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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Ian Smith on Black Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 200

In his new book, Black Shakespeare: Reading and Misreading Race, Dr. Ian Smith of Lafayette College argues that Shakespeare’s plays engage with questions of race and early modern encounters between Africans and Europeans in ways that the discipline of Shakespeare studies has been hesitant to acknowledge. Ian Smith returns to Shakespeare Unlimited and talks with Barbara Bogaev about how we can develop our “racial literacy” and read race in plays like Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet.

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Dr. Ian Smith

Ian Smith’s Black Shakespeare: Reading and Misreading Race is available now from Cambridge University Press.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published January 3, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Jimmy Dixon at 64 Sound in Los Angeles, and Jenna McClellan at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: On today’s episode: a conversation about how Blackness operates in Shakespeare’s plays.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

The study of Shakespeare depends on reading. Whether we’re working in the classroom, at the library, or on stage, anyone who wants to understand the plays has to figure out how to read Shakespeare’s text. By reading, we get more fluent and more literate in the language of early modern England. Scholars are trained to explore references to the practices, commodities, and beliefs that shaped Shakespeare’s world. But how often do we read race? And when we do take up questions of race in an early modern context, how can we tell if we’re getting it right?

In his new book, Black Shakespeare: Reading and Misreading Race, Lafayette College professor Ian Smith urges us to build our “racial literacy.” This starts with an acknowledgement that there was a Black presence in Shakespeare’s England. Scholars of early modern race have argued for decades that Shakespeare and other writers were responding to increasing encounters between Africans and Europeans. But the discipline of Shakespeare studies, Smith argues, has resisted acknowledging how deeply Shakespeare’s plays themselves engage with questions of race.

Smith traces this reluctance to a fundamental assumption about who is doing the reading when we talk about reading Shakespeare. For centuries, the assumed reader of Shakespeare has been a white person. In Smith’s account, challenging this assumed racial identity of the reader allows us to unlock novel and surprising layers of meaning in the plays.

Ian Smith last appeared on our podcast to talk about blackface and Othello. We welcome Ian Smith back, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I’d like to start with something that you explore in one of your chapters in your book about racial blind spots. It’s important to recognize, right, at this time that there were plenty of Black people in Shakespeare’s England

IAN SMITH: Absolutely. The idea that Shakespeare didn’t know Blackness—and I’m referring to the earlier kinds of skepticism that we as modern critics had about Shakespeare’s time that has been, I think, proven to be so not true.

That there were Black people in all sorts of jobs and working capacities in Shakespeare’s time. That there were Black people who were encountered, one might say, most powerfully in reading, because so much of travel literature introduced English people to this notion of people who were different from English people. And therefore, that, perhaps, is one of the important ways that there was a kind of cross-cultural encounter, if you like.

Therefore, we have in many playwrights, in Webster, in Middleton, in Brome, Shakespeare, in Johnson, right? There are all these playwrights in which we see not only Black characters appear, but this sort of investigation and this sort of pursuit of these questions of what does it mean to have a Black person in a white context, in a white court, in a white culture, et cetera?

What I want to underscore is that in so many of the playwrights, this notion of Blackness was seen in a very negative way. And that work was done earlier in our field by people like Anthony Bartelemy and Elliot Tokson. So that when we see a Black person on stage, there’s an automatic equation between black skin and the sense of something negative or something that should be rejected.

Shakespeare then begins to sort of open up those questions and sort of broaden that fissure to ask us: well, how reliable is that equation that we’re making between black skin and something that is automatically seen as bad and negative? In other words, he’s asking us to question our sort of, the epistemological basis of race as was known, propagated in his time.

BOGAEV: Yes. You make the argument about this that he’s exploring the unreliability of sight as a function or cause of racial bias. One of your examples is that you see this all throughout Othello. So could you give us some examples in which an audience of Othello, Shakespeare is urging them to really reflect on what they think they know, especially about Blackness?

SMITH: Yes. It’s so funny, right? One of the famous phrases from that play is “ocular proof,” right? The idea that there should be proof that we can see as if somehow, once again, there’s the equation between seeing and, sort of, factual reality. Those two things are seamless.

In this play, Shakespeare is probing that. The most sort of dramatic instance I can think of is early in the play where the audience in Act 1, scene 1 is hearing about this Moor, and we never get a name. All we hear is a term: “the moor.”

