This past month, there was a free production of Richard III in New York’s Shakespeare In the Park, starring Danai Gurira as the title character. I have not seen this production, though I wish I had. I enjoyed the actress Ms. Gurrira in such films as “Black Panther,” and would love to see her do Shakespeare. What is more, the concept intrigues me. This project explores themes of toxic masculinity, racial identity, inferiority, and misogyny.
Unsurprisingly, with so many heady topics in the production, this Richard III is still somewhat controversial. Some right-wing critics dismissed the whole production as a piece of ‘woke propaganda,’ but I feel this is unfair.
When Danai Gurira of Marvel’s “Black Panther” first takes the stage in the title role, the actress has no perceivable hunchback or arm trouble. And yet the dialogue suggesting Richard suffers from a lifelong physical issue (“rudely stamped”) has been kept in. Perhaps we are to use our imaginations. Who knows? We are certainly tempted to close our eyes.By Johnny Oleksinski
I will not judge this production based on the acting because I haven’t been able to see it. What I will do is take a stance on the validity of the concept. Specifically, I want to ask if this play is a good examination of toxic masculinity and if it would it be worthwhile to see it portrayed by a black woman, as opposed to a white man. The short answer is an emphatical “Yes.”
Richard’s Toxic Masculity
Richard III is definately an example of toxic masculinity. He is violent, full of hatred, vengeance, and mysogeny. He is constantly insulting women from Lady Anne, Jane Shore, Queen Elizabeth, and even his own mother. In fact, the source of Richard’s toxic attitude is that he blames his mother for his disability and deformity:
Well, say there is no kingdom then for Richard;1635
What other pleasure can the world afford?
I'll make my heaven in a lady's lap,
And deck my body in gay ornaments,
And witch sweet ladies with my words and looks.
O miserable thought! and more unlikely1640
Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns!
Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;1645
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlick'd bear-whelp1650
That carries no impression like the dam.
And am I then a man to be beloved?
O monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought!. 3H6, Act III, Scene i, lines 1635-1653.
Now I should clarify the difference between deformity and disability, which are characteristics that Richard III has as part of his character makeup. According to the Americans With Disabilities Act, a disability is defined as: “A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This could include paralysis, autism, or any number of congenital or acquired conditions. Richard’s disability is primarily his limp (caused by his unequally shaped limbs), and his withered arm. What’s interesting in this production is that while the title role is played by an able-bodied woman, most of the rest of the cast have actual disabilites. Watch this clip of the famous courtship scene between Richard and Lady Anne, who plays her role in a wheel-chair.
While a disability is a legal term that is recognized by lawyers and governments alike, the term “deformity” is more subjective; it generally refers to any kind of cosmetic imperfection. In Richard III, this applies to Richard’s hump and withered arm.
The Elizabethans thought that deformity was a sign of disfavor from God, and that deformed people were constantly at odds with God and nature, as Francis Bacon puts it in his essay, “On Deformity.”
As deformed people are physically impaired by nature; they, in turn, devoid themselves of ‘natural affection’ by being unmerciful and lacking emotions for others. By doing so, they get their revenge on nature and hence achieve stability.
Richard III has this drive for revenge in spades and I believe it manifests itself as a particularly terrible form of toxic masculinity. Richard definitely wants the crown to make up for his lack of ‘natural affection,’ but he is also especially malevolent towards women.
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days
Seeing a woman play this kind of misogynist dialogue forces the audience to take it out of context and question Richard’s point of view. We see casual misogyny every day, and seeing a woman deliver it is quite illuminating.
Richard’s deformity and Blackness
Another provocative choice by Danai Gurira’s portrayal of Richard is the fact that she plays the role of Richard without the hump or withered arm. She herself explains that for her production, Richard’s perceived deformity, is actually represented by her being a black woman:
He’s dealing with the otherness compared to his family, in terms of not being Caucasian and fair like them.” The word ‘fair’, is used a lot in the play.Danai Gurira’s
Shakespeare writes Richard as constantly striving to compensate for his deformities by being clever, violent, and eventually, by becoming king. As I wrote before in my review of Othello, for centuries black people have been portrayed as inferior; aberrations of the ‘ideal fair-skinned form’. So, to the Elizabethans, blackness itself was a form of deformity, and the rawness of addressing this uncomfortable fact in this production should be commended.
