It’s probably a good time to re-colonise Shakespeare | Dinah Kolka
The Renaissance was a spectacular time for literature, arts, and anatomy. The sheer wealth of geographical expansion reinvigorated Europe and invited it to explore, research, and discover. This period was crucial for the conflict between religion and knowledge, a subject thoroughly explored in Doctor Faustus. The Italian Renaissance especially brought forward many crucial questions about life and death, religion, exploration and other issues.
But this is no longer at the forefront of Renaissance studies. The calls for decolonisation have been sounding for quite a while and it’s slowly becoming a subject mainly discussed by right-wing self-proclaimed pseudo-intellectual political commentators. Is it still worth talking about? It might be.
Many students join the English departments armed with an entire collection of Shakespeare’s works and a copy of Doctor Faustus, anticipating learning all there is to know about Renaissance in literature.
Well, those students would be sorely disappointed. The loudest calls for decolonisation have been coming from The Globe, the first Shakespearian theatre. On the very front of their website, we can see ‘Anti-Racist Shakespeare’ in big red letters. When looking at their blog entry from August 2020, a completely innocuous and not totally coincidental date, the quote from Professor Farah Karim-Cooper sheds a lot of light on what’s happening with Shakespeare:
As the custodians of Shakespeare’s most iconic theatres, we have a responsibility to talk honestly about the period from which he emerged and challenge the racist structures that remain by providing greater access to the works and demonstrating how Shakespeare speaks powerfully to our moment.
This is fascinating, as this then led to many movements to decolonise the literary genius. Universities advise students to listen to a podcast about the importance of ‘decolonising Shakespeare’ and the first lecture is basically a lesson on why Shakespeare is not universal and must be redefined.
The lecture material encourages students to look out for ‘colonial oppression’ and invites students to not only decolonise Shakespeare but also the Renaissance. Put your Marlowe in the rubbish, the reading list is now filled with race-related, women-related plays, geared not at looking into the genuine literary wealth of Shakespeare, but at intersectionality. The anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice is barely visible under the colossal shadow of the potential ‘queerness’ within the novel. The patriarchy and the search for something that isn’t there take precedence over trying to uncover important truths.
The lecturers may find it laughable that some people oppose decolonisation. They seem to be engaging in strawman ‘oh does that mean that we’re not going to teach Shakespeare? Of course not!’ But that’s not the point.
I think that if we’re tearing down statues in Bristol and across the US, Shakespeare is potentially one of the cultural statues that could come down
Professor Ayanna Thompson, ‘Shakespeare Teachers’ Conversation’
If universities endorse the above message, what signal are they sending to their students? Of course, they may laugh trying to explain that it doesn’t mean literally tearing down Shakespeare, but the point stands. What they are trying to do is to reconstruct the existing understanding of Shakespeare and re-create it in order to accommodate people who hate them.
Shakespeare was a white Anglo male and lived during the beautiful age of colonial expansion. No one should be worried about saying this one way or another. There’s nothing wrong with it either. I personally believe that Doctor Faustus is a far more important novel than ‘The Masque of Blackness’ by Ben Jonson who wrote quite a dull play about black people searching for the land where they can become white and beautiful.
I understand that this is supposed to make the students uncomfortable and convince them to engage critically with the racism in the past; but don’t we all already know this? Isn’t it much more productive to focus on the plays that could relate better to contemporary issues? Apparently not.
Midsummer Night’s Dream is apparently about patriarchy and The Merchant of Venice is gay. The problem with academia these days is not that there are modules that are ideological; no, the ideology very easily just seeps into everything. There is no way out anymore – most academics are left-wing so naturally their modules will be geared in that direction also. This wouldn’t be an issue as this has been happening for aeons. The problem is that this then creates a whole army of impressionable young people whose main focus will be the discussion on intersectionality and race when there is so much more that Shakespeare can offer. The only way to circumvent it is to rediscover the truths that Renaissance literature has to offer. Reject intersectionality and race and embrace tradition.