Shakespeare Research article

A darker shade of Shakespeare

  This new side of Shakespeare is so much more vibrant, so much more powerful, and full of the potential for change, writes guest author Dr Ruben Espinosa

6 minute read

In his anti-immigrant musings about the value of cultural assimilation, Boris Johnson writes of the necessity for an English-first approach: “This is our language, the language of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, the language that has been spoken in London for centuries; and in the face of the vast migratory influx we have seen, we must insist on English if we are to have any hope of eupeptic absorption and assimilation.” Linguistic identity is firmly tethered to ethnic identity, and thus the true desire here is that those who are not white should strive to approximate whiteness. In Johnson’s estimation, Shakespeare is an icon of that identity.

Artwork from The Keefe Colloquium in the Public Humanities at Lafayette College’s Teaching Shakespeare and Race symposium (2019).

In the US, Shakespeare exists as a monument to whiteness. In print, on stage, on screen, and in the popular imagination, the whiteness of Shakespeare is ubiquitous. And like Johnson, many here in the US feel that those not white of skin should speak English, should adapt culturally, and should approximate whiteness. But the truth is that, in their eyes, those of us who are dark of skin will never belong. In the realm of the Shakespeare industry, such attitudes also persist. Still, much has been done to bring to Shakespeare diverse understandings by so many BIPOC scholars, actors, dramaturges, students, educators, and readers. Lest you think that this speaks to Shakespeare’s universality, I want to be clear that this is not at all the case. What this speaks to is the value of multilingual, multicultural, multiracial, and truly diverse perspectives. In this, our present moment, monuments are being torn down, and Shakespeare is no exception. You can keep your white Shakespeare, because what I want to see, and what I want others to see, is a darker shade of Shakespeare.

What, you might ask, attracts a Chicano living on the US-Mexico border to Shakespeare? The answer to that is not so easy. My early interactions with Shakespeare were not unlike many in the US and in the UK – I came to Shakespeare in my high school classroom. But it was popular culture that led me to engage a bit more closely with his work. As a high school student with an affinity for literature, the film Dead Poets Society spoke to me. In that film, the character Neil (played by Robert Sean Leonard) is encouraged by his English teacher, Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) to pursue his love of acting. Against his father’s wishes, Neil auditions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and is cast as Puck. In my high school lived experience, I was not cast as Puck, but instead as Oberon. Still, the point is that I was clearly trying to emulate these white kids at a fancy prep school on the big screen in an effort to express my own love of literature. I did not see that then, but I do know that the desire to approximate whiteness was and is widespread for so many of us brown of skin, because we are made to feel inferior.

In the US, Shakespeare exists as a monument to whiteness. In print, on stage, on screen, and in the popular imagination, the whiteness of Shakespeare is ubiquitous.

Robert Sean Leonard as Neil, playing Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from the film Dead Poets Society (1989).

In this, our present moment, monuments are being torn down, and Shakespeare is no exception. You can keep your white Shakespeare, because what I want to see, and what I want others to see, is a darker shade of Shakespeare.

I loved Shakespeare then because one is taught to love Shakespeare if one loves literature. One is taught to love Whitman, Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. And I’m sure you can easily recognize the problem with that pattern. It is the literary canon that is taught and thus it is the canon that upholds the dominance of whiteness. Thankfully, my experiences and the literature and popular culture I subsequently chose to consume exposed me to so much more. My decision, then, to study Shakespeare later in life was not an attempt to approximate whiteness. I felt that I had something to offer Shakespeare and so I followed that path. And while I will not pretend that I recognized the value of a Chicano perspective on Shakespeare early on, I can confidently say that I did recognize value within myself even in a nation where so many sought, and continue to seek, to devalue me and my kind.

The Paso Del Norte point of entry, El Paso Texas. Photograph: U.S. Customs and Border Protection via Wikimedia Commons.

My kinship now is with the community of scholars who, through critical race studies, use Shakespeare as a vehicle to interrogate structures of racism and white supremacy in our day. My kinship is with those unafraid to tear down the monuments to Shakespeare and imagine him anew. They are why I love Shakespeare now. Through their eyes, a darker shade of Shakespeare emerges. It is this Shakespeare I love to teach.

As someone who teaches in a city defined by its bilingual, binational, and bicultural energies, I recognize an opportunity to harness these energies any time I ask my students to engage with Shakespeare. I want my students, and my Chicanx students in particular, to recognize in major filmic productions of Shakespeare who is included and who is left out. I want them to ask why. And I want to know and genuinely to understand, what they see in Shakespeare. So often, it is not so white, not necessarily in English, but always it is something worth seeing.

What do these racist realities have to do with Shakespeare? Well, if the likes of Johnson can claim him to promote white supremacy, perhaps we can use him to pursue anti-racist efforts.

A detention facility in McAllen, Texas shows the conditions facing migrant children at border control, with bottles of water, bags of crisps and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets. Photograph: U.S. Customs and Border Protection via Wikimedia Commons.

As I write this from my home in la frontera, under this pandemic we all face, I would be remiss not to recognize the pivotal moment we find ourselves in when it comes to our racialized society. What we have witnessed in the act of kneeling, when it is on the neck of a Black man, is our racist, violent history and the deep danger and absolute monstrosity of elevating whiteness. In my corner of the world, brown children are separated from their families at the border and caged in for-profit detention centers. What, you might ask, do these racist realities have to do with Shakespeare? Well, if the likes of Johnson can claim him to promote white supremacy (that is, the perpetuation of systems that benefit white people at the expense of people of color), perhaps we can use him to pursue anti-racist efforts. Johnson’s version of Shakespeare is tired, old, and white. This darker shade of Shakespeare that is emerging is so much more vibrant, so much more powerful, and full of the potential for change.

FINIS.

Our third Shakespeare and Race festival takes place online with a series of events, workshops and discussions from 21 – 23 August 2020. Find out more and book your tickets.

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