English people are already trained—and we have scholars like Anthony Barthelemy has talked about this in his book Black Face, Maligned Race, where the image of blackness, as associated with sin, with the devil, all of these things, makes it quite easy to map onto then Black people these kinds of characteristics. Then, those kinds of characteristics allow for the argument that these people are fit to be enslaved. – Dr. Ambereen Dadabhoy, Race and Blackness in Elizabethan England Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 168
So while I can’t speak to the production’s acting or staging, I will emphatically defend the notion that this production’s concept is valid. Richard III is an example of toxic masculinity through his self-hatred, violence, misogyny, and narcissism. In addition, as I’ve written before, in the Early Modern Period, blackness was considered an aberration or deformity, and seeing it in the person of Richard, with the implicit understanding that black people still face this kind of prejudice today, opens a much-needed dialogue that any production of Shakespeare shouldn’t be afraid to open.
In short, by re-contextualizing Richard’s deformity and disabilities, this production gets to the heart of the play’s moral for our times. The early modern period’s toxic attitudes towards deformity and disability created the Renaissance monster of Richard III. We in the 21st century must examine our own societal prejudices and toxic attitudes so this monster does not come to haunt us in real life.
I know Halloween is over, but since I am doing a research project on the Salem Witch Trials, I thought I would trace the history of Witch Hunts from Shakespeare’s day to Salem:
Thanks to WordPress’ new interface, it’s easier for me to read what other bloggers have to say about the topics I write about. One trend I’ve noticed is the question that’s been boiling underneath the surface of a lot of people in our culture: “Should Shakespeare be ‘cancelled’?” It’s an interesting question and definitely merits discussion.
It is also a question that has some basis reality: Shakespeare was taken off the list of required reading of of schools in New Zealand. In 2007, The American Council Of Trustees and Allumni published a report called “The Vanishing Shakespeare,” about the number of colleges who no longer require English majors to take Shakespeare courses. If you read my post on Romeo and Juliet, you will recall that one of the main reasons why we have Shakespeare as a requirement in American high schools is that he is required reading in many colleges. So this could be part of a trend that extends to primary as well as secondary schools as well.
Many academics, (myself included), are wondering about Shakespeare’s status in education, and whether or not he will continue to be a staple of all English language curricula. So what I want to do with this essay is to ask the question, “Should Shakespeare be cancelled,” as well as”Should he not be cancelled? and “What even is cancelling and how does apply to somebody who is already long long dead now?”
First off, cards on the table: I am a white man, (with a beard), who has been studying Shakespeare for 20 years. I have a very clear bias; I would never advocate for Shakespeare being taken out of any schools. That said, I see merits to parts of the argument, and I do not believe that these teachers who are reexamining Shakespeare’s place in education are inherently wrong. Nor do I believe if that there is no merit to changing the way educators teach Shakespeare in our schools, (more on that later). My point is to write a thoughtful reflection about the nature of Shakespeare as a writer, his status within our culture, his status within the educational establishment, and how changing that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Part One: the arguments for cancelling Shakespeare
When I read the article “Why I am rethinking Teaching Shakespeare In My English Classroom,” by teacher Christina Torres, I noticed a lot of her arguments centered around diversity quotas and simply not having the class time to devote to Shakespeare. This is entirely understandable. Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, which means language has changed a lot since his heyday.
Shakespeare poses several unique challenges in education. He wrote in an obscure form of poetry that is no longer fashionable. You have to read footnotes. Although 95% of the words he used are still used today, they are used in a very unique syntax. Furthermore, I come to teaching Shakespeare from the perspective of somebody who studied theater, acting, Elizabethan history, and everything that that is required to teach Shakespeare, but many teachers do not. My point is I can understand why a teacher feels that he or she does not have the time, energy, or the learning required to give Shakespeare the space that he so clearly demands.
