Can Shakespeare be ‘timeless’ and hegemonic at the same time? …Let’s hope not?

I was fight coach for Julius Caesar and my BFF was Cassius. aaamaaazinggggg.

I was fight coach for Julius Caesar and my BFF was Cassius. aaamaaazinggggg.

In her recent article in The Guardian, ‘Did Shakespeare sell women short?’ Vanessa Thorpe examines the limitations of Shakespeare’s female characters and namely the RSC’s recent response to this concern. The RSC has announced that they will be producing three Jacobean dramas that feature major female roles. Brigid Larmour, has this to say:

“The impact of Shakespeare is still inspiring, of course, but it can also be limiting,” she said. “There are huge characters, such as Cleopatra or Beatrice, that we reference all the time in the rehearsal room. But the problem is that we have kept the same gender balance in today’s theatre because of the success and genius of his plays. It created a blueprint that means playwrights do not notice when they have written something for nine men and one woman.”

My emphasis. I can’t be sure how intentional, but it was great to see women’s opinions sought after for this piece (albeit they all appear to be White women, but I guess the scope of this article was made pretty clear). There is also some comprehensive summaries of some of Shakespeare’s ladies actual line counts vs. their male counterparts. And how did I not know that only Cleapatra had what is closest to an actual soliloquy!?!?! Jesus. I’m glad the article mentions Volumnia, Lady Macbeth, and Gertrude – all powerful women in their own right, but at the end of the day, how many of the Bard’s plays pass the Bechdal Test? Two sources, here and here, say that things look pretty grim. Orlando, the writer of that second examination of my link, has this to add:

The great strength of what Shakespeare does for women lies less in their number than in their complexity. At first glance they seem easily classifiable as ingénue, matron, villainess and so on, but always reveal themselves as much more when examined closely. In addition, one of the scenarios he returns to most often is of women supporting each other, even in the ranks of death, which belongs to that quirky category of things that happen all the time in life, but hardly ever in the movies.

Ok, I’d agree with that, and maybe even one could say that Shakespeare was one of the original, Western, writers to employ a sense of “Trojan Horse Television,” where “using characters and ideas with whom audiences think they’re familiar to lure viewers in, and then taking them to entirely unpredictable places.”

But so what? Why should we be applying modern social criticism to a White, male writer who died 397 years ago? Because a lot of people teaching Shakespeare’s text to both literature students and actors (and also our theatre industry but don’t get me started) tend to perpetuate that Shakespeare is a voice for timelessness and the scope of human nature.  Shakespeare Scholar Sarah Werner cautions:

This emphasis on individuals and common humanity distances the actor from any type political action or sense of history, and naturalizes the social order found in Shakespeare…

I would clarify here and say it has the potential to do that. And that it’s been done a lot. I’ve been co-teaching a Shakespeare text workshop over the past few weeks in Seoul to participants who have mostly had limited experience with the performance of his writing. In my enthusiasm to make his words less academic, more egalitarian, more accessible – I have found myself tempted to go into universalist overtures. The well-intentioned platitudes like “Shakespeare is for everyone!” “His stories and characters are timeless!” and “they speak for us all” allow us to efface Shakespeare’s identity locations of being White, male, and English and decontextualizes the society he lived in, which was patriarchal and colonialist. Thorpe writes in her Guardian piece,

In Shakespeare’s time, gender politics was a perilous subject, with Elizabeth I’s power waning at the end of her reign. Women were forbidden to appear on stage and this may well have dampened Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for female roles. Larmour suggests that had this dramatic genius been born later, British theatre would be different now. “If Shakespeare had been writing during the freer Restoration era, we would have far more women’s parts.”

Of course, the fact that women weren’t even allowed to play his characters onstage during his lifetime is going to have an impact on his writing. How could it not? I remember seeing Much Ado about nothing for the first time, and watching Hero choose to ultimately marry Claudio after all the humiliating bullshit he puts her through. I was filled with rage. Rage and disgust. Shakespeare was not speaking for ME in that moment. And of course, one could say that the theatre was staging this play or that we have our students play these parts in order to raise concern, discussion, debate, reaction. But that justification isn’t exactly going well for The Ordway in Minneapolis, who is referencing those very same things in defense of their upcoming production of the very racist musical, Miss Saigon.

Things are starting to become tangential (but important tangents nonetheless) so I will move forward. What are the implications, then, for our students?

