Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 50
MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. This podcast is called "Teach Him How To Tell My Story."
It's a discussion that started out being about one thing, and then turned into something larger. Originally, we wanted to look at attitudes around the practice of blackface, as it is applied to the performance of Othello over the centuries. As you'll hear, though, we move from there to a much broader and richer conversation on many topics, illuminated by the ideas of two young scholars who are bringing an exciting and new perspective to the study of Shakespeare.
Ayanna Thompson is professor of English at George Washington University and Ian Smith is professor of English at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Their thoughts on race, history, and theatrical practice may leave you looking at Othello in an entirely new way. Ayanna and Ian are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Ian, I'd like to start with a story that you tell about the time you were on a panel at a Shakespeare conference and it was about Othello, and one of your fellow panelists kept insisting that Othello is not about race. So, tell us about that and your reaction to that.
IAN SMITH: It was actually a seminar. So, there are a group of us participating in the conversation, and somebody asserted, several times actually, that Othello is not about race. My sense is that, he felt that this statement was supposed to be a corrective of some kind. And, so...
BOGAEV: And a corrective in that, people talk about Othello being about race, obviously. There are a lot of references to race or to color, and he was going to correct this simplistic reading?
SMITH: Yes, I think on two grounds. One, he thought that perhaps, historically, people weren't interested in seeing the play in that way in Shakespeare's time, which, as you just suggested, is really sort of startling, because of the very clear and numerous derogatory references to skin color in the play. And, the second thing I thought that he was trying to do, too, was something perhaps a little bit more powerful and dangerous. That is, he was suggesting that race was not something that people thought about in Shakespeare's time, and the term "race" itself, he was suggesting, didn't have the kind of force that it has for us until the 18th century or so, that somehow we were misusing a term that was anachronistic. And so, he was correcting us and saying that we should not be deploying a term in such a careless fashion.
What is astounding to me is that that sort of very narrow thinking somehow did not and does not give due credence to the fact that there are patterns of behavior and sort of practices that Shakespeare was clearly calling attention to, to which we may give the term "race." But, the patterns of behavior are still very much recognizable. And so, to quibble over the term "race" itself in that very narrow way, I think, is to try to use historical accuracy as a kind of moral high ground from which to really delegitimize race work and to silence others from doing that kind of work.
BOGAEV: Right, and we're going to talk more about historic accuracy in a moment. But, you were making a really interesting argument on that panel. And if I could paraphrase it, I think what you were arguing was that the only world in which Othello is not about race is in a white privileged world. And the way that you put it, is a world where people "think, imagine, and [can] speak as if whiteness described the world."
SMITH: Yes, that actually is a quote from Adrienne Rich. And, not just the person's view on talking about Othello in this way, but also the experience of others in that room for whom that kind of approach to talking about race has a definite impact. That is to say, when somebody sits or stands in a room and makes that sort of declaration, there are intended consequences. Some of us in the room are quite unsettled by that sort of statement, right? A writer, Tim Wise, talks about white privilege and power, and to quote him, he says, "That which keeps people of color off balance in a racist society is that which keeps whites in control."
And, in a real sense, in that kind of discussion, when somebody makes that kind of declaration, there's an attempt to coopt the conversation, there's an attempt to control the conversation, and there's an attempt to silence those who would want to produce a sort of progressive argument about race and similar topics. And so, that is why I then referred to Adrienne Rich, where it is about a sort of view then, that would rather perpetuate the idea that we live in a world in which we think or we imagine or we speak as if whiteness is the totality of experience and knowledge.
BOGAEV: Ayanna, jump in here. Is this your experience as well of Shakespeare in academia or in circles where you're talking about Othello?
AYANNA THOMPSON: Absolutely. In fact, I have a similar narrative in another conference, where an older white scholar turned to me, after I gave a paper about the uses of blackface in the early modern period and questions about whether we should return to those practices in the 21st century. And he turned to me, and he said, "And, you, you, how dare you use the word 'blackface'? You know you're doing history a disservice." And, basically, was trying to shame me and silence me. And also, police the borders of Shakespeare studies, in a way that I think is very similar to what Ian described.