The question of Shakespeare’s status in our classrooms also raises subtle questions about diversity. Many curricula these days emphasize diverse writers and try to highlight the cultural contributions of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, and as far as we know, Shakespeare fit into none of these groups.
This educational initiative is a part of the anti racist initiative and I as an educator I am fully on board with this. I love to be in a classroom where Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lorraine Hansberry, Mary Shelley, and Truman Capote share the same shelf is William Shakespeare, but ever since the 18th century Shakespeare and cultural nationalism have been inexorably linked.
Almost since the beginning of Shakespearean scholarship, American and British critics have sought to venerate Shakespeare as the peak of British culture, and thus the peak of human culture as well. It’s not a coincidence that we celebrate National Poetry Month the same month as Shakespeare’s birth and death. Also, even though we don’t know for sure when Shakespeare was born, we celebrate it on April 23rd, St. George’s Day, thus forever linking England’s greatest poet, with its patron saint. George Bernard Shaw, (an Irishman), coined the term ‘bardolotry,’ to describe the treatment of Shakespeare by the English as if he were a god and the evidence is quite damning:
Just look at this painting where Shakespeare is portrayed as in the same pose and with the same reverence as the baby Jesus. This reverence carried over to poetry, music, festivals, and of course, to the classroom. As I wrote in My Romeo and Juliet post, since the beginning of American public education, Shakespeare was an indispensable fixture in American schools, and thus, prompting American writers like Mark Twain to grumpily refer to Shakespeare and other classics as “Something everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read.”
Countless textbooks refer to Shakespeare as the greatest writer in the English language, and possibly the greatest writer ever. Ralph Waldo Emerson once preached that Shakespeare was: “Inconceivably wise.” The god-like aura around Shakespeare has made him nearly impervious to criticism and English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic have claimed Shakespeare as their gospel. Being an English speaker means having the God-Shakespeare on your side, and if you have God on your side historically speaking, you can justify anything.
The British were keen to elevate Shakespeare to this godlike status partially because it showed that their culture was superior to others. Let’s not forget that Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest is about a man with book learning who goes off and colonizes an island whose inhabitants seem savage and uneducated. If our goal as educators with adding anti racist education is to show that all voices are valid, to highlight the contributions of every ethnic group, and to refute the notion that white culture is in any way superior to any other, then to a certain degree, we must knock Shakespeare off his literary pedestal.
We also should not a take a blind eye to the anti-POC and mysoginist language in some of Shakespeare’s plays. For instance one line I deeply despise in Romeo and Juliet is the line where Romeo refers to Juliet by saying she “Hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in Ethiop’s ear” (A black woman wearing an earring).
This statement contrast beauty, specifically the beauty of white skin, with the “ugliness” of a black woman’s ear. Shakespeare uses this metaphor several times in several plays, establishing white as beauty and black as the aberration.
I bring this up not to say that Shakespeare should be cancelled and hated because of this racially insensitive language, because he’s not the only one who does it. All you have to do is Google “Who’s the fairest one of all?” to realize that for centuries, fair skin, beautiful skin, and white skin meant the same thing. As Dr. Grady says in the video above, having an honest discussion of Shakespeare’s language and his culture’s attitude towards race is an opportunity to teach critical race theory in the classroom, and to teach students to recognize and deplore dehumanizing language, which though poetic to white Elizabethans, is hurtful and dehumanizing to people of color. In short, banning or condemning Shakespeare is counter productive, but examining his language, culture, and politics with a critical eye is a very useful and important exercise.
