Razer: On "Acceptable" art and hiding Shakespeare's racism

In an era of talk shows and citizen journalism and ‘round-the-clock updates of the “truth”, the matter of belief becomes a problem. Engaged in a mutual program of open, constant therapy, we talk ourselves into the illusion that we have no secrets. How could we when we talk about everything? With Oprah and with strangers and on the internet?! But, our most terrible secret is the one that has arisen in the unacknowledged dark of this false psychotherapy and that is: in believing that we know everything, we can now believe in nothing. Except, of course, our chattering selves.

This emerging loss of belief — and we don’t really believe our selves and the falsely therapeutic shit that comes out of our mouths at speed — makes us crazy and we look for it everywhere. Western culture has never been so full of cults and conspiracy theories and “philosophical” diets like Paleo which claim to solve our modern distress with recovered ancient wisdom. Some of us look for a return to the idea of universal truth in art and this, in part, is why Shakespeare has survived for centuries.

Shakespeare was, of course, very good and we can still take authentic pleasure in his filth, his wit and his durable rhythms. But, his works can claim to give us no universal truth; other than those aesthetic ones he himself created. This doesn’t stop everyone, from directors to feminist scholars to earnest teachers of English, making the claim that Shakespeare is universal.

Like everyone, Shakespeare came to us within a sociohistoric context. Talent is not sufficient to deliver anyone from their time and it will not deliver access to those “fundamental” truths we have deluded ourselves we no longer need but chase with unprecedented passion. Still. People go on about how Macbeth is eternal and no fewer than 50 film directors have sought to prove this on screen; perhaps least notably, Australian Geoffrey Wright whose 2005 casting of the witches as sexy schoolgirls show us how a desperation to believe in a noble truth from outside ourselves — in this case, Shakespeare — accidentally reveals an obscene truth from inside ourselves. I.e. I think sexy schoolgirls have mystical powers.

Thomas Bowdler, now rightly reviled as a silly censor, was really just doing the same accidental strip-tease with his famous Family Shakespeare where he turned Ophelia from a vessel for suicidal feminine shame into someone who accidentally fell into a river. Shakespeare was not around to complain but, when his famous work Death of A Salesman was revived for a 50th anniversary production, Arthur Miller was and he did not hesitate to express his revulsion for the director, Robert Falls, who had made Willy Loman into a diagnosed depressive. ”Willy Loman is not a depressive,” Miller said. ”He is weighed down by life. There are social reasons for why he is where he is.”

Falls had, in one sense, performed a reverse Bowldlerisation. Whereas Bowlder had made Ophelia emotionally functional, Falls had given Loman dysfunction. But, they were both “freeing” characters from their sociohistoric moorings in order to say something “universal”.

As Miller said before he died, Salesman was a document of a time. Loman is worn down by social expectation and labour just as Ophelia was extinguished by the impossible idea of the feminine. To suppose that either of these texts can offer us a universal truth about the human condition outside the circumstances of their creation is hooey.

In offering “trigger warnings”, as some English departments in American colleges now do, or in “modernising” Shakespeare as many directors are compelled to — if I had my way, every production of Shakespeare would be performed entirely by men dressed in doublet-and-hose — the contemporary interpreter is at odds with himself. The urge here is to make great works available and palatable to a more diverse audience and to agree, at a very basic and flawed level, that the human experience is social and historic and is not universal. But, to achieve this by taking the n-word out of Huckleberry Finn or, as is often the case, the anti-Semitism out of Merchant of Venice, seems a bit upside-down. Of course, in the case of these two texts, there is an argument to be made that the authors were decrying and were not endorsing racism but even, and especially, if they were not, why spare Twain or Shakespeare the trouble of being seen as racists?

It is easy to understand the urge of professors to seduce their students from detachment with literature. But, it is not so easy to understand how a discussion of Merchant or Finn would be possible without addressing the racism that informs not only these texts by the eras in which they were produced. Universalising the human condition could itself be seen as the foundation of racism. By the Bowdlerisation of these texts, and former Globe theatre director Mark Rylance has admitted to taking the anti-Semitic references out of Merchant, we permit the idea of the “universal” Shakespeare.

Our era of self-examination leads us to hide our history. We feel we have addressed racism, sexism and other grave ills by redacting them from Shakespeare and other texts. And this approach to “universal” art that exceeds time and social conditions is as good as giving Willy Loman the keys to the car.

Image of Orson Welles as Shylock in 1969 in an unreleased TV adaptation of The Merchant of Venice.