There's a lot of fear that I sensed in his, kind of, raising his wizened finger at me. He was afraid that his world, his scholarly world, would be set adrift, if I used the word "blackface." And, on the one hand, I felt threatened in a way, right, that I felt like I'm junior to this very senior person, and perhaps I'm doing something wrong. And then, on the other hand, I felt very powerful, because, look at the reaction that I was getting from this guy after giving a paper. You know, I was like, this shows you the stakes.
BARBARA: Right, that's something you dream of.
BOGAEV: But I'm wondering if part of this is a kind of accusation that you're trying to hard to make Shakespeare relevant to what's going on now in the world. You know, Black Lives Matter, and religious wars in the Middle East, and immigration, and because accepting that Othello is a racial play does seem to place it right in the midst of all of these current issues.
THOMPSON: Well, I mean, I think this is something that Shakespeareans have been celebrating since, you know, the 17th century, that Shakespeare's plays manage to be timely. Even though they were written in a very specific historical context, they kind of jump out of that context in many ways to seem as if they're about the current moment you're in. And, certainly, black Shakespeare scholars are not the first to deploy Shakespeare in their current political climate or cultural climate. That's just something that happens. And that's kind of part of what makes Shakespeare enduring.
The question for me, really, is whether Shakespeare, the cultural weight of Shakespeare's fame, gets in the way of talking about race in a productive fashion. And I think this is something that's been hard to have a real conversation about with other Shakespeareans and with practitioners, with actors and directors, because they all want to make it very relevant and make it meaningful for their audiences, whether your audience is a student, a fellow scholar, or, you know, actual theater audiences.
But I wonder if it it really works, or if the baggage that Shakespeare’s name brings with it, which is almost always positive... It's hard to think of any negative baggage that comes along with Shakespeare's name in our cultural climate. But I wonder if that kind of force of the positivity of his reputation gets in the way of having real, productive conversations about race. Ian, I'm curious what you think about that.
SMITH: I think that's quite right. And also, what it implies, therefore, is, as you just said, that Shakespeare's name comes with this sort of, very positive sort of valence. What that also then underscores, is that for some people to attach race to Shakespeare makes race something negative. That, by definition, race is something that's going to somehow dirty or muddy the Shakespeare waters. When, race per se is not something dirty or negative. Race is about a study of relationships, about how people interact with each other. That's what race is about, fundamentally.
And so, to assume that it means something very negative, I think, is by definition a sort of curious resistance to confronting and facing a history of relationships. Which, by virtue of what Ayanna is saying, Shakespeare gives us a wide audience, gives us a sort of wide playing field, in which multiple constituents might come together. And, instead, what we find is this real fear to not have that verbal play, that intellectual play.
THOMPSON: I was just going to say that actually reminds me of a moment when I was teaching, last year, a large lecture class that is sort of a survey of early British literature. And I had this amazing, lively class, even though it was a lecture. There was lots of participation and the students were really engaged, whether it was "Beowulf," or Marie de France, or whatever.
And we got to Othello. And I started lecturing and I posed some provocative statements and asked some questions. And I was greeted by, you know, the chirp of crickets from this lively class. And I couldn't figure it out. And so, at first, I thought, "You didn't read the play." You know, like, "What happened? Shame on you, if you didn't read it." But, no, they had read it.
And I said, "Oh, you're not comfortable talking about race in a mixed environment, are you?" And I saw 60 heads nod in unison. And I said, "Okay, listen. You've been talking about rape. You've been talking about violence, you know, killing people in 'Beowulf.' You've been talking about a lot of hot button issues. We can get through this together, if you're willing to, you know, be willing to say something, and be willing to make a mistake, and we can learn from that together. But, we're not going to learn anything, if you're going to sit there silently." And finally, they started opening up. "I think this is a racist play." And, "I love Shakespeare, but this seems racist to me." You know, like, they were all over the map with their very emotive reactions to Othello.
And at the end of the semester, they ranked their favorite texts that we had read in this survey class and Othello came out on top. And I think it was because they were hungry to have a forum in which they could talk about race openly. But they didn't know how to do it, without someone saying it's okay.
