeare’s descriptions of the dark lady exemplify English attitudes towards black women. In Sonnet 130, Shakespeare describes the dark lady in the opposite way that he did the fair youth in Sonnet 18:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. (1-4)

He uses the same comparison to the sun that he did in Sonnet 18, but while the fair youth was even lighter than the sun, the dark lady is much less than. Shakespeare then goes on to further differentiate her from lightness and eventually does the same with holiness by writing “I grant I never saw a goddess go; / My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground” (18:11-12). The dark lady is directly opposed to godliness, further distancing her from the fair youth and morality. Furthermore, in Sonnet 144 Shakespeare explicitly compares his two lovers:

Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still;

The better angel is a man right fair,

The worser spirit is a woman coloured ill. (1-4)

The positive connotation associated with the fair youth and the negative one associated with the dark lady clearly reflects English attitudes towards whiteness and blackness, evoking the same light and Christian imagery that Queen Elizabeth and Beowulf do to express beauty and goodness in opposition to darkness and monstrous. Shakespeare’s juxtaposition of his two love interests throughout this sonnet is evidence of the dangerous racial discourse that had developed in England by the 16th century.

The Origins of the Transatlantic Slave Trade & Englishness in Olaudah Equiano

Less than a century after Shakespeare wrote his sonnets England became a dominant force in the transatlantic slave trade, responsible for the transportation of an estimated 3.1 million enslaved African people to British colonies across the world (“Britain”). Motivated by a desire for geopolitical and economic dominance, the English understood African people as an exploitable labor resource to gain global capital (“Britain”), which was justified by centuries of racialized attitudes towards dark-skinned foreigners whom they believed to be undeserving of the human rights that white English people held. Furthermore, many African people weren’t yet Christianized (“Britain”), adding another layer of otherness to rationalize their ill-treatment. Evidence of English racial discourse, Christianity, and national identity can be seen in one of the few surviving slave narratives written before the 1800s, exemplifying that the origins of what inspired the enslavement of African people lie in the racialization of self and other which can be seen in English literature dating back to the time of Beowulf.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano illustrates the distinct identities of black and white, African and English, from the perspective of an enslaved African. In his account of the Middle Passage, the narrator immediately distinguishes between himself and his captors. He writes, “Their [the English’s] complexions too differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, (which was very different from any I had ever heard)” (Equiano 982). Equiano differentiates between the appearances of the English and that of the Africans. He then goes on to explain “I found some black people about me…I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair” (Equiano 982). Equiano is terrified of the English people and has been given the impression that they planned to eat him. Joseph Miller maintains that this fear comes from the well-known fact among Africans that white Europeans, which they called “red-skinned”, actually engaged in cannibalism and would eat black people (4-5). Equiano sees the ways that the English have treated African people and has come to associate their character with their complexion, which demonstrates the ways that the English have solidified the idea of racial difference into the minds of the people they’ve enslaved through their racialized practices towards people of color.

Equiano’s narrative also gives evidence of overlap between English and African identity, reflecting the idea that racial difference is culturally constructed, and that Equiano subverted the racial divisions in some ways. At one point, Equiano expresses his desire to obtain the power that the English had and to become one of them: “I therefore wished to be from amongst them” (983). While being subject to torture and ill-treatment on the ship, Equiano wanted to abandon his own identity and be English to hold the power that they did, specifically explaining that he desired to be “from amongst” them, which shows that he understood the territorial aspect of being English. However, Equiano’s narrative also acknowledges the contradictions in English nationality and expresses that he’s able to hold both the African and English identities at once. At one point he calls his captors “nominal Christians” and points out the misalignment between their actions and
the faith that they used to justify racism throughout English history (986). At the same time, Equiano often
references his own Christian faith. When he buys his freedom he exclaims, “I called to mind the words of the Psalmist, in the 126th psalm, and like him ‘I glorified God in my heart, in whom I trusted’” (989). In this way, Equiano recognizes that he holds the Christian component of English identity more genuinely than many of the English do. Furthermore, the title of Equiano’s narrative recognizes his dual identity by also referring to the name that was given to him during his servitude, Gustavus Vassa, which was given to him to conceal his identity as a slave and make him appear English. But although he still calls himself by this name in the title of his narrative, Equiano still calls himself an African, acknowledging that his native country and skin color will never allow him to be considered English by their standards. Equiano’s perception of the contradictions and fluidity of English identity allows him to both detail the horrors of the British slave trade and question their conceived notions of Englishness.


English racial discourse can be seen dating back to the 8th century, originating with the light/dark binary of Christian symbolism and its expression in notions of self and other. Beowulf’s descriptions of the monstrous and the heroic in terms of colored and moral categories in addition to the othering of Grendel and his mother exemplify that the English began conceiving of racial discourse far before it presented itself in human classifications. As Hall argues, “traditional terms of aesthetic discrimination and Christian dogma become infused with ideas of Africa and African servitude, making it impossible to separate ‘racial’ signifiers of blackness from traditional iconography” (“Introduction” 4). This connection between Christian symbolism and racial signifiers can be seen in the development of an English national identity during the Crusades and Queen Elizabeth I’s rule. The association of whiteness with power and beauty justified colonialism and depictions of racial difference as seen in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which solidified the racial discourse that promoted white, patriarchal supremacy. With the increasing contact between white English people and black foreigners came racial discrimination and the transatlantic slave trade.The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano exemplifies the ways that English racial discourse culminated in horrific human rights abuses against millions of African people, which were justified by a culturally constructed perception of white supremacy and English superiority.

Over the several centuries that followed the transatlantic slave trade, these white supremacist attitudes have become systemically ingrained in Western culture despite the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of black people in Western societies. Critical race analyses like this one are essential to uncovering the roots of systemic racism and working to eradicate white supremacy, but pushback from scholars and legislators alike has largely prevented this work from being done. Although the notion of race as we know it today wasn’t invented until the end of the renaissance period or later (“race n.6”), it is clear through this examination that the origins of racial discourse in England lie in the early medieval period at the latest. Despite evidence such as this and from scholarship by dozens of renowned early modern critical race theorists, many medieval scholars continue to resist discussions of race in early modern scholarship. The website for a new conference series called RaceB4Race explains that early modern critical race scholars often see “the rejection of proposals for sessions on race and antiracism by Medievalists of Color in favor of sessions proposed by their white colleagues” and that “understandings of periodization, historicity, and even academic disciplines can become more expansive once race is acknowledged as a viable lens of investigation” (Arizona Center). It is imperative that studies of early modern literature and education systems more broadly recognize the importance of critical race studies in expanding the reach of scholarship and in reversing the racist ideologies that continue to plague society.

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