Shakespeare: Is there at least one dead white dude worthy of redemption?

Despite calls to cancel the Bard, NPR reports that black theater actors and directors are adapting Shakespeare’s plays in innovative new productions and interpretations, taking their place in a long, storied history of performances and a worldwide legacy that embraces all ethnicities.  

Earlier this year, a movement was afoot to cancel, or at least greatly reduce, Shakespeare’s presence in classrooms in favor of more “diverse” authors, but a funny, pleasantly surprising thing happened on the way to erasing another dead white dude from the canon:  The Bard might well be too big and influential to cancel.  Shakespeare is accessible and enjoyable to the average reader, but to the literary scholar, theater director, actor, and other professionals, the depth and breadth of his writing combined with the richness of the history is too tempting a target to simply discard, regardless of their racial and ethnic background.

When an actor takes on the role of Hamlet, he (or she in some productions) isn’t just playing a part, they’re partaking in a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years, giving them the unique ability to adapt, evolve, comment on, and have fun with prior performances from acting legends like Lawrence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh.  The same is true of a director staging a new performance of Macbeth or King Lear.  It’s not just any play, it’s an opportunity to put your own stamp on an ongoing creative process, to reinterpret, to say something new, to test your own skills against some of the best and brightest of all time.

Thankfully for us all, this appears to be as true for people of color as for white people, and so National Public Radio reports that “Black Theater Artists Are Helping Shakespeare Speak To More Diverse Audiences.”  John Douglas Thompson, for example, will be taking the stage as the magician Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest as part of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s annual production in Boston Common.  Mr. Thompson is a 57-year old Tony nominee and a veteran of Shakespeare roles.  He is also black. Last month, the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival performed a production of King Lear with an “Afrofuturist” spin.  The play was reset in North Africa, featuring a cast composed entirely of people of color, lead by Tony Award winner, Andre De Shields.  The director, Carl Cofield, of Classical Theatre of Harlem, said, “It might sound different because you’re not used to seeing an actor of color be a Hamlet, be a King Lear, be a Falstaff.  But if you stay with it and use your imagination, you might have a richer experience. It might be a different experience, but it’s an experience that I hope will make you think about the work in a new way.”  Mr. Cofield is also directing Seize the King, a modern-verse update of Richard III.

These are all positive developments:  As Maya Angelou once said, she thought Shakespeare was a young black girl.  The legendary civil rights activist and former slave, Frederick Douglas, was also an unabashed admirer.  His home is now a national historic site in Anacostia, where the library still contains Shakespeare’s complete works and a framed print from his favorite play, Othello.  He also participated in Shakespeare clubs and attended many performances.  This should not be surprising when the Bard is bar none the greatest writer to ever grace the English language, anyone that has ever tried to put pen to paper is frustratingly aware of how high above their meager skills he flies, and his heritage belongs to everyone regardless of racial background or ethnicity.

Of course, this being the year 2021 no development can be purely positive.  In order to bring Shakespeare to more diverse audiences, one must also attack the previous history of Shakespeare as being steeped in white supremacy.  “There is still the pervasive understanding of Shakespeare as implicitly white,” explained Patricia Akhimie, a Black Shakespeare scholar at Rutgers University. “That is, unless someone is explicitly named as different, that everyone and everything in the play are white. That still is alienating for audiences. It was for me.”  Perhaps needless to say, simply casting more minority performers and adding diversity to creative teams, as has been the trend for decades, isn’t nearly enough to shake the stigma of Shakespeare as a “white property.” 

“Colorblind casting was putting your hands over your eyes and pretending that there’s not a different person onstage, someone who has a different background or story or narrative,” explains Sherri Young, founder of San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company in 1994.  “When people say, ‘I don’t see color,’ that’s an insult,” she added. “Because that means you really don’t see me.”  And so the trend of “colorblind” casting is giving way to “color-conscious” casting, which NPR helpfully describes as “In the realms of television and film, color-conscious casting often is about handing the microphone to members of populations who are better suited to tell their own stories, but often have been denied opportunities to do so. As applied to Shakespeare, it’s about breaking free from inherited assumptions and finding new ways to explore and enjoy the work.”

One wonders where NPR has been for generations:  We’ve always been finding new ways to explore the work, there are wildly different interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, with wildly different casting choices, settings, costumes, and everything else.  The Lion King’s Julie Taymor for example directed Anthony Hopkins in Titus, set in an oddly decadent, somewhat postmodern and post-apocalyptic alternative Rome complete with a time traveling child from the present, and minority actors in prominent roles.  Kenneth Branagh cast Denzel Washington in Much Ado About Nothing almost thirty years ago.  There are modern versions of Hamlet and Macbeth, an MTV inspired take on Romeo and Juliet, even teen adaptations like Ten Things I Hate About You.  In addition, Hamlet and other key Shakespeare roles have been played by women and a wide range of people of color going back to at least 1825, when Ira Aldridge toured Europe as the first black Shakespearean.

In short, Shakespeare has been for everyone for years but this will not stop the woke from claiming otherwise.  In February, Cambridge released The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race.  The scholarly tome purports to show “teachers and students how and why Shakespeare and race are inseparable” by showcasing a “collection of articles by different authors which invites the reader to understand racialized discourses, rhetoric, and performances in all of Shakespeare’s plays, including the comedies and histories.”  Helpfully, “Race is presented through an intersectional approach with chapters that focus on the concepts of sexuality, lineage, nationality, and globalization.”  The globalization angle is an especially good one given that Shakespeare was famous for botching geography, including having Denmark and Norway share a border in Hamlet.

