Shakespeare for all

  Our cause at the Globe is to create Shakespeare for all, and our commitment to work exploring anti-racism, equality, diversity and inclusion is key to us achieving this endeavour

5 minute read

Since it was founded, Shakespeare’s Globe has consistently created theatre and education programmes for everyone. From 1989, and the first Globe Education workshops, to the opening of the theatre in 1997, we have always been committed to holding conversations that open Shakespeare’s works up to all communities. We passionately believe that Shakespeare’s plays and poems thrive when introduced to as many interpretations as possible.

In 2004 we dedicated an entire year to exploring Shakespeare through the prism of Islam and Islamic encounters in the Elizabethan age; we have held important events, performances and conversations that explore anti-semitism and the representation of Jews in Shakespeare’s England. We have held events that celebrated the translation of Shakespeare into hundreds of languages, and during our 2012 Globe to Globe festival in which 36 companies from around the world performed on our stage in their own languages, we became a centre for debate about intercultural and global Shakespeare.

Four actors stand on the edge of a thrust stage, bending down to high five and hold the hands of audience members standing in the Yard in front.

Our 2012 Globe to Globe festival saw 36 companies from around the world performed on our stage in their own language, including a Hip Hop version of Othello by the Q Brothers. Photographer: Simon Kane

We have had all-male companies, all female-companies, intersectional companies – all asking the same question: What does this play have to say to us today? As James Baldwin said:

Shakespeare saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.

That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people — all people! — who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.

A woman with a red crown and wearing a golden ermine cloak reaches to kiss the hand of another woman wearing black traditional Elizabethan dress.

Kathryn Hunter and Amanda Harris in our all-female Richard III (2003). Photographer: Donald Cooper

A man wearing yellow cross-gartered stockings leers at a man in white painted Elizabethan makeup.

Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance in our all-male Twelfth Night (2012). Photographer: Simon Annand

An actor stands on a dark stage wearing a crown and looking down at something

Adjoa Andoh as the titular role in our women of colour Richard II (2019). Photographer: Ingrid Pollard

‘To decolonise these plays is to liberate Shakespeare from the shackles of idolatry and subservience and put him to work for all people’

To decolonise these plays is to liberate Shakespeare from the shackles of idolatry and subservience and put him to work for all people. Which is why several years ago our Education department launched a series of talks and events focused on Shakespeare and race. Our first festival took place in 2018 and was a huge success. We welcomed scholars and theatre artists of colour to talk about their work and their experiences of racial inequality in their sectors. There are huge racial and class disparities in theatre and in the academic study of Shakespeare. Shakespeare still feels off-limits to many from a range of backgrounds.

As custodians of Shakespeare, we are committed to accessible, inclusive theatre and education programmes. Shakespeare’s plays are not only enriching, joyful and moving, but they reflect the full range of human experience, so there are harmful, challenging and uncomfortable moments in Shakespeare. We have to contend with these too. If you are a student of colour and you are studying Romeo and Juliet, how do you respond to Romeo’s line that compares Juliet to a pearl in an ‘Ethiope’s ear’. It will be alienating for that student. How will they understand what it means? How will they think Shakespeare is for them when the teacher explains that the black skin of an African is used as a metaphor to make the white skin of Juliet appear more beautiful?

‘How as a student of colour do you respond to Romeo’s line that compares Juliet to a pearl in an ‘Ethiope’s ear’?’

A red graphic saying the words 'Shakespeare and Race'

Our Shakespeare and Race programme examines racial inequality in the academic and theatre sectors, as well as exploring the harmful, challenging and uncomfortable moments in Shakespeare’s plays concerned with race.

Elizabethan England saw the start of our country’s programme of colonial expansion. Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake both initiated the trading of Black Africans for profit in a bid to beat Spain at its very successful and profitable activities of slave trading and plantation building in the new world. The English privateers weren’t initially successful, and industrial-scale trading of enslaved people by the English didn’t start in earnest until the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

But Shakespeare did live through a huge expansion in non-European travel and contact. In 1600 the East India Company was created and many travel books from the period tell us stories about encounters in the far east and the ‘new world’ (‘From the East to the Western Ind’), and report racially suspicious fantasies about the indigenous people they met. You can read more about these narratives as part of the Tide Project.

A map illustration showing ships arriving in the land to be known as 'Virginia'

The arrival of Englishmen in Virginia, in the late 1500s.

‘There is overwhelming evidence that black people lived – many of them freely – in England during the Tudor period’

Shakespeare, as an influential London playwright and a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, will have heard and been drawn to many stories of travel. The scholar Imtiaz Habib’s extensive research of the archives in Britain, shows overwhelming evidence that black people lived – many of them freely – in England during the Tudor and Stuart periods: See Black Lives in the English Archives 1500–1677 (2008). We account for this history of black presence at Shakespeare’s Globe.

