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Shakespeare & Beyond

“Racist Humor and Shakespearean Comedy” – An excerpt from The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race

A black actor onstagePatricia Akhimie unpacks the casual racism, stereotyping, and caricatures found abundantly in Shakespeare’s comedies in her essay, “Racist Humor and Shakespearean Comedy,” which appears in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, edited by Ayanna Thompson and published by Cambridge University Press. Read an excerpt below.

Patricia Akhimie is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark, where she teaches Shakespeare, Renaissance drama, and early modern women’s travel writing. She is the author of Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World (Routledge 2018). She is co-editor, with Bernadette Andrea of Travel and Travail: Early Modern Women, English Drama, and the Wider World (University of Nebraska Press 2019). She is currently at work on a new edition of Othello and a monograph about women’s travel. Her research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Folger Shakespeare Library (including a 2018-2019 fellowship), the Ford Foundation, and the John Carter Brown Library.

Scholars of humor, and of racist humor in particular, have argued for this simple fact: Comedy is serious. Comedy can perpetuate misconceptions, and it can interrogate them, even break them apart. If humor has this kind of potency, what then is the impact of racist humor, comedy that relies on the deployment of implicitly or explicitly racist concepts, myths, imagery, characters (or caricatures), and situations? And what is the impact of Shakespeare’s racist humor with its uncommon longevity – the plays are still read and performed worldwide after over 400 years – for a group of readers and audiences more diverse today than perhaps ever before?

One way to undercut racist humor is through analyzing it. (After all, nothing kills a joke like explaining it.) So, my aim in this essay is to offer some approaches for identifying and assessing, and therefore critiquing, racist humor in Shakespeare’s comedies. In the comedies we can read for race in both the early modern period in which the plays were first written, performed, and read and in the long afterlives of the comedies in print and onstage.

Race is not real; it is socially constructed. As a society we continually invent race, producing it through language as we bridge the gap between our observations and our assumptions, mapping our theories of difference onto individuals and groups even as the nature and borders of those groups are continually in flux. Comedy is the hard edge of this race thinking because our laughter solidifies the power and reach of our prejudices. Comedy may also present the opportunity to laugh those prejudices out of fashion or to undermine their logic or their appeal, but this is less often the case. More often, comedy is the place where we acknowledge with our communal sense of humor the absurdity and the reality of social difference and all the real violence our belief in such difference suborns.

I have found it useful to define Shakespeare’s comedy not only in terms of its ability to make audiences laugh (whether in the early modern period or today), but also its ability to enable audiences to think the unthinkable by speaking what might otherwise be unspeakable. In the comedies, characters voice racist attitudes and utter racist clichés. Characters (sometimes even the same characters) also voice dissent, ask pointed questions, incite rebellious thought and action, and inspire hope, though these characters are often punished for their outspokenness.

Shakespeare’s comedies offer a library of stereotypes. Casual racism abounds, and epithets describing religious, national, or ethnic (somatically marked, phenotypic, regional, and genetic/biological) groups are used inventively or emphatically (with verve!) to deride some person, some behavior, or some belief. The use of stereotypes lends itself to poetic invention, with authors engaging in extended racist metaphors and clever racist conceits. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, King Ferdinand and two fellow courtiers tease their lovelorn friend Berowne, who waxes poetic about his beloved Rosaline’s pale beauty: “Of all complexions the culled sovreignity / Do meet, as at a fair, in her fair cheek” (4.3.230–31).

DUMAINE To look like her are chimney-sweepers black.

LONGAVILLE And since her time are colliers counted bright.

KING And Ethiops of their sweet complexion crack. (4.3.262–64)

Berowne’s companions suggest that rather than fair, his love is blacker than soot, blacker than coal, blacker than an Ethiopian. Casual racism is used to comic effect and fairly liberally in comedy, where otherwise noble, calm, and virtuous figures from dukes to lords to masters find themselves flabbergasted and, in their exclamations, feel free to curse Ethiopes, Tartars, Jews, Welshmen, Spaniards, and a litany of others. In the comedies these epithets also fall from the lips of characters distinguished by their speech as wits. Falstaff, Benedick, and others call upon the exotic to paint persuasive pictures for their onstage audiences, transporting them to intoxicatingly unfamiliar locales: sexy orientalism sells, endearing them to offstage audiences as well.

BENEDICK Will your grace command me any service to the world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on. I will fetch you a toothpicker now from the furthest inch of Asia; bring you the length of Prester John’s foot; fetch you a hair off the Great Cham’s beard; do you any embassage to the Pygmies, rather than hold three words’ conference with this harpy. (Much Ado about Nothing, 2.1.241–48)

FALSTAFF She is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty. (Merry Wives of Windsor, 1.3.65–66)

Yet Shakespeare goes beyond casual racist commentary (which might be understood as colloquial I suppose) to the creation of racialized caricatures brought to full three-dimensional life for the pure sport of onstage characters and offstage audiences. The swarthy Spaniard Don Armado of Love’s Labour’s Lost is silly, stupid, and earnest. The townspeople of Windsor gleefully disdain the dueling Welsh and French suitors in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Skin color, religion, accents, clothing, drinking habits, culinary preferences: all these and more are fair game in The Merchant of Venice and many other comedies. Like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, the annoyingly upright steward who secretly desires others’ respect and a better life for himself (quelle horreur!), these characters are allowed their hopes and desires. Their pain, when they are made to feel it – and they are always made to feel it – is real to us. The most famous of these easy targets is The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock, whose pain is so palpable that many contemporary readers find it hard to see the comedy in that comedy at all.

Characters are reducible to their nationality, region of origin, or religion, or to the stereotypical habits (mostly bad), hobbies, modes of dress, or favorite foods of that nation, region, or religion. Racialized characters are marked by their ridiculousness and undesirability more generally, and identifiable as different not because they are unique from all others, but because they are foreign; different from some collective “us.” They are identified as foreign through references to dark skin, exotic dress, unusual occupations, extravagant passions and predilections, and they are identified as foreign through references to their expendability, or their monstrosity, or their insignificance; that is, they are recognizable by their lack of humanity. Some do not even have names: Titania’s “lovely” Indian boy, a pregnant Moor (Launcelot’s shameful secret affair). Some are merely rhetorical as with the proverbial blackness of the anonymous “Ethiope” or heartlessness of the unidentified “Jew” who serve only as aids to hyperbolic protestations.

We can learn to recognize these elements of Shakespeare’s comedy and their effects, the ways in which they participate in, perpetuate, create, and, less frequently, break down or question racist thinking. A more difficult task is to learn to read the ways the comedies explore and sometimes critique the building blocks of race and racism. The comedies are interested in difference and the regimes, discourses, and means by which difference is created and maintained. Where does race difference come from, and what is it for? Is it permanent, or can it be dissolved, and how? These difficult questions and others make for riveting plots and subplots in the comedies, where marriage matches, inheritance, successions, wars, coups, shipwrecks, sudden deaths, and power grabs of various kinds hold out the hope of some kind of change, whether for one lucky individual or for a society more broadly. The bodies of men and women of whatever rank are suddenly open to reinterpretation, and audiences are privy to the workings of the intricate processes of inclusion and exclusion that produce and maintain group membership. The plays also take such opportunities to question the meanings of the signs (bodily, sartorial, linguistic, etc.) that are read as indicative of group membership, and to question the meaningfulness of signs in general.

© Cambridge University Press 2021