Shakespeare's Birthday Lecture: Ian Smith

Reading (Shakespeare) While White

Thursday, April 23, 2020, 7:00 pm
Library of Congress
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Scholars have spent enormous energy in recovering earlier readers’ ghostly traces and giving them considerable weight and presence. We have not been as committed, however, in examining the concrete, living, modern reader of Shakespeare for whom race functions as the relevant frame of analysis.

Toni Morrison’s insight that readers are “positioned as white” is an important point of departure for the kind of critique that must be brought to bear on modern readers in the Shakespeare industry. Against the tendency to associate “race” with blackness, the lecture proposes, therefore, an examination of the systemic whiteness that describes the ways readers are created in the United States. While studying race has opened up significant pathways within Shakespeare studies, systemic whiteness prevents us from fully appreciating the modern potential for Shakespeare’s investment in race. Understanding systemic whiteness, therefore, demands the self-scrutiny and personal accountability that make us more credible bearers of the traditions of Shakespeare and humanism.

Ian Smith, Professor of English and Richard H., Jr. ’60 and Joan K. Sell Chair in the Humanities at Lafayette College, discovered Shakespeare while studying French classical theater at the University of Paris before completing his Ph.D. at Columbia University. Author of numerous scholarly articles involving Shakespeare’s preoccupation with race, Professor Smith has published Race and Rhetoric in Renaissance England: Barbarian Errors and is currently writing Black Shakespeare, which examines the racial blind spots of modern criticism in relation to Shakespeare’s pervasive interest in blackness and race. In 2016 he was a guest on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast for an enduringly popular episode about Shakespeare, race, and early modern theatrical practices.