Fair play? Race in Romeo and Juliet
The impact of Shakespeare’s language of ‘light and dark’ on a non-white cast
How does race affect our ideas of beauty, our understanding of Shakespeare’s language, our daily lives?
As part of this year’s Shakespeare and Race festival, Behind closed doors: Romeo and Juliet saw members of the summer production’s company – director Ola Ince and actors Rebekah Murrell and Alfred Enoch – speak with Professor Farah Karim-Cooper, Head of Higher Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe. Here we present an edited version of their conversation.
Ola Ince: I was really worried about directing Romeo and Juliet because it is the world’s most famous story: how are you going to make a play that everyone knows feel like new writing? Feel fresh? Feel exciting, speak to now? I started from maybe a negative space and moved towards a position of love.
‘It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows…’
I picked this moment to look at because we have spoken about comparing Juliet to a jewel, especially from Ethiopia, and what that meant, and if we were exoticising.
Farah Karim-Cooper: It’s an artistic tradition to place black and white imagery side by side. A lot of Renaissance paintings have Black people in them, often to glorify the whiteness. Language started to develop this as well, and this whole play is full of ‘light, dark’, ‘fair, foul’ imagery. That image there is meant to encapsulate Juliet’s beauty, because night is providing this foil for her shining brightness.
OI: We cut the ‘snowy dove’ line, but we didn’t know what to do about the ‘Ethiope’s ear’. I don’t know how you guys feel about it? I don’t know if I was repulsed by it, or offended. As a member of the audience, especially if the audience isn’t diverse, I think you can feel very aware of lines like those and feel alienated.
Alfred Enoch: I’m interested in the potential mileage of the tension of that image coming out of the mouth of a young black man.
‘It’s an artistic tradition to place black and white imagery side by side. This whole play is full of light, dark; fair, foul imagery’
– Farah Karim-Cooper
Rebekah Murrell: There’s something really interesting as well in the journey of the language that Romeo uses. It’s quite noticeably absent at the end – in the dying speech when he thinks Juliet is dead everything feels very much more rooted in emotion and truth; it’s passionate, it’s real, but it’s…
OI: Not as flowery.
FKC: There’s not as much light and whiteness imagery.
RM: Exactly. Romeo goes on this arc; at the beginning he’s borrowing from the world around him, and then this love teaches him who he is.
AE: Romeo is a part that has been played so many times that you get prevailing ideas. But there are places in the text that didn’t feel sincere to me – it felt joking, and that was an ‘in’ to me. There’s a lot of play and ostentation and this is, in a way, what young men, and I, do a lot: showy, ironic ostentation that keeps emotional reality at bay. Recent experience has put me a bit more in touch with what lies beneath.
OI: It sounds like you’re suggesting that there is something about the empire and the conditioning of the mind as a Black British person, in terms of what you think is beautiful, fair, bright: the language you’ve potentially taken on. Is that interesting to explore, that your mind has been colonised?
AE: I think ‘fair’ is a really interesting one. It made me think of James Baldwin’s essay Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare, and how language speaks to the experience of the people who have spoken and formed it. ‘Fair’ is a perfect example. It’s a word with two meanings: beautiful, and then pale or light-skinned.
FKC: In the first two acts ‘fair’ is used over 40 times. Verona is described as ‘fair’ – ‘white Verona’. But ‘fair’ has a really specific connotation in poetry about women because it’s not just pale; it means pale and with a lustre. That’s how it’s defined in beauty books from the 16th century. So then ‘fair’ becomes a synonym for beauty.
OI: I wonder how that language sits with a 21st-century audience? If we had, to be crude, an all-Black audience, they’d go, ‘Ah, you’re talking about that kind of fair’. But I wonder if an audience not from that community might go, ‘What are you talking about? She’s not fair.’ Are you ignoring who she is, therefore, as the performer?
RM: Everything is about image and the creation of this veneer of what it is to be a woman – and maybe that is kind of the problem, as well as the language.
AE: But in the context of there being such a fixation around appearance, it’s really interesting that that is not the first thing that Romeo goes to. Baldwin talked about the English language being the symbol of his oppression. How do we come into that, as Black people now, and make that language ours, or how do these characters make it theirs?
OI: How did you feel, Ree, knowing you were going to play Juliet? Was there an extra pressure, or excitement? Can you relate to what Alfie and Baldwin are describing?
RM: Completely. Realistically, I hadn’t delved into this play properly before this, and in my head: Juliet, beauty… it’s all wrapped up in quite dangerously tight coils. This kind of Euro-centric, Botticelli’s Venus beauty. The opportunity to make this with you, Ola, was what made me really excited, but you always want it to be true and to understand why everything is being said. How far do you create reasons and are you shoehorning something in? It’s a difficult world that we live in where people do have internalised racism, where we have absorbed these really dangerous ideas about what beauty is and what it can’t be. I thought I was well-versed in race theory, but the construction of ideas about the connection between beauty and colour… Where did it even come from? It’s something that we live with in everything that we do. But we don’t necessarily understand the roots of it.
‘This kind of Euro-centric, Botticelli’s Venus beauty… we have absorbed these really dangerous ideas about what beauty is and what it can’t be.’
– Rebekah Murrell
FKC: It’s been around since before the Elizabethan period and was really baked into European, British, English culture in that time. Just look at the paintings of Queen Elizabeth.