[CLIP from The Folger Shakespeare audiobook production of Othello, Act 1, scene 1.]

BRABANTIO: What profane wretch art thou?

IAGO: I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

BRABANTIO: Thou art a villain.

IAGO: You are a senator.

BRABANTIO: This thou shalt answer. I know thee, Roderigo.

Sir, I will answer anything. But I beseech you,
If ’t be your pleasure and most wise consent—
As partly I find it is—that your fair daughter,
At this odd-even and dull watch o’ th’ night,
Transported with no worse nor better guard
But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier,
To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor:
If this be known to you, and your allowance,
We then have done you bold and saucy wrongs.

SMITH: That’s important because what Shakespeare’s doing is he’s saying a couple things.

One, the people on stage are not interested in even humanizing this person by giving him a name. But, then, more importantly, he’s saying to the audience, “But do you know what Moors are, don’t you? We don’t even have to name him because, you know, for the last 15 or so years we have seen Moors on the English stage. And so therefore, you know what they are.”

And that’s the kind of trap that Shakespeare sort of sets for the audience by sort of eliciting, drawing on this, sort of, theatrical experience of being in the theater for the past 15 or so years, right? So, he says, “You know what Moors are.” When Iago speaks about the Moor, the Moor, the Moor, audiences who have been habituated to seeing Moors in this a very negative, dangerous way, say, “Yep, we know who that is. We understand we can fill in the gaps,” so to speak.

BOGAEV: Exactly. Yeah. You refer to what’s happening here as the audience filling in the blanks about the missing Moor. About this absent Black man who is not even given a name in the beginning. And you also call that their “Othello blind spot.”

SMITH: Yes. This idea of blind spots is a critical term which is drawn from a sort of physiological phenomenon, right? That is to say, there really are blind spots that we all have because of simply how the eye is structured. But we don’t notice the blind spots because over time, we fill in those spots from the patterns of our experience. The brain is literally filling in those gaps so that we no longer notice that we actually have blind spots.

That becomes a kind of working metaphor to describe this phenomenon that I’m talking about, so that there’s a sense in which what happens in Act 1, Scene 2 is important in Othello. That is to say, when Othello then arrives on stage himself, in person, and the audience sees him, something dramatic happens for a Protestant nation. This Black man, who’s presumed under the sort of capacious term, the Moor, to be perhaps, probably be most likely Muslim and therefore different—who worships another God and is of another race. He comes on stage, and what do we see? He’s cast in the role of Jesus in Gethsemane and the night when he’s going to be betrayed by the Iago figure, Judas, and arrested and taken off. That’s what Act 1, scene 2 does. So we have this—

BOGAEV: So if I understand what you’re saying, Shakespeare’s presenting him as a parallel to Jesus in order to upend the audience’s demon image of him.

SMITH: To—completely reframes Othello to challenge our preconceptions coming in from Act 1, scene 1, where we have filled in those gaps by thinking, “Yes, we know what Moors are.” He completely overturns those expectations by saying, “Hey, this guy has so many of the qualities that we would admire.” In fact, he stages Act 1, scene 2 as that night in Gethsemane, where you have the soldiers coming with the torches to get him. And he says, “Put up your bright sword.”

[CLIP from The Folger Shakespeare audiobook production of Othello: Act 1, scene 2.]

BRABANTIO: Down with him, thief!

[They draw their swords]

You, Roderigo! Come, sir, I am for you.

Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.
Good signior, you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons.

BRABANTIO: O, thou foul thief, where hast thou stowed my

SMITH: Which reenacts that moment where Jesus tells Peter to put up the sword because Peter wants to defend Jesus in that moment. It’s striking. For an audience that had a much greater religious education than perhaps we do today, that is a striking moment.

That clash, that sort of cognitive dissonance, if you like, that happens in that moment, I argue, forces an audience to recognize and reflect on our preconceptions. And now, to grapple with what new conceptions we might have about such a Moor. That, I think, is something that is critical to what Shakespeare is trying to do there and elsewhere in the play and in his works.

BOGAEV: Okay, I want to take a moment here to think back to the last time you were here on this podcast. You told a story about being in a seminar—or maybe it was a conference—and a Shakespeare colleague got very, very adamant, very worked up about Othello not being about race. “The play is not about race,” he kept saying. He would say—if he were here, would he say everything you’re saying here is hogwash?

