Wednesday, August 15, 2012

One Word : Racism

Bardfilm and I were discussing this the other day, and I saw it pop up in a different discussion so I figured we could talk about it here.

Conversation #1 --  Aufidius' final insult to Coriolanus is to call him "boy", and Coriolanus hurls it back at him ten-fold:

Boy! false hound!
If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there,
That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I
Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioli:
Alone I did it. Boy!
We were discussing this line, and Bardfilm brought up the idea about how the line would change if the lead were portrayed by a black actor. Same line, same in-play context, just change the skin color of the guy saying it.

Wait!  Hold that thought.

Conversation #2 -- Over on the reddit forum on Shakespeare, we were discussing the moderation of a comment where somebody used the dreaded n-word (although the less offensive -a variation :)).  In discussion, a fellow moderator pointed out this bit in Much Ado About Nothing:

Good morrow, prince; good morrow, Claudio:
We here attend you. Are you yet determined
To-day to marry with my brother's daughter?
I'll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope.
Or to put it more bluntly, "I won't say anything even if she's black."  This person pointed out that this line should pretty much just be excised from the text ("better excised than excused", to turn a phrase).

So the can with the big WORMS label on it is locked and loaded in the opener and I'm ready to push down on the little button.  What's your thoughts on the issue of racism in our beloved works?  Bardfilm wants to explore it, possibly by adding some racism overtones where none were originally intended, as a way of showcasing just how powerful a single word like "boy" would have been.  On the other hand you've got a line like Claudio's that's pretty racist no matter how you look at it.  Should we just decide it's no longer funny and remove it?

For bonus points, reconcile your position with Othello.  The opening scene(s) are about as racist as you can get, but would we tone it down or play it up?  Are you doing the play justice if you only make it a play about racism?   (The same argument applies to anti-Semitism in Merchant, I suppose.)


Unknown said...

No, they should not be excised.

Also: Othello IS a play about racism. Iago forces Othello to confirm the bias against him. Othello is told he "is more fair than black" - which means that he "acts white," which is to say, his behavior makes him unlike others of his kind; his noble nature is unlike those that look like him. Othello launches into every one of his beautiful speeches directed at white men he doesn't know by basically apologizing for being a barbarian without the gift of speech.

Then suddenly, Iago appeals to his insecurities, telling him that a beautiful white lady couldn't possibly love him, that he's an alien so he doesn't understand Venetians, that he's given to rages. Iago drills away at Othello until the poor man has nothing left but what other people tell him he is - except for what Desdemona tells him, which is that he is kind and beautiful and wonderful.

His last speech, then, when he points out that he's killed a Turk, is intended to show everyone present that he's like them, not like some foreign monster.

kj said...

I wish I had a bit more time to contribute at present. I will just add that a play like Othello does need its racist elements retained (by and large) because that's what the play is about. I think it would be better to excise offhand comments that may indicate that the character has some racist or anti-Semetic tendencies but that don't contribute to the overall theme of the play.

Benedick, for example, utters this anti-Semetic remark in the text of Much Ado, but it's almost always cut in performance:

"If I do not take pity of her, I am a villain; if I do not love her, I am a Jew."

There doesn't seem to be any call for uttering such a line in that play. Similar lines in Othello or Merchant are, of course, a different matter.



JM said...
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JM said...
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JM said...

I agree with kj about such blatant and unnecessary racist statements such as the one quoted.

But, in many cases, I think we should make no more or less of it than it is if we want to hold context. Perhaps this would depend upon how faithful we wish to be toward the period, setting, etc. For instance, the Claudio line wouldn't work quite as well in the Whedon version of Much Ado as it would in a period setting, would it?

--Or, we could excise it all and substitute syllabic equivalents to preserve the integrity of the meter and rhyme:
Romeo: It seemes she hangs upon the cheeke of night,
As a rich Jewel in an Antelope's eare:

Silly, I know. But so is an overly nitpicking concern with it all. And so is "playing up or down" the issue in my opinion. Case by case, say I. And let it stand on its own wherever it might.

--Sorry about the re-posts. Finally got it right... :-)

kj said...

Thanks, JM! The line would be out of place (thankfully) in a modern production—or in a grade school production—of Much Ado About Nothing.

I want to back up to Claudio's statement mentioned by Duane in the body of the post. The line, spoken by Claudio near the end of the play, after he's realized the terrible mistakes he makes, indicates his willingness to go through with the marriage to the unknown (to him) lady. It's not a very nice way to say, "Yes, I'll marry her"—I think probably in his own time! "Yes, I'll marry her even if she's black" is a misguided attempt to add emphasis to his speech, indicating his own prejudices. "Yes, I'll marry her even if she's really tall" or "Yes, I'll marry her even if she's a terrible cook" or "Yes, I'll marry her even if she's ninety-nine" would indicate his dislike for tall, ninety-nine-year-old terrible cooks; "Yes, I'll marry her even if she's black" indicates his dislike for black people, which is clearly racist.

The line could easily be changed or excised—Claudio could say "Is the Pope Catholic?" instead, for example.

But what if the line is left in? We're not particularly fond of Claudio at this point anyway--this just adds one other way to dislike him.

And it would really be amazing if the actress playing Beatrice were black. Then all the other characters could react to the line with abhorrence and distaste (perhaps especially Benedick), letting us all know how marginalized Claudio is making himself throughout this play.

Any thoughts?


Duane Morin said...

"Blatant and unnecessary" is pretty strong from you, JM, when talking about the text.