BOGAEV: Well, how interesting, in such a PC atmosphere, that race is the last taboo.
BOGAEV: And, probably the last taboo of taboos is blackface performances of Othello in the 21st century, whether they're appropriate. Ayanna, given that there are all-male Shakespeare productions, who justify doing this because it's authentic, and, basically, we're just doing it the way Shakespeare would have is the justification, how does that not wash when it comes to a white man playing Othello in blackface?
THOMPSON: Well, I think there are actors who would like to do it in blackface. I mean I would not underestimate the desire to do that kind of, perform in that type of mode. And, there's amazingly, you know, beautiful scholarship about the kind of pleasures and perils of blackface, right, that there's something really pleasurable about performing as another race. And we shouldn't discount that.
Why it hasn't happened is the kind of cultural force of minstrelsy, and the history of minstrelsy, from the 19th century in the US, primarily, but, also, England has a long history, well into the late 20th century, of blackface performances in popular media, including television. But that history is so hard and so divergent, people think, from what Shakespeare should be and what Shakespeare represents, that there hasn't really been a return to it.
BOGAEV: Are we back to talking about the cultural weight of Shakespeare? Because, the Wooster Group did a blackface production of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, back in the 80s, but also in 2006, and that was well received by critics.
THOMPSON: Yeah, really well received.
BOGAEV: Why the difference?
THOMPSON: No, I think that's precisely it. I think that blackface performances can be productive in terms of dialogues about race and the performativity of race when they are not tied to Shakespeare. O'Neill does not have the kind of cultural weight that Shakespeare's name imparts. And again, it gets back to that, like, universal goodness that is ascribed to Shakespeare. So, the Wooster Group very successfully mounted two different productions of The Emperor Jones, in which they employed blackface, and everyone came away thinking, "Oh my God, here we are. We can finally think about what it is that, you know, blackface taps into." And there was nothing about O'Neill's name or the text of Emperor Jones that got in the way of thinking through the complexities of blackface.
And I think if one were to try and do an Othello, I think there would be some sort of psychic dissonance that would go on for audience members, right, that they would be saying, like my students said, "I thought I was supposed to love everything by Shakespeare. How is it now that I'm feeling that this is racist?" And unless a theater company has an infrastructure and resources, financial resources, to host and facilitate dialogues about, you know, blackface as a performance mode and a performance tradition and a performance history. Unless they have that, it would be kind of dangerous, I think to, you know, have a white actor in blackface doing Othello, night after night after night. And then, sending the audiences on their way to make of it what they will.
BOGAEV: No kidding. So American audiences come with complex baggage to blackface, to race, and to Shakespeare. But what package did Elizabethan audiences bring to Othello? It was written at a time when English people were just beginning to experience Africa and Africans. And, Ian, you've written about the books that English travelers who went to Africa wrote about the continent that shaped the public's view. So, what do those books tell us about Shakespeare's audiences' ideas of blackness?
SMITH: Well, what we learn, interestingly, is that, as you said, it's a new experience, largely, for the audience in Shakespeare's time. Suddenly, all sort of foreigners, and, by that, other European nations, people from other European nations, are in England, are in London, at that time. But then there is this other other... black people, whom writers document in their histories, in their travelogues.
And what we find, in some cases, and an interesting one is by Eden, who writes about seeing black people in Guinea, and he describes them as being as black as the environment they're in. So, the environment has a certain sort of naming system, which everything is called, is described, as black, and the people are described as black as well. And so, it's a peculiar sort of continuity.
What I think we're seeing is a notion expressed that black people are not just present in the environment, but they're identified with the sort of natural environment: the rivers, the trees, the geography, in general. And that kind of identification then has a larger, longer history, where there's sort of a well-known story, told by several classical writers, about the origins of civilization, fundamentally. Right? So the idea is that people wandered about in what's a wild state of nature. And then it wasn't until people started building cities, that people became civilized.