SMITH: He might, but nothing I’ve said goes against traditional methods of criticism. Nothing I’ve said contravenes any of those things. So that it is in fact, if one wants to deny those things—I mean, what have critics done but looked at, sort of, critical but textual allusions, right? And, sort of, those kinds of things.

All I’m saying is there is a textual allusion in Act 1, scene 2, which is to the Garden of Gethsemane. Look at it. The evidence is there, as I said, you know.

Shakespeare, for example, mentions people coming with torches. Now in Shakespeare’s time, the plays took place in the afternoon, open-air theater. So the mention of torch is not because people needed light so much, but in fact it’s a clear signifier to the story itself, where we’re told that it’s nighttime in Gethsemane and they came with torches to find Jesus, right?

So, that detail has nothing to do with sort of the realism of the moment. It had everything to do with Shakespeare putting in those details. So we do remember what that is.

So, if textual allusion is good or has been good for the last 400 years, why is it not good to also provide this kind of analysis? One might not like it, but I don’t know if one can look at this and say, “No, the methods are bad,” or, “No, that’s not accurate.” One might simply say, “I choose not to do it,” then that’s okay.

BOGAEV: How representative was that experience for you personally?

SMITH: Not just for me. I think for those of us who were doing work in early modern critical race studies, that is pretty representative. I think everybody has stories to tell in one way or the other about a certain kind of denial, a certain kind of resistance to the work that we were doing.

But here’s the thing, over time it became clearer to me what that resistance was about. That resistance was really not just so much about, you know, “I don’t like what’s there it really,” or, “I think you are wrong”—Although that how it was often presented, right?—what it really was about, was if people then had to grapple with this question of race in Shakespeare, it means that critics who had done this work for so long would then have to grapple with why they were not willing to examine the works in this way and why they were not willing to then reflect on their own position for, as most often, white scholars doing this work.

It is a refusal to examine that positionality. It’s a refusal to examine the “who I am,” and to pretend as if critical word in Shakespeare simply happens in a kind of raceless vacuum, in a kind of history-free vacuum. That’s what that fight was really all about, I think.

BOGAEV: I think that’s so spot on. You also pose in the book: Why do certain scholars, when they see Blackness, why do they not read race? You begin to answer it by turning to the Merchant of Venice. So, let’s turn to the Merchant of Venice [LAUGHTER].

That was very, very elegant, wasn’t it?

SMITH: I like it. I like it.

BOGAEV: You make this proposition that the pound of flesh Shylock demands his bond from Antonio, that we read it in terms of whiteness, and, “For the value attached to an emerging early modern racial identity.” That’s a quote from your book.

So could you elaborate on that? What do you mean by this? We’re talking again, just to remind everyone, about references to “Antonio’s fair flesh.”

SMITH: Yes. To step back a little bit to address your proposition, which is, critics see Blackness, but they refuse to read race. What I was getting at there was that Blackness has become, and certainly from Shakespeare’s time, this thing that we all see. This thing that we all point to, this thing that is so legible, as I said before. This thing that we think we all know.

Yet when we turn to Shakespeare’s text, suddenly there’s this, sort of, amnesia. Suddenly there’s this, sort of, blindness that somehow, “No, no, no, we don’t see race there.” That discrepancy I found sort of peculiar and interesting: the unwillingness on the one hand to not see race, but there’s this willingness to see Blackness in our real lives everywhere.

As we come to a text like Merchant, you know, there is, once again, a sort of conventional way of reading and approaching this play, which emphasizes the question of Jewishness, et cetera. Clearly those questions are relevant to that play. I’m not suggesting that they aren’t.

What Shakespeare also does—and this is what I think, for a long time, we have overlooked—he also introduces questions of race within that already complicated media. So, we have a much more interesting situation.

One of the things that I think is interesting that we lose sight of—and this is why I ask for us to sort of read race, right? To be attentive to. To develop what I call—and we may come back to this later on—a racial literacy, right? Is this matter of, you know, the “pound of fair flesh.”

All my life, I’ve heard people reference that expression. The “pound of flesh” is what people say. It appears everywhere. It’s in advertisements. People who have a passing knowledge of Shakespeare know the expression. It’s on TV shows. You know, pound of flesh has become a, kind of, set expression in English at this point.

Yet when we look in the play, when the bargain is struck, when the document is being signed, the expression is, “A pound of fair flesh.”

