As late as the 1980’s, performances of Shakespeare featured white actors in every role, even roles where racial difference was clearly marked in the script: Othello, Shylock, Cleopatra, even Aaron the
(a rather sadistic character in Titus Andronicus). Blackface itself persisted
well into the 20th century, tragically captured on screen in Laurence Olivier’s
1965 performance of Othello—complete with eye-rolling and other ‘racial’
histrionics. Only recently has it become common to find biracial casts of
Shakespeare’s plays, and not just Antony and Cleopatra and Othello,
but even relatively “white” plays such as As You Like It and Romeo
and Juliet. Traditionalists bristle at these changes, since a black Romeo
would never woo a white Juliet in Renaissance Moore ...though the case could equally be made that the
originals would be far more swarthy than your typical Anglo-Saxon! Verona
The question of race matters in Shakespeare because he was one of the first Western writers who used it to question the identity of his audience. Whereas his contemporary, Marlowe, used race simply as a cipher—the “evil” Jew, the “murderous” moor, etc., we find a more complex relationship in Shakespeare. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia is forced by her late father to subject potential suitors to a marriage test: they must choose the correct casket in order to win her hand or be banished forever. Portia disparages suitor after suitor for being too old, too fussy, too priggish, until one catches her eye: a suitor from
. Though she claims to love Bassanio, she
encourages the Prince of Morocco, saying, Morocco
In terms of choice I am not solely led
By nice direction of a maiden’s eyes...
His wife who wins me by that means I told you,
Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair
As any comer I have looked on yet
For my affection (2.1.13-22).
We know that the Prince of Morocco is not “fair,” as he apologizes for his appearance the second he walks into the room: “Mislike me not for my complexion.” While this means little to a modern audience—why couldn’t she like a Moroccan prince?—it would have caused quite a to-do on the Elizabethan stage. Imagine a white noblewoman suggesting that a black prince (the land of harems and Islam) could stand “as fair as any comer I have looked on yet.” The lines create cultural tension and drama...dispelled only when the prince fails the test, and Portia dismisses him with the racial pun, “Let all of his complexion choose me so,” suggesting not only his skin color but also his greed—he chose the golden casket instead of the leaden one (shades of Indiana Jones here).
Mischeviously, Shakespeare suggests that if the prince had better judgment, Portia would have been happy to accept his suit and share his bed. This become even saucier when we remember that a boy would have played Portia in “drag” (as was customary on the Elizabethan stage) suggesting not only a biracial but a bisexual union! Rather than simply make a joke at the prince’s expense, Shakespeare implicates his entire audience, and uses their racial unease to propel the drama, as well as question his heroine’s loyalties. This becomes more important when Portia betrays her husband, Bassanio, by disguising herself as a man and demanding his wedding ring. Who is this woman who can play so many roles—and don so many masks?
“Racing” to the Past
So what does Shakespeare have to do with the modern issue of race in fantasy novels? Two things, actually: Shakespeare, like modern fantasy novelists, almost always set his works in the past. Indeed, much of his work can be considered ‘fantasy’ from his pet themes alone: murderous kings and doomed lovers in exotic locales (as
was to Shakespeare’s Italy ). The past allowed him to distance himself from
the political dangers of the present, and write about Elizabeth or the Church
from the vantage of Rome, Venice, or in one instance, Bohemia (which he
imagines has a seacoast!). And let’s not forget that Tolkein got the inspiration
for Ents from Macbeth, which has soldiers disguising themselves as trees
and marching on Macbeth’s castle. Tolkein hated this—he wanted real trees,
and so re-wrote this scene in The Two Towers. England
The second point is even more important: you can’t write a book or stage a play without considering race. Of course, race has become a hot-button issue in our age of political correctness and fair play. People demand diverse heroes and heroines and stories that reflect our 21st century racial realities. Yet race means more than that, particularly in the context of literature: every story is set in a specific world—not only the world of the story, but the world of the author. Shakespeare could never imagine the audience of 21st century
when he wrote The Merchant of Venice. He
wrote characters who interact with his own world, though he artfully concealed
this through the veil of an imagined America . But it was always Venice of the late 16th century he was writing of. England
In the same way, Tolkein is writing of
despite the setting of a pre-history Middle Earth.
