In one of the best-known lines of dialogue from one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, The Merchant of Venice, the character Shylock—who is Jewish—asks:
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? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
Shakespeare—through the character Shylock—is pointing out our common humanity. This is a common thread running through all of Shakespeare’s work, which happened to be written by a white man for all men—for all time. Full stop. Billy Shakespeare says you’re welcome.
And for women, too.
For what else is Romeo and Juliet about—if not the love of a man for a woman and a woman for a man?
But Woke “scholarship” sees something else. Well, it sees one thing. Always—obsessively—the same thing.
“Shakespeare’s work,” says Daniel Pollack-Pelzner in an article recently published by The Far-Left Atlantic, “was central to the construction of whiteness as a racial category during the Renaissance, and white people, in turn, have used Shakespeare to regulate social hierarchies ever since.” This is probably news to the people—of all races—who have read Shakespeare and seen the plays. And also news to every liberal actor who has adapted the Bard at his most moving, from Orson Welles to Kenneth Branagh.
Pollack-Pelzner writes approvingly of an essay collection called “White People in Shakespeare,” that is “cannily” edited by a UCLA professor of Shakespeare and race . . .
Of course. It’s as predictable as the lead editorial in Pravda during the Brezhnev era, for those who remember.
It is also almost like the kid in the classic Bruce Willis movie, The Sixth Sense—except instead of seeing dead people everywhere, people like Pollack-Pelzner see racism everywhere. Including, apparently, in Othello—a play about a black man who isn’t a slave or subordinate but who (like Shylock) is riven by the same passions and plagued by the same doubts—and devils—as often beset other men.
The “green eyed monster” of jealousy, for instance.
It is not a weakness of some men, according to the color of their skin. It is a weakness with which all men must wrestle, as Othello does: “No, Iago,” he says to his scheming subordinate, who is trying to make his master suspect his wife Desdemona of being unfaithful to him. “I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove. And on the proof there is no more but this . . . away at once with love or jealousy,” as he wrestles with himself over whom—and what—to believe.
In the end, Othello gives in to his doubts, is overwhelmed by jealousy and kills his faithful wife—which is a tragedy that all men can understand and hence the appeal of this play, which is as powerful today as it was when it was written more than 400 years ago because it is about people, not race.
The fact that Othello’s character is black is as incidental as the fact that the man who wrote the play was white. But not to a race-obsessed man like Pollack-Pelzner, who sees “hierarchies” being constructed by the Bard, in order to “define whiteness.”
Never mind that Othello does not “define” himself thusly.
“Shakespeare’s work,” Pollack-Pelzner nevertheless continues, “was central to the construction of whiteness as a racial category during the Renaissance.”
What Pollack-Pelzner seems to be saying here is that because most of the people who lived in Europe 400 years ago happened to be white, they were deliberately “constructing whiteness as a racial category.” As a pyramid scheme of white privilege.
If so, then—by the same logic—the people living in Africa 400 years ago were also “constructing blackness as a racial category”—when in fact they were, like the Europeans of the time, relating stories about their experiences as people.
That they happened to be black was a superficiality.
There was no conspiracy—of either whiteness or blackness. Yet leftists of the Pollack-Pelzner school are determined to make everything about whiteness or blackness, perhaps because they have lost sight of what Shakepeare’s plays are all about. Which has as much to do with race as a NASCAR race, though Pollack-Pelzner probably sees “racism” in that, too.
“What’s beautiful in Shakespeare—or what Shakespeare’s speakers take as beautiful,” he writes “is often cast in racial terms.”
Well, where, exactly? Is Juliet described in racial terms? Can he cite even one example of such? None are adduced. Instead, he imputes race and race-obsession where it does not exist, so as to construct the race-based narrative he wishes to advance.
“On historical grounds, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that even if people in the 16th and 17th centuries didn’t use racial categories in quite the same ways we might, they were wrestling with the construction of social hierarchies based on emerging categories of race that went on to shape our world.”
Oy vey, Shylock might have said.
As Shakespeare is probably saying, right now—as he views the stage upon which the “poor player struts and frets his hour . . . and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”