[CLIP from the 2004 BBC Audiobook Production of Merchant of Venice: Act 1, scene 3.]

SHYLOCK: This kindness will I show.
Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your bond; and in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.

Content, in faith. I’ll seal to such a bond.

SMITH: It is interesting to me that for basically 400 years, again, we have overlooked, conveniently, that particular word. And it’s been dropped out of sight.

BOGAEV: Let me ask you a really, really, really elemental question though. What’s the history of fairness, of “fair” meaning white skin?

SMITH: Well, “fair” has multiple meanings in the early modern period and also in the period before, in medieval period, which is quite interesting because “fair” can mean beautiful, obviously. But “fair” can also mean just an equitable. But “fair” can also mean light relating to also sunlight, but also white.

What is interesting for me is how when we have this notion of fairness, we have this sort almost that this intricate but powerful combination, which suggests that to be fair or white means also to be just and equitable. And to be fair, and white, and equitable means also to be beautiful, in the literal sense, but also in the sort of aesthetic sense. That things of beauty are concentrated in whiteness. Things of justice and equity are concentrated in whiteness.

That is the history I want to call to our attention. That complex history, which to this day, in 2022, still a powerful trifecta of notions that work together powerfully. So, when we come to the play and we hear the “fair flesh,” it means all those things.

Antonio is celebrated for indeed being a fair man. We were told he doesn’t charge, he doesn’t bother to charge, interest, right? He’s such a just man. He is the royal merchant, right? He’s exceptional above all others, right? He’s all of those things. But he’s also, and this is what I tried to argue, is that he’s also—as Shakespeare wants us to understand—he’s also designated as white.

Now, why is that important? Because he’s designated as white in contrast to Shylock, the Jewish man who is identified as not white in that moment. Which is interesting because Jews may have fair skin, but they’re not white. As one source describes Jews, he says, “Jews are not white, like other men,” says the text, right?

In fact, Jews were often described as Black. And so therefore, Shakespeare is calling our attention to this kind of cultural violence that Shylock has had to undergo. But he also does that, presents that to us in this very racialized context in which we have contested forms of whiteness.

That somehow Antonio’s whiteness is a legitimate real whiteness, and that Shylock’s isn’t. What Shylock is doing when he strikes the bargain is not just, you know, to say, “Okay, you know, I’ll lend you the money. And rather than actually receive monetary interest, the interest will be a pound of flesh.”

You know, one famous critic describes it as him as not being a very good businessman because he’s made that particular bargain. Well, I argue that no, no, no. Because it’s not about money. It is in fact about his racial oppression, Shylock’s. In that moment, as a Jewish man who’s been told, “Your whiteness doesn’t count. That your whiteness is somehow substandard to Antonio’s whiteness because he is Italian, he is Christian, and somehow he’s different.”

And what Shylock is doing really quite powerfully and interestingly, is saying, “Okay, I can, through this bargain, own this pound of flesh, if you fail.” And that and that notion of ownership is quite important because Jews were not allowed to own property at the time.

And so here is Shylock saying, “I’m going to try to own property”—but property not in terms of land, because Jews weren’t allowed to do that—”But I’m going to own property in a fundamental way that speaks to my condition, that speaks to my oppression, that speaks to my exclusion. That I’m going to own this property along in the terms that you have denied me consistently and berated me for in this rather denigrating way.”

BOGAEV: Yeah. So how have your colleagues received this interpretation of Merchant and the “pound of fair flesh?”

You know, I usually don’t ask what people think. I do the work, and I am fundamentally a teacher. So, I teach and try it out on my students and see what they think. And if my students bite and like it, I think then I’m getting somewhere.

BOGAEV: So how about your students?

SMITH: I think they respond to it fairly well, because students often don’t come with laden with the, sort of, histories of criticism and what they’re supposed to think about, say, a play like The Merchant of Venice. They come with certain, sort of, methods from high school.

They’re eager to try something different and something that goes beyond the, sort of, typical high school experience. So, I think they’re willing to—they’re open for the challenge. I’m full of gratitude that they’re willing to—what I call, engage with that, sort of, intellectual play. Because that’s really what I’m asking them to do, right? Be open, see what’s there, and let’s see what we can discover together.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and let’s do that with Hamlet. I was so interested to see that you write on a personal note about Hamlet that you always felt that you had to like the play.

SMITH: Right.

BOGAEV: This struck such a note for me as a woman, even before I, kind of, read your argument. So first, what made you think you had to like Hamlet?

