Shakespeare and the post-colonial question
ANIA LOOMBA AND MARTIN ORKIN
Shakespeare lived and wrote at a time when English mercantile and colonial enterprises were just germinating. Although the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch ventures began earlier, European colonialism as a whole was still in its infancy. But this infancy was also an aggressive ascendancy: four hundred years later, both Shakespeare and colonialism have left their imprint on cultures across the globe. The nature of their global presence, and the historical interactions between ‘Shakespeare’ and colonialism, have been, in the last decade, subjected to new and exciting critiques. Such critiques have shown how Anglo-American literary scholarship of the last two centuries offered a Shakespeare who celebrated the superiority of the ‘civilized races’, and, further, that colonial educationists and administrators used this Shakespeare to reinforce cultural and racial hierarchies. Shakespeare was made to perform such ideological work both by interpreting his plays in highly conservative ways (so that they were seen as endorsing existing racial, gender and other hierarchies, never as questioning or destabilizing them) and by constructing him as one of the best, if not ‘the best’, writer in the whole world. He became, during the colonial period, the quintessence of Englishness and a measure of humanity itself. Thus the meanings of Shakespeare’s plays were both derived from and used to establish colonial authority.
Intellectuals and artists from the colonized world responded to such a Shakespeare in a variety of ways: sometimes they mimicked their colonial masters and echoed their praise of Shakespeare; at other times they challenged the cultural authority of both Shakespeare and colonial regimes by turning to their own bards as sources of alternative wisdom and beauty. In yet other instances, they appropriated Shakespeare as their comrade in anti-colonial arms by offering new interpretations and adaptations of his work. In recent years, both Shakespearean scholars and critics working within postcolonial studies have increasingly begun to scrutinize the ways in which the colonial and racial discourses of early modern England might have shaped Shakespeare’s work, and also the processes by which Shakespeare (in performance and study) later became a colonial battlefield. The overlaps, tensions, as well as possibilities of a dialogue, between Shakespearean and post-colonial studies is the subject of Post-Colonial Skakespeares. In this introductory essay, we would like briefly to map the intellectual histories and contours of this dialogue, and gesture at its potential problems as well as enormous possibilities.
The collapse of formal empires accelerated critiques of imperial and colonial philosophies, ideologies and aesthetics, both from within so-called metropolitan societies and, most vitally, from oncecolonized ones. Anti-colonial struggles and individuals in both places challenged established colonialist readings of history, culture and literature. So did some of the critical vocabularies that developed within Western intellectual and political traditions such as Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and linguistics. There are enormous differences between and within these various perspectives, but also important areas of overlap and dialogue. All of them challenged the ‘meta-narratives’ (or dominant writings on philosophy, language, history, culture and aesthetics) that had excluded and marginalized the experience and cultures of the underprivileged—the lower classes and castes, women, colonized people, homosexuals and others. The interests of these subordinated groups did not always overlap, but all of them, in rewriting dominant intellectual and political traditions, insisted that ideological and social practices are interconnected, indeed that they constitute each other. The decentring of the human subject was important to all of them because such a subject had been theorized by European imperialist discourses as male and white. Again, various oppositional movements (particularly anti-colonial and feminist struggles) as well as the new critical perspectives have all emphasized culture and literature as a site of conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed. They also paid new attention to language as a tool of domination and as a means of constructing identity.
Of course, there have also been disagreements on these questions, as anti-colonial feminists and other activists are involved not only in questioning totalizing frameworks but also in the possibility of social change. But together, they have made possible a new kind of literary criticism, where history does not just provide a background to the study of texts, but forms an essential part of textual meaning; conversely, texts or representations are seen as fundamental to the creation of history and culture. Within Anglo-American academic institutions, such critical vocabularies, as is well known by now, were in part developed via studies of Shakespeare and early modern culture. During the 1980s and 1990s cultural materialists, new historicists and feminists utilized the insights of Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and semiotics to reinterpret class, gender and sexual relations in early modern Europe and to reflect on the dynamic interrelation between cultural forms (including literature) and social power. Most importantly, some of these new analyses also considered the ways in which these earlier cultural, social and literary heritages shape our contemporary world. Thus, reintepreting Shakespeare’s plays became, at least for some critics, part of the business of reinterpreting and changing our own world. How ‘Shakespeare’ functioned in contemporary classrooms, in films, television, theatre and the tourist trade, and how his cultural authority was built up over the past four hundred years, became the subject of new critiques.