30 responses to “Razer: On "Acceptable" art and hiding Shakespeare's racism

  1. The problem is that imputing racism to Shakespeare is as anachronistic as the clock in Julius Caesar. Racism, properly understood, is the ideology (note “ism”) which developed in the 18th and predominantly 19th century to support and justify imperialism. Anti-Semitism is older, but was primarily about religion not ‘race’.

  2. Woah! I just realised you’re the lady who spoke to Steven the way you did on the radio last time he was out here. If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have bothered putting my two cents in as a response to the above. I’m not certain you even respect playwrights to begin with.

  3. I’m not saying that ‘certain works are for everyone’ without figuring out if there are some things that are universal at all. And I think comparing a religious book that has been forced upon the masses to a collection of artistic works that have traversed borders on their merits alone is a bit far fetched. Art can be universal if it transcends place, time and culture. The universal unconscious is a known entity and many authors have managed to tap into it. Shakespeare is undoubtedly at the top of the pile. He deals with every class system, gender issue, human emotion, cause for suffering, cause for joy and hurdle, mountain and curveball that life can throw it us. I challenge you to name one predicament a human can discover themselves in, good bad or ugly that Shakespeare hasn’t dealt with in his (or their, if you’re so inclined) work. He is the DEFINITION of universal and when we talk of people modernising or adjusting his plays, that is merely interpretation and has no bearing on his ability to cross said threshold.

  4. If Shakespeare isn’t universal, I’m not sure who is.
    I would have thought that being translated into 80 languages would suggest otherwise.
    We only tend to read what we identify with. 80 languages. That’s a lot of people.

    1. And the Bible has been translated into just as many. And what does this tell us? That it is intrinsically universal or it has itself created the fiction of universalism?
      You can’t just keep saying “certain art works are for everyone” without figuring out if there are some things that are universal.

  5. Does this sound ‘rascist?’
    “He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

    1. As Helen says, she never said he was a racist.

      But other people’s perceptions a different story. Hitler liked Shakespeare apparently. Whether he liked MOV I do not know, but its obviously easy to see your quote above as disingenuous. Its the guilty party claiming justification in context. Many people will not accept that as a moral argument. Shakespeare avoids the issue as he always does; making the terms of the situation dramatically palpable and leaving the conclusion for the viewer. The number of possible assessments is cosmic.

      It was probably dangerous for Shakespeare to pick sides as much of his family were secret catholics. He may have been one himself.

      Hitler like Cowboy movies too.

  6. Helen,
    Great. I defy anyone to find Shakespeare a racist. Universal truths in our lovely Billy? Go ahead, try and find them. Shakespeare is like Wackamole. Next time you hear him quoted to some virutous purpose go back and read the quote in context. Ooops. Might not be what the man meant. He is more difficult to catch than Joyce famously thought he was. But far be it from our lovely Billy to whinge as Eliot did “OH that is not what I meant at all,” (thomas you bore) no. Shakespeare is not for the priests. He is for those who never surrender to modern dispesia. The ideal lover of shakespeare is Don Quixote, not the priests and worthies who surround him, who are just as mad as him and not having half the fun.

    John Zuill
    Irretrievable Bardolt

    1. At no point do I suggest he was a racist. I mention there are arguments against those which suggest he was.
      Go ahead. Try to find my assertion.

      1. I am very sorry. I did not mean you. I meant the body of people who claim Shakespeare makes any kind of statement of that kind. My “great” was meant literally as a compliment to your article which corrects those seeking justification for moral ideas in Shakespeare. I think Shakespeare is far closer to Spielberg and Oscar Wilde than Euripides and Bernard Shaw. Or Arthur Miller. And btw Mark Rylance is a nothing but a heretic oxfordian.

  7. Shakespeare offers no universal truths? Helen, I love your columns generally but I do wonder sometimes if the desire to be ‘heard’ leads you to make deliberately provocative yet ultimately bonkers observations!

    The idea that authors, texts, artworks et al cannot speak profound truths – which transcend their historical context – is utter nonsense. That war is cynical exploitation? That jealousy is debilitating? That power is intoxicating and destructive in equal measures? That guilt overwhelms? That love, humility and compassion are at the heart of all that makes us beautiful? If these things are not truths (and they are at the heart of most, if not all of Shakespeare’s masterworks), then I am a pickled herring.

    The modern directorial desire to recontextualise historical genius is understandable; sometimes it is commendably realised, often not. The contemporary parallels (ie universal truths!) in the Bard’s plays are numerous and at times chillingly current and disturbing. It is of course entirely the fault of misguided and at times talentless contemporary auteurs (Mr Wright…?) when it goes awry.

    Come on Helen!