And so, what we have, then, in these sort of travel narratives that Elizabethan writers would use, is this idea that renewed for an early modern audience that black people are still in this sort of state of nature. They're still somehow trapped back there. And perhaps, that is some of what we see in the sort of audience expectation that we're dealing with people that are perhaps not as civilized as we are. And, this, I think, points to the very important idea that if this is an idea being created, then it's a creation of a notion that we now, today, would call a sort of racial epistemology, right. Our way of thinking about other people and constructing other people that has nothing, necessarily, to do with truth, but has everything to do with our notion of how we want to construct certain kinds of relationships.
BOGAEV: So, Othello plays into so many of these layers and also just on a...
BOGAEV: On a simple level, blackness. The devil was black, whereas, we think of the devil as red. But that's what Elizabethan audience were familiar with, the blackness of evil. Ayanna, what are your thoughts on this?
THOMPSON: Well, I think Ian lays it out perfectly, right. I think, our fantasy is that when someone writes a first-person travelogue, that what we're getting is an actual representation of truth. But, in fact, no. What you get is a kind of recycling of older narratives that you already have in your head, and you're kind of placing them onto the new environment that you're experiencing. And I think that plays out in the plays in really fascinating ways. And, especially, in the ways that Shakespeare, I think, tries to shake up certain audience expectations regarding race and then, kind of, fulfills them over and over again, in many different ways.
BOGAEV: And how does the text reference that?
THOMPSON: There are lots of moments in the text that refer to... and, you know, scholars will refer to them as sort of metadramatic moments, that is, moments that sort of reveal the performance. So, "sooty bosom" or the kind of blackened skin, the fact that Desdemona might be blackened by Othello. These are moments, of course, in the play that, contextually, are actually about their relationship, but also, in the moment of performance, can be moments where you're highlighting the fact that this is a white actor in black makeup.
BOGAEV: Ian, you've written about all of the range of stage techniques that were used by male actors in Shakespeare's time to portray blackness. What were they?
SMITH: Yes, by the time we get to Othello, we do have these sort of references not just to one kind of skin blackening technique, but perhaps to several. Right, so, the "sooty bosom" reference, really, goes back to the sort of medieval practice of using coal to darken the skin. But if you look earlier in the previous century, in the 16th century, we find other practices. Primarily, the ones that I find striking, was that, particularly in court masques, actors would use cloth or the skin of animals to literally cover their necks, their hands, even their faces, to simulate blackness. And so, that's why I use the term prosthetic, because it is a kind of prosthesis. Race becomes a kind of prosthesis that one can use to impersonate somebody else. Blackness is a kind of object or thing that is presented for the speculation of the audience. And so, to think of blackness or the black body as a thing we see, that that only proved to be a sort of early instance of a kind of disturbing practice in the years, centuries to follow, where human bodies...
BOGAEV: So, slavery, and...
BOGAEV: And it's dehumanizing by definition. And, you make...
BOGAEV: This fascinating connection between this practice that you're talking about of draping black cloth, rather than dyeing the skin, in performance, and the handkerchief that Desdemona keeps with her to remind her of Othello when he's away.
BOGAEV: Tell us about that theory.
SMITH: Well, some time ago, I was... You know, I’ve been always taught about the white handkerchief in Othello. You know, Ayanna will tell you, that's sort of standard thinking on the play. But it never really sort of sat with me completely. And so, a couple years ago, I was thinking more about this, and it occurred to me as I was reading the text, that what we found there actually was a reference in the play where Shakespeare sort of makes it clear, at least to me, that... He speaks about the handkerchief "dyed in mummy."
And "mummy" has everything to do with the substance that one would extract from mummified bodies and, also, of another kind of substance called bitumen, that one would use for the same purposes that one would use the substance extracted from the mummified bodies. And, what they had in common, very often, was that they were also black. And so, you have this idea then, that Shakespeare is telling us, that the handkerchief was dyed in this black substance.
So it became clear to me that Shakespeare wanted us to think of, not a white handkerchief, but something that was other than white, and in fact something that might well, in fact, be black. On the one hand, the dyed-in-black thing goes back to the practice of what I call this sort of racial prostheses to impersonate blackness on the stage, the early modern version of blackface. When we use cloth to imitate black skin, what we also recognize is that that cloth must be dyed black.
