More has been written about William Shakespeare and his body of work than probably about any other person or topic, yet the facts of his life are scant. He was born 1564, lived under the rule of both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, died 1616, lived in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, had an education, bought a gentlemen’s title, owned land and shares in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was married to Anne Hathaway, and was an actor, poet, writer, and businessman. A rehearsal of these facts and more can be found in any number of biographies of Shakespeare, in any introduction to his works, or through a quick Google search. However, what interests me is less Shakespeare the man and more Shakespeare the phenomenon, which has come to inhabit what Donald Hedrick and Bryan Reynolds call “Shakespace,” or the combined physical, conceptual, and emotional space that the various streams of Shakespeare (directors, programming languages, actors, books, editors, films, toys, classes, discussions, philosophies, video games, scripts, stage managers, designers, nations etc.) coalesce to make. All of this is to say that the reasons for why we continue to care about Shakespeare are still a mystery for me, but the fact that we do is both exciting and carries with it significant social and political stakes.
Shakespeare has been claimed by the United States, England, and Germany. His works were required reading everywhere across the British empire on the African, Asian, and North American continents. They have been at the crossroads of American history: Richard III was the play that shut down the first African-American theater, the African Grove, in early 1820s New York when the jealous and racist owner of the Park Theatre orchestrated a riot at African Grove because the Park Theatre was also putting on Richard III, starring Junius Brutus Booth, the father of John Wilkes Booth. Coriolanus was staged in 1778 for American soldiers in the midst of war in New Hampshire. And Shakespeare’s plays have been staged at other significant moments of what we call western history such as during the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe and WWII, just as they have popped up in the most unlikely places in our contemporary moment such as the 2012 London Olympic Games and in the besieged suburbs of Damascus.
At the same time, Shakespeare has been used as a cudgel against cultures and languages of people’s dominated by European colonialism. His plays are as full of racism, sexism, bigotry, and nationalism as they are of love, friendship, and beauty. His works have been upheld as icons of white civility and have been used and sometimes continue to be used as tools of the “civilizing process”on Native American reservations, in predominately Black and Hispanic “inner city” schools, and in prisons. I do not list off these various moments and uses of Shakespeare in order to demonstrate Shakespeare’s ubiquity– I think there are more people in the world who do not care or know about Shakespeare than that do– but to highlight the messiness of Shakespeare’s legacy and deflate some of the assumptions that often come with an American production of Shakespeare. Whether doing Shakespeare is affirmative or negative, or whether his work is good or bad is beside the point. The point, rather, is that to do Shakespeare is implicitly a political statement, and one whose contents depends on how Shakespeare is staged, interpreted, contextualized, and discussed.
It seems that Ben Jonson’s words were prophetic, when he said of Shakespeare that “he was not of an age but for all time,” in his “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare” (1623). However, it seems even more that Shakespeare has been made into a writer “for all time” by those who continue to debate, stage, and rework his productions. In other words, Shakespeare belongs to the specific people in particular times and places that engage with Shakespace– to you, the audience, to us, the producers, to every high school student who is inspired, and to each one that wishes she could throw Hamlet into the garbage bin. There is no necessity to engage with Shakespace, it is not a gateway to timelessness, but if we do engage, then, as with all adventures to new places, times, and spaces, we should ask ourselves: Why here? Why now?
Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (1998) Ania Loomba
Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance (2006) Ania Loomba and Ayanna Thompson
Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America (2011) Ayanna Thompson
Shakespeare Without Class: Misappropriations of Cultural Capital (2000) Donald K. Hedrick and Bryan Reynolds
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2006) James Shapiro
The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth Century America (2007) Nigel Cliff
Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2005) Stephen Greenblatt
Popular Shakespeare: Simulation and Subversion on the Modern Stage (2009) Stephen Purcell
Shakespeare Performance Studies (2014) W.B. Worthen
Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance (2010) W.B. Worthen
Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance (2003) W.B. Worthen