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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 522-524
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Shakespeare and Race
Shakespeare and Race. Edited by Catherine M. S. Alexander and Stanley Wells. Cambridge University Press, 2000; pp. ix + 233. $54.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.
Shakespeare and Race is part of a series edited by Catherine M. S. Alexander and Stanley Wells in which they reprint articles from Shakespeare Survey addressing a particular cultural issue. The articles included in this volume provide a glimpse into [End Page 522] how scholars have constructed "race" with respect to Shakespeare in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly since the early 1980s. The essays are all reprinted as part of the attempt, not quite explicitly stated by the editors, to historicize investigations of race in Shakespeare and to slow what Margo Hendricks refers to in her introduction as the "rush to 'racialize' Shakespeare's canon" (2). Hendricks begins, oddly, with an apology. "We are only the inheritors," she demurs, "of an intellectual, critical and political tradition" (2). Despite several excellent essays, when taken as a whole the anthology precisely lives up to the rather low expectations it sets for itself, breaking not new ground with respect to our understandings of how processes of racialization occur, but rather surveying what we have said about that process in the past. The book's best essays individually provide fascinating and important perspectives on understanding how scholars have understood the relationship between race and one of the towering figures of Anglo-American cultural capital.
The collection is, unfortunately, notably missing a cogently argued explanation of what Shakespeare scholars mean when they invoke the term "race." Instead, "race" is tacitly assumed by the editors (in lieu of any such argument) to be a known quantity, even though the range of essays here testifies to the contrary. Did race mean the same thing to Bernard Harris writing in 1958 Canada about the Moorish Ambassador to Elizabeth I as it did to Martin Orkin writing in 1988 Israel of King Lear and the South African Land Act of 1913? Clearly not, and Hendricks does attempt to index the growing awareness of race as a social category in Shakespeare scholarship, but she fails to chart that awareness in the context of either the various movements within Shakespeare studies itself or critical race studies in general.
Included here are, nonetheless, wonderful articles and extremely useful information for even generalist teachers of Shakespeare. Bernard Harris's essay details the history of British diplomatic relations with North Africa. He also uses this context to argue that Shakespeare triumphed over racist conceptions of Moorishness that circulated in both the literary narrative he drew on from Cinthio and in the popular Elizabethan attitudes towards North Africa. The latter were occasioned by a diplomatic mishap that occurred when the Moorish ambassador met with Elizabeth. Shakespeare, in Harris's humanist view, recuperated blackness through his depiction of Othello from these degrading conceptions, turning him into the tragic hero that has been beloved for centuries, and installing Shakespeare himself as the repository of everything that is good and just about humanity.
Other essays in this volume reflect the turn away from humanist conceptions of Shakespeare in scholarship since the early 1980s. Barbara Everett's later (1982) "'Spanish Othello'" (1982) describes how Protestant England became an asylum for Moorish refugees from Spain, prompting Elizabeth's edicts of 1599 and 1601 for their removal. Particularly interesting is the footnote in which she describes the subtle differences in the term "Moor" in early modern Spain vs. England. Wole Soyinka furnishes as fine an example of postcolonial irony, parody, and mimicry as has ever been written in his "Shakespeare and the Living Dramatist." The essay could make a useful companion piece to Homi Bhabha's "Mimesis and Mimicry" in order to teach the latter's principles to undergraduates. Turning the preceding essays, which focus primarily on questions of Shakespeare's conception of "Moorishness," on their heads, Soyinka asserts the Islamic poetic tradition of claiming Shakespeare himself as an Arab, whose "real name, cleansed of its anglicized corruption, was Shayk al-Subair, which everyone knows of course...