These re-readings of Renaissance culture and power opened up, in at least two important ways, questions of colonialism and race in relation to Shakespeare. First, scholars began to examine emergent colonial discourses and relations during the early modern period and their impact on different aspects of English history, culture and representations. Of course, there had been pioneering scholarship in these areas earlier—books such as Samuel Chew’s The Crescent and the Rose (1937), which examined views and representations of Islam in Elizabethan and Jacobean England; Eldred Jones’s Othello’s Countrymen (1965) and The Elizabethan Image of Africa (1971), both of which focused on images of black Africans in the period and its literature; and G.K.Hunter’s Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition (1978), which examined racial discourses and the status of foreigners during the period and in Shakespeare’s plays, must all be acknowledged as important progenitors for current scholarship on these matters.
However, the latter brings new critical perspectives on language, literature and culture to bear upon its understanding of racial identities, colonial discourses and the Shakespearean text. As Francis Barker and Peter Hulme argued in a revisionist essay on The Tempest, English colonialism had previously been acknowledged only as source material or backdrop for Shakespeare’s play; they showed instead how colonial discourse was central to the play’s thematic as well as formal concerns, forming not a background but rather one of its ‘dominant discursive contexts’ (Barker and Hulme 1985:198).
Current scholarship has offered sophisticated readings of the webbed relations between state power, the emergence of new classes and ideologies, the reshaping of patriarchal authority, the development of the idea of an English nation, sexual practices and discourses, and the real and imaginary experiences of English people in the Americas, Africa and Asia. These experiences built upon and transformed ideologies about ‘others’ which filtered down from earlier times, particularly the experience of the Crusades, or which emerged in interactions with other Europeans such as the Spanish, the Italians and the Dutch, or, most importantly, those that were developed in relation to those living on the margins of English society—Jews, gypsies, the Irish, the Welsh and the Scots. Political criticism of Shakespeare as well as of early modern England has begun to show, with increasing detail and sophistication, that it is virtually impossible to seal off any meaningful analysis of English culture and literature from considerations of racial and cultural difference, and from the dynamics of emergent colonialisms.
Second, the newer critical vocabularies make possible an examination of the complex relationship between these earlier histories and subsequent developments of colonial and racial vocabularies. One of our most difficult tasks may be to balance our search for early modern meanings of race, colonialism and cultural difference while also exploring the contemporary imperatives of these terms. How do our attitudes to ‘race’ differ from those of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and to what extent have our views been shaped by early modern histories and ideologies? And most crucially, what part do Shakespeare’s plays and poems play in the transmission of ideas about race and cultural difference? Literary texts that were written a long time ago but which circulate powerfully in our own lives constantly mediate between the ‘then’ and the ‘now’. As we have mentioned earlier, stage as well as classroom histories of Shakespeare’s plays reveal how racial ideologies continued to shape the ways the plays were interpreted, taught and produced, but also reveal oppositional practices, appropriations of Shakespeare and contests over the meaning of the plays. These two important aspects of Shakespeare and the colonial question—we can, for the sake of convenience, call them colonial and post-colonial Shakespeares—are often examined independently of each other, or at least their relationship is often implied rather than explicitly considered.
For example, new historicist critics have offered some incisive readings of early modern colonialisms and the gendered and sexualized nature of these operations. As has been widely noted, they have not engaged directly with contemporary pedagogical or institutional dynamics, or with the forms and circulation of issues of colonialism and racism today. Despite this, the best of new historicist work has advanced theories of intracultural contact and the workings of colonial discourse, some of which have been influential far beyond Shakespearean or English studies. Essays on South Asian history and anthropology may now invoke Stephen Greenblatt’s analysis of the relationship between power and subversion in early modern culture and apply it to contemporary ‘Third World’ societies (Haynes and Prakash 1991). Greenblatt’s work has itself been inspired by revisionist anthropological work on ‘Third World’ cultures. But these evocative and often illuminating movements between time and space do not include any sustained reflection on the power relations that shape our contemporary world—for example, those between contemporary Indonesia and America. Neither Shakespeareans nor post-colonial critics have so far considered in any significant detail the implications of analysing sixteenth-century Europe from models derived from contemporary culture or vice versa.
