Shakespeare from a Post-Colonial Perspective

Dr Priyamvada Gopal, lecturer in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, offers a post-colonial perspective on Shakespeare.

“A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” – this was the opinion of Lord Macaulay, member of the Supreme Council of India, in a now infamous ‘Minute on Indian Education’. Whether or not we agree that Shakespeare was the Greatest Briton ever (he actually came in 5th on a recent BBC survey!), he was certainly one of the British Empire’s most influential cultural exports.

As this Empire expanded over the 18th and 19th centuries to include India, the West Indies, South Africa and Nigeria, English literature itself became one of the means by which ‘English’ values were to be spread among subject peoples. The goal of Macaulay, and others like him, was to create a group of people who, through the study of Western science and English literature would be ‘Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare was at the heart of this civilising mission. But, in a twist to the colonial tale, his work came to represent, at one and the same time, both quintessential Englishness and universal human values.

In this essay, I will offer a post-colonial perspective on Shakespeare and the ways in which his writings were used and understood in the British colonies. However, I’ll begin with a brief account of what post-colonial criticism might be, and what questions it might ask.

What is ‘post-colonial’ writing? What does it mean to have a ‘post-colonial’ perspective? In a very general sense, post-colonial studies look at the interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized. How did the experience of colonization affect both those who were colonized and the colonizers themselves? What were the forms of resistance against colonial control? How did colonial education and language influence the culture and identity of the colonized? How do gender, race, and class function in colonial and postcolonial discourse? Are new forms of imperialism replacing colonization and how?

These questions might be asked by people studying anything from economics to literature. In addition, literary critics will have more specialised questions. Should the writer use a colonial language to reach a wider audience or return to a native language more relevant to groups in the postcolony? Which writers should be included in the postcolonial canon? How can texts in translation from non-colonial languages enrich our understanding of postcolonial issues? Has the preponderance of the postcolonial novel led to a neglect of other genres?

In the course of this essay, I’ll be asking a range of questions about the role of Shakespeare in India, Africa and other colonial societies. I’ll consider four plays, Othello, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and Antony and Cleopatra.

Though colonial administrators like Macaulay expected Shakespeare to create a new race of Englishmen in India, in practice Shakespeare was read and interpreted in a variety of ways. Rather than reading his plays as evidence of the superiority of English culture, anti-colonial Indians quoted them in support of their right to freedom and equality. Echoing Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice, they asked whether Indians too, were not human beings with the right to freedom and equality:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? (III,i,54- 59)

Anti-colonial writers in the Caribbean, like Aime Cesaire from Martinique, read The Tempest as an allegory of colonialism where Prospero, the coloniser, occupies the island belonging to the witch, Sycorax, and enslaves her son, Caliban. Caliban, ‘this thing of darkness,’ became a symbol of non-white peoples’ heroic resistance to colonialism and its apparent ‘civilising’ mission. Cesaire rewrote The Tempest as a French play, Une Tempete, set in the Caribbean where Caliban rebels against Prospero’s rule but fails: ‘Prospero, you are the master of illusion. Lying is your trademark. And you have lied so much to me (lied about the world, lied about me).’ The Latin American writer, Roberto Retamar, also declared that Caliban represented colonised peoples who use the language that has been imposed on them by the coloniser against him. As Caliban says in The Tempest,

You gave me language, and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red-plague rid you
For learning me your language (1, ii, 363-5).

Since so many people across the world found support for their own views in Shakespeare, should we agree with the critic who argued that Shakespeare was a ‘mindless genius’ whose ‘only concern was with the universal themes of love, fear, birth and death’?

On the contrary, the famous Kenyan writer and critic, Ngugi wa Thiong’O, argues that Shakespeare’s true greatness lay in his ability to engage with and be critical of his own history and culture. Thiong’O argues that Shakespeare’s plays reflect the concerns of colonized people precisely because this was one of Shakespeare’s interests. According to Thiong’O, Shakespeares’s ‘sharpest and most penetrating observations’ are specific to the England of his time.

Othello, for instance, is often read as a generic drama about love, jealousy and revenge. The black hero, Othello’s, colour is either ignored or shown as being incidental to his ‘nobility’. In fact, suggest critics like Ania Loomba, Shakespeare was quite directly dealing with issues of race in Elizabethan England where, not unlike the England of today, there was a growing black presence of as well as anxiety about these immigrants. (In 1598, for instance, Queen Elizabeth issued a warrant seeking to deport 89 black people). Indeed, Shakespeare was making a remarkable statement by having a black hero (as opposed to a villain); the significance of this innovation can only be understood if we grasp the historical and literary context he was writing in where blacks were typically represented through negative images.

Shakespeare’s awareness of race and colonialism also had an impact on the way he thought about sex and gender in some of his plays. In creating the magnificent figure of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (in Antony and Cleopatra), for instance, Shakespeare deliberately drew on and played with prevalent stereotypes about both women and non-Europeans.

The exotic Cleopatra is presented as at once a goddess and a whore. She is also depicted as a skilled performer of ‘infinite variety’ and as such, a sexually attractive but deceptive woman, ‘the serpent of Egypt’ (II. vii.26). Ania Loomba has suggested that these stereotypes had much to do with a lurking distrust among Elizabethans of female government as well a persistent suspicion of the theatre as an arena of deception and untruth. Similarly, in Othello, his wife Desdemona is shown to upset Venetian patriarchy by desiring a black man; both women and blacks were thought to have uncontrollable sexual appetites; hence, the play’s famous image, describing Othello and Desdemona in bed as ‘an old black ram [tupping a] white ewe’ (I.i.85-6 ).

Elizabethan conceptions of global geography and imperial expansion are central to plays such as Antony and Cleopatra and Othello. Egypt, for instance, is not only the scene of a love story in Antony and Cleopatra, but the site of a battle for domination between the Romans and the Egyptians. Like imperial Rome, the England of Shakespeare’s time had embarked on a process of global exploration and expansion and Shakespeare would have read Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations ( 1589, 1598-1600) which contained information about these voyages. The critic Walter Cohen points out that almost all of Shakespeare’s plays are set in locales or historical periods distant from the England of his time. There are plenty of allusions to commodities that came into England through the expansion of trade: peppercorns, silk, Madeira, holland, sugar, saffron and ginger. It is quite clear that Shakespeare was very aware of the economic and political expansions of his time and that this awareness impacted almost all of his work.

What readings of Shakespeare in relation to colonialism and race teach us is the importance of thinking about the dramatist in relation to his own social and political context. At the same time, it is necessary to examine how Shakespeare himself was pressed into the service of British imperialism and its civilizing mission. We learn that this mission was successful at times and at others, it was turned on its head when colonial subjects used Shakespeare to bolster their arguments against colonialism. Shakespeare is a great writer, as Ngugi has argued, not because he is ‘one more English gift to the world alongside the bible and the needle’ but because he understood the concerns, complexities and contradictions of his own time and turned them into literature that continues to exercise our minds in relation to our own times.