Written by Tessa Gratton
William Shakespeare wrote for money, and he also wrote for art. He wrote the most elegant of speeches and the trashiest of dick jokes. But most of all his works were political, and meant for an audience familiar with the politics of his time.
Whether it was the politics of inheritance (King Lear) or monarchy and rebellion (The Henry cycles), or inside jokes about the political movers and shakers in the court of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare engaged in politics both overtly and thematically. He explicitly wrote of systemic racism (Othello) and portrayed colonialist racism (The Tempest); and while the success of these interrogations of race is up for debate, the evidence of deliberate inclusion of the topic remains. At the very least, Shakespeare was aware of non-white, non-European/Anglo-Saxon settings, traditions, and cultures, with enough familiarity to frequently use them in his work. The success of his plays both in his lifetime and beyond suggests that his audience was not only receptive to these characters, myths, and themes, but eager for them.
When you think about it like that, the frequently whitewashed and often homogenous presentation of Shakespeare seems actively bizarre—until you consider the creation and power of the narrative of white supremacy.
Power is—has always been—created and maintained by narratives of history, religion, philosophy, literature: who is telling stories, who the stories are about, and how those stories are allowed to exist and be retold. The purpose of constructed whiteness has always been political and economic, and used to represent power (see: light skin as marker of class and luxury codified through the history of makeup, or the recruitment rhetoric of the Crusades to enforce might, right, and redemption against a non-white/non-Christian enemy). Those who rose to power predominately with the growth of Christian governments used war, religion, literature, and philosophy to create a specific understanding of whiteness—to assign it value—at least as long ago as the Early Middle Ages. That value system was the philosophical foundation of European colonialism and slavery, which expressly weaponized the idea of the inherent superiority of whiteness.
While we are still untangling the perpetual recreation of that narrative, Shakespeare was writing specifically at a time when Europe was pushing beyond its borders, using the profound belief in white supremacy to excuse imperialist behavior. A writer like Shakespeare, considered now to be a genius and even in his time immensely popular, must to be fitted into the desired narrative for that narrative to be convincing—and not only do his works need to belong, but they must be made to represent the very ideals of those in power.
And so Shakespeare’s plays have been whitewashed by major media for centuries.
The heavily regulated Elizabethan theater made that easy—only white men could act anyway—and it wasn’t until Ira Aldridge played Othello in the 1820s that a Black actor performed the titular role (it’s also worth noting that Aldridge played the leads in plays not grounded in race or racism, like Macbeth, and earned accolades from some of the most prestigious theaters in the world as well as being subjected to heinously racist reviews and attacks.)
Since Aldridge’s era, we’ve had non-white actors performing in Shakespeare, both in live theater and in movies, but the fact remains that the majority of representation in popular culture and media has been overwhelmingly white, leading to more confusion and misconception in the public lens. Some people argued viciously that casting Sophie Okonedo as Queen Margaret in the 2016 BBC miniseries The Hollow Crown would ruin the entire production because not only was the historical Queen Margaret white, it was impossible for them to imagine any version of reality where she might have been a woman of color. The well-known novelist Joyce Carol Oates suggested, online, in December of 2017, that stripping “the racial element” from Othello would not detract from the profundity of the play, “[that] Othello is a ‘Moor’ could be made—almost—irrelevant.” But her misconceived argument misses that racism is one of the central themes of the play, while also undermining the careful construction of character interactions and the power of the seemingly inevitable tragedy.
More grievously, her suggestion displays how invested some groups are at using whiteness as a political tool to continue degrading the stories of people of color. Dismissing Othello’s race as irrelevant is itself an act of narrative violence, because, as with all identity, his race is part of what defines his actions and his relationships with everything around him, both with people, like the woman he loves, and with political structures, like the government of Venice and the military in which he serves. Taking that identity away dehumanizes him. As for detracting from the profundity of the play, if Othello were a white man, Iago’s complicated villainy is reduced, layers of thematic racism and sexism vanish, and everything we know about Desdemona changes. It strips power from not only Othello and Desdemona’s love story—since their marriage wouldn’t have historically been an issue if it weren’t interracial—but from her death itself, by weakening the charged atmosphere of Othello’s choice. Claiming his race is irrelevant diminishes the relevance of people of color in general, which is the goal of the narrative of white supremacy.
And so, when we think about reimagining Shakespeare’s work, it cannot be from a perspective that reinforces this historically constructed narrative of white supremacy, because it is not the truth. It’s a weaponized literature of power, and as storytellers, as artists, it’s our job to counter harmful narratives. There are few of those that have been as pervasively harmful as white supremacy.
Modern engagement with Shakespeare, either in theater or a classroom, or for a fantasy retelling, demands that we examine the politics and language of the play itself, as Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have, but also to bring to bear the history and context of why the play has thrived for four hundred years, and how it fits into both the historic and contemporary spaces it occupies. The barest minimum we can do is to introduce (and in some cases reintroduce) issues of race into Shakespearean narratives, and those too of queerness and class and gender. Let us explore the sudden love, forbidden sexuality, and poetry of Romeo and Juliet in a modern, all-boys military academy such as in the movie Private Romeo. Produce a Hamlet with an all-black cast, drawing on West African traditions for inspiration as in the RSC’s current production starring Paapa Essiedu. Or deconstruct the toxic patriarchy of King Lear by retelling the story refocused on the voices of the women who receded into flat space in the original play.
The stories we tell, if they are to matter, must engage with political space, and reimagine the world.
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