Online series ‘brings together scholars and artists of colour…to examine Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of race and social justice’
Shakespeare’s Globe, the historic theatre where the Bard’s famous plays were first performed hundreds of years ago, has partnered with Cambridge University Press to host a series of free webinars to study the works with an emphasis on race and identity.
The next webinar, scheduled for Feb. 23, will feature Farah Karim-Cooper, a Shakespeare scholar at Kings College London, and Globe Director Jude Christian “to discuss race and social justice in ‘Titus Andronicus,'” according to the Globe website.
The website for the Globe’s current production of “Titus Andronicus” offers a disclaimer describing the play as featuring “incidents and themes” of “anti-black racism” and “ableism,” among many other elements “which may be extremely upsetting for many.”
The “Anti-Racist Shakespeare” series, part of the Globe’s Winter 2022-23 and Summer 2023 sessions, “brings together scholars and artists of colour from a wide variety of backgrounds to examine Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of race and social justice,” according to the Globe website.
‘I find the whole framing to be uninteresting, tedious, and unilluminating,’ one professor argued
But one writer and English professor emeritus argued against the move to construe race issues as central to the Shakespeare canon.
“Because the society that Shakespeare occupied was nearly entirely Anglo––white…race [is] a not terribly interesting issue,” Mark Bauerlein, emeritus English professor and senior editor of First Things magazine, told The College Fix in an email.
“The assumption that if you are white and you don’t much think about your whiteness means that you consider it a universal default condition doesn’t hold,” Bauerlein said. “That’s just a rhetorical power play. I find the whole framing to be uninteresting, tedious, and unilluminating.”
A much more interesting point about that is that Shakespeare is read, and loved, and staged in continents all over the world, in countries everywhere. People who are not white, who are not Christian, who don’t live in the late 16th century… who had a totally different social formation, they love Shakespeare… Akira Kurosawa, the great Japanese film director, loved Shakespeare. His Throne of Blood, his film of Macbeth, it’s all Japanese actors…
These anti-racist figures say that, taking your racial identity for granted means that you’re assuming your racial identity is universal. No it doesn’t, that doesn’t follow. I just don’t think about it all the time because I think foregrounding your racial identity is a very narrow perception of who you are…
“Anti-racism” has such a moral authority in the academy, it’s automatic credibility. Nobody’s going to challenge you. Academics…are constantly searching for sources of moral authority that will protect them from the criticisms of other scholars… “Anti-racism” is a script, and the script has a set ending. Shakespeare’s going to affirm the anti-racist outlook, one way or another… And that’s what I mean by the easiness and conformity factor in all of this.
Bauerlein also critiqued the “Anti-Racist Shakespeare” project as an unfortunate product of the “research mandate” that he said was incorporated into college humanities education around the 1970s.
“The research mandate said, you must come up with original interpretations, original ideas, and that is part of your career,” he said.
“Every year, a young professor at any research institution has to do an annual report, explaining the teaching he did, the committee work he did, and the research he did… and that means he’s got to come up with new stuff. So if you’re a Renaissance person, Shakespeare’s one of your main topics, you have to find new things to say about Shakespeare all the time.”
“How in the world are you supposed to come up with something fresh and interesting to say when you’ve already got thousands and thousands of books and articles out there?” Bauerlein continued.
“Well, what you do is you take the topic of the moment, and you link it to Shakespeare… So what is the latest thing? Anti-racism. And you simply take your Shakespeare and spin it through the washing machine with the detergent of anti-racism.”
“Anti-Racist Shakespeare” past programs available to watch online include videos on “King Lear,” “The Merchant of Venice,” and “Hamlet.”
Cambridge University Press published in January a book of the same name as the webinar series that explores similar themes.
“‘Anti-Racist Shakespeare’ argues that Shakespeare is a productive site to cultivate an anti-racist pedagogy,” according to a summary by authors Ambereen Dadabhoy, a professor of literature at Harvey Mudd College in California, and Medda Mehdizadeh, professor of writing at UCLA.
The text “advances teaching Shakespeare through race and anti-racism in order to expose students to the unequal structures of power and domination that are systemically reproduced within society, culture, academic disciplines, and classrooms. We contend that this approach to teaching Shakespeare and race empowers students not only to see these paradigms but also to take action by challenging and overturning them.”
‘Merchant of Venice’ is all about antisemitism, actress states in ‘Anti-Racist Shakespeare’ webinar
Actress Tracy-Ann Oberman, a speaker in the “Merchant of Venice” webinar video, discussed her role as a female version of Shylock, a Jewish character who lends money to Christians, in the modern adaptation “Merchant of Venice 1936.” The adaptation, currently being performed at England’s Watford Palace Theatre, depicts Shakespeare’s characters set in 1936 London, where fascism and antisemitism are prominent.
The play is “about anti-Semitism,” and the goal of the play is to “explain why [Shylock] is the way that she is,” Oberman stated in the video.
“This play can be interpreted in whatever way you want, but it ultimately comes down to anti-Semitism, and the revulsion of the Jew, the different one, the one that Christian society has turned into the money lender,” according to Oberman.
Playwright and professor agreed play is about antisemitism but says it is ‘not weighted entirely against Shylock’
“[Shakespeare’s] such a sublime artist,” Michael Punter, a British playwright and Colgate University professor, told The College Fix in an interview. “It’s certainly not weighted entirely against Shylock.”
However, “I accept, utterly, that this is for us and for everything that has come subsequently an anti-Semitic work,” he said. “The idea of connecting Jews with money, that is the greatest slur that is out there, and in this country, we’ve seen it in the last few years.”
Mark Bauerlein, in contrast, took issue with the reduction of Shakespeare’s plays to issues of racial, religious, or ethnic identity.
“The humanities are supposed to be fun,” he said. “You’re supposed to feel a little thrill when you read Shakespeare.”
“Woke scholars don’t create that,” according to Bauerlein. “They’re killjoys. Nineteen-year-olds don’t like it. Which is one reason why English, which, in 1970…collected about 1 in 12 or 13 of all bachelor’s degrees in this country…now, collects less than 1 in 50 bachelors degrees. That’s how unpopular it’s become.”
“Who wants to sit in class with a teacher who’s always in the accusatory mode?” he said. “Resentment is a turn off. Quit putting the rest of us on guilt trips.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with comments from Mark Bauerlein.
IMAGE: Shakespeare’s Globe