Gentrification and Comedies

Mainzer Straße in Berlin.
The Parallel Between Shakespeare’s Comedies and Elements of Gentrification

What is Gentrification?

Gentrification is the process of rebuilding and occupying deteriorating or poorer areas by those from a middle or upper class. The process of gentrification involves displacing poorer residents and also romanticizing the struggles of those poorer communities. In today’s society, gentrification involves urban neighborhoods where those from influential background come to find “freedom and refuge” from the mundane and first world problems of their communities, most of which are referred to as hipsters and “gentrifiers”. Also part of this process are those that form low-income artist and bohemian communities that branch out from this idea of escapism. While these “gentrifiers” find freedom from their problems, those belonging to these communities find displacement, discord, violence, and racism in the process of Gentrification.

In Shakespeare’s pastoral comedies are often used as to comment on the dance of life, the escaping of one's current situation, and also good overcoming evil. In Shakespeare’s comedies instead of escaping to low income neighborhoods, characters from his play would leave their life in the court (or a close equivalent) to venture off into the “magical countryside” or “magical city”. Shakespeare’s comedies are a reflection of modern day gentrification. This paper will focus on two of Shakespeare’s comedies: As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice in how they use elements of gentrification.

Escapism from Reality

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, escapism is an activity or form of entertainment that allows people to forget about the real problems of life. [i] This can be both a physical and mental escape while the activity used to escape is mostly physical. In modern times common displays of escapism involve the use of technology, becoming a weekend warrior, and even drinking problems away with friends. Gentrification escapism involves moving from one place to another and becoming someone else while trying to forget the problems they were running from. Shakespeare’s As You Like is a perfect example of gentrification escapism because of the young people used in the play.

In As You Like it, the character Rosalind’s problem is first introduced to the audience in Act I, Scene 3 of the play. After discussing her love for Orlando with her cousin Celia, Rosalind is exiled out of the court by her uncle Duke Frederick and in lines 445 through 447 is told to do so within 10 days and away from the court as twenty miles or she will be executed for it. [ii] When her Celia sticks up for Rosalind Duke Frederick tells Celia that “Thou art a fool. She robs thee of thy name; And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous when she is gone.” [iii] Rosalind’s literal reason for escapism is that she’s escaping from her exile. Rosalind with Celia and court jester Touchstone, are heading to Arden to escape Duke Frederick and be away from his ruling thumb.

However, the metaphorical reason for her escape is gender conventions. A big part of escapism is being someone else and in As You Like It, Rosalind becomes the identity known as Ganymede. While Rosalind ideas are pushed aside from earlier in the play as Ganymede she/he is allowed to give advice, find love, and even speak for herself/himself by the end of the play. However as Ganymede, she/he is allowed to forget the reason for her/his exile and pursue a “better” existence outside of being compared to her cousin.

While escaping gender conventions is a good thing, the problem that is being reflected is that Rosalind for most of the play is Ganymede and her “womanhood” or her identity as Rosalind is pretty much dampened in most of the play. In Act II Scene 4 Rosalind tells Celia and Touchstone that “She/he [I] could find in my heart to disgrace her/his [my] man’s apparel, and to cry like a woman; but she/he [I] must comfort the weaker vessel…”[iv] This line is used to let the audience know that Ganymede is determined to keep this act up even if her/his wants to cry out like Rosalind would, but for the sake of the escape he/she must continue forward.

Another problem with this idea of usurping gender conventions is in the way it’s done throughout most of the play. Main example, Rosalind/Ganymede tricks Orlando into believing she/he is a teacher of love to fulfill her/his idea of what displays of love should look like. She/he still ends up participating in the dance of life with Orlando as Rosalind. Instead of seeing this as usurping gender conventions, the play delivers Rosalind/Ganymede’s performance as escapism through cosplay; this for the play's sake is a performance within a performance. The idea is that you are playing a role within a role without anyone questioning you for it.

In gentrification language, it’s the privilege ability to become someone else and not be bound by roles like the world around them. Example, none of the shepherds can become lords or go back to the court like Orlando and Rosalind. How they started in the play is how they finished in the play. This is a reflection of how real life works. Many from a privilege class (example: “starving” artist) can change who they are back and forth while others of the working/poorer classes are stuck by societal boundaries. The reason for this type of practice continues is because of the mindset that is romanticized to living in these areas.

Romanticizing of Hard Living

Romanticism was a movement originating in the late 1700s in Europe that emphasized an individual’s imagination and expression.[i] It was movement that departed from societal rules and conventions while also promoting individuality. However, when one’s ideal of Romanticism is forced on another’s way of living Romanticism often times becomes romanticizing culture or romanticizing another way of living. An example of this is seen in Pastoral literature where the “simple” countryside is idealized and city life is seen as corrupting and too complex.[ii]

In As You Like It, the character Duke Senior makes an impassioned speech about life in Arden. He talks about the glory of there being no evil and how exile has given him and his men wisdom and built their character. Shakespeare then introduces the audience to Jaques offstage, who protest Duke Senior’s idea of living and his idea of just hunting for sport. He even refers to their group as “mere usurpers, tyrants…” who “fright the animals, and [to] kill them up in their assign’d and native dwelling-place.[iii] This is an example of Shakespeare’s down-to-earth attitude towards the facts of real life which undermine the fictions and fantasies of pastoral living and in a way Arden. [iv]

In parallel to 21st America, many “gentrifiers” have the same mindset as Duke Senior. They find “beauty” and “adventure” in urban America, but do not understand the culture or hardship around it. Duke senior is not a shepherd, hunter, or farmer by trade, and yet he tries to romanticize their hardship as his own. The audience never gets to see Duke Senior participating in any hard work, instead we see him mostly having dinners and musing about the simplicity of country life. The same can be said about many who live the gentrifiers’ lifestyle. They participate in the cultural side of things, but never value the hardship fully because they don’t actually have to live it.

