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Is Shakespeare racist?

The following is an extract from the General Introduction to the New Oxford Shakespeare, and looks at the way race is presented in Shakespeare’s work.

Just as there were no real women on Shakespeare’s stage, there were no Jews, Africans, Muslims, or Hispanics either. Even Harold Bloom, who praises Shakespeare as ‘the greatest Western poet’ in The Western Canon, and who rages against academic political correctness, regards The Merchant of Venice as antisemitic. In 2014 the satirist Jon Stewart responded to Shakespeare’s ‘stereotypically, grotesquely greedy Jewish money lender’ more bluntly: ‘Fuck you, Shakespeare! Fuck you!’ (The Daily Show, 2014).

Reactions to Shakespeare’s portrayal of black men have been just as visceral. In 1969 the African-American political activist H. Rap Brown recorded that, as early as high school, he ‘saw no sense in reading Shakespeare’. Why? Because ‘After I read Othello, it was obvious that Shakespeare was a racist.’ (Brown, H. Rap, Die, Nigger, Die! A Political Autobiography of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin).

In 2001, a committee of teachers in an important South African province wanted to ban Shakespeare from schools because he ‘failed to promote the rejection of racism and sexism’. In 2015 a black activist called for ‘the racist William Shakespeare’ to be completely banned from schools in Zimbabwe.

In 2016, undergraduate English majors at Yale University petitioned to eliminate the monopoly of “white male poets” (including Shakespeare) in a compulsory introductory course. Hindu nationalists in India want to ban the teaching of Shakespeare, first imposed on the country by England’s oppressive colonial rule.

Yet against every one of these indictments, Shakespeare’s attorneys can summon a long list of witnesses for the defense.

  • Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), the former African slave who became an abolitionist and the first best-selling black Anglophone writer, quoted Shakespeare more than any other author.
  • Williams Wells Brown (1814-84), born into slavery in Kentucky, author of the first published novel and the first published drama by an African American, visited Stratford-upon-Avon and used quotations from Shakespeare to frame his play The Escape and several chapters of his books.
  • Frederick Douglass (1818-95), the escaped slave who became the most influential African-American of the nineteenth century, when asked in 1892 to name his favourite authors, listed Shakespeare first; in a reading at the Uniontown Shakespeare Club in December 1877 Douglass took the part of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice; a painting of Othello and Desdemona hung over the fireplace in his Cedar Hill home.
  • L. R. James (1901-89), the West Indian Marxist and anti-colonial activist, had a lifelong interest in Shakespeare, and argued that Shakespeare, among creative artists, was ‘the most political writer that Britain has ever seen’, and ‘no racist’.
  • Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) and other anti-apartheid activists imprisoned on Robbin Island shared a Complete Works of Shakespeare; Mandela signed his name opposite ‘Cowards die many times before their death; The valiant never taste of death but once’ (Julius Caesar 2.32-3), and in his autobiography recalled the prisoners’ minimalist performances with ‘no stage, no scenery, no costumes’ but only ‘the text of the play’.
‘Othello and Desdemona’ by Antonio Muñoz Degraín, 1880. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Do such testimonials prove that Shakespeare was not racist? Do they prove that the original performances of Othello, Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice, by white male actors for white audiences, were a critique of early English prejudices about blacks, Jews, and Spaniards? No. But they do prove that outstanding members of persecuted groups have found Shakespeare useful to their own imaginative and political work, to the creation of their own identities, and to the project of transforming an imperfect world.

Even Shakespeare’s critics, from Greene/Chettle/Nashe to Anne Tyler, connect their own work to his.

Zadie Smith’s best-selling prize-winning novel White Teeth contains a scene in which a student asks her teacher whether the ‘dark lady’ in Shakespeare’s Sonnets is ‘black’. Her teacher answers, ‘She’s not black in the modern sense’–because there weren’t any ‘Afro-Carri-bee-yans in England at that time’; or, if there were, such a ‘black’ woman they would have been ‘a slave of some kind’.

This condescending pedagogical put-down has its intended effect: the student blushes with embarrassment, then retreats into indifference. ‘She had thought, just then, that she had seen something like a reflection,’ as though Shakespeare’s sonnets to and about a black woman might be addressing her own experience, but that apparent connection ‘was receding’.

The teacher here is not a sympathetic character, and she is wrong, historically: we now know that there were ‘black’ people in Tudor England, and especially in London. Most of them were inconspicuous, but none of them were slaves: indeed, in Shakespeare’s lifetime the Protestant English proudly distinguished themselves from the Spanish because, unlike their Catholic rivals, they did not enslave people, and slavery had no legal status or enforcement mechanisms (yet). None of Shakespeare’s indisputably black characters are slaves.

Smith’s own attitude to Shakespeare’s sonnets remains opaque in this scene. What is clear, however, is that the fictional student, involuntarily, and the real author, voluntarily, are engaging with, in some way connected to, Shakespeare. In a 2013 essay on her novel NW, Smith reported that one of her inspirations for that novel was Measure for Measure, and in particular a performance she had seen when she was in school, where Claudio was played by a black actor and his sister Isabella by a white one.

Shakespeare’s most politically incorrect plays–Taming, Othello, Merchant of Venice–have become some of his most popular, in theatres and classrooms, precisely because of the controversies surrounding them. Controversy just generates more interest, more dialogue, more connections.

