This article is a part of the Daily Arts “Canceled” b-side. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.
“Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” After losing his job and honor through his own liquor-fueled folly, “Othello’s” Cassio utters forth one of the most famous lines in classical theatre. The somberness of the line, when juxtaposed with the hilarity of Cassio’s drunken stupor, leaves the audience with a somewhat ambiguous interpretation of the Bard’s thoughts on the nature of reputation.
Over 400 years after his death, the question of reputation continues to hang in the balance. In an era in which the character and works of any public figure may be called into question, even Shakespeare’s legacy does not escape the scrutiny of the public eye. As identity politics become increasingly relevant, a brigade of both intellectuals and remedial English dropouts seek to “cancel” the world’s most famous playwright.
To cancel or not to cancel is a question rooted in futility. For the power of cancellation lies not in the will, but in the ability. Which, in the case of Shakespeare, is nonexistent. Despite the best efforts of critics everywhere, the Bard remains as relevant and as popular as ever.
The most popular critique is that of the linguistic inaccessibility of the text, specifically that which deals with outdated language and racial slurs. This is undoubtedly a critique that warrants serious consideration, especially against the history of trauma and discrimination that may be associated with such language. However, Shakespeare’s use of language fails to justify immediate cancellation.
The age of the canon and the mystery surrounding its origins allow for a great deal of ambiguity in its interpretation. It is removed from the harsh scrutiny of a modern linguistic perspective, hence its shortcomings are overlooked, or merely regarded as “a product of the time.” Modern directors take liberty in cutting lines as they see fit if certain phrases prove to be offensive. The text is a living, breathing legacy unto itself and adapts accordingly.
Nevertheless, the biases of the author, whoever he, she or they may be, undoubtedly play a significant role in the formation and consequent perpetuation of sexist, racist and antisemitic stereotypes. The Bard creates a dichotomy between the fair Desdemona and the Black Othello, equating the former with virtue and the latter with jealousy and rage. The infamous Shylock of “The Merchant of Venice” embodies Eurocentric biases regarding the nature of Judaism, consequently perpetuating anti-Jewish attitudes through its cultural and historical inconsistencies. The tempestuous relationship between Petruchio and Katerina in The “Taming of the Shrew” seemingly trivializes marital abuse through its subjugation of Kate in its final act.
These biases are evident to Shakespearean scholars and neophytes alike; nevertheless, they fail to damn the Bard beyond redemption. Shakespeare undoubtedly pandered to an audience that would accept such cultural stereotypes as axiomatic. What he does next, however, calls all supposed axioms into question. He humanizes them. Shakespeare’s genius lies in his ability to take a hackneyed stereotype and question it. He remains both a product and revolutionary of his time, as he does not openly refute established mores. He merely incites skepticism. He introduces his audiences to the various shades of gray within the human landscape. Those which reside within people of all races, genders, ages and creeds.
The figure of the Bard himself incites a great deal of controversy, as the true origin of these works is unknown. The theories are numerous and infinite, spanning various levels of validity. The identities of William Shakespeare himself situate him among the most famous writers of his time, almost all of whom are middle to upper-class white men.
Shakespeare’s detractors could argue that the universal obsession with Shakespeare’s works is rooted in a Eurocentric and patriarchal worldview that prioritizes the works of white men over those of women, BIPOC and other underrepresented groups. They would be correct. No author, no matter how great, deserves literary hegemony. However, any attempts to remove or diminish the presence of Shakespeare in academia and beyond will fail. The longstanding and expansive nature of his body of work inextricably links it to nearly every work of art that follows it. Western culture is merely a series of footnotes to Shakespeare. To remove him from the fabric of society is to unravel it entirely.
Furthermore, the inclusion of Shakespeare in the theatrical tradition does not actively remove or overshadow the contributions made by female and BIPOC playwrights. Scapegoating a dead playwright is a convenient solution to draw attention away from the intrinsic discrimination and underrepresentation present in the literary and theatrical community. The root of the issue lies not in the figure of Shakespeare, or even his works, but in a system which prioritizes some voices over others.
The final criticism of Shakespeare’s detractors is as correct as it is ineffective. His narratives are wholly unoriginal. I concur. The majority of his plays are derived from pre-existing stories or historical events. “The Merchant of Venice” is practically “The Jew of Malta” fanfiction. Yet “The Jew of Malta” lacks the same notoriety as “The Merchant of Venice.” Why? Shakespeare perfects it. He takes the monotone caricature of Barabas and turns him into the emotional concerto that is Shylock. “Macbeth,” “Othello,” “King Lear” and even “Hamlet” are not original narratives. Shakespeare’s brilliance lies in his ability to play it safe; he bets on the one thing that remains static through millennia. Human nature. He treats the human being with the utmost care, and as a result, his plays puzzle the mind and pierce the heart in a way that no other work can. Perchance someday the world will find reason enough to eliminate the Bard from its collective memory. I find little evidence that its efforts will prove successful. The plays survive long after their author is “food for worms”, they exist independently of their maker. Even if the figure of Shakespeare is somehow demystified and consequently canceled, the work lives on.
The bard says it best in the epilogue of “The Tempest,” which many believe to be Shakespeare’s last play. As Prospero relinquishes his magic; his creator does the same. He sheds the yoke of reputation and lets the world perceive his works as they please. “Now my charms are all o’erthrown / And what strength I have’s mine own.”
To phrase it more succinctly: haters gonna hate.
Daily Arts Writer Darby Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.