Very recently, however, this relationship between past and present has come under scrutiny. Several critics have suggested that presentday meanings of ‘race’ and ‘colonialism’ cannot be applied to the past. It is possible, for example, that blackness may not have been the most outstanding marker of race in early modern Europe. One critic has recently argued that post-colonial criticism emphasizes European domination and the victimization of colonized subjects to the extent that it misleads Shakespeareans into assuming that the same inequities between Europeans and others existed in early modern England (Bartels 1997). It is certainly true that we must not flatten the past by viewing it entirely through the lens of our own assumptions and 6 Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin imperatives. However, neither is it desirable, or even possible, entirely to unhook the past from the present. Early modern Europe was the crucible for the genesis of many modern European institutions and practices, and later, via colonial regimes, of many modern non-European ones as well. We read the past to understand our own lives, and equally, our own commitments direct us to the ‘truth’ about the past. The relationship between societies separated in time is as complex as the one between societies that are spatially and culturally apart—in both cases ‘difference’ is a category that should be neither erased nor valorized.
We hope the present volume will provoke fresh thinking on these issues. It brings together essays that deal with early modern Europe and with our contemporary world, as its two-part structure makes evident. The first part foregrounds considerations of the Shakespearean text ‘then’ and the second part concentrates on later histories of Shakespeare. However, the two parts are not sealed off from each other—most of our contributors in fact move both between different times and between different cultures: thus Terence Hawkes’s essay details, via Shakespeare’s Henry IV, English impulses to anglicize and assimilate Wales, but he constantly places these attempts within the later reverberations of such a project; Avraham Oz attempts to address early modern English nationalism and its relationship with Jerusalem partly from the perspective of his location within late twentieth-century Israel; Margo Hendricks draws attention to racial discourses in The Rape of Lucrece and its connections with her understanding of ‘hybridity’ in the United States and South Africa; Nicholas Visser approaches the question of land ownership in the text of King Lear and in early modern England from the perspective of current South African attempts to redistribute land and wealth; and Kim Hall finds Toni Morrison helpful in decoding early modern mythologies of colour, and in the process she unearths, in Shakespeare’s sonnets and other representations of the period, the germs of our contemporary colour-consciousness. In each case, these essays do not counterpose our own investments in the present against the search for truths about the past.
For the purposes of our discussion it is significant that Bartels holds ‘post-colonial’ critiques responsible for imprisoning us in an ahistorical model of European domination and non-European subjection. Various critics and historians have suggested that ‘colonial discourse theories’ overemphasize the power of colonialism, or erase the prior histories of colonized societies. However, this criticism has often come from within post-colonial studies, which is not, it may be helpful to remember, a homogeneous body of writing, or a single way of approaching the question of colonial power relations. Rather, there is sharp disagreement over the extent to which colonial regimes succeeded in silencing the people over whom they ruled. Some scholars think it is important to emphasize the power and violence of colonial rule and argue that it is both naïve and romantic to suggest that most colonized peoples had any manoeuvring power at all. Others find it imperative to highlight the agency of colonized peoples and usually argue that even the most coercive colonial hegemony was achieved in part through the ‘consent’ of the local peoples, or that even the most oppressed people create spaces from which they can ‘speak’. Of course, the question that still remains is, in what voices do the colonized speak—their own, or in accents borrowed from their masters?
Revisionist studies of Shakespeare need to be concerned with these questions both when they reinvestigate the past and when they analyse the present. The negotiations and contestations of culture, and the battles for agency mentioned above, were often enacted via Shakespeare’s work and reputation. Colonial masters imposed their value system through Shakespeare, and in response colonized peoples often answered back in Shakespearean accents. The study of Shakespeare made them ‘hybrid’ subjects, to use a term that has become central to post-colonial criticism and which is increasingly used to characterize the range of psychological as well as physiological mixings generated by colonial encounters. Many post-colonial critics regard the hybridity of colonial and postcolonial subjects as a potentially radical state, one that enables such subjects to elude, or even subvert the binaries, oppositions and rigid demarcations imposed by colonial discourses.
As Michael Neill’s essay in this volume argues, Anglophone cultures the world over have been ‘saturated with Shakespeare’. Indeed, Shakespeare has also penetrated much of the nonEnglish-speaking world—he is today the most performed playwright in the world, a fact that is often taken as testimony of Shakespeare’s ‘universal genius’. Instead, we might suggest that such a phenomenon reveals not just the spread of imperial networks in education and culture but also the fact that there is no single ‘Shakespeare’ that is simply reproduced globally. Rather, as Denis Kennedy puts it, ‘almost from the start of his importance as the idealized English dramatist there have been other Shakespeares, Shakespeares not dependent upon English and often at odds with it’ (Kennedy 1993:2). Thus Shakespeare’s work not only engenders ‘hybrid’ subjects, but is itself hybridized by the various performances, mutilations and appropriations of his work. Indeed, from the perspective of this volume it could be argued that any act of reading and performing Shakespeare in the later twentieth century generates multiple levels of hybridity.