  8. Many years ago I was privileged to see on stage, at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth, a production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ with Katherine Hepburn as Portia and the magnificent Robert Helpman, the great dancer and actor, as Shylock. The show stopper for me was the final scene where Shylock is denied his ‘pound of flesh’ and exits the stage to the sniggers and mocking laughter of Antonio’s mates. He stops, turns and looks at them head held high; the contempt in his eyes silences them, leaving him to make a dignified, stunning exit. Shylock stole the show!

  9. I went to Macbeth at the McKittrick Hotel in New York. The last thing I felt in the middle of that was any kind of universal truth. I felt a little bit drugged by it. Actually, this article has helped me make a little more sense out of it, so, thankyou, arts critic!

  10. This quote comes to mind… ‘I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?… A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.’
    (Franz Kafka in a 1904 letter to Oskar Pollak)

  11. The local Macbeth ‘least notably,’ Helen? Ha ha, I remember you very intensely and earnestly presiding over a discussion of the film on its release. I rather think the meaning of the schoolgirl witches had something to do with the fact that they were what would draw the attention of the modern criminal, not old crones.

    1. I am never earnest Geoff. I just like getting paid! And, you may recall me geeing up the young feminist who wanted to slaughter all the patriarchy inside you.
      I remember your argument that youthful female sexuality may function in the present era in the way that a mystic crone may have in the past but, as I believe I said at the time, perhaps a gender shift may have been what you were looking for, here? What was the point of retaining the femininity of the oracles if they were (and they were) such a common fantasy notable for its lack of power and not its existence outside normal parameters?
      It should be note,d you are an otherwise wonderful film-maker.
      Please don’t throw a beer at me.

  12. If you take the anti-semitism out of The Merchant of Venice, how on earth does the play even make sense?

    That aside, the excision of uncomfortable aspects of ‘period’ pieces does such a disservice to contemporary audiences. You can’t solve a problem by pretending it never existed and sweeping all evidence of it under the carpet. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (G. Santayana).

  13. Nailed it. There’s quite enough revisionism going on on “history”. If, somehow, somewhere, someone is equal to or better than Shakespeare, then, perhaps, they should write their own material, not “improve” or “make relevant”(sic) Shakespeare’s quite extraordinary works.

  14. Salesman was a compulsory novel in English when I was at high school. We spent weeks (if not months) on it – and I must say my English teacher did a very good job in making it both interesting as a text but also as a subject of critique. Making Loman a depressive rips the heart out of the text and makes it a bit of no flavour popcorn for light consumption – something that might be vaguely interesting to watch / read at the time but certainly nothing that challenges or makes it memorable or thought provoking.

    Same with Shakespeare. Whilst never entirely convinced his work is as good as everyone tells me it is, the removal of articles that give rise to ‘trigger warnings’ again makes the work bland pieces of writing for light consumption.

    And on that issue – surely the motivation of many writers IS to challenge. The idea of ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe learning spaces’ seems to me the height of conservative thinking, coddling readers and failing to sufficiently challenge their beliefs and values. Imagine if Steinbeck had put a ‘trigger warning’ on the Grapes of Wrath. Hell, apply that reasoning to Old Yeller or Charlotte’s Web.

    Great piece Helen. Thanks!

  15. I agree with Luke …Hear Hear! Thanks for a great article. As an actor in the 1970 touring W.A with the Perth Playhouse company, I was involved in perhaps the ultimate modernisation of Shakespeare. In a little country hall, the local “Rep” group had left a real, red telephone box on stage. It weighed a ton and we couldn’t move it so it stayed there for our potted production of ‘Merchant’. I played Antonio. Half way through the presentation the actor playing my friend Bassanio? made his entrance through the telephone box, phone in hand, and announced “Antonio, tis for thee”.

  16. When I did Merchant of Venice in school back in the 70s, the anti-semetism was not hidden but nor was it pointed out to us 15 year olds that anti-semetism was a bad thing.

    As for modernising Shakespeare, they can put the characters in modern garb but when they then draw their swords I think “surely one of them has a gun”

  17. Thank you for your thoughtful article on the importance of appreciating any work of art/creation within its sociohistoric context. We may be shocked and horrified by particular ideas if we read from a supposedly more informed contemporary perspective. However, reading (or any art appreciation) should be critical engagement, where readers/viewers ask themselves why they are reacting as they are. What is it that is appealing or revolting or whatever our reaction is. Whether we have these revisionist approaches to Enid Blyton, or Agatha Christie, or Shakespeare, it does not teach critical thinking about values (social and personal). It also suggests that we are more progressive at our time, when who knows what future generations will make of works produced now.

    Best wishes

    Heather D’Cruz

    1. Yes. The end-of-history idea that we are not only better but good enough to throw our history out just shit me beyond belief.

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