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21 May 2023

Shakespeare’s race problem

The playwright reflected the prejudices of his age, but he also questioned and undermined them.

By Rowan Williams

Like all great reputations, Shakespeare’s was created and curated in a particular historical setting. Over the past few decades, Shakespeare scholarship has explored and illuminated both the hinterland of Shakespeare’s own authorship – the nature and extent of his collaboration with others, the diffusion of his work during his lifetime – and the creation of a constantly expanding myth of the uniquely English genius, the secular patron saint of Anglo-Saxon civilisation and (eventually) empire. Acknowledging this means acknowledging that “Shakespeare” as a composite cultural artefact is not exempt from post-colonial critique.

This is only a matter for alarm if we are wedded to a Shakespeare who is not really a poet or dramatist at all, but a source of edifying quotations. What makes a poet’s stature durable is their capacity to provide us with the very tools we need to challenge and probe them, to enlarge our imaginative liberty as we read. A dramatic poet above all is one who has produced a sufficiently polyphonic work for us to hear the critical voices already at work within it.

Yet it is clear that Shakespeare, by the time of the publication of the First Folio 400 years ago in 1623, seven years after his death (and just a few months after Anne Hathaway’s), looked like a solid investment to a significant number of his theatrical and literary colleagues. The project of a standard edition of his plays – produced in the equivalent of a “coffee-table” format, which in the 17th century was normally used for theological or classical texts – had wide support. It must be one of the earliest instances of a campaign of celebrity endorsement, containing as it does tribute poems from various hands – including that of Ben Jonson, patriarch of metropolitan literary life – and dedicatory material aimed at leading political figures of the day.

Emma Smith’s admirable study of the First Folio originally appeared in 2015, and this elegantly produced new edition now includes a delightful account of the discovery and identification of a hitherto unknown copy of the Folio on the Isle of Bute, a copy in an unusual format (bound as three volumes), with a substantial quantity of manuscript notes.

Smith’s text leads us confidently through a range of issues around the production of the Folio. What costs were involved in the various stages of production (and so what risks were incurred and by whom)? Who bought the book? Why this lavish edition of the plays at that specific historical moment? She discusses the expectations and fears around rapprochement with Spain in the earlier months of 1623 and reveals what we know about the actual workers in the print shop (a surprising amount, including a good deal about one notably incompetent apprentice). In another new study of the Folio, Chris Laoutaris has pursued the search still further, and suggested, credibly, that the idea of a “standard edition” may have been in Shakespeare’s own mind in his last days, and that one of his London lodgers might be identified with a stationer/publisher with whom he planned to collaborate.

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Gradually, the Folio comes alive in Smith’s book as something with a life, almost a personality – more than just a collection of texts; and its production becomes part of a story connecting the volume itself with Shakespeare’s circle. No wonder that it has acquired a certain mystique: this may well be something close to Shakespeare’s own definition of his dramatic legacy.

It is not often, though, that theatrical practice attempts to engage deliberately with the entirety of this legacy. One of the distinctive achievements of Greg Doran’s recently concluded term as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company was to direct all the plays in the First Folio, creating a deposit of excellent, thoughtful renderings. His recollections and reflections on these productions are collected in My Shakespeare. Some chapters are almost entirely anecdotal, but there are few if any that fail to cast some new light on the drama under discussion.

Poignant memories of the long professional and personal partnership with Antony Sher run through these chapters, reminding us not only of the scale of the loss represented by Sher’s death, but the particular perspective that his South African upbringing contributed to several of Doran’s productions (there are some splendid pages on the 1994 Titus Andronicus in Johannesburg, immortalised by Sher in his book Woza Shakespeare!). Doran’s commitment to an international perspective comes across consistently, up to and including a final chapter on directing Richard III in China. No embarrassment here about the universal claims of Shakespearean genius.

[See also: The decline of the Literary Bloke]

The challenges and complexities of those claims, however, have to be faced. We cannot now honestly read or hear Shakespeare without noticing the pervasive racialised imagery that more or less all pre-modern European literature takes for granted. The point is not, Farah Karim-Cooper stresses in The Great White Bard, to diminish Shakespeare, let alone to excise him from any public canon. It is to give responsible attention to how he handles both literal racial otherness and the valorising of “whiteness” as part of the conventional language of erotic attraction, spiritual legitimacy and so on – and also to interrogate where and how his language may now be heard or read as carrying implications of superiority and exclusion.

It is not good enough to say, with Denzel Washington as quoted by Karim-Cooper, that “we ought to be at a place where diversity shouldn’t even be mentioned” (because we’re not at any such place, and in an important sense shouldn’t be). Nor is it good enough to avoid confronting the jarring effect of casual and conventional expressions (Lysander’s “Away, you Ethiop!” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) for diverse contemporary audiences. There need to be the appropriate “conversations in the rehearsal room” to ascertain how such expressions are likely to be heard in performance – rather than colluding in easy laughs that reinforce stereotypes.

This is a candid and realistic agenda, and the book is at its best (despite some deplorably careless editing that leaves us with too many grammatical and expository non sequiturs) when these insistent points are most to the fore. Karim-Cooper makes some insightful observations on Titus Andronicus, drawing out the moral complexity of Shakespeare’s earliest depiction of a non-white character, Aaron the Moor, who both deliberately inhabits and subtly resists the ready-made tropes of darkness and depravity that his skin-colour invites (in a culture where blackness of pigmentation is a traditional marker of diabolical allegiances).