And so, there is this notion. There's this continuity of this sort of dyeing practice. Whether it be the textile body, or the body that is cosmetically darkened, the idea that blackness is a form of dyeing process. And so, here we have, then, a dyed handkerchief. One could imagine it as a sort of portable symbol of Othello that Desdemona sort of carries around with her, all the time.
So if we think of how one uses blackface on the early modern stage, we come, once again, to the point about the body as object, the body as something that is, later on, we could think of it as a sort of commodity. That produces, I think, for the audiences, this idea, too, that these bodies are not just objects, but they're objects that are bought, sold, purchased, and to be consumed in a particular way. Which is almost a prefigure...
BOGAEV: So rich. Just exploding with meanings. Ayanna, what do you think of the black handkerchief theory and how has it been received in the academy?
THOMPSON: I'm so glad you asked that, because I was going to interrupt and say, "Barbara, you probably don't know how revolutionary this idea is that Ian put forth." It's as if we realize we've been misreading this play for 400 years. And, I mean, that's not to overstate it. This is exactly how scholars are coming to Ian's argument, like, "Oh my gosh, how have we missed this all this time?" And there have been a few who've pushed back slightly to say, "No, no. I think you're overreaching a bit." But for the most part, everyone is in awe, and saying, "Yes, now I'm understanding the play in an entirely new way."
BOGAEV: Well, that... Ian, you just rule right now. Are you fending off...
SMITH: Ayanna is being very kind.
THOMPSON: No, I'm not being very kind at all.
BOGAEV: Fending off handkerchief lecturer invites? All of this does make me wonder though, getting back to the crossdressing aspect of Elizabethan performance, both in regard to whites dressing as blacks, and men dressing as women, what Shakespearean audiences saw when they went to the theater, did they see the female character or the boy beneath the dress?
SMITH: Well, I don't know if I can answer what audiences actually saw or thought, but I think Shakespeare gives us some idea. So, let's take Iago, then, as a way to sort of come at this. In the play, Iago is arguably someone who is a sort of racial crossdresser, too. In the early modern period, blacks were typically described or rendered as having certain characteristics, right. They were seen as treacherous. They were violent. They were prone to jealousy, we're told, deceitful, and so on, right?
And I think what happens in Othello is that Shakespeare reverses the stereotypes. It is Iago to whom Shakespeare gives these sort of stereotypes, the traditional black stereotypes. And, by contrast, Shakespeare promotes Othello as very different. In Act 1, Scene 2, in particular, he casts that entire first meeting, the audience's first meeting of Othello, in a classic scene that that audience would have recognized, because they were a religiously educated audience. That is, Othello is cast in that moment where the officials come to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Nazareth at night to take him off. So what we have then is on the one hand, Iago is the sort of quote, unquote "black figure" and surprise, surprise, Othello is cast in the role of classic Christian English representation. And these two contrasting views get to the heart of what you're talking about.
Iago says very clearly that he will not wear his inside on the outside, but he'll always fashion himself in such a way that his outside will always be a clear mask for his inside. Well, we now know what the inside is all about. His inside has been characterized by blackness, following the stereotypes of the day. And so it's his white outside that becomes the mask. So Iago then wears a mask of whiteness, one could argue, and this white skin is represented to the audience as having a sort of unearned benefit or credit. And when we cast in those terms, we have what today we call white privilege. Iago says, "Well, I have that. And I can wear this and I can hide what's inside behind this white privilege that I have." And it also reminds us that Shakespeare does want us to think about the use of blackface, and whiteface, if you'd like, in his plays.
BOGAEV: And that's the beginning of the play, and since we're almost out of time, that's wonderful that you went there. Because I'd like to ask you about the end of the play, when Othello famously pleads with people to tell his story and to do it truthfully, how did Shakespeare's audience read the significance of that speech vis-à-vis race?