Not surprisingly, certain Shakespearean characters have circulated as symbols for intercultural mixings. For example, in a landmark essay, the Cuban writer Roberto Fernández Retamar invoked Caliban as a symbol of ‘our mestizo America’. America, Retamar suggested, is unique in the colonial world because the majority of its population is racially mixed, it continues to use ‘the languages of our colonizers’, and ‘so many of their conceptual tools…are also now our conceptual tools’ (Retamar 1974:9–11). Caliban is the most appropriate symbol for this hybridity, although
I am aware that it is not entirely ours, that it is also an alien elaboration, although in our case based on our concrete realities. But how can this alien quality be entirely avoided? The most venerated word in Cuba—mambi—was disparagingly imposed on us by our enemies at the time of the war for independence, and we still have not totally deciphered its meaning. It seems to have an African root, and in the mouth of the Spanish colonists implied the idea that all independentistas were so many black slaves—emancipated by the very war for independence—who of course constituted the bulk of the liberation army. The independentistas, white and black, adopted with honor something that colonialism meant as an insult. This is the dialectic of Caliban.
For Retamar, ‘hybridity’ becomes a radical, subversive condition, and the appropriation of the master culture a viable political method. But other anti-colonial intellectuals have argued (as have many feminists and Marxists) that the master’s tools cannot be easily appropriated to dismantle the master’s house. They view hybridity as a condition that marks the alienation of subordinated people from their own cultures. However, because colonial encounters varied so hugely in different parts of the world and at different points of time, any generalization about the hybridities they engendered cannot be universally valid. Although some post-colonial theorists may tend to flatten historically and politically variable conditions of mixings, crossovers and creolizations, they cannot all be considered radical or conservative in the same way, as Ania Loomba’s essay in this volume argues. Loomba illustrates her discussion of post-colonial theories by considering the differences between Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh and a recent adaptation of Othello in the Kathakali dance-drama form of Kerala. Michael Neill also discusses Rushdie’s novel, and several other invocations, appropriations and adaptations of Shakespeare in Africa and the South Pacific, and he too assesses their different relationships to both Shakespeare and their own contexts. While he finds that, so far ‘the decentring of Shakespeare has been more rhetorical than real’, Neill nevertheless argues that the ‘rehistoricization of Shakespeare that has taken place over the last two decades ought to make the study of his work in an antipodean context a more rather than less urgent priority’. Martin Orkin’s essay similarly registers the extent to which Shakespeare is imbricated within South African education, and he too endorses the radical potential of the hybrid Shakespeare text in this situation. For him, the plays can be used to engender a hybridity among students and others which would be radical and subversive of the effects of apartheid. On the other hand, Margo Hendricks celebrates the possible connections between the ‘mestizaje’ conditions of both US and South African subjects. But Hendricks also traces some of the anxieties surrounding race and ethnicity in our own times to Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece, reminding us of the persistent connections between our own and past figurations of both authenticity and creolization. Postcolonial debates about hybridity, then, are useful not only for thinking about encounters with Shakespeare the world over, but also about the encounters between races and cultures that were enacted in his own work and time.
Not just Caliban, whom Retamar appropriates, but also Othello and Shylock enact the tensions of intercultural interracial, or interreligious encounters. Race, culture and religion, and indeed nationality, are interlocking concepts that always derive their meaning from one another. Jonadian Burton contends in this volume that critics have not paid sufficient attention to how religious difference, especially Islam, shaped early modern discourses of race and culture. Burton places both Othello, and Leo Africanus’s Geographical Historie of Africa, the text which supplied early modern English readers with most of their information on Africa, into this history. Othello is often said to invoke Africanus himself, a converted Moor. But Burton argues that the two texts exemplify the divergent effects of colonial mimicry or hybridity— the Historie strategically reproduces anti-Islamic and anti-African discourses in order to undermine them, whereas Othello’s relationship to European Christianity allows him less space for the subversion of its ideologies, and the play ‘produces a troubled and troubling fantasy of containment for a society frightened by the idea of cultural integration’. Thus, both in early modern times and later, the meeting of Europe and its ‘others’ generates a wide and complex spectrum of relationships, partly because ‘subaltern’ subjects, to use yet another term that has been made fashionable by post-colonial theories, differ in class provenance, gender, sexuality, caste and their proximity to colonial power structures, which are also not the same at all places and at all ...