SMITH: Everything [LAUGHTER]. Everything, right?

BOGAEV: Shakespeare.

SMITH: I’m sure you feel the same way as you just said, you know, but no, here. Everything, yes! You know, it is the ur-play. This is the great tragedy. This is the one that everybody’s supposed to love and everybody wants to—and it’s the part that everybody wants to play, you know? Hamlet has his 1,700 lines, and it’s a sort of master role, et cetera, et cetera.

BOGAEV: Yes. Right. I’m right there with you. But then, then you pose this… then I hit this really interesting sentence in your chapter about Hamlet. “Hamlet’s whiteness resides at the core of what has remained an unexamined racial desire.”

SMITH: I’m not the first to talk about Hamlet’s whiteness. What is different in what I’m saying and what is critical—and this is what is really interesting for me about this particular play as I read it now—is that I think I am breaking new ground by talking about not so much his whiteness, but the way he plays with Blackness. Hamlet is somebody who is caught in this position of wanting to, needing to create a sense of justice because of what has happened to his father. But he also feels that to create that sense of justice means that he has to not only become a… like the person who killed his father, which is a classic sort of revenge, sort of paradox, right?

Here, Shakespeare pushed it much further. That what we have is in Hamlet’s mind, that person, that idea of a person who commits violent crimes is Black. And therein lies the difference that takes play in a whole different direction

BOGAEV: It does, it does. I want to back out for a second because you write that Hamlet’s inwardness and his delay, it’s all centered in his ruminations on Blackness. So let’s get to the text. Where do we see the ruminations in on Blackness?

SMITH: When we look at the soliloquies. There’s one in particular where he talks about his cowardice and the cowardice that somehow cripples him and that won’t allow him to act in a particular way. Whiteness is consistent with inaction on his part. Then, that, in turn, is contrasted with the kind of violent action that he attributes to Black people.

BOGAEV: In the early modern period is violence already racialized and attached to Black identity and a Black population?

SMITH: Yes. And this is something that we, as critics, we know this. But I think bringing this into Hamlet gives the play a whole new way of understanding Hamlet’s continuity with a certain kind of, what I would call, Black drama in the time.

Yes. From the 1580s through to Hamlet, we see on the stage representations of violent Black men who are murderous, et cetera. Hamlet has, as it were, has internalized this idea of Blackness and violence. Especially when the players come in, he specifically asks for a play in which we see a Black Pyrrhus, right? From classical literature as this sort of violent actor who sweeps in and avenges his own father’s death. And so, Hamlet asks for this particular version.

[CLIP from The Folger Shakespeare audiobook production of Hamlet: Act 2, scene 2.]

HAMLET: The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couchèd in th’ ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion smeared
With heraldry more dismal. Head to foot,
Now is he total gules, horridly tricked
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Baked and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and a damnèd light
To their lord’s murder. Roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o’ersizèd with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks.

SMITH: Now, in the classical literature as I’ve reviewed it, Pyrrhus is not at all Black in any of the texts that I have seen. And yet in the version that Hamlet asks to be staged, that Pyrrhus is Black. And so that underscores the point I’ve been making. That for him, the idea of the avenger, but also the avenger of a father’s death, is a Black person committed to violence, steeped in bloody violence, quite frankly. And he sees himself as someone unwilling, unable to do that.

When we look at the play within the play that is performed, ultimately. That even there Shakespeare is playing with the idea of the killer who is going to be the, sort of, stand in for Claudius. Even there, that person arguably is crafted in, as a kind of actor, who we are told is, sort of, practicing his, sort of, “damnable faces.” I try to argue that the way in which that word “damnable” appears in the dramatic literature is often associated with, sort of, Black skin, et cetera, as well.

And in that moment, you know, having called Claudius a Moor in the play, then for Hamlet sees this as a moment to have a Black character, a Moor character, be the killer on stage. In front of Claudius, since his point there is to evince and to somehow elicit a confession from him.

So in Hamlet’s mind, he says, “I know you are a Moor in comparison to my father, who I consider the fair mountain.” And so, he presents to him what he, Hamlet, understands to be the striking visual representation of the essential crime which is, he has committed himself—Claudius, that is—to a kind of Black identity as a Black murderer. And he says, “Here, I’m going to show you that on stage.”