Karim-Cooper’s chapter on Antony and Cleopatra tackles with clarity and energy the question of why the Queen of Egypt’s racial difference, though flagged in the text, has been consistently ignored in the play’s production history until quite recently. She also makes a neat point about how, in Romeo and Juliet, the strikingly exotic image of Juliet against the night sky as “a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear” foreshadows Juliet’s even more exotic image of Romeo carried towards her on “the wings of night/Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back”. Blackness is a backdrop to enhance whiteness, and the reference to the “Ethiop” reminds us that this is not just a matter of metaphorical exuberance. The real human “Ethiop” is being used to enhance the imaginative privilege of pale-skinned human beings. To adapt a phrase from some discussions of Christian anti-Semitism, this is “using black people to think with”; and there is plenty of it in the religious and mythical culture Shakespeare inherits and articulates.

[See also: Why read life-writing?]

Karim-Cooper provides a good discussion of Othello and a helpfully provocative reading of The Tempest. But the strength of some of these treatments is weakened by other, more ambitious and awkward interpretations that strain against the actual text. The reading of Macbeth, for example, tries to do too much. It takes the play’s omnipresent concern with darkness and concealment in tandem with the possible echoes of both racial and sexual distance or disgust in the figures of the Weird Sisters and their spells, to suggest an implicitly racialised anxiety. “Fair is foul and foul is fair” is rightly read as alluding to uncertainties about sameness and otherness as part of the play’s unsettled moral landscape. But to say simply, as she does, that “the imagery, like it or not, points to race” is debatable.

Racialising the strangeness of the Weird Sisters and the obsessive nocturnal imagery can distract from some of the central themes of Macbeth: the ambiguity surrounding the “witches” (who are both peasant sorcerers and classical Fates, not the agents of devilish malignity that King James I was losing sleep about when the play was composed); and the agonised compulsion of Macbeth and his wife to seek a place of final lightless security where they cannot be seen. After all, it is not only in Western culture that the absence of daylight is thought of as liminal and dangerous, a realm of ghosts and unfriendly spirits: there have been powerful productions of the play in an African setting, and a brilliant adaptation (Welcome Msomi’s uMabatha) that transferred the action to the 19th-century Zulu kingdom.

This is not to deny that the pervasive “black as evil” vocabulary is a problem in contemporary performance. Back to those “conversations in the rehearsal room”, and the need to listen afresh to how words are heard as encoding power. Recent scholars who have – startlingly – said that “all Shakespeare’s plays are about race” are simply noting that any work by a literary icon who belongs in a specific (dominant) cultural and racial context will carry a charge of racialised power. But these framing conversations also require attention to the longer currents and movements of the drama. Too close a focus, obscuring the discontinuities and ironies of a play in its performed (and constantly re-performed) entirety, can be a handicap.

As noted already, Karim-Cooper is interested in the ways in which the adjective “fair” is used. She discusses how various female characters (Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are presented as failing to conform to ideals of female beauty: they are mocked and belittled for not being “fair” – so for being dark-skinned or dark-haired. Beauty is thus racialised as a matter of routine.

Yet things are a bit more complicated than this. The word “fair” is not restricted to pale, blonde heroines: Beatrice and Hermia are both called “fair”, and even for “tawny” Cleopatra, “every passion fully strives/To make itself in thee fair and admired”. Rosaline’s dark hair and/or complexion may provoke the sneers of others, but her lover, Berowne, challenges precisely the restriction of “fair” to “pale” that his friends take for granted. As in the sonnets (oddly enough, barely mentioned in this book), there is a fascination with how the use of “fair” slips and shifts inconsistently – part of the poet’s general interest in how words come to carry unwarranted assumptions.

The Germanic root of “fair” is an adjective meaning simply “fine”, “pleasant” or “admirable”. During the Middle Ages, it retains that broad meaning (you can use it in addressing God, for example) but at the same time begins to gravitate towards the stereotypical models of northern European beauty.

The language of Shakespeare’s age displays the whole semantic range – which allows him scope for some satirical reflection of the confusion this can cause. In other words, he does indeed let us see that the positively valorising adjective “fair” is being co-opted for particular physical types, but also shows that this entangles us in a certain amount of nonsense. Reading Shakespeare with some degree of racial sensitivity means reading him not only as recycling a (potentially) racialised stereotype of moral and physical attractiveness, but also as prodding us to notice the slippages that covertly make us take certain attitudes for granted.

[See also: Best books of the year]

This is what makes Shakespeare so persistently worth revisiting. He will present a stereotype, invite a cheap laugh by playing to it, and then invite us to think twice about the cliché. He will present images of sacred authority and arguments about political legitimacy, and then rub our noses in the human contradictions and unmanageable costs of sacralised power.

As Karim-Cooper recognises, what Shakespeare thought or felt as an individual about race, gender, hierarchy, religion, monarchical government, is not what keeps us reading or performing. It is his capacity to get us to step back and listen for the tensions in any rhetoric of definitive and defining power – to notice the theatricality of our engagements with each other, the space between body and words, faces and minds, the space where both redeeming imagination and lethal delusion are at work. It is the space that opens up whenever a drama begins, and, as Farah Karim-Cooper stresses, it needs to be kept open for all.

The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio
Emma Smith
Bodleian Library, 277pp, £30

My Shakespeare: A Director’s Journey through the First Folio
Greg Doran
Methuen Drama, 376pp, £25

The Great White Bard: Shakespeare, Race and the Future
Farah Karim-Cooper
Oneworld, 336pp, £22

[See also: The 14 best books of the year so far]

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This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up