Recent Comments

  1. Thomas Wunsch

    It is a historic misconception to call Othello black in a modern sense. Arab North Africa was a world power until the mid 16th century. And Othello is a man in power. The connection to colonial history and slavery is anachronistic.

    A modern equivalent would be rather to imagine him as Russian, a todays has been powerful nation. But mocking a Russian would not be considered racist.

    And that is the point: racism is racism only if there is unequal power or guilt in place. And this is not the case in Othello.

  2. Theopyrus

    I am worried about some people’s views when reading non-modern texts on which they reflect their own obsessions. They translate their own prejudices and show unwillingness to understand a world of which they have scarce knowledge.

    I doubt that racism is found in 16th century England. Mister Wunsch has eloquently said some things regarding it.

    I can add that there is an important difference between racism and ethnocentrism. The second one appears in every stage of history but the first one, at least as I have researched, appears specially during the 19th century.

    Racism has the notion of a superiority based on a biological feature, i.e. race. I have not found yet a text that supports this view in Antiquity or Middle Ages or even the Early Modernity. Slavery, for example, was not based on race in Antiquity and it hardly existed legally in the Middle Ages. Even Plato’s Republic which some people misunderstands and puts it as a starting point of eugenics, does not contain anything related to race. In fact, physical description of people is not common because it was more important a moral description of character.

    I guess that people who think Shakespeare is racist could easily ban every text written before 1980’s: they need history lessons or be doomed to lose the most sublime texts ever written. I feel sorry for them. They make incorrect interpretations of one of the greatest authors ever.

  3. Richard M. Waugaman, M.D.

    Another answer to allegations that Shakespeare was racist or anti-semitic is to ponder the extraordinary universality of Shakespeare’s appeal–across the centuries; around the world; among diverse cultures; and among all age groups. Prisoners stage Shakespeare plays in their prisons. Political prisoners across the world have devoted some of their years in prison to translating Shakespeare’s Sonnets into their own languages. There is no other creative writer who rivals Shakespeare’s world-wide popularity.

    I’m not proposing that we fully fathom the secret to his universal appeal. His widely ranging interests in everything human is probably part of it. His consistently non-judgmental stance is another. His creative genius allowed him to communicate with us on multiple levels simultaneously, both consciously and unconsciously.

    Allegations that Shakespeare was bigotted may be based on misunderstandings. It’s not just the character Hamlet who wants to hold a mirror up to nature. All of Shakespeare’s plays hold a mirror up to us, his audience. In the process, he makes us more aware of our prejudices. However, rather than face our own disavowed anti-semitism when we watch Merchant of Venice, there is a risk that we will instead project that vile trait onto Shakespeare.

  4. Shelly Maycock

    Dr. Taylor does not identify Bloom as a racist, which is what he is if he only thinks one group should be defended. Racism is overgeneralization and that should be stated in any discussion thereof. While Taylor defends Shakespeare here, he is blind to the central flaws in reasoning that perpetuate these misunderstandings.

    This blog does little to advance our understanding of Shakespeare unless it provides more examples people’s anachronistic tendency to project their own “ist”s and “ism”s on Shakespeare. The blogger seems to miss the point of John Stewart’s satire. Since Stewart was making fun of people being visceral, his comparison is faulty. Stewart is making fun of people who are like the rest of Taylor’s first set of examples of visceral (i.e. not rational) reactions to Shakespeare’s diverse characters.

    Taylor’s examples also show that Shakespeare tends to be misunderstood because he does deal with the complexity of otherness and all aspects of the human condition in even unique ways for his time. However, we cannot take him out of his time no matter how “timeless” people and Strats who want to deny their biography does not fit like to think he is (which just means people will argue about this stuff forever). When Shakespeare collides with oversimplification and overgeneralization, bad habits that are also “timeless” we get more of the same.

  5. Roger Allen

    C.L.R. James, not L.R.

    My own view is that Shakespeare shared or pandered to the views of his time but his genius overcame his own biases. The important thing about Shylock is that he isn’t a ‘stereotypically, grotesquely greedy Jewish money lender’ but a human being with good reasons for his hatred.

  6. Kayleigh Jayne Fletcher

    It is a rather dangerous thing to read an artist’s work autobiographically, and for this we see condemnations of Shakespeare as being a racist etc. However, artistic creations are more than merely a transposition of an author’s views – they can work as representations of topical concerns at the time (Racism in Tudor England, if, certainly, this was actually prevalent, etc), presenting contemporary circumstances in a rather ambiguous manner to generate thought. This would certainly account for the incredibly disparate interpretations of Shakespeare as a racist and as an anti-racist.

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  10. Shobha Pawar

    I think the greatness of the Bard as a writer lies in his refusal to commit himself to any ideology, religious, political or racial. Shakespeare as a man may have had his opinions on controversial issues but, his plays elude us when we try to catch him taking sides. The portrayal of Shylock is not stereotypical. The words ‘Hath not the Jew eyes……’ is the best example of his sanity as a writer. He would not stop questioning the Christian values. He does it cleverly by cautiously/consciously staying aloof from commitment. That speaks for his worldwide popularity and appreciation.

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