The characters reek of pastoral WWI-era England (the hobbits most of all), and the bourgeois
pleasures of tea and tobacco. His message is for his time and his world, which
explains why the story is so exclusively male—and white. This is a story that
dramatizes the values that were being threatened by the modern world with its
fascism and war machines. It’s also a world with great anxiety about being
English, which is why the foes are always monstrous (orcs, goblins) or from a
strange land of elephants and people from Southern lands ( England — India ’s most important colony). England
In this case, staging Tolkein with diverse actors could mute his message which is the message of a specific cultural moment. Shakespeare proves much easier to adapt, since his themes tend to be more universal; however, in the case of The Merchant of Venice, we see the most universal drama of all—racial identity. Shakespeare needed a racially homogenous cast so we see the power of the Prince of Morocco’s entrance—and Portia’s welcoming words to his suit. To create this tension on the modern stage, directors have often flipped the staging, casting an all-black Othello, for example, but with a white Othello. Though some would call this a gimmick, it reminds us that race matters, and it’s not merely a quota to be met or a balance to be settled. After all, art is rarely about balance and symmetry but carefully controlled disorder. And nothing upsets the balance like race.
Which brings us back to fantasy, an imagined world of the past that is unavoidably a work of the present. After all, the characters speak in modern English (despite the occasional archaic phrase), narrated by terse, American prose derived from Hemingway and the Modernists, bound up in a novel perfected by Austen and Dickens and 19th century Britain. Even when writing of King Arthur or Viking invasions, we’re still right here—in the present, in the ‘melting pot’ of 21st century society. To not write of race is not to avoid the subject: we still envision characters as some version of the people we see today. The problem is, we no longer see the world as we once did. Whereas Shakespeare’s audience would read everything in terms of whiteness (or Englishness), we have to be trained to see that. You can’t assume that every reader will see your characters as you see them, since all of your readers are not you. A reader could be anyone now, of any race, since anyone can buy a book. And it becomes even more complicated when you consider that almost everyone, in any country in the world, can read English. It’s become the de facto language of the novel, and fantasy novels in particular.
This puts a tremendous burden on the writer of fantasy. How historical is your fantasy? If you want fantasy set in a specific time—say, the time of Alfred the Great—then we have to see that. We have to realize that we’re in a specifically homogenous world, where clans were bound together by close ties to protect them from hordes of foes. Where people could see the subtle differences between Saxons, Normans, and Danes (they all look white to most of us!). On the other hand, if you want to write a universal story where the characters could be any race or ethnicity, then the writing has to reflect this transparency. In a way, that’s even harder to pull off, since you have to strike a balance between narration, description, and dialogue. And the reader has to make sure his or her own racial/cultural biases don’t unintentionally slip into the narrative.
J.K. Rowling recently admitted that Hermione could be staged as African-American or white—it simply didn’t matter. She claims she didn’t write with race in mind. And yet, the world she writes is a specifically English world, that of prep schools and fine social distinctions, which borrows liberally from the writings of Kipling, Nesbit, and Tolkein himself. It’s no surprise, then, that the movies were staged with white English actors and not African-Americans or Asians or Latinos. They translated the characters quite clearly from the page, following the encoded racial signposts throughout the novels.
Is this wrong? Of course not—it’s simply the story she set out to tell. But you can’t have it both ways, and you can’t claim that race doesn’t matter. It does, and it’s an intrinsic part of the story you’re trying to tell. The more you realize this, the more you can appreciate who you’re writing to, and what your characters can mean for everyone who opens the book. Race is not only description but character and story: Shakespeare realized that, and it’s perhaps the most universal aspect in all his writing.