Book Review: The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race - Ayanna Thompson

A young, black actor, dressed in modern military clothing, performs a scene from Shakespeare.

The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race shows teachers and students how and why Shakespeare and race are inseparable. Moving well beyond Othello, the collection invites the reader to understand racialized discourses, rhetoric, and performances in all of Shakespeare's plays, including the comedies and histories.

Race is presented through an intersectional approach with chapters that focus on the concepts of sexuality, lineage, nationality, and globalization. The collection helps students to grapple with the unique role performance plays in constructions of race by Shakespeare (and in Shakespearean performances), considering both historical and contemporary actors and directors.

The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race will be the first book that truly frames Shakespeare studies and early modern race studies for a non-specialist, student audience.

I'm not sure I'm qualified to read or understand this book. I'm not a scholar, but an occasional Shakespearean actor. I also have very little understanding of literary theory. But I'm greatly interested in both Shakespeare and race - so let's dive in!

It's a series of (mostly) good essays setting out the modern literary criticisms of Shakespeare's attitudes to race. It takes great pains to say that it isn't being critical of Shakespeare the person but it is a critical reading of its works to help us understand the prevailing attitudes of his contemporaries.

We know that there were Black people living in Tudor England - but how did Shakespeare's audience understand the concept of race? What historic literary allusions does Shakespeare use which would be understood in The Globe, but are lost to modern audiences?

I found the introduction slightly muddled. We're told that scientific race does not exist. And that notions of race are a relatively modern invention. So how can there be prejudice and systemic discrimination on something that doesn't exist? The book introduced me to the terms race-making and racecraft - which attempts to define a form of racism outside of notions of race. I found the arguments somewhat circular and, to be frank, a little question begging:

In the past some scholars have argued that the malleability and inconsistency of racialized discourses in the early modern period are evidence that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were not engaged in a racialized epistemology. In their formulation, inconsistency is a negative indicator of racecraft. Let me be clear, critical race theory has slain this dragon. Constructions of race are inconsistent and opportunistic; that is one of the hallmarks of race-making and racecraft.

I find that a difficult statement to get on board with. It might be my lack of familiarity with the arguments - but I don't understand how something inconsistent can correlate strongly with an attitude. Nor how non-modern attitudes can be successfully applied to historic attitudes.

Some of the essays are disappointingly short. Patricia Akhimie's discussion on "Racist Humor and Shakespearean Comedy" could easily have been twice as long. As she says, explaining a joke kills it - but it would be lovely to have gone into a deeper dive.

With other essays, the phrases "what if…" and "perhaps" do a lot of a the heavy lifting. Yes, maybe Othello's Bianca is intended to be Black. That's certainly an interesting reading of it - and brings up all sort of questions. But there's scant evidence to support it.

A few of the essays barely touch on Shakespeare. While it is nice to understand some of the geopolitics - it sort of feels like padding. There are some impressive essays giving context to what audiences of the time would have expected from the plays in terms of racial tropes. And the discussion of the practical nature of "blacking up" and general stagecraft are excellent.

On the literary theory side, I found the constant assertion that the word "black" automatically referred to skin colour a little facile. A dark and stormy night doesn't necessarily mean that people equate blackness with unpleasantness. In my (uneducated) opinion, the over-reliance on dubious semiotics does no favours to the overall thesis. I also didn't agree with lumbering in the bloodline of kings with the notion of race - but found the look at how the different nations were stereotyped a useful primer in the ways that Shakespeare and his audience thought about social differences. Indeed, several essays cover attitudes to religion, class, and sexuality - which are often intersectional with race.

The book also introduced me to Ira Aldridge - an African-American actor who played Shakespeare around the UK in the 1800s! I had no idea of his story - nor his struggles - and I'm eagerly looking forward to reading more about him.

Adrian Lester brings some much needed modern perspective. The unique voice of an actor - who has extensive practical experience performing rather than theorising - is refreshing. He identifies the inherent tension in performing in front of an audience with a modern understanding of race. Sadly, there are still too few non-white actors on the British stage and screen.

One thing it doesn't look at is the future of interpreting race in Shakespeare. Modern performances often play with race. And audiences are used to gender-flipped and age-blind casting. But it's rare (in the UK) to see an all-Black cast play Shakespeare. What does it do to our sense of the plays if Juliet is Japanese and Romeo is a love-sick Weebo? If Lear is played as an Angry Black Man? What if Oberon, Titania, and the fairy court are all Māori? Do we feel more sympathy to Shylock if he's Ethiopian?

In short - how does a modern audience understand the race aspects of the plays?

With all that said, this is a fascinating look at what "race" meant to Shakespeare and how it is expressed in his works. Are some of Shakespeare's jokes racist? Yes. But they're also classist, ableist, and homophobic - he was an intersectional bigot.

This is an excellent book. I found it a difficult read - there were lots of words and phrases I was unfamiliar with. But it will certainly stretch your brain and force you to confront the genteel stereotype of Shakespeare.

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