Can you extract a pound of flesh without blood? How the power struggles in Shakespearean drama speak to an age of decolonisation

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are advised that this article names and quotes a deceased person.

Last October, New Zealand’s arts council pulled funding for the Shakespeare Globe Festival, a school event of 30 years’ standing. They said it lacked relevance to decolonising Aotearoa. Days later, with the support of then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – once a participant – the program was reinstated.

This tug of war has been played out across the decades of the decolonising era, during which the pedagogical value of Shakespeare’s work has often been called into question. But the argument’s terms of reference are often confused. Attempts to cancel Shakespeare events and remove his plays from educational curricula are based on a misguided sense of how drama is made.

Cultural forms, such as drama, are not policies; they are creative practices. To be better custodians of all cultures, we need to understand that they are made of living layers. Shakespeare’s work is less like a limb requiring amputation, and more like a layer of living tissue that has been constantly revitalised through friction with its surroundings.

The British imperial project spread Shakespeare’s work throughout the world, but imperialism cannot take credit for the diverse range of uses to which millions of people have put it. If we pay attention to the layered, living history of Shakespeare in performance, rather than its superficial cultural capital, we discover that it is just as useful for exploring difference and diversity as it is for affirming continuities.

Read more:
Much ado about Shakespeare – why it’s time for a New Zealand national theatre

A habitable story-language

Shakespearean drama is a habitable story-language shared by more of humanity than any other single author. As James Evans, Deputy Director of Australia’s Bell Shakespeare Company, sees it:

For us, Shakespeare is the world’s playwright. He transcends the label of “Western culture” and speaks to each of us as human beings.

Evans finds evidence in the fact that “Shakespeare has been translated into over 100 languages”.

The enduring and widespread popularity of Shakespeare has elicited many explanations. The one reached for by those who see banning Shakespeare as essential to decolonising educational curricula is that his work has been used to perpetuate white patriarchal privilege. Such criticism points to an idea about Shakespeare, but implies a limited curiosity about the drama itself and the felt experience of its interpretation in the world today.

No doubt knowledge of, or professed affinity for, Shakespeare’s plays can be mobilised to confer or perpetuate class privilege. This is an example of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital”. A carefully placed Shakespeare volume on your coffee table may signal your privileged class origins.

But so what? Shakespeare did not emerge from privilege. He did not go to university; his regional accent would have made him a misfit in London. His plays, if you dare to go beyond the cover, mock social climbers (even though he was one) and dramatise struggles against arbitrary systems of power.

Injustice based on ingrained prejudice is a key theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays. The engine of the dramatic action is often resistance, revolt or revenge. Romeo and Juliet, Cordelia and Kent in King Lear, Desdemona and Othello, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Isabella in Measure for Measure – these are just some of the characters who suffer in structures of power that protect the privilege of the oppressor. And many of these characters speak truth to power, even while they are experiencing the vertigo of systemic injustice.

The earth is not dead

This makes it unsurprising that Shakespeare’s plays have had strong imaginative uptake by artists of First Nations origin, who have used Shakespeare to challenge the philosophical status quo of modern Western thought. As recently as 2020, a West Australian theatre company produced a version of Macbeth adapted into the Noongar language. This process of creative appropriation revitalises the drama and, in turn, contributes to its ongoing popularity.

A wonderful example of such revitalising friction emerges in an interview with Peter Hinton – director of an all-Indigenous Canadian production of King Lear staged at the National Arts Centre in 2012. Hinton refers to the scene near the end of the play, when the elderly King staggers onto the stage carrying the body of his daughter, Cordelia:

I know when one is dead and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth.

Hinton recounts how August Schellenberg, the Montreal-born Métis actor playing Lear, claimed that the words were “hard to say” because “the earth isn’t dead”. In Hinton’s account, this began a journey of “opening up the play in a new way”.

Beginning with Peter Brook’s landmark 1971 film adaptation, King Lear has been interpreted in Anglo-European contexts as nihilistic. The king is read as a paranoid autocrat unleashing cruelty and suffering that ends in unredeemable loss.

But this is a partial and biased interpretation shaped by Eurocentric preoccupations. The moral transformation of Lear actually contrasts sharply with modern autocratic dictators and Cordelia’s forgiveness of him transcends the retributive pattern of the play’s world. The reconciliation between Cordelia and Lear is nothing short of miraculous, even if it is followed by their demise. Think how much more nihilistic (and boring) the play would be if Lear doubled down on his rejection of his daughter, or if Cordelia refused to forgive her repentant father.

Schellenberg, approaching the play from an Indigenous perspective, was able to breathe new life into the possibility of spiritual transcendence through connection with the earth – the earth is not dead. His story demonstrates how cross-cultural adaptations can generate productive friction between the embedded cultural norms of the text and those of its adapters.

