Anti-racism in the Shakespeare Community

Madeline Sayet, a Mohegan theatremaker, recently wrote an article titled “Interrogating the Shakespeare System.” In this article, she challenges the notion that Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time and how that notion has negatively impacted our society, specifically American society. I will admit that at first glance I felt defensive and even rolled my eyes a couple times. However, I am working harder to listen to the voices of underrepresented people. Who I am to tell them whether or not they should be offended? So, I kept reading. In the end, I largely agreed with what Sayet had to say.

Shakespeare’s Role in Colonialism

For a few hundred years, Shakespeare has been labelled as the best of the best when it comes to writing. All other writing has been held up to his standard. It is worth noting that he was made England’s national poet about the same time that England was building its world empire. This meant that Shakespeare was used as one of the cultural standards that indigenous people had to meet in order to be “civilized.” This is where we can start to see the problem with Shakespeare.

As Sayet stated, “the immense amount of space his work currently takes up is an ongoing tool of colonization, just as his work has been used historically as a weapon to remove other people’s cultures and teach them that one British playwright is superior to all other writers.”

It may pain us bardolators to admit it, but not everyone loves Shakespeare. Not everyone appreciates his writing for a variety of reasons, many of them perfectly legitimate. He is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, to properly understand the impact Shakespeare has had on our global society, we have to remove the art from the conversation. The merits or deficiencies of his writing don’t really matter when we’re talking about how his writing was used to suppress others.

We as a society must grapple with the fact that white people have been attempting to suppress cultures for decades. As recently as the 1960’s and 70’s, the United States had a policy of removing Native American children from their homes and adopting them out to white families. The assumption was the white families could provide better environments than the native families. There were even government funded boarding schools that had the express purpose of assimilating Native American children to white America’s culture. It largely worked and in doing so wiped out many tribal cultures.

Why do I tell you this? Well, those Native American children were never taught their native languages, but they were certainly taught English… and Shakespeare. He was taught with a number of other writers, but he was held above the rest. Shakespeare was and is something we have to learn, we have to experience. The American school system requires it. We don’t require any Native American writers or African American writers or Female writers. The only writer required by the Common Core, America’s education standard, is Shakespeare, according to Sayet. Placing Shakespeare on this pedestal above all other voices only serves to suppress the voices of those society determines to be lesser.

The Role of Shakespeare Theaters and Scholars

I personally felt that Sayet was the harshest against Shakespeare Theaters, but her basic point stands: Shakespeare Theaters and scholars must grapple with the role Shakespeare played in colonization. This, fundamentally, is true. Shakespeare Institutions, like many of our oldest institutions, must grapple with their history of racism. It’s undeniable and has had a lasting effect on our society. We all must grapple with it, so why would Shakespeare groups be excluded from that.

However, Sayet asserted, “theatres that produce his work cannot be welcoming spaces for people whose ancestors were beaten and forced to give up their own languages and learn Shakespeare’s.” This is a point I disagree on. I follow a lot of Shakespeare theatres all over the country and have seen a wealth of diverse casting, casting that challenges the backwards ideas we see in Shakespeare. These theatres are actively trying to make Shakespeare a welcoming place. One of the reasons Shakespeare has survived the test of time is that he has a unique ability to speak to us on a human level. Shakespeare may not have agreed that people of color are equal, but there are emotions that all humans experience to some degree. Shakespeare brings those out.

To assert that Shakespeare theatres cannot be welcoming to people of color or indigenous people, ignores the creative work being done by the theatremakers at those companies. My local Shakespeare Company always has a very diverse cast and when they aren’t performing Shakespeare, they are performing plays with progressive messages by a diverse group of writers. Last season was “The Season of the Woman,” all the plays were written by or featured women. They are actively working to amplify the voices of those who are underrepresented, but because they produce Shakespeare they can’t be welcoming places? I have a hard time believing that.

Additionally, Sayet criticized Shakespeare institutions for their recent anti-racism statements in response to police violence in America. She finds it contradictory that they have these statements despite the fact that they are directly benefiting from the oppressive system. I personally think it’s unfair to assume the statements were made in bad faith when so many of these institutions are in fact trying to be more anti-racist. They can be both Shakespearean and anti-racist.

Now, let’s get back to where Sayet and I agree. Sayet said, “I still believe there should be spaces for joyous celebration of Shakespeare […] If his plays are going to continue to be done, it’s important that Shakespeareans spend as much time learning about the world we are in today and how we got here.” These two ideas must coexist. Shakespeare cannot and should not exist in a bubble. His writing should not be exempt from our current discourse. It’s too easy to say “well, he wrote in a different time. We can’t hold him to today’s standards.” We have to hold his writing to today’s standards because his writing still exists in today’s world. Shakespeare is not a relic of times gone by, only studied by historians. He is completely enmeshed in popular culture. To study Shakespeare is to study popular culture.

Sayet’s language may have been stronger than I would use, but that doesn’t take away from her point. We, in the Shakespeare community, must do the work to be truly anti-racist. We have to accept and confront the fact that Shakespeare’s beautiful work was used to suppress the voices of others in the name of “civilizing natives.” We must contextual Shakespeare in today’s popular discourse. If Shakespeare is going to stay relevant, we must bring him into modern times.

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