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Shakespeare & Modern Morality: William the Poetic Genius or Weird Racist Uncle?

by Frankie Regalia

There is an unmoveable standard in the theatre world: William Shakespeare is the greatest Western playwright of all time. His plays are arguably more popular 400 years later than they were in his own time. Every drama student studies him and every theatre has done at least one of his plays. It’s a level of success I doubt any other playwright will ever achieve.

Within the realm of my fellow fringe artists, there is a debate as to whether we should continue with our love affair with Shakespeare, or embrace the tidal wave of inclusivity and retire his old-straight-white-cis perspective. The content of his plays is becoming more and more uncomfortable in the framework of our modern morality. Is there a place for Shakespeare in this world?

There is an argument that, for his time, Shakespeare was incredibly forward-thinking. He portrays strong female characters unlike any of his contemporaries. Just take a look at Romeo and Juliet. Where Romeo’s lines are simple and straightforward when it comes to love, Juliet’s lines are complex and beautiful. She creates poetic metaphors and muses on the most complex intricacies of love. In Richard III, Queen Margaret has the most lines of any female character in the canon. Though she is only in a few scenes, audiences are entranced by her power, her passion, and her grief.

The Merchant of Venice and Othello are famously controversial, and yet it does not take much to see them as progressive for the time. If a director puts on Merchant as a tragedy, the story tells of a Jewish man who faces daily prejudice and eventually loses his daughter, his money, his home, his business, and his religion to the trickery of Christians. Shylock becomes a tragic and sympathetic figure, whose experiences highlight and critique society’s treatment of his people. Similarly, Othello is an honorable man that falls prey to a vicious white manipulator, through no real fault of his own other than the love of a white woman.

There are those that read these examples and think to themselves “You’re reading way too into these plays! You’re just seeing what you want to see to satisfy your own modern views.” Perhaps they have a point. Shakespeare’s comedies are rife with casual sexism. Nearly every strong female lead has no more lines once she is officially promised to a man (see Much Ado, Twelfth Night, Two Gents, Measure For Measure). Taming of the Shrew has a highly misogynistic speech about the duties of a wife given by Katerina. The Two Gentlemen of Verona has an attempted rape with no punishment for the rapist. Don’t even get me started on All’s Well That Ends Well.

Merchant of Venice is a comedy, meaning the tragic plot described earlier isn’t exactly what was written. The story is of young Christian lovers triumphing over an evil Jew when he wants to murder their friend over some money. When it comes to racism, there are plenty of horrific quotes to be found in Othello, but perhaps a more damning example is that of Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus. Unlike Othello, he has no redeeming qualities and actively stirs shit throughout the play just for the lolz.

So which is it? Is William Shakespeare a genius, whose work should be upheld as masterpieces for all time? Or, rather, is he the epitome of your racist, sexist uncle that gets drunk and we should stop putting for his ancient ideas?

In my opinion, there is a third option.

We should continue to do Shakespeare’s plays, especially the ones that make us cringe. We are at a point in our “wokeness” that we need to sit with the racism and the sexism. Don’t shy away from the rape scene in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Give it to us, real and harsh, then make your audiences feel angry and betrayed when all is forgiven. Show us Aaron the Moor in all his self-proclaimed evil, but also reveal the rampant racism from the rest of the characters and acknowledge the cycle of oppression that created this character.

Shakespeare’s work is complex and these plays are not as simple as comedy and tragedy, just as our world is not black and white. We no longer need to shy away from controversial topics, especially in classic art. We should recognize these ideas and tropes, analyze why and how they came about, explore their effects on our society, and present them to our audiences as a mirror up to nature. Now is not the time for censorship, it is the time to recognize our faults and actively try to change them. Don’t try to fit Shakespeare into your modern morality; discover why his work doesn’t fit and then determine if that is because we, as a society, have not progressed past these issues. This is the challenge that modern theatre-makers face with Shakespeare and this is why Shakespeare is still relevant 400 years later. Are you up to the challenge?

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