“She hangs upon the cheek of night Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear” one of my high school students, playing Romeo read out.
“Miss, isn’t that racist? Referring to the color of someone’s skin and making a metaphor out of it?” Interrupted another student.
“Well, any piece of literature is a product of its time. And racist sentiments were very common during the colonial era.” I snapped back, partly embarrassed at my shallow save.
“But if it’s so outdated, why are we still studying it over 300 years later?” He responded.
And there it was. The ultimate question, to which I really had no answer. My Generation Z students somehow had more political correctness than the board which set the curriculum. In light of all our Anglomania as a post-colonial society, Shakespeare continues to dominate most secondary school curriculums. And somehow, as educators, we must salvage some of this “great” playwright’s legacy, by defending his racism and sexism, which can be extremely offensive to modern-day sensibilities.
Flipping through the pages of The Merchant of Venice, the depiction of Shylock as a stone-hearted usurer is disconcerting. Shakespeare picks up on the stereotype of Jews as being greedy and practically villainizes the entire Jewish community of the time by pitting it against Bassanio and Portia’s love story.
Race and morality appear inextricably linked in Shakespeare’s works. Portia, when discussing her prospective suitors, claims that “If he have the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me.” As Portia is presented with the proposal of a Moroccan, she immediately turns it down on the basis of his skin tone. The idea of one’s skin color as an indication of their moral aptitude was what British colonialists thrived upon. This is precisely what allowed them to spread “enlightenment” and Christianity in the “dark continent” of Africa.
As you read through work after work, it becomes apparent that this is no coincidence. This is Shakespeare’s world view: devoid of diversity and nuance. It is one that exalts white Christian men and creates savages and murderous brutes out of people of color.
If Shakespeare’s internalized racial prejudice is bothering you, wait till we talk about the blatant sexism in his works. Hamlet famously claimed: “Frailty thy name is a woman.” I remember while studying Hamlet in my sophomore year of college, many were very outraged by this statement. How can you read and respect a writer who basically undermines the intelligence of your entire gender? But then I also remember when a question was raised about his not so subtle sexism, our professor wrote it off as being Hamlet’s words and not Shakespeare’s. We must not conflate the two, we were told.
But if it was just Hamlet who thinks of women as the epitome of weakness, why is it that this theme of fragile and hysterical women appears in many more of his works? In Macbeth, for instance, an otherwise ambitious man is led astray by his wife’s greed. Shakespeare continually emphasizes the superior moral ground of his own heroes. They are moral compasses for the women in their lives. It is as if he was trying to say: women, by their very nature, are fallible and when they transgress, they must be punished. Such is the case for Taming of the Shrew which basically glorifies domestic violence.
Living in a society where people are still recovering from a post-colonial complex, Shakespeare is not just a playwright or an artist. He is deified into a god-like figure. He is an institution, a larger than life phenomenon. He is considered as the epitome of civilization, intellectual prowess, and spiritual superiority. At least, this is how he was institutionalized by the former colonizers in order to dominate their subjects.
Today, Shakespeare is celebrated for his supposed universality. But how can we call him universal when, in fact, most of his writing, much like other Western Canonical texts, is about royalty and the aristocracy? He only ever wrote about higher mortals. And when these grand, inaccessible tales are told to us, we take it all unflinchingly, without a grain of salt. We don’t question it because it is not relatable.
Our own sense of inferiority prevents us from ever probing how problematic it really is.
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