Curiouser and curiouser, or rather crazier and crazier. Globe Theatre seminars on “decolonising” Shakespeare’s plays push modernity even closer to the loony bin.
According to the participating academics, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, among Shakespeare’s other racist works, is beset with “problematic gendered and radicalised dynamics”, perpetuating “the view that white is beautiful, fair is beautiful, dark is unattractive.”
The Bard reveals his racist, colonialist nature in the very first line, “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour”, and rapidly goes downhill from there. Nor is it just this objectionable play.
Vanessa Corredera, professor of English at St Andrews, nailed the Bard to the racist cross: “In context with other plays and even the Sonnets, this language is all over the place, the language of dark and light… there are these racialising elements.”
Prof. Corredera and other participants generously allowed that Shakespeare’s plays shouldn’t be summarily banned. However, directors must activate their conscience to avoid the numerous pitfalls.
For example, they should cast more actors “of colour” by way of compensation. And they must also make mature decisions on which language is racist, to be expurgated, and which is acceptable, to be left intact, with possibly only a few minor changes.
This seminar is a true eyeopener not just for the participating scholars but also for rank amateurs like me, catching only the echoes of that learned discussion. There I was, thinking that ‘fair’ is what linguists call a ‘polyvalent’ word, one that can convey multiple meanings.
For example, the traditional British virtue of fair play has no racial connotation that I’m aware of. Nor is someone who replies “Fair” to the question “How are you?” ipso facto a Ku Klux Klan member.
A ‘fair deal’ isn’t necessarily struck by two colonialists, a ‘fair crack of the whip’ doesn’t immediately evoke an image of a plantation overseer in Alabama circa 1850, the proverb ‘a fair exchange is no robbery’ doesn’t suggest that any exchange between black people is perforce larcenous, while referring to women as the ‘fair sex’ may be deemed sexist, but not overtly racist.
Also, I can assuage the academics’ fears of racism implicit in any contrast of light and dark or white and black. These go back to the, well, Dark Ages, when Englishmen regrettably had only a limited exposure to other races. Hence the widespread references to black witches, black cats, dark arts, dark moods and so forth. None of these was meant as a racial slur. Most of such expressions had to do with the colour of the night, which tends to be invariably dark this side of the Arctic Circle.
You know all this. However, what you may not know is how to argue effectively against those who insist that Shakespeare was a racist because he used ‘fair’ to mean ‘beautiful’, or because the Moor strangled his white wife to perpetuate a false racial stereotype.
Now, I count myself among the accomplished debaters against the Bard’s detractors. For example, some years ago I attended a dinner at the Carlton Club, where the subject of Shakespeare came up over port.
My host suggested that Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude had strong Oedipal overtones. As a counterargument, I took advantage of my finely honed polemical techniques and said: “Oedipus, schmedipus, as long as he loves his Mum.”
That won, or at any rate ended, the debate, with Shakespeare thus escaping any association with faddish theories he predated by four centuries. However, no polemical technique is as polyvalent as the adjective ‘fair’. The one I used on that occasion would be too lame if an argument in favour of Shakespeare’s racism arose.
So here’s a step-by-step procedure you should follow when someone claims at a party that Shakespeare was a racist, colonialist or white supremacist.
Step 1: Flash a disarming smile and hold your open palms in front of your chest as a gesture of peace and surrender.
Step 2: Half-turn to the right as if ready to leave and put your weight on your right leg.
Step 3: Keeping your upper body and right arm relaxed, rapidly rotate your hips and shoulders, shifting your weight to the left leg, while throwing your right hand forward.
Step 4: Hit your opponent on the nose or the point of the jaw, clenching your fist at the moment of contact. (If your opponent is female, like Prof. Corredera, and you are a gentleman, like me, don’t make a fist. Instead, deliver an open-palm slap on the side of her head or cheek.)
Step 5: While your opponent writhes on the floor, enunciate slowly and distinctly: “Repeat after me, you [choose your own pejorative epithet]. ‘I will never again spout woke bilge, and certainly not when talking about our greatest playwright and poet. Get that, you [choose a different epithet from the one in the previous sentence]?’”
Step 6: Having elicited the desired response, leave the premises to avoid messing around with the cops.
You may think that this technique, though undoubtedly persuasive, falls short of the acceptable norms of civilised discourse. True.
But you don’t really think polite, rational arguments are possible when one’s opponent is a neo-barbarian out to destroy everything you hold dear, do you?