SMITH: We read that sort of dying, the long last speech, as a sort of divided personality. You know, is he a Christian or a Moor? Is he, you know, good or bad, this sort of divide itself idea. And I think that we have missed emphasizing something else that is there.
That is, he now recognizes everything that has gone wrong and he says essentially, I want someone to tell my story. But he makes it very clear that he wants that story to be told in a just, fair way. And so we ask ourselves, why does he pause to make that kind of distinction? And then, for me, it became clear, especially if you put this play side-by-side with Hamlet. Hamlet's dying. He has a friend, Horatio, and, he says, tell my story when I die, and Horatio in that play is the just man. And he knows that he'll have someone to tell his story; Othello doesn't.
And why is that? Because he also understands that at that moment his immediate audience is all white, and that for them to tell his story is a much more treacherous adventure on their part, than it might otherwise be, if he were able to tell it himself or if he had a reliable friend who could tell the story, too.
BOGAEV: That seems to bring us right back to what we were talking about at the very beginning of this conversation, about black Shakespeare scholars not being heard.
SMITH: Whereas I see the play as making a point for a modern audience about raising the question about, "How can we tell stories?" Shakespeare himself puts it in a racialized context. That is, he says, how can we, now, as modern day audiences, how can we tell Othello's story when Othello himself is very anxious about how that story's going to be told? When I talk about Othello essentially saying, Well, who's going to tell my story? I think the sort of meta dimension of that is about us as audiences and critics. How do we tell that story?
THOMPSON: Yes, I think it does. Although I want to intercede with a slightly different reading of the ending, right. Because I think Othello tells us to be extreme... The play, not the character. The play tells us to be extremely wary of storytellers. I mean, Iago's not the only strange storyteller in Othello the play, Othello is as well. We get various different genealogies for the handkerchief. The way he narrates his boyhood seems to come out of classical narratives that the audience would have been familiar with, therefore, not being true to his own life, but sort of that he's subsuming these other narratives. So, I think that in many ways, at the end of the play, we're supposed to be very wary of storytellers. Because, while we want to always validate the power of the storyteller, the power of the listener is really important.
SMITH: And I think Ayanna's point about skepticism then ties neatly into that point. That is, we need to be far more skeptical about the way we think we can very, sort of easily, tell Othello's story. We learn from behavioral psychologists, who have done these sort of studies recently, that as a country in the United States, we're still... 75 percent of us are more likely to be biased towards whiteness. So, if that's true, then Shakespeare's argument where he says, well, can we tell stories across sort of racial divides? The data I just cited would suggest to us that that is a kind of very problematic, but also, at the same time, exciting undertaking.
That if we are aware that we as a culture, and a culture of critics, and a culture of audiences, etcetera, and readers and students, if we have this sort of bias that still dominates what we do, how we think, how we read race in American culture, then the end of Othello really makes a demand in us to then be much more conscious and humble at the same time, when we say we want to talk about Othello, or make declarations like, "Othello is not about race." But it makes us think about, "Well, how reliable are we? And what is the basis of our saying that?" I think that's important.
THOMPSON: And so, while I agree and think that we've got to diversify the Shakespearean world to have more voices included, we also need people who already exist in the field who are willing to say, "I'm skeptical of the narrative you're telling me. Actually, this is about race. Actually, this is about power. Actually, they're related." I wish that more of our colleagues would be willing to be those kinds of listeners and readers, instead of the ones who react violently or aggressively to information that seems to go against what they already know.
BOGAEV: Well, a call to be open about and to challenge our assumptions, that is such a wonderful place to end. Thank you so much. It's been wonderful talking with both of you.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
SMITH: Thank you so much. Thank you, Ayanna.
THOMPSON: Thank you, Ian.
WITMORE: Ayanna Thompson is a professor of English at George Washington University and a trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America. Ian Smith is a professor of English at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. His article "Othello's Black Handkerchief" ran in the Spring 2013 edition of Shakespeare Quarterly. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
This podcast, "Teach Him How To Tell My Story," was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Tobey Shreiner at WAMU-FM in Washington, DC, Neil Hever at radio station WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Jeff Peters at Marketplace in Los Angeles.
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, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.