RM: They’d put lead on her face, wouldn’t they? To make her pale?
FKC: Yes, and things like pearl, to make it shiny, so that she was actually fair. You see that that type of complexion is associated with power: in The Armada Portrait, you’ve got the Spanish ships, darkness and tempest, and there she is with this orb-type, shiny face.
OI: It’s hard to navigate. I don’t want anyone to feel the pressure to have to represent a whole group of people. That’s not why you were cast and that’s not how I want my work to be viewed.
‘Our perception of Shakespeare’s world is entirely white-washed… as an actor of colour you’re thinking: I don’t belong in there.’
– Farah Karim-Cooper
FKC: I think, also, there’s so much that people haven’t been taught about Shakespeare’s time, such as the fact he lived in an area where there were Black Africans. Our perception of Shakespeare’s world is entirely white-washed, so when you’re coming to it as an actor of colour you’re thinking: ‘I don’t belong in there.’ But Shakespeare’s imagination was much more capacious, there is more space to move around. And the audiences of the time? We know that there were loads of immigrants in Southwark then…
AE: That’s really interesting.
RM: It problematises it a bit more though, because we’re talking about a world that was way more mixed than we see when we cast our eye back, but yet we still have this language that makes us feel uncomfortable.
FKC: It wasn’t necessarily happily mixed. And the language is really clear about the binary between white and black and those negative associations that Shakespeare sometimes unravels. Night becomes this intimate space of beauty and wonder for these characters, so he’s doing something with that binary which you can play with.
OI: But how can we make sure the audience can access that?
FKC: It’s true. Cutting references means that we’re still white-washing in a lot of ways. So audiences then are seeing their comfortable ‘white Shakespeare’, as usual. Maybe discomfort is OK?
OI: It is, but I’m thinking about not wanting to make people that are the minority uncomfortable, as opposed to the majority. Especially in these spaces which are not seen as shared spaces.
RM: If we include certain language it’s going to be interesting for some and triggering for others…
…something that is interesting to talk about is painful to live.
OI: Yeah. What is it like for the performer to be reminded, night after night, that they are ‘other’? I don’t ever want performers to feel like they are performing to white audiences – like they’re shuffling along for them. If we have more diverse audiences, crew, boards and performers, then I think it becomes less uncomfortable, but I have to think about things that I don’t think other directors would.
RM: That’s a lot of extra work.
OI: I guess we’re also asking, ‘Does this make me feel uncomfortable that we are referencing an Ethiopian person to talk about their ear and jewellery, and not their heritage and their history; that they’re a prop to something?’ Does it make us feel uncomfortable that we’re going, ‘Ree, do you blush? Shall we cut that line?’
‘Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight.’
Is that colourism? But with Alfie and Baldwin, we’re discovering there is space within the text for real people who live around the whole world to exist. There has been conditioning that has made us believe it’s not for us, but there were – hello! – before the Windrush, Black and Asian people – people from around the world – living in Great Britain. Well, get rid of the Great…
OI: And it’s about reclaiming that space. Maybe they weren’t treated well, but they were still here.
RM: It is about everyone being able to have those conversations. When [those conversations] don’t get had, that’s when I find it so difficult, because you do have them with certain friends who come to see [you perform] and you’re like, ‘What can I say? We just don’t talk about it.’ And that’s not helpful.
OI: I think our cast is wonderfully varied, but I was preparing for trying to figure out what it means for Juliet to have white parents. Especially after George Floyd’s death, it seems everyone wants to be part of a conversation, whereas in the past not everyone did; it has been upsetting that some people discovered racism this year. But anyway, maybe we can further that conversation within her parenting: if both of your parents don’t look like you, what does that mean for your experience? The Montagues and Capulets are supposed to be both different and the same. Is there anything that really separates them? That’s the pain of it, right? I really didn’t want to go, ‘You’re Asian, you’re Black, ‘because that feels like such a simplistic way of thinking about race. Embracing the diversity within our cast, we’re saying, whoever we got, ‘Now let’s talk about who you are and what you bring.’
AE: And discover those little friction points, right?
OI: And then saying, ‘Shall we say that bit?’ or call you [Karim-Cooper] in and say, ‘Is it bad to cut that bit?’
FKC: Recognising that relationship between the language of the text and the casting is what colour-blind casting doesn’t do. Also, it’s this popular opinion that Shakespeare only wrote about race in three, maybe four plays. But actually, race is weaved in and out of the whole canon.
RM: In the same way that race is the backdrop to our lives, even now. We don’t necessarily have to be having a conversation about Black Lives Matter for that to be part of every single interaction that we have…
AE: It’s been interesting for me to reflect on the systems I have developed to perceive myself as a mixed-race person in this society. My dad’s white and public-school educated and my mum is a Black Brazilian. My relationship with my Britishness has come very much through my father. People talk about, ‘I never saw anyone who looked like me growing up on TV.’ And I go, ‘Oh. I saw my dad [William Russell] on TV,’ every Christmas; The Great Escape, whatever. So there were lots of things I didn’t feel outside of, and I was maybe naïve about how I was perceived; I wasn’t sensitive to it, I saw the ways in which I was establishment, status quo.
RM: This whole thing has been a big reckoning. It’s forced everyone to understand race in a slightly different way, whoever you are. I hope. Or, at least, some faint bell is dinging in everyone’s minds now.