Read more:
Macbeth by William Shakespeare: a timeless exploration of violence and treachery

The Shadow King

A 2013 Australian adaptation of King Lear called The Shadow King also hatched new meanings. Developed for Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre by director Michael Kantor and Indigenous artist Tom E. Lewis, who played Lear, the production’s dominant visual motif was earth. The all-Indigenous cast performed on a stage of red dust which came to coat their bodies and mark their clothes.

In the play’s secondary plot, Edgar, framed by his brother Edmund, flees into the wilderness and takes refuge in the disguise of “poor Tom” – a madman. In The Shadow King, this journey took on the sense of an initiation rite, which instilled new wisdom and strength in the naïve Edgar, played by Damion Hunter. Edgar sifted the earth through his fingers and painted his body with white clay. What Lear calls “unaccommodated man” was not a victim, but a thing of power, pride, and beauty – a thing rendered immortal through the narrative connection with country and people. Lear’s neglect of these connections precipitated his downfall.

The production also tackled the issue of intergenerational loss of identity through loss of respect for story. In allowing such detailed treatment of Indigenous cultural topics, the production arrived at new and surprising alignments between Shakespeare’s Lear and contemporary Australian Indigenous cultures. Rather than reinforcing the historic opposition between white imperial culture and First Peoples, this production took composite culture as the starting point for a story about intra-cultural Indigenous experience in a layered, living present.

In an interview with Matthew Westwood for The Australian, Lewis stressed the importance of holding respect for traditional stories in tension with the imperative to make them live in the present:

If we disrespect, we lose the story […] From the beginning we’ve got to be true to the story that we’re doing. It will make you respect a lot of things. The story is taking us back into our cultural dynasties.

“We don’t want to take it away from the old story,” Lewis says. “But you’ve got the old mob playing an old story in a new version: that’s a good little triangle isn’t it?”

In June 2016, The Shadow King was staged at London’s Barbican Theatre – a wonderful example of taking the story back with a new interpretation.

Throughout the decolonising era, Shakespeare’s “old stories” have been used to make meaning in fresh and unexpected ways. Shakespeare could not have imagined the particular resonances developed in the Indigenous productions described above, but drama as a cultural form is designed to accommodate local places, bodies and imaginations.

Read more:
Decolonising Shakespeare: setting Othello in Ghana and Pericles in Glasgow

Topical and relevant

This is the dynamic I point to when I am asked if Shakespeare is still relevant today. By “relevant” people usually mean topical, and the short answer is yes. I can easily map out how Isabella’s protest against Angelo’s sexual coercion in Measure for Measure aligns with insights of the #MeToo movement.

But there are more interesting questions to ask of art than whether it mirrors our present preoccupations. The relevance – as distinct from the topicality – of Shakespearean drama, is in its use by so many different kinds of people across centuries as a tool for thinking about contests of power between and within human beings. Shakespeare merits the kind of respect Lewis speaks of – respect for an enduring, flexible and useful story-language.

Next to ice sculpting, theatre is probably the most ephemeral art form. But Shakespeare’s plays have achieved a living durability akin to lore. Consider this: at any given moment, there is probably someone speaking the words of Portia from the Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Here Portia urges Shylock to relinquish his rightful slice of Antonio’s flesh. Admirers of Shakespeare might point to the strength of Portia’s moral logic. Critics may point out that Portia is a hypocrite who shows very little mercy to Shylock – the cultural and religious outsider – when she has the upper hand. Feminists might point to the command Portia achieves through eloquence in a patriarchal society, or they may critique the exclusivity of the male pronouns. Lovers of poetry will point out how the balanced structure of the language mirrors the set of scales which are brought on stage to weigh out the pound of flesh. Others will recognise with delight that this play is the origin of the useful idiom “a pound of flesh”.

Whatever way you look at it, the party started a long time ago. We are joining a critical conversation about things that matter: justice, mercy, hypocrisy, retribution, and language.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock recognises too late that he has brokered a bad deal. The pound of flesh to which the law entitles him cannot be claimed without any blood. Excision of Shakespeare from educational curricula and cancellation of longstanding Shakespeare events is like trying to claim the cultural pound of flesh without any blood. Such moves defeat their own agendas because they diminish diversity.

Since Shakespeare’s time, many imaginations have become the sustaining lifeblood of his drama. Diminish Shakespeare literacy and we diminish the capacity to engage with this multicultural, trans-historical legacy of creative practice.

Without this continuous transfusion of feelings shaped by real experiences of injustice and exclusion, as well as hope, faith and love, Shakespeare would be just one of many skilled and prolific English playwright from the 16th century – all of whom are worth exploring for the curious reader.

But Shakespeare has the added edge of continuous use. Interpretation and adaptation of Shakespeare empowers artists to join a centuries-long global conversation, to speak back to the past, and to exercise own their creative agency in the present. It is through this continuity and diversity of use by so many different kinds of people that Shakespeare has become, in practice, “the world’s playwright”.

Lear and Cordelia – John Raphael Smith (1784).
Public domain

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