February 5, 2020
Author: Ralph Berry
And then they came for Shakespeare…. A distinguished and widely respected newsreader for Independent Television News, Alistair Stewart, quoted these lines on Twitter:
“But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured—
His glassy essence—like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep…”
(Measure for Measure, 2.2.117-22)
They were sent to Martin Shapland, a former Liberal Democratic activist, who is black. Outraged, he wrote on Twitter: “If ITV newsreaders think it’s OK to use [an] outdated classical text to get an association with the word ape about a black person they’ve been bullying and seeking to belittle all afternoon then this country really is broken.”
There is no racism behind the Bard’s lines, of course, and no racist intent on the part of Stewart, who had worked for ITV since 1983. The complaint is obviously spurious. But Stewart was forced to quit by the ITV, which alleged that he had “breached ITN’s editorial guidelines.” His colleagues rallied to his defence, with warm praise for him personally and for his charitable work. Yet the authorities had failed to back him up, and took their chance to sack him. That is the most sinister aspect of the matter, as it is the authorities who are the real problem. Shapland, a type with which we are all too familiar, took his fifteen minutes of fame and then backed off from his complaint, saying that he would be satisfied with an apology. Stewart, naturally, remains dismissed. The forces of cultural oppression have put Shakespeare in the dock by deliberately misconstruing his meaning to allay the emotions of people yearning for their human rights to be violated. The law will doubtless go some way toward supporting them, since a good deal of law gives a strong hearing to the complainant as victim. As it happens, Shakespeare had earlier experienced condemnation on the same grounds that Shapland cited.
In 1999 David Howard, aide to the Mayor of Washington, DC, used the word “niggard” in reference to the city budget. He was at once assailed by his black colleagues. “Niggard” has no etymological connection at all with the unprintable, unmentionable word: It means “parsimonious, stingy, miserly.” It is found in Shakespeare, where Rosencrantz reports to Claudius that Hamlet was “niggard of question” (3.1.13); a remark entirely void, of course, of racial reference. That did not save Howard, who resigned following the Mayor’s expressions of displeasure. (After a public outcry, he was appointed to another position under Howard.) Julian Bond, then President of the NAACP, did not join the mob. “You hate to think that you have to censor your own language to meet other people’s lack of understanding.” But the public verdict went the other way. Similar incidents involving “niggard” subsequently occurred elsewhere in the United States, and the word seems now to have disappeared from public controversy. I suppose that means it has been effectively outlawed in the U.S., or at least quarantined.
Shakespeare will not be saved by the theatre, which these days disowns fidelity to his intentions. Directors—who rule the stage—are presently in an ecstasy of gender-bending and diverse castings. It began with the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, when a race-reversed cast performed Othello in 1997, with Patrick Stewart as a white Othello and all the other roles, including Iago, played by black actors. This curiosity of theatre has been widely repeated. Particularly piquant is the case of Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra is traditionally played by a white actress, white actresses being understandably reluctant to give up their claims to this star part. However, the play’s opening speech makes a derisive reference to Antony’s infatuation with “a tawny front,” a hint the director took enthusiastically. In 2017 the Royal Shakespeare Company cast a black actress, Josette Simon, as Cleopatra. In the final disrobing scene she gave the audience a full-frontal view of her tawny front, a courageous move since she was 57 at the time. I think we can take it that Cleopatra’s part is now open to negotiation. The days when the purist Peter Hall ran the RSC are long over, and Shakespeare can look for hard times with his successors.
(Editor’s Note: The February number of The Spectator: U.S. Edition (titled This Edition is Cancelled) is devoted to a critique of the “cancellation culture” in the United States and Great Britain.)