I think throughout, Shakespeare sort of invites us to look at this. For me, if we do that, perhaps we can see a much different kind of reading, but one in which I think the outcome is interesting for two reasons, if I may. One, it means that we have to reexamine the sort of critical love affair that has existed with Hamlet, and ask what does that really mean, then, in modern terms? If we are willing to embrace someone who is really arguing for a kind of disposability of Black identity.

The second point is the legacy in producing this notion of the violent Black man in historical terms and how that idea has become part of what we call the, sort of, modern lexicon of Blackness in the United States, and certainly in the West, for sure, as well. Which is quite troubling.

BOGAEV: Maybe I’m coming at this from left field, but could you have written the same book about any other writer? Because really, you’re talking about racial biases and racial literacy and racial blindness, and that’s just baked into everything: into culture, into politics, into literature.

SMITH: Yes. What I am asking, then, is… I’m trying to, in a larger sense, then—to step away from Shakespeare a little bit—is to talk about what it is to be a reader in, sort of, a modern context.

So many of the theories about reading have produced reading as what I would call an almost disembodied act. That somehow, reading is about textuality really, and with some sort of notion of there is a kind of reader, sort of, hovering in the background somewhere. But that is not the focus. It really is about understanding something about text and textuality.

I want to say, “Hold on a minute.” If we’re going to talk about reading, then there are other dimensions that we also need to consider. One of them is quite simply the reader himself, herself. The reader in history.

Here, I’m inspired by Toni Morrison, in particular. She says, “Virtually every reader of American literature is positioned as white.” When you ask, “Could this book be written about any other writer?” that is not to suggest that what I’m saying is something which we all do or know already. Because when Morrison wrote those lines that I just quoted, this was in 1992. I’m saying, thirty years later, we’re still struggling with recognizing with and dealing with what it is to understand that there is a way we read not just texts, but culture and people, that is still very much at odds with this notion of race in our culture.

I talk about denial in this text. Denial says—Ibram Kendi, he says, “The heartbeat of America is denial.” So, when you ask, “Could this be written about any other text?” I say, “Yes,” but with this proviso: that that question doesn’t mean that, oh, we all know it already, and therefore it could just be done about anybody else. What I am saying is it’s a book which is still timely because the level of resistance is so great, still, in a moment where race is such an urgent issue in contemporary American society. Because it has never been something that we are fully wanted to not deny and therefore deal with and find ways to resolve and somehow find a way to move forward with, right?

That’s how I understand your question. That’s why I would say, “Well that’s true.” In that sense, this book speaks to a larger audience than just Shakespeareans.

BOGAEV: Absolutely. And you write about hope. “Reparative hope,” I think is how you put it. Well, what does give you hope? Given everything you just said.

SMITH: I’m a teacher by nature. That’s my calling. I don’t think, at least for in my understanding of teaching, I can’t go in a classroom and teach if I didn’t believe that teaching and education had a value beyond simply presenting just facts. It is indeed a place in which a certain kind of work, a work of understanding, can happen that would hopefully bring people into a place of knowledge, awareness—what I call racial literacy—and that that, in turn, would become a building block in this important work of what it is to create and recreate and refashion our society and our democracy. Because it is a constant work that has to happen.

BOGAEV: So, do your students give you hope?

SMITH: Well, yes, they, they give me hope because I’ve seen that students are much more open and willing to engage these ideas. And, even if they’re not, then okay, but at least what I can hope for is that they have some information that they can then begin to articulate what it is they truly believe or what they truly feel.

For the most part, 95%, 98% of the times even, I think students do respond very well and very positively. It means that, again—because an education is a long-term investment. You know, I see students for four years. But I also know that the investment that I and other teachers make in those four years might not fully be realized until another 10 years down the road and so on.

So, teaching is that act of hope and act of faith, even, one might say, right? That you invest and do your best, students do their best, and then we hope that they will continue to work through and work on and be inspired by what they have learned in any number of their classes while they’re in college.

BOGAEV: Well, they are lucky to have you as a teacher. And, I’m so lucky to have you in a conversation today. Thank you so much for taking the time.

SMITH: Thank you, and I appreciate it.


WITMORE: That was Ian Smith, talking with Barbara Bogaev. Ian Smith’s new book, Black Shakespeare: Reading and Misreading Race, is out now from Cambridge University Press.

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Jimmy Dixon at 64 Sound in Los Angeles, and Jenna McClellan at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.