“If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare & the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America. They don’t need to learn quantum computing” — Sen. Tom Cotton proposes restricting Chinese students from studying science & tech at US universities.
When Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas wrote these words, what struck me — even more than the absurd yoking together of Shakespeare with the Federalist Papers as two parts of a quintessential ‘American’ university education for exchange students from China — was the effortless alignment of Shakespeare with both the casual and systemic racism woven into our national landscape. In addition, Cotton implies several things: that Shakespeare (and American politics for that matter) is not a serious subject of inquiry in other parts of the world; that the best place to engage in this study is the U.S.; and that there is an unstated, but universal, way to approach this work.
None of this is true. Cotton remains wholly unoriginal in claiming Shakespeare as fundamental to a white American university education. He is, however, part of a disappointing recent trend of public figures, critics, filmmakers, and even scholars who have continued to adapt, appropriate, or write about Shakespeare’s plays with a problematic central tenet — that there is a specific perspective needed to regard them. More often than not, the lens through which we are asked to consider these plays is that of a white, cisgender, able-bodied, man who often vociferously insists that he embodies the universal interpretive mode for all conversations about Shakespeare.
This conflation of Shakespeare and whiteness is certainly not limited to the United States. Recently, British theater critic Lloyd Evans openly lamented the loss of “white English male[s] playing a Shakespearean lead” at the expense of “[e]xperimentalism, ethnic dogmatism, and gender-blind casting.” To him, these ‘new’ interpretations prevent audiences from “listen[ing] to what Shakespeare is saying.” This claim of loss is patently false as most productions overwhelmingly continue to cast white men as the leads. Regardless, Evans automatically assumes that the whiteness of the actors is both politically and socially neutral and absolutely necessary to gain a fully unbiased understanding of the text of the plays. He forwards an agenda that is implicit in Cotton’s statement: that Shakespeare is inherently associated with white men and that their shared identity with him provides them a level of expertise with this material.
Evans echos critics including Dominic Cavendish who worry that “woke Shakespeareans” will alter or destroy what is happening in “our theaters.” This is a purposeful and exhaustingly transparent rhetorical move to exclude theater practitioners and theatergoers who do not bow to the altar of early twentieth century theatrical practices. For Evans in particular, whiteness clears the way for directors and actors to become apolitical vessels of Shakespearean words so that Derek Jacobi’s King Lear and Jude Law’s Hamlet “never tell us what he [Michael Grandage, the director] thinks Shakespeare ought to have said.” Evans never questions the possibility that his position as a critic or Grandage’s position as a director, or even Jacobi’s or Law’s positions as actors, are anything but neutral. Evans may beg to differ, but his and their experiences as white men greatly influence the reading, adaptation, and appropriations of Shakespeare’s plays.
Gregory Doran, the Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, countered Cavendish’s lamentations with assurances that theaters have always “shaped Shakespeare to our own designs.” Lyn Gardner, an editor for The Stage (UK) reminds us that there is “no such thing as an authentic Shakespeare production, not even when the Globe explores original practices.” Regardless, Evans and Cavendish may rest assured that their positions and senses of authority will not be disappearing any time soon. They should, however, still be willing and able to acknowledge that their critical viewpoints are no less political than mine, the Black woman who chose to write this short essay.
In a step beyond Evans’s declaration that whiteness clears the ways for audiences to understand Shakespeare’s texts deeply, writers David Michôd and Joel Edgerton decided to adapt and appropriate the Henriad (sans Richard II) — in a paean to Shakespeare. This time, however, the writers decided to use modern language and introduce some changes to the plot in order to explain to audiences what Shakespeare ought to have said. Michôd and Edgerton participate in the same political machinations that Evans gleefully associates with actors and directors who are women and/or people of color.
However, instead of producing a play for The Globe or The National Theatre, these two white, male writers were able to wield social and political power to convince Netflix that their new interpretation of Shakespeare was not only necessary, but also novel. Justin P. Shaw has trenchantly argued that “appropriation always happens by intent, never by accident,” and his observation holds true for The King, as well as for the versions of Shakespeare’s plays that Cotton imagines were at the center of English classes at Harvard, or the all-white productions of the plays that Evans reviews.