Racism

This type of thinking can be celebratory in some instances, even if built on ignorance, but on the other side of the spectrum it can also lead to practices of racism. When a person or people of influence build up a mindset about an area or a way of living, they also build up a perception about the people living within the area. This perception whether celebratory or damning is damaging to those native and living in that area because it’s built on a falsehood that leads to troubling actions. In The Merchant of Venice, the audience is shown different displays of racism built from years of Eurocentrism and Anglo Christian doctrine. The argument that comes up when mentioning The Merchant of Venice is whether or not the play is anti-racism or anti-Semitic with the center focus being on the character Shylock.

Senior Lecturer in the Curriculum Studies Department at Zimbabwe University, Mika Nyoni, suggest in the article “The Culture of Othering: An Interrogation of Shakespeare’s Handling of Race” that “the handling of the characterization of Shylock shows that at worst Shakespeare had entrenched prejudices against Jews and at best he was dancing to the Elizabethan audience’s racist dictates.[i] While Professor, Ph.D. University of Washington Jim O’Rourke argues that “…a close reading of the play within the micro politics of its immediate historical moment suggests that The Merchant is in fact an anti racist response to the hanging of Rodrigo Lopez in 1594.[ii] While both present compelling arguments to Shakespeare’s intention the focus of topic is not on the playwright’s intention, but rather the comparison between Shakespeare’s world and the contemporary world involving racism and the subject of gentrification. Also because of the focus of this topic, attention should be shown on the character Shylock and his declarations rather than the actions returned back to his antagonist and also parallel to modern day racism.

In Act I, Scene 3, the audience is introduced to the Jewish moneylender of Venice, Shylock who lends Bassanio money so that he can travel to his love Portia so that he can win her hand in marriage. In doing so, he makes his dear friend Antonio a co-signer with some conditions in paying back the loan. In the first interaction with Shylock on stage, we see Antonio’s anti semitism towards Shylock. Shylock in Act I, Scene 3 from lines 433 to 455 calls Antonio out for his anti semitism towards Shylock and his need to come to him for money. And yet still “call’d him [me] dog; and for these courtesies, he’ll [I’ll] lend you thus much money’s…[iii] The act that his being called out here is beneficial racism. Because Shylock has to make a living lending money he has to accept Antonio as a co-signer. Antonio benefits from this because he gets to do two things: he gets to help Bassanio and uphold his Christian anti-Semitic beliefs against Shylock.

We see this same act in modern day society and gentrification. Racism allows those in power to benefit from the hard labor and culture of those in the minority while still upholding prejudice beliefs that are harmful to minorities. In gentrification, we see this when “gentrifiers” and hipsters try to redevelop areas where minorities live while also appropriating the benefits and culture of that area. For example, hipsters can love hip hop, “borrow” urban clothing as their own, while also referring to those who do those things as part as their culture as “ghetto”, “hood”, and sometimes “shady”. While this racism isn’t as pronounced as Antonio, it falls under the same parallel.

Another important comparison is the understanding that minorities in impoverished or urban communities [ghettos] are also people. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement was created to remind the world that black people are also humans and their lives are just as important as anyone else. We see this same declaration from Shylock in Act III, Scene I, line 1292 to 1307, when he ask “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions…” and also “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrongs a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.[iv] This speech given to Solanio and Salarino is important because it isn’t a speech used to declare himself their better by calling himself their equal. Instead, he declares that it is his same feelings of being wronged and stolen from and his thirst for revenge that makes him their equal.

In a sense, this is similar to the Black Lives Matter, the anti-gentrification and cultural appropriation movement. This is the parallel of wanting to fight for the justice that they deserve and to fight against the wrongs done to them over and over again. Whether the justice comes from revenge or righteousness does not matter, what matters is that they receive what they’re owed.

Conclusion

Shakespeare’s plays present some of the same Eurocentric mindset that have been put on present day living. Many travel through ghettos reaping the benefit of not having to actually endure hardship while pretending to be someone they're not. Others are forcing their romanticized ideas of life in urban communities while not truly seeing the poverty and hardship that go in them. And finally racism is common practice, dehumanizing and demanding from minorities. While these aren’t completely the same as living in Arden or Shakespearean Venice we see these same themes in present day America. Shakespeare’s comedies are our present day gentrification.


“Escapism.” Merriam-Webster.1933. Print.

“Pastoral Poetry in Brief.” Crossref-it. Web. April 21, 2015.

“Romantisim.” merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Romanticism. Merriam-Webster1823. Print.

Cirillo, Albert R. . “As You Like It: Pastoralism Gone Awry.” ELH 38.1 (1971): 19–39. Print.

Nyoni, Mika “The Culture of Othering: An Interrogation of Shakespeare’s Handling of Race and Ethnicity in the Merchant of Venice and Othello.” Theory & Practice in Language Studies 2.4 (2012): 680–87. Print.

O’Rourke, James. “Racism and Homophobia in “the Merchant of Venice”.” ELH 70.2 (2003): 375–97. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It.” (1599). Open Source Shakespeare. Web. 4/21/2016.

— -. “Merchant of Venice.” (1596). Open Source Shakespeare Web.


[1] (“Escapism”)

[1] (Shakespeare “As You Like It”)

[1] (Shakespeare “As You Like It”)

[1] (Shakespeare “As You Like It”)

[1] (“Romantisim”)

[1] (“Pastoral Poetry in Brief”)

[1] (Shakespeare “As You Like It”)

[1] (Cirillo)

[1] (Nyoni)

[1] (O’Rourke)

[1] (Shakespeare “Merchant of Venice”)

[1] (Shakespeare “Merchant of Venice”)