Part 2 why Shakespeare doesn’t deserve to be cancelled
I’ve established that Shakespeare has connections with some very dark moments in a European history and he should not be celebrated merely because of he was white or because he was British. I believe that Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language as well as drama and the arts still makes him worthy of study by students. As this video from the New York Times shows, students need at least a basic understanding of Shakespeare to understand western culture:
I believe that, as long as we educators don’t indulge our bardolotrous tendancies, and keep Shakespeare in the context of the period in which he lived, we can still teach him in a way that will benefit our students.
One small way to put Shakespeare in context is very simple: STOP USING THE TERM “RENAISSANCE.” Most scholars now refer to Shakespeare’s time period as the Early Modern Period, not The Renaissance, which was an honorific term that people used during Shakespeare’s time period. The term RENAISSANCE, meaning the rebirth of classical learning and by extention the rebirth of sophisticated European culture, can give the impression that it was only a period of study and artistic achievement, leaving out colonization and racial and political tension. I find Early Modern Period a very useful descriptor because like it or not, Shakespeare’s culture influenced ours, therefore an understanding of him is very much understanding of where we came from. Learning from Shakespeare is like learning from history- we cannot shy away from the mistakes of the past, nor should we flat out reject its benefits.
it should be noted that a lot of the good scholarship in the last to the last 50 or 60 years has been tasked with putting Shakespeare back into his historical context and trying to reclaim his staus as a man of his time. Dr. Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University helped coin the term ‘new historicism’ which emphasizes learning about the culture of a writer’s time period. To New Historicists (such as myself), Shakespeare is no longer considered a great man of history, but a man shaped by the culture of his time, which is to say a man who had good parts and bad parts much like history itself. This is the approach that I think should be taught in American schools highlighting how Elizabethan culture shaped Shakespeare, and how he shaped our culture in turn.
Comparing Shakespeare to history, especially American history, is very useful in American schools. Like the founding fathers Shakespeare reached towards an ideal. He wrote plays about ideal kingship, even though kingship is a cruel and autocratic system of government. He wrote romances about young lovers who follow the wonderful idea of love at first sight, even though in reality that concept is somewhat rare, and very often fraught with peril. And like Shakespeare, people often ignore the flaws and human failings of the founding fathers too. Look at this mural painting of The Apotheosis of Washington, which still looks down on mortals from the US capital building in Washington DC.
Much like the founding fathers’ document that declares that all men are created equal, we can appreciate Shakespeare’s plays but also be aware of their flaws. Both documents were written by a flawed human being with a very narrow understanding of the wider culture and world in which he lived, but one who did his best to try and write works that would benefit all of mankind. As educators we can teach students to be inspired by this work, and seek to have a greater understanding of “The Great Globe Itself,” with the benefit of hindsight, so they may become enlightened citizens of the world, true Renaissance Men, Women, themselves.
So if I truly believe, (and I do), that Shakespeare is still relevant and has something to say to people regardless of their culture or cultural and racial backgrounds regardless of what time period they were born in and regardless of gender, how then can we teach him in classrooms in responsible and nuanced way?
What to do?
[ ]Give a cultural context to the play you study. A culture that is the direct ancestor of our own, but one that was frought with Colonialism, Casual racism, (especially in language), Sexism, Patriarchy, and Homosexual oppression. Not to toot my own horn, but this is what I tried to do with my Romeo and Juliet Website: https://sites.google.com/d/1iLSGjbllxU-ZwyrUya_xHtjojSCg9pd6/p/12GhgKdJr63wmTcm6TTvkZ-ROmUnALKQi/edit
-Give students the chance to rewrite or reword the more problematic elements, such as Romeo’s creepy stalking of Juliet,
-Highlight Shakespeare calling attention to patriarchial issues: Capulet in Act III, v, Friar Lawrence comparing love to gunpowder. Juliet raging against arranged marriage, etc.
- Celebrate Shakespeare’s positive contributions to race relations: Othello was the first black hero on the London stage and the role helped generations of black actors get their start in theatre. There’s your modern bardolotry, Shakespeare not as “Inconceivably wise,” Inconceivably woke! You can also look at the proud tradition of color blind casting in Shakespeare’s performance history, such as Orson Wells’ “Voodoo Macbeth.”