While neither Cotton nor Evans may have ultimately approved of the distance between Shakespeare’s text and the words that Timotheé Chalamet ultimately speaks as Hal, The King nevertheless privileges the interpretive ability and authority of men invested in hypermasculinity, compulsive heterosexuality, the erasure of women, the eschewing of difference, and the overwhelming power of whiteness. Even before the release of their film the production team capitalized on this monument to white male masculinity in its gritty and striking promotional artwork (below) in which actor Timotheé Chalamet looks downward as he dons a bowl haircut and a small facial scar which is then amplified by the serious expression as steely as the chainmail that festoons the polished breastplate of his suit of armor.
The film’s ultimate statement, however, ended up being one that embodies the loose political philosophy of the Trumpian and Brexit era: overtly bold, anachronistic, off-putting, and empty of promise. The King embraces the unfortunate realities of our current present. It romanticizes historical and contemporary structures that support and promote incurious examinations of history and mostly prosaic readings of Shakespeare’s plays. It also manages to become a cacophonous remix of Game of Thrones — a translation of 1 Henry 4 and Henry 5 into a “period film with [the filmmakers] own dialogue.” This adaptation is both uncomfortably nostalgic and aggressively presentist in its aims; it represents a very modern neoconservative history of English kingship and Shakespeare. It glorifies an all-too-familiar redemptive arc in which an extremely privileged white man inherits his expected wealth and political power with few obstacles and little resistance.
Unlike many modern global adaptations and appropriations of Shakespeare, the kinds that Evans surely loathes, this film counters Linda Hutcheon’s observations about adaptation, as it fails to “repeat without copying, to embed difference in similarity, [and] to be at once both self and Other” (A Theory of Adaptation 174). Michôd’s and Edgerton’s original intention was to make the plays more accessible because, for them, Shakespeare makes “the most intelligent people…feel stupid” due to his “kind of roundabout version of telling you simple things.” By translating early modern English and transforming the plotline, the directors sought “to let the audience understand what’s going on, and not just some people, but everybody [emphasis mine].”
Their goals concerning Shakespeare’s plays are laudable, but the filmmakers unfortunately conflate inclusion — which would ideally welcome a variety of people into the world of the plays — with universality, an ideology that wholly depends upon a discursive privileging of white, male, British/Colonial interpretive experiences and concerns. Vanessa I. Correderra cogently identifies the damage inherent in claims of universality in adaptation which “thus gloss over Shakespeare as an alienating entity — a shibboleth for approved ‘high’ culture often imagined as white.” Throughout The King, it is obvious that Michôd and Edgerton embraced their roles as directors with a white “universalist” perspective while adapting and appropriating the Henriad for their intended audiences.
Despite any claims to the contrary, The King maintains a strong attachment to so-called “high” culture and universality by relying upon the whiteness and maleness of its cast to project the authenticity of the project as well as a peculiar reimagining of characters to suit the directors’ fantasies of inclusion. They do this without reflecting upon actual, complicated, human diversity and difference. The film also elides over King Henry’s original desire in the play to unite the Scots and Welsh under the banners of whiteness, Englishness, and his throne to “chase these pagans in those holy fields” and fight a war against Brown and Black Muslim people (1.1.24). This erasure allows the filmmakers to avoid the uncomfortable truths that include this history of racial solidarity in the name of oppression.
The King suppresses revolutionary, experimental, exploratory, and inventive adaptations with an uninspired reappropriation and banal reflection on Shakespeare’s works by self-appointed (and historically supported) arbiters. Michôd and Edgerton had the time and resources to consider race, gender, and history in the plays by engaging numerous actors, critics, and scholars currently working on inclusion and Shakespeare. Their film fully undermines their own stated ambitions and recycles an exclusive version of Shakespeare who lives in the closed imaginations of men like Cotton, Cavendish, and Evans.
There is no neutral Shakespeare. There never was. As such, we must continually challenge — particularly in these times — the false assumption that Shakespeare can only be the domain of a particular set of white male readers, directors, actors, critics, or scholars. We must embrace the radical notion that Shakespeare was indeed “not of an age but for all time” — and include and support all of the worlds that his work inspires so that like Ben Jonson’s, “My Shakespeare [can] rise,” and so can yours.
Brandi K. Adams’ research involves the history of reading and book as well as editing and race in Early Modern drama. Her current project is focused on representations of books and reading in English plays from 1580–1640. She currently works as the Undergraduate Program Manager in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. You may find her on Twitter @bkadams or on her website brandikadams.com.