To make Shakespeare accessible for all, it is not necessary to cancel Shakespeare. The work of the playwright is at the centre of our theatre-making and our teaching. Like many arts organisations, we are working towards becoming more inclusive, but we have been on this journey for a long time. We are therefore committed to anti-racism as a principle and a practice. Through our programme of conversations between scholars and artists, and the programme of work on our stages, we will continue to examine what it means to decolonise Shakespeare’s plays. We are not afraid to ask big questions. And we are working with the words and ideas of a playwright who was never afraid to ask big questions.

‘To make Shakespeare accessible for all, it is not necessary to cancel Shakespeare’

A man wearing thick-framed glasses stands by a plaque marking the location of the original Globe Theatre

Our founder, Sam Wanamaker, maintained that ‘everything we do has to have a relationship to society and people otherwise it is not art’.

Sam Wanamaker: Politics, Race and Art

Our founder, Sam Wanamaker, had a career in acting, directing and running theatres that was bound up with his political beliefs. He said ‘we do have a responsibility, first as citizens and second as artists, to reflect what’s happening and to have an attitude and to express that attitude in terms of the work we do’. Brought up in a Jewish family, in the context of the rise of Fascism, he became politically aware and in 1943 joined the Stage for Action, a social activist theatre movement which included members such as Paul Robeson and Arthur Miller. He sympathised with the fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and earned a distinguished service record whilst serving in the Army in the Second World War.

‘We do have a responsibility, first as citizens and second as artists, to reflect what’s happening and to have an attitude and to express that attitude in terms of the work we do’

— Sam Wanamaker

Returning from the war, Sam continued to oppose racism and anti-Semitism. He sparked a boycott of theatres in Washington DC, in 1946–49, because of a race issue. He had taken over the direction of the play Joan of Lorraine, about Joan of Arc, starring Ingrid Bergman. A theatre in Washington refused to allow a Benefit performance for the Washington Veteran’s Association because it would mean allowing an interracial audience. At the time, racial segregation enforced the rule that all people of colour had to be seated separately upstairs in theatres. Sam and his fellow actors picketed the theatre and this led to a resolution by Equity, which closed theatres in Washington DC for two and a half years. Sam noted that ‘it was life and death, people were getting killed for the things they believed in. You had to take a position; you couldn’t be neutral… you had to participate’.

In post-war America, Communism was seen as a national threat. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) started investigating the Hollywood film industry for evidence of Communist sympathies. This led to the  ‘blacklisting’  of hundreds of actors, writers, and directors. Among them were Sam and Charlotte Wanamaker who had both been members of the Communist Party USA  and activists for causes that supported social equality and opposed racial discrimination.

Under the threat of being subpoenaed to appear before  HUAC, Sam left America and arrived in the UK in May 1951, shortly to be followed by Charlotte and their two young daughters, Abby and Zoë. However, the Wanamakers were under surveillance by MI5 (on behalf of the CIA) and lived in a precarious position, having to renew their right to stay under restrictions at six-monthly intervals for many years, with  Sam being marked for ‘internment in the state of an emergency’.

On 25 March 1957, Sam and Charlotte were given permission for indefinite stay in the UK but remained under investigation in case of any sign of subversive activity. For example, whilst Sam was the Artistic Director of the New Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool, 1957–59, it was reported back to MI5 that the New Shakespeare Theatre would attract ‘Communists and Communist sympathisers’. Sam was reunited with his friend Paul Robeson in 1959 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford and played Iago to Robeson’s Othello. Both had had their passports withdrawn for their political beliefs but Sam maintained that ‘everything we do has to have a relationship to society and people otherwise it is not art’.

A black and white photograph of two actors, one leans in close, menacingly, towards the other.

Paul Robeson and Sam Wanamaker in Othello (1959) at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Keywords and Resources

Decolonising Shakespeare

At Shakespeare’s Globe this means exploring the works in three ways:

  1. As a recreated Elizabethan theatre, we need to account for the political and early colonial context of Elizabethan England.
  2. Separating Shakespeare from the meanings he acquired in the 18th and 19th centuries (when the British slave trade was flourishing and during the colonial era), where he was celebrated as a ‘native genius’ and exported to British colonies as an example of English superiority. This was when he began to be studied at university and we developed standards for assessing what a good production or performance entailed.
  3. We meet Shakespeare on our own terms, with our own ideas, and diverse backgrounds.

Anti-racism

We are opposed to racism, actively. We are opposed to racial discrimination. We will work to ensure that all our audiences, artists, staff, teachers, lecturers and students feel welcome, safe and free to engage with the work of William Shakespeare.

Resources

  Such Stuff podcast: How do we decolonise Shakespeare?

  Decolonizing Shakespeare? Towards an Antiracist, Culturally Sustaining Praxis

  Yes, we must decolonise: Our teaching has to go beyond elite white men

  The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation and Authorship 1660–1769

The cast of 'Emilia' gather on stage with their arms in the air, the yard audience also have their arms in the air

We meet Shakespeare on our own terms, with our own ideas, and diverse backgrounds, including through new writing: as explored in our all-female production of Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm in 2018. Photographer: Helen Murray

FINIS.