Friday, 20 July 2007

William Shakespeare: middlebrow racist?

Annoyingly I'm having to write real reviews today (one on St Joan for the New Culture Forum and one on Merchant of Venice at the Globe for CultureWars). On top of this I have a couple of piece to write about the NSDF for the Times online's coverage of the Festival's presence in Edinburgh this year, and I still haven't done that piece for Dan Rebellato's Contemporary Theatre Review on the Barker funding debacle. On top of this, I'm sure I've got a couple of script reports to write up for Theatre 503.

This is all particularly annoying since I want to write a piece here about the combination of Othello and Merchant which I saw in a marathon (that really should be capitalised, shouldn't it?) seven-plus hour trip to the Globe yesterday (short version: Merchant - v. v. good. Othello - not so much) entitled "Shakespeare's Racist Plays". After describing our national playwright as "middlebrow" on Culture Clash the other night (even though I don't especially believe in the distinctions) I'm feeling a renewed interest in the Bard's work.

I think I stand by "middlebrow" incidentally: Shakespeare is, after all, far less concerned with flaunting his erudition (such as it was) than either Marlowe before him or Jonson after. If one allows that one's "brow"-rating is essentially elective (cf. Eliot and Pound choosing to self-describe "high art" for example) I don't think for a moment that "highbrow" is what Shakespeare was about. I like to imagine he'd have dismissed the entire notion of brows as hogwash. Conversely, if it is a label to be foisted upon work by critics, I really don't think that the "highbrow" label at all communicates even slightly the experience of what one sees when watching his plays.

I ought to clarify that I'm not imagining high- to low-brow as a sliding index of quality so much as intent. If anything Shakespeare gets "middle" by default for his mixture of "high" and "low" tropes. Still, I'm interested to know what other people think, both about Shakespeare and about the odd tendency to try to categorise art.

In the mean time, there's another fine example of the warring-critics school on Andy Field's blog, albeit one of the most civil and quickly concluded that I have seen.

p.s. In the most reassuring step yet taken by a Labour Arts Minister at 3.54pm James Purnell MP joined the group What Would Leo Do? on Facebook.

6 comments:

wilko said...

In refence to your thing about Shakespeare's 'light rom-coms' in your Merchant review, I dont think either Twelfth Night or Merchant can be described as such. 12N is a play that is shot through with extraordinary levels of cruetly andf a resolution that is about as flimsy and unsafe as possible - Olivia, until a few days ago wracked with grief, has only moments before met the man she professes to be in love with and whom she has married - hardly the basis of a stable relationship. (All the others are simliarly dodgy...)

Indeed, in Dream, Demetrieus is still under Puck's spell and so that could all go tits up at any minute. The point of this is that rom-com is a bad way to describe the plays because it has associations with contemporary rom-coms (a la the Richard Curtis (all hail etc)) where everything is tied up in a more generally satisfactory and therefore implausible way. Given this, any judgement in the play about love or race or watever has to be seen as being more complex and tentative than it might first seem. I dont think directors are forcing it when they present the Christians in Merchant as shits, they, including at the end Portia, behave appaling badly and are profoundly self-centered. they certainly dont exhibit a fraction of the self awareness that Shylock does, and as such are not nearly as sympathetic as characters. Additionally, there is the line in Merchant that the prince of Morocco says 'mislike me not for my complexion' - Shakespeare is clearly aware of the problem of racial prejudice, and not just in a way that means he embodies it.

This is not to say that the plays necesarily aren't racist, or at least that they don't potentially encourage it amongst more unreflective audience members. But, in the same way as with Eminem's lyrics, I think it is important to be aware that there is a great deal more ambiguity toward, or distance from the the supposed prejudice than is normally recognised.

Rednose said...

Hey There

Gotta say that I believe that for the most part it often comes down to the way you play it. A few years ago, my friends and I put on a MofV and put Shylock as the victim.
we still got racism complaints, but that was from the people that left at the interval and had drawn their opinions before they got to the performance.
As for Shakespeare himself, I suppose it's again down to the individual and how they interpret the plays. But I'd like to think that he saw things from both sides.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Two things, one general, one specific:

I think a significant degree (though obviously far from all) of the brow-rating of Shakespeare is due to the fact that our culture is so thoroughly steeped in his writings, his language, his coinages that we simply don't need to think twice about such words or allusions the way we do with contemporaneous writers.

Also, Michelle Duncan hasn't made ANY kind of Portia since she left the Globe production suddenly during previews. The actor you saw was Kirsty Besterman, who got an upgrade from Nerissa class.

Andrew Haydon said...

Re: Dude, Where's My Portia? - That'll teach me to take my programme on face value after losing the insert. Who was the new Rada girl playing Nerissa?

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Jennifer Kidd.

alexf said...

ooooh, i helped her with her audition for drama school. she was ace.