Racism in Shakespeare

The other day a google document was shared on the Shakespeare 2020 Project Facebook page. In the document was a breakdown of different words used in Shakespeare that may be considered offensive today. The document was presented as a guide for editing Shakespeare to remove any offensive language. I was intrigued by the document, but found some of the instances to be a bit extreme. For example, it suggested removing the line where MacBeth refers to his “black soul” meaning dark soul. Since he wasn’t referring to race, I didn’t see the need for that edit. However, being white, I would not be the one offended by such language, so I typically find it best to listen to the voices of those who it would offend.

The reactions to the document fell into two unsurprising camps for the most part. The first group thought it was a great idea. The other was offended that we would dare to edit the words of the great William Shakespeare. In their opinion, it would destroy the art. I couldn’t say I wholeheartedly agreed with either side. One comment I found interesting was from a teacher who was excited to use the guide to facilitate discussion. That, to me, is the best way to use the guide. Confront the language and discuss it, rather than eliminate it. It can be uncomfortable to confront our racist past (and present), but it’s necessary. We can’t ignore the racism of the past, but we must acknowledge that language has power. Words have the power to cause immense hurt. Because this is such a complex issue, discussion is crucial.

Confronting Racism

These discussions, particularly around classic literature, are always going to be uncomfortable and we have to be okay with that. In a recent anti-racism workshop I took, one speaker discussed how we need to stop thinking of racism as a binary. We tend to think of people as either racist or not racist, but that leaves no room for mistakes or growth. Because of this binary we feel personally attacked when our own offensive language is pointed out. The same often occurs when we point out the problematic parts of our favorite art. If our favorite author is racist, does that make us racist? Do we have to “cancel” Shakespeare?

I think the answer is no because racism is much more complicated than a simple binary. Art reflects the time period it was created in. There is offensive language in Shakespeare because he was writing in a time period when society as a whole had a lot of work to do. By today’s standards, Shakespeare was absolutely racist. For his time period? Who knows, but it serves no one to pretend the racism of the past did not exist. When we say “it was a different time” to avoid the conversation, we fuel the narrative that it wasn’t that bad and ignore the painful existence most people of color suffered throughout history.

It is also okay to acknowledge the racist parts of Shakespeare and still appreciate his work. The fact that Shakespeare’s plays contain instances of racism – and sexism and anti-semitism – does not mean that Shakespeare is bad. It does not mean that liking Shakespeare is bad. By acknowledging the offensive language, we are simply being honest with our past.

Editing the Classics

Now, in order to be honest with our past, we have to acknowledge it. That is why I personally believe we should contextualize the offensive language rather than simply remove it. If we just remove all of the racism, if we erase it’s existence, before long playgoers and readers won’t be aware that it was there. In my opinion, that doesn’t help the conversation and it doesn’t lead to change. Erasing the offensive languge also helps serve the narrative that the racism of the past wasn’t that bad. We may prevent hurt on a small scale, but perpetuate it on a much larger scale.

However, pretending that the language cannot or should not cause hurt because Shakespeare is a classic, ignores the power of language. I often think of the line from Scrubs “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will hurt forever.” Shakespeare should be for everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or religion. And in many ways he is. However, sitting in the audience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and hearing Hermia called an ethiope as an insult would be difficult. Editing choices should be made consciously after meaningful discussion. That discussion must include, be led by, and dominated by people of color.

Those who are against editing Shakespeare also seem to forget that we edit Shakespeare all of the time. Productions typically eliminate entire scenes or subplots for the sake of time or continuity. Because, if I’m going to be honest, Shakespeare’s plots often don’t make sense. However, to say that eliminating some words from a production ruins the artistic integrity, but eliminating entire characters or subplots doesn’t, is quite simply a flawed argument. We can’t decide that editing for time is worthwhile, but editing to prevent offense is not.

I think we often rely on that argument because calling attention to the racist language is uncomfortable. It’s much easier to ignore it, or, in this case, justify it. However, if we discuss the language and the context, we can make the choice whether or not to include the language or change it. Words can change meaning over time and the power of it can change over time. The word could mean something completely different in the context of Shakespeare than it does now, but that doesn’t necessarily make it less hurtful. For example, a minstrel in Shakespeare simply meant a musician, but now that word carries all the weight of minstrel shows. Maybe a production decides that it is worth keeping, but maybe they decide to change it. There is so much more to consider than a single word.

Conclusion

In the end, I’m not sure there is a single right answer to this issue. Racism is a complex issue that requires complex solutions. Art, even classic art, has a role to play in that. I am always in favor of meaningful discussion surrounding Shakespeare, especially his more problematic parts. However, the task of white people is to listen, be open to criticism and be okay with being uncomfortable. Being a little uncomfortable is a small price to pay for making Shakespeare more welcoming to all.

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