What insights grace this erudite and insightful tome, you ask?

Titus Andronicus, for example, will be subjected to a race and globalization-based analysis that helpfully discerns how the “deployment of race” is “embedded in the developing logic of capitalism-driven globalization.”  It will also consider “the spectral presence of the Americas, colonization, globalization, and proto-imperial English aspirations in Shakespeare’s play in order to explain its disquieting and at times self-contradictory treatment of race.”  Bear in mind that Britain would not establish colonies in America until well after the play was written, but certainly we can see the “spectral presence” of what didn’t even exist at the time.  Further, Titus is a revenge tragedy set in Ancient Rome; Titus returns from war with a slave, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and gifts her to the emperor.  She vows revenge on Titus and tragedy ensues, including some of Shakespeare’s most gruesome scenes, rape, mutiliation, and even cannabilism.

Cambridge’s race-obsessed Shakespeare volume also covers Antony and Cleopatra, another tragedy set in Ancient Rome, which is said to question “a binary vision of racialized sexuality” and “the colonial and imperial projects that such a binary legitimizes.”  The author of this essay, Melissa E. Sanchez from the University of Pennsylvania, ponders “Was sexuality racialized for Shakespeare?”  She hopes “that students and teachers of Shakespeare can become more attentive to the contradictions and fissures within concepts of self-mastery and self-determination that continue to shape modern racial and imperial hierarchies.”  Another author, Urvashi Chakravarty hopes that the entire field will “come to recognize that the history of Shakespeare—and Shakespearean performance, its actors and absences, its traces and lacunae—is inextricably bound up with the history of race and race-making.”

Ultimately, “The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race will be the first book that truly frames Shakespeare studies and early modern race studies for a non-specialist, student audience.”  Alas, it will be the only scholarly work on the topic for a short time:  Arden, another popular Shakespeare publisher, is busy preparing White People and Shakespeare for publication.  One would also do well to note that this isn’t simply about race.  There are interesting nationalist and racial issues at play in Shakespeare.  Othello is a moor married to a Venetian aristocrat.  The Merchant of Venice is Jewish. Shakespeare was keenly aware of both, and his treatment of these issues is certainly an interesting topic for critical analysis.

This isn’t critical analysis though, of the kind we would have seen once upon a time in the heyday of real thinkers like Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler.  This is Critical Race Theory applied to Shakespeare, with the usual boogeyman of imperialism and globalization, even as neither topic in his day was remotely understood as they are now, not even race for that matter.  In short, they are taking their own sick obsessions and applying them to Shakespeare, not actually finding this stuff in Shakespeare as one would expect; not surprisingly, all of it is “inextricably bound up with the history of race and race-making,” meaning white supremacy.

NPR, of course, makes this point, emphatically.  “Shakespeare is still the most produced playwright in the U.S. every year, with no one else a close second. And the Classical theater world, plus the acting schools and training programs that feed it, often reflect white-dominated, ableist hierarchies present elsewhere in professional theater.”  There is apparently a “troubling history of Shakespeare being linked explicitly with whiteness.”  Evidence for this is provided in a speech by Joseph Quincy Adams, not to be confused with the actual John Adams or his President son, John Quincy Adams, at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1932.  Mr. Adams lauded Shakespeare as a patriotic force that binds up immigrants of all races into a common “Anglo-Saxon” culture.  He believed Shakespeare provided a steadying influence when the “ethnic texture of our population was seriously altered.”

Of course, these are not the phrases we use today, but even by our standards this isn’t exactly Neo-Nazi propaganda.  Instead, Mr. Adams is pretty clearly saying that Shakespeare is universal and enjoyment of his works can help bring a country together in a more widely shared culture.  This used to be understood as desirable in a multiracial and ethnic republic, but is now considered close to a crime against humanity, and so UCLA’s Arthur Little sees it as a reminder to “everyone that America is a white country.”  “We cannot pretend that history isn’t there,” he continues. “And the question becomes: What can we do with Shakespeare, how can we imagine and think about Shakespeare, outside of that cultural history?”

Here’s an idea:  Think about Shakespeare as Shakespeare, and stop reducing everything to a barely concealed Marxist race theory.  The Bard belongs to black people just as much as he does to me.  Thankfully, some people still get it.  John Douglas Thompson, for example, said he connected quickly with Shakespeare after reading a copy of Shakespeare in Sable, a history of Black Shakespeareans by Errol Hill, including Ira Aldridge, mentioned earlier, Paul Robeson, James Earl Jones, and Andre De Shields, also mentioned earlier.  “This book made me see that: Oh, I am involved in this. I’ve been involved in this. There are people’s shoulders who I’m standing on,” Mr. Thompson said during rehearsal break for The Tempest.  “Part of my journey was: OK, I’m going to cut this path for myself so that other people out there can see me doing it.  Other people who look like me, who might want to do it but don’t have the impetus because they haven’t seen themselves reflected: I will be that reflection for them. I can inspire them, hopefully, and then they can do the work.”

We can all hope it will be enough to ward off the legions of the woke coming for the Bard and everyone else.

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