To cancel or not to cancel Shakespeare?
That’s the question English teacher Dennis Britton asks sophomores at the University of British Columbia in his aptly titled “Cancel Shakespeare” class.
Britton’s academic research focuses on the history of race and critical race theory, and he uses this focus in his course to explore the complicated history the playwright has with black people.
As the theater world begins to welcome audiences back after a two-year pandemic, Shakespeare’s costumes are likely to be dusted off across the globe. But as the curtains were drawn, issues of race took center stage, including during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
In response, over 300 BIPOC theater creators signed their names to a statement titled We See You White American Theatre, demanding a fairer and safer space in the industry.
And although director Joel Coen recently cast Denzel Washington to play the titular character in Macbeth, generations of black viewers were looked down upon by Bard’s characters in blackface.
Is it time to put William Shakespeare to bed? CBC reporter Bridgette Watson sits down with Britton to find out.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays for white actors and white audiences. Does it portray or reference black characters in any of them?
Shakespeare uses color symbolism, with black being associated with evil and white with good. His depictions of blackness or black people also have to do with lines that are kind of thrown in various places by white characters. We definitely see anti-Blackness ideas.
And, of course, this also happens when Europeans have increased contact with Africa and the slave trade is emerging.
Othello is the most obvious character, but throughout the plays there are also negative references to black skin.
Rosalind, a white heroine in As you like it, calls black ink on a letter “Ethiopian words” because she doesn’t like what they say.
In Titus Andronicus, the villainous Aaron has a soul “black as his face”. Thus, you take pleasure and joy in his naughty activities and make the explicit connection between his black deeds and black skin.
So, is Shakespeare’s work reserved for white people?
It’s a complicated question. He is very committed to the belief systems and ways of understanding the world his audience would have had, even if he sometimes scoffs.
Also consider who had access to Shakespeare and under what conditions. Literacy being a big problem, and the price of books and theater tickets, all this also has a class dimension.
There is also the problem of black actors who want to play Shakespeare and who often do not find their place in professional companies. That’s why you get things like Laurence Olivier playing Othello in blackface even as the civil rights movement gained momentum.
Can Shakespeare’s plays really be adapted to celebrate black excellence?
I think so and I always want to come back to the fact that it’s entertainment. We probably don’t need another Romeo and Juliet is set in the 16th century and theater companies aren’t really looking for accuracy anyway, because then you wouldn’t see actresses. So the parts have already been updated and this seems to be another way, another form of adaptation, which could give them new life.
I think some of the racial references can easily be removed and it has no effect on the plot. Most viewers won’t miss them because they don’t know them intimately enough.
But you teach a college class called “Cancelling Shakespeare.” Are we adapting or abandoning…
There’s a real feeling now that we want more women and more writers of color on our program, so something has to go and Shakespeare should be on the chopping block as well. You can’t make room for new voices without getting rid of some of the old ones.
He seems to be the only writer who needs to be read and re-read even when there are some rather offensive attitudes in his work. In my own experience as a student, these lines were not processed when they appeared. I think those are the moments that are really worth questioning in a classroom.
Do you think Shakespeare will still be assigned to high school in 50 years?
I’ll be retired so it won’t matter to me personally (Laughs).
But there are so many writers of color and writers from marginalized identities who are now adapting Shakespeare’s plays, arguing with his plays, and as long as that continues there will be a need to understand the original works.