Shakespeare Research article

Leave to speak: Allyship and Shakespeare studies

  Guest author Dr Harry R. McCarthy stresses the need for action in tackling the whiteness that lies behind Shakespeare’s universality and the need to support the worldwide #ShakeRace and #RaceB4Race community

5 minute read

Towards the end of Antony and Cleopatra, as the play’s dying hero is hoisted aloft by his Egyptian lover, he has a stab at a death speech:

I am dying, Egypt, dying:
Give me some wine, and let me speak a little.

Cleopatra, however, is having none of it:

No, let me speak; and let me rail so high,
That the false housewife Fortune break her wheel,
Provoked by my offence.

The desperate Antony interrupts her:

                                    One word, sweet queen…

A woman and man stand in the glow of candlelight, the woman's hand touching the man's chin.

Noma Dumezweni as Hippolita in ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore (2014). Photographer: Simon Kane.

This often gets a laugh in the theatre: here’s Antony, in his dying moments, still struggling to get a word in edgeways. Theatre history has trained us to view Cleopatra as a harridan, a ceaseless blabbermouth, and this moment encourages us to ask ourselves, ‘will this woman, this Egyptian woman, ever stop talking?’

But let’s crunch the numbers. In Shakespeare’s play, Cleopatra has far less to say than Antony does, speaking 19% of the dialogue to Antony’s 24%. Compound this with the fact that the pair spend roughly the same amount of time on stage, and we’re left with a rather different picture: one of Cleopatra’s relative silence as a white man nevertheless makes several attempts to shut her up. Yet this isn’t the picture that performances and criticism of the play have painted for us.

In Antony and Cleopatra we’re left with a rather different picture: one of Cleopatra’s relative silence as a white man nevertheless makes several attempts to shut her up.

A woman and man stand facing each other, smiling, holding hands.

Priyanga Burford as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale (2018). Photographer: Marc Brenner.

The question of who actually gets to ‘speak a little’ is a highly pressing one in Shakespeare studies. As with Antony’s failure to do the maths, it’s one that’s often wildly skewed. In recent years, it has been put to me by white colleagues that ‘our field,’ is ‘in danger of losing its sense of text, of history, at the expense of the ‘trendy’ interventions critical race studies are making (that ‘our’ is doing some serious heavy lifting, I think). Increased diversity in Shakespeare casting has frequently prompted white friends and family members conspiratorially to ask me, the resident ‘expert,’ if I think that ‘this equality thing has gone too far.’

This idea of overshooting and taking over is fairly hard to imagine given the woeful representation of Black and Asian students in UK drama schools, or when Black academics at all levels made up 2% of the total working at UK universities in 2017. Or when it took until 2016 for a Black actor to play Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Or when the study of Shakespeare and race is dismissed as a ‘niche’ field, resulting in special issues, conference panels, and funding grants centring on the topic being routinely rejected. (Some flagship Shakespeare journals have not dedicated a special issue to race in over twenty years). Elsewhere, leading journals in our field have been edited by the same white man for twice as long as I have been alive). We are about as close to a takeover in ‘our field’ as we are to bringing Shakespeare back to life.

An actress kneels on the stage

Ellora Torchia as Emilia in The Two Noble Kinsmen (2018). Photographer: Nobby Clark.

Race is not a niche field in Shakespeare studies. It has been marginalised. And we, the white majority, have marginalised it.

It’s telling that the Shakespeare characters who most frequently demand ‘leave to speak’ are those whose right to do so was never in doubt: monarchs, statesmen, aristocrats. All of them, aside from Cleopatra, are white. Part of the role of white scholars and practitioners with aspirations to ‘allyship’ lies in recognising who, historically, has been granted ‘leave to speak’ in Shakespeare studies. It also means a serious recalibration of what we mean by a ‘niche field.’ At the same conferences from which panels on race have been rejected, I have been able to attend sessions on ears, hills, and excrement – all of which have been hailed as ‘fresh’ and ‘exciting’ new approaches. Without wishing to denigrate these fields (it’s really not a competition), it is instructive to compare the minuscule online presence of #ShakespEars, #ShakeSlopes, or #Shakescrement with the huge traction gained by hashtags such as #ShakeRace and #RaceB4Race. Race is not a niche field in Shakespeare studies. It has been marginalised. And we, the white majority, have marginalised it.

A woman kneels on the floor in desperation, pleading.

Indira Varma as Tamora in Titus Andronicus (2014). Photographer: Simon Kane.

Allyship means more than hollowly applauding those who manage to enter a fray created, sustained, and often policed, by white scholarship. Tweeting fist-bump emojis in response to important online interventions provides instant gratification – to the sender more than the recipient – but it cannot bring about the systemic changes required to redress the imbalances our colleagues of colour face in Shakespeare studies. Allyship is not about cheering as the door is broken down by a chorus shouting ‘we’re here!’ It’s about recognising that white Shakespeare scholarship put that door there in the first place, and continues to hold it fast. Are we happy to operate in a field where the only way scholars of colour can have their work read and appreciated is if they’ve moved mountains, at great personal and professional cost, to get it on the map? We can’t just be ‘invigorated’ every time we’re issued with another call for us to ‘wake up’ or take action. We should be wide awake already, should repeatedly have taken action long ago.

We can’t just be ‘invigorated’ every time we’re issued with another call for us to ‘wake up’ or take action. We should be wide awake already, should repeatedly have taken action long ago.

Nadia Nadarajah as Celia in As You Like It (2018). Photographer: Tristram Kenton.

It’s not uncommon for attempts to engage more robustly with critical race studies in the classroom to be met with complaints from white colleagues that committing to this kind of sustained action is ‘a lot of hard work.’ It only seems that way because this is work we should have been doing in the first place. When Shakespeare’s racial language, far more than any classical or topical allusion, is the language of now, what message are we sending to our students, readers, and audiences if we do not routinely hold it up to scrutiny? When teaching, as I have in the past, A Midsummer Night’s Dream to an all-white classroom while students elsewhere at my predominantly-white university are under investigation for racist message threads, blackface parties, and physical harassment of female students of colour, what does it mean for me not to unpick the racial slurs levelled against Hermia alongside my discussion of marriage and the supernatural?

When Shakespeare’s racial language, far more than any classical or topical allusion, is the language of now, what message are we sending to our students, readers, and audiences if we do not routinely hold it up to scrutiny?

It’s this kind of action – non-performative, unapplauded – that constitutes allyship in Shakespeare studies. Allyship is not about showcasing white grief, or appropriating critical discussions in order to centralise the work of white scholars in promoting a ‘universal’ Shakespeare. It’s about systematically tackling the whiteness that lies behind that ‘universality’ – in our classrooms, in our publications, and in our engagement with Shakespeare performances (even – or especially – the all-white ones). It’s a cliché to say that allyship is a journey and not a destination, but it’s true. None of us has finished our learning (though a glance through the Twitter feed of a certain breed of academic would lead you to think otherwise). Those of us who aren’t willing to reframe our research and teaching, to challenge received narratives which don’t stand up to scrutiny, to crunch the numbers, are making the frank and alarming confession that we don’t want to learn any more. That as far as we’re concerned, our learning is done. Now that’s an area of Shakespeare studies which really should be ‘niche’ by now.

FINIS.

Our third Shakespeare and Race festival takes place online with a series of events, workshops and discussions from 21 – 23 August 2020. Find out more and book your tickets.

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