- Do some research on modern productions that translate the themes into a modern concept.
To sum up- cancelling Shakespeare doesn’t mean vilifying him. It means re-examining his role in our culture, and teaching students to appreciate the benefits, and try to correct the damages that his culture has brought to our own. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. As for Shakespeare himself, no amount of legitimate criticism will keep people like me from enjoying his plays. If anything, I appreciate even more the breadth and depth of his writing the more I learn about the culture in which he lived. I like to think that, if Shakespeare knew people would be talking about him in school, he’d echo the way Othello said he wanted to be remembered, to “Speak of me as I am, Nothing extenuate.” And that we heed the words of Ben Johnson in the dedication to the First Folio, when we think of treating Shakespeare as an icon.
Today is March 15th, a day that history still bewares, because of the infamous day when armed, violent conspirators went to the Senate and attempted to overthrow elected rulers. For obvious reasons, this put me in mind of the heinous actions of another group of conspirators stormed another Senate and tried, unsuccessfully, to overthrow democracy.
January 6th, 2021 (which, coincidently, was Twelfth Night, one of my favorite Shakespeare-themed holidays), was a tragedy for multiple reasons. The protestors broke windows, destroyed furniture, defaced statues, broke into both chambers of Congress, and probably would have harmed lawmakers, in a violent protest of both the US presidential election and the Senate vote in Georgia that week.
Let me be clear, this was sedition and treason and everyone involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Anyone who says otherwise is blatantly attacking our cherished democracy, and spitting in the face of the rule of law. Unfortunately, Republicans in both chambers have been unwilling to condemn their actions for fear of alienating their base. If this is what the Republican party has come to, the party doesn’t deserve the name. A republic protects the right of the people to elect its representatives and dedicates itself to the peaceful transition of power. Left unchallenged, groups like this will bring anarchy and tyranny to our country.
How do I know this? Because it happened before. Shakespeare has long dramatized real historic events where people rise up against their governments (for better or worse). In all cases, whether protesting a famine, a war, or a cruel tyrannical usurper, the riots never accomplish anything except bringing chaos and bloodshed. Sometimes these ignorant rioters are goaded by charismatic powerful figures, but these upper-class characters are only exploiting the rioters, using their violence as a way to get power for themselves. So, let’s examine the language, tactics, and effects of rioters in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Julius Caesar, Henry VI Part III, and Sir Thomas More:
Example 1: Julius Caesar
As I covered before in my “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” post, during Antony’s famous funeral speech, he galvanizes the Roman crowd, first to mourn Caesar, then to revenge his death. How do they do this? By burning the houses of the conspirators and rioting in the street. They even kill a man just because he has the same name as one of the conspirators:
What does this violence accomplish? Nothing. Caesar is still dead. Brutus is still alive (though on the run). Antony merely wished to punish Brutus, and get the mob to hate him while he secretly cheats them out of their money. In Act Four, Antony becomes the de facto ruler of Rome because he leveraged his performance at the funeral, and uses his newfound powers to take money away from the citizens that Caesar promised to give them in his will. He manipulated them for his own purposes and duped them for political power.
Example 2: Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part ii.
Henry VI is the only king in English history to be crowned twice, deposed twice, and buried twice (Saccio 91). As the play begins, King Henry has already lost France, lost his mind, and lost the respect of his people. Around 1455, John Hardyng wrote a contrast between Henry’s father and himself. He laments that Henry the Fifth died so soon and then exhorts Henry to keep the quarrelsome lords in his government from warring among themselves.
Withstand, good lord, the outbreak of debates.
And chastise well also the rioters
Who in each shire are now confederates
Against your peace, and all their maintainers
For truly else will fall the fairest flowers
Of your great crown and noble monarchy
Which God defend and keep through his mercy.
(Excerpt from Harding’s Chronicle, English Historical Documents, 274).
Henry’s political ineptness was why Richard of York challenged his claim to the throne. Though Richard had little legal claim as king, he believed himself to be better than Henry.
In Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part ii, York tries to get the people’s support by engineering a crisis that he can easily solve. York dupes a man named Jack Cade to start a riot in London and demand that the magistrates crown Cade as the true king.
York and Cade start a conspiracy theory that Cade is the true heir to the throne and the royal family suppressed his claim and lied about his identity. Cade starts calling himself John Mortimer, a distant uncle of the king whom York himself admits is long dead:
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.
And, for a minister of my intent,
I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can,
Under the title of John Mortimer.
Just like Cade and his rebels, the January 6th rioters were motivated by lies and conspiracies designed to crush their faith in their legitimate ruler. Even more disturbing, these rioters are pawns in the master plan of a corrupt political group. York doesn’t care that Cade isn’t the real king; he just wants to use Cade’s violence as an excuse to raise an army, one that he can eventually use against King Henry himself.
Similar to York’s lies and conspiracy-mongering, many Republicans have refused to accept the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election, and some are actual proponents of Q Anon conspiracies!
A lot of Republicans deserve blame for fanning the flames of rebellion on January 6th, but arguably former President Trump deserves most of the blame. Even Rush Limbaugh admitted that Trump spread a huge amount of conspiracy theories without believing in any of them. He does this because he wants Americans to be afraid of imaginary threats that he claims he can solve. What’s easier to solve than a problem that doesn’t exist? Much like York, Trump tried to hold onto power by pressuring his supporters to pressure the Capital, feeding them lies about election fraud, and a secret democratic Satanic cult. Thus radicalized, they resolved to do what Cade’s mob did: “Kill all the lawyers.” Unfortunately, there are a lot of lawyers in the Senate.
As Dick the Butcher points out, most people don’t actually believe Cade is truly John Mortimer, they are just so angry at the king and the oppressive English government, that they are willing to follow him in a violent mob to take their vengeance upon the monarchy. This is why they try Lord Saye and execute him just for the crime of reading and writing! Similarly, the mob attacking the capital was made up of die-hard conspiracy adherents, and people just angry at the Democratic Party.
Like I said before, Cade and his mob is just a pawn in the machinations of York. Eventually the king’s enforcer, Lord Clifford convinces most of them to abandon Cade, and Cade himself dies a humiliating death- on the run from the law and starving, Cade is murdered by a farmer after trying to steal some food. After Joe Biden became the 46th President, many of the conspiracy group Q-Anon, who had many prominent members in the January 6th riot, began to disbelieve and abandon the conspiracies of the group. However, as this news story shows, some Q-Anon supporters are die-hard adherents and will never abandon their conspiracy theories, and some, like York’s supporters, are being recruited by other extreme groups. Sadly, as York shows, sometimes a riot is a rehearsal for another riot. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III, York finally amasses an army and challenges the Lancastrians in all-out war. Hopefully, the US government will hunt down and arrest these violent insurrectionists before they have the chance to do the same.
Example 3: Sir Thomas More
In the unfinished play “Sir Thomas More, a racist mob again attempts to attack London. This time they have no political pretenses; they want to lynch immigrants who they believe are taking English jobs. As I said in my “Who Would Shakespeare Vote For?” post, More’s speech is a perfect explanation of why this behavior cheapens and denigrated a country’s image, and weakens its ability to command respect from the rest of the world. Last time I posted a video of Sir Ian McKellen speaking this speech, but this time.. well just watch:
I’m giving a lecture Sunday about “Macbeth” and its relation to real magical traditions. Accordingly, I’ve looked up records of real witchcraft trials. Below is a database of cases from 1602-1635. “Macbeth” was supposedly written around 1605, so these cases are pretty close to the time period. It’s a fascinating, and sometimes gruesome look at the methods used to try people (mostly women) for an “invisible crime,” around the same time Shakespeare was dramatizing that crime onstage: http://witching.org/production/brimstone/detail.php?mode=city&city=London%20(Newgate%20Prison).