‘What postcolonial actors need to develop is a theory and practice of actorly agency – a way of achieving interpretive and performative autonomy – by means of, within, through,and finally, outside of, clearly separate(d) from the will to power represented by the Shakespearean text’

– Denis Salter, ‘Acting Shakespeare in Postcolonial Space’

Shockingly, I keep returning to the idea of context and the rejection of lazy binaries that Shakespeare is either universal or an ignorant misogynist. I like to think that all of our voice, text, acting work is an invitation. We invite and the students have every right to engage or not. And as teachers, we hope to empower them through their choice of engagement. We are also responsible for finding other texts that offer us more diverse and powerful woman characters. That, and playing with more cross-gender casting, in both productions and class scene work. Let’s honor the shifting of gender identity locations and how they can shift in both Shakespeare’s work and in the literal bodies of our students.

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“But Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920.”

Full disclosure: I do not watch Downtown Abbey. But I feel that this should still be discussed. If you feel like the show itself might nuance my argument, I would love to hear from you.

Downtown Abbey has announced (through a press release) that it has added its first Black British cast member, Gary Carr. In an interview with the NY Times, one of the show’s executive producers, Gareth Neame, said,

A few people have said, ‘Why isn’t there more diversity? … And the argument would be, we would depict it if were true and accurate. It’s a bit like saying, ‘I don’t approve of the class system, at all, that existed on the show.’ It did exist, and we should depict it in the way that existed. It doesn’t mean I approve of it. But Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920.

My emphasis. As an American, I know very little about Black British history (although I would posit that a lot of Brits don’t know much about it either) but last year my brief encounter with Black British theatre historian, Leon Robinson, was enough to warrant some serious concern over what I believe was a seriously effacing statement by Mr. Neame. Neame did not say that Yorkshire Estates were not multicultural, he said that Britain was not multicultural in 1920. Thanks to Robinson, I had already learned about the contributions of artists like Ira Aldridge (who was actually American) and Les Ballet Negre, but I thought of Aldridge as more of an outlier example and Les Ballet Negre didn’t really begin until the 1930s. This didn’t seem like it would be enough to consider the country “multicultural.”
So I started to dig a bit and quickly found some diasporic patterns of both Black and Asian communities and their influential presence in the UK during the time period which Downtown Abbey is set. In her article for “History Today,” Barbara Bush writes,

But during the First World War the influx of coloured colonial seamen, munitions workers and others substantially increased the numbers of the British ‘coloured’ population. In the aftermath of the war, British white liberals – the section of the community with a broad sympathy towards the problems of blacks which stretched back in the liberal, humanitarian tradition to the abolitionists – were confronted for the first time with a sizeable domestic ‘race problem’. From this time an embryonic form of the modern concept of race relations began to emerge.

She goes on to detail legislation that the UK government drafted and eventually passed as a response to such riots in 1920 and 1925. I don’t know exactly what Neame’s definition of multiculturalism is, but I think once your government starts making legislative responses to race relations in your country, we’re pretty much there. You might be tempted to clarify on behalf of Neame that of course he meant that Yorkshire country estates were not multicultural in 1920. But he didn’t. And in one, sweeping, justifying excuse of a statement, he effaced centuries of pluralistic communities in the UK, despite the fact that the UK government hired its first Black British employee in 1786, that interracial marriage was happening about that time as well, and that Black and White communities were actually coming together in poverty in the 1800s.

It might seem that I’m banging on about a small thing that Mr. Neame somewhat carelessly (at least I hope) said. By discussing his comment in more length, I am hoping to raise awareness for a number of points:

  1.  Mr. Neame and those in his industry continue to be incredibly influential in our artistic communities and entertainment industries and have enormous power when it comes to crafting and depicting narratives. Their choice on what to focus, highlight, efface, or ignore has a profound impact on society at large – which includes young people who may or may not choose to pursue acting and teachers who are teaching in conservatoires.
  2. Whoever was interviewing Neame should have either called him on his overarching statement or later fact-checked and posed a critical response in the article as a reflection. That’s just good journalism. I fear that most readers, especially Americans who know very little about British history, would not question his quote.
  3. I’m concerned with show creator’s Julian Fellow’s statement that he wants to introduce actors of color in a way that is “historically believable,” particularly in light of the scrutiny that the writing on the show is full of linguistic anachronisms. Plenty of people are still watching the show, despite this criticism.

I look forward to the day where producers are not issuing press releases for their first new, ‘vibrant’ Black Character. Audiences can handle it. And if they don’t know that there were non-White people in the UK before 1920, don’t cater to, confirm, or encourage their ignorance.