Let me ask this, then - what do such lines say about the "universal" nature of Shakespeare? Shakespeare put in the line because, at the time and for his audience, it was funny. We jump to snip it out because it's not funny anymore....or is it? We may not want to admit it, but there's certainly still racism in the world and people who will find it funny.

I like to think that even in Shakespeare's time, there were people in the audience, even if only a few, who'd hear the line and think "Wow, that was pretty racist." These days the vast majority of the audience would think that, while there'd be one or two people silently smirking and thinking "That's funny right thar."

Duane Morin said...

It's hard to talk about racism without sometimes looking back and fearing that you yourself end up sounding racist, which is what just happened to me as I read my comment.

I was not intending to suggest "Leave them in because I think they can still get a laugh." We live in a world where a modern edition of Huckleberry Finn will take out all the n-words, so how far removed are we from seeing a complete works of Shakespeare that just no longer has those lines in it at all? (Cue Bawlder discussion in 3, 2, 1.....)

JM said...

kj: I agree. --Although "Is the Pope Catholic" grates rather hard against the grain if I'm wearing my dramaturge hat. :-) Maybe, "I'll hold my mind, were she Medusa"...or something a lot less colloquially popular.
I would suggest, sans the blatant quality of Claudio's line, that it be left in wherever possible. That way, we get a better sense of how these characters actually think and a better flavor of the time--Romeo's line for instance--and there are many others, as you know.

Duane: I have to edit the text all the time, sometimes more drastically than I'd like, but the venue, company, producer, etc. can always hold sway. You'd be surprised at how much I've altered the text WHILE keeping the sentiment and verse intact as much as possible. I once wrote an edited 40 min. version of Macbeth for students to perform, excised and pieced lines together in dialogue and soliloquy, yet no one could fault me for not keeping absolutely honest when it came to meter and rhythm completeness. I must admit, I get a kick out of it. It's only when it's not necessary or is done through negligence or laziness that I object.
So for today's demands, I look at it as an "is it *absolutely* necessary?" (time constraints, producer dictates etc.)

"Racism"--I think what's important to remember is that much of what we call "racist" comments would not be viewed as we view them; as *exactly* that by Shakespeare or his contemporaries. Ugly as it is, there was an *absolute* hierarchical way of thinking for everyone. Women fared not much better. We call it "racist" and "discrimination". For them it was par for the course. There was no recrimination for thinking like everybody else did.
--Although, even though he freely employed the devices of his day, ugly or no, I would argue for Shakespeare's sensitivity to the plight of the very same individuals he sometimes victimized. Plays such as Merchant and Othello come immediately to mind as they did for you, to quickly note two more obvious instances. And he always made his women smarter than the men.

And I wholeheartedly agree--it's very difficult to handle the subject. Someone more thin-skinned might even come down on me for stating that it was simply a way of thinking back then. But hey! you got us all into this! ;-)

Bill said...

After the Prince of Morocco chooses the wrong casket and leaves, Portia says the following to Nerissa:

"A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains: go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so."

In other words, she doesn't want to end up with someone of the same complexion as the African prince.

I read about a production where Nerissa was black, and she was taken aback by the comment. It struck me as a strong choice. The racism of the characters doesn't always reflect the racism of the playwright.

Of course, sometimes it does, and I agree with the general sentiment in the thread that context is key. I think you should edit out a stray "Jew" or "Ethiope" reference if it detracts from the scene in a way that it wouldn't have in Shakespeare's time.

JM said...

PS kj--Just a thought.Isn't there one about a bear and the woods or something like that? We could use that one and the Pope one interchangeably as all purpose rhetorical/unequivocal responses as needed. :-)

JM said...

Important point Bill, not *exactly* stated before in so many words: "...if it detracts from the scene in a way that it wouldn't have in Shakespeare's time."

--Thereby allowing what's important to *us* to be more important than the Shakespeare.

catkins said...

n print, I think such lines should always be retained; depending on the expected level of the reading audience, the editor may leave it to the reader to consider the difference in context in Shakespeare's day (and how relevant that is to considerations of racism and anti-semitism) or offer some commentary to help illuminate the various issues raised.

JM said...

Carl, I think you're absolutely right. I had only been thinking of it from a performance standpoint. In the case of the written text, well-researched annotations can only add to understanding. Except for obvious errors, leave it alone.

kj said...


Re: Bear in the woods . . . That's delightful.

Next time, this will be the mandatory exchange:

Are you yet determined
To-day to marry with my brother's daughter?

Well, let me put it this way: Does Antigonus exit, pursued by a bear?


Anonymous said...

Are you yet determined
To-day to marry with my brother's daughter?

Well, let me put it this way: Is Falstaff fat? Are the witches ugly? Is Keanu Reeves a bad actor?


JM said...

PS. Duane. Re: Bowdlerized editions: There have been and continue to be some rather visible examples of it in the milk toast "annotations" coming from publishers who wish to market big time to high schools. They "amend" definitions and references by extrapolating to some alternative, possibly logical meaning, or leave them out entirely. Sometimes these explanations are just plain erroneous at the expense of the truth. I'd rather they didn't address them at all in such cases. Let teachers encourage students to do their own research on questions about "uncomfortable subjects". --Or maybe ask their parents...what a 'novel' idea.
I have to edit for younger students so I get it...sort of. It's a difficult line to walk. But I still think that sometimes our latent Puritanism/Politically Correct 'slip' is showing, many times unnecessarily.