See Disclaimer Below.

Posts Tagged ‘Othello’

Liberty and Shakespeare, Part Two

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Economics, History, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Shakespeare, Western Civilization on May 22, 2012 at 8:08 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay orginally appeared here at Mises Daily.

The Later Works (1973 to present)

It is well settled that James Boyd White’s The Legal Imagination (1973)[29] catalyzed the law-and-literature movement as we know it today. A professor in the Department of English, Department of Classics, and College of Law at the University of Michigan, White brings a unique interdisciplinary perspective to bear on this field that he more or less founded. He remains prolific even in his old age, having published a string of books on a wide variety of topics having to do with legal rhetoric and legal or literary hermeneutics. Since White’s landmark tour de force in 1973, several legal scholars have followed in his footsteps, venturing into literature (broadly defined to include novels, plays, poems, short stories, essays, and so on) to make sense of legal culture and legal texts. Some of the resulting scholarship has been quite good — some, however, more than slightly wanting.

Shortly after White’s “overture,” the work of literary PhDs like Robert Weisberg (PhD, English, 1971, Harvard University; JD, 1979, Stanford University), Richard H. Weisberg (PhD, French and comparative literature, 1970, Cornell University; JD, 1974, Columbia University), and, among others, Stanley Fish (PhD, English, 1962, Yale University) lent credibility to a field seen as dubious by law-school deans and territorial literature professors.[30] Today the movement seems to be picking up, not losing, momentum, in part due to the interdisciplinary nature of the project and in part due to the literati heavyweights who have used the movement as an opportunity to enlarge their celebrity status (to say nothing of their salaries).

The vast array of Shakespeare-focused works that flew under the banner of law and literature during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s actually undermined the entire field. Titles like Michael Richmond’s “Can Shakespeare Make You a Partner?” (1989)[31] signaled a practical but nonscholastic rationale for lawyers to turn to Shakespeare’s texts. Works most commonly addressed during this period include The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, Hamlet, and Measure for Measure.[32] In the rush to canonize Shakespeare in this budding genre that sought to include humanities texts in professional schools, even the conspiracy theories of a Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens, became authoritative readings.[33] Stevens is not the only Supreme Court justice with an opinion on the Shakespeare authorship debate, as the following chart by the Wall Street Journal[34] makes clear:

Shakespeare’s Court
The Supreme Court on the likely author of Shakespeare’s plays:
Active Justices
Roberts, Chief Justice No comment.
Stevens Oxford
Scalia Oxford
Kennedy Stratford
Souter “No idea.”
Thomas No comment.
Ginsburg “No informed views.”*
Breyer Stratford
Alito No comment.

*Justice Ginsburg suggests research into alternate candidate, Florio.

Retired Justices
O’Connor Not Stratford
Blackmun* Oxford
Brennan* Stratford

*Deceased

That Supreme Court justices have weighed in on Shakespeare’s authorship is more a study in itself and less a constructive contribution to Shakespeare scholarship. Not long after Stevens’s law-review article, at any rate, some creative attempts to render the Shakespeare as lawyer or other conspiracy theories surfaced. Law professor James Boyle, for instance, penned a novel, The Shakespeare Chronicles (2006),[35] dealing with the obsessive search for the “true” author of Shakespeare’s works. I suspect that Boyle would admit that The Shakespeare Chronicles, being fiction, does not represent scholarship, even if its production required rigorous scholarly research. Read the rest of this entry »

Shakespeare, Othello, and Science in America: An Argument I Might Make (If I had the time)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Literary Theory & Criticism, Shakespeare on September 27, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Kris Collins interrogates the mutually affirming racial discourses of the theater and the natural sciences in nineteenth-century America.

“The nineteenth-century scientific community’s fascination with the black body,” Collins explains, “provides a contemporary analytical template for the racialized anxieties expressed in both minstrelsy and mainstage productions of Othello: white America’s struggle to define and defend the whiteness of their own bodies” (88).

Collins focuses on the work of several white Euro-American scientists: George Gliddon, Josiah Nott, Herman Burmeiter, Cesare Lombroso, Samuel G. Morton, and Louis Agassiz. All of these men classify races hierarchically and by taxonomies putatively dependent on racial intelligence. Because of the inherent differences between the races, these scientists argue, the white population should not mingle, sexually or otherwise, with the black population. Collins thoroughly debunks these claims, which she relates to nineteenth-century minstrel performances of Othello that solidify racist significations of the black body.

While the scientists that Collins identifies opined on racial distinction, another scientist, the young Charles Darwin, dissertated on theories of natural selection and evolution. One wonders whether Darwin’s ideas about genetics and heritable traits influenced the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stage as much as Collins’s subjects influenced the stage in the preceding era.

More to the point, Herbert Spencer’s appropriations of Darwin—epitomized by the phrase “survival of the fittest”—may have justified and authorized racial divisions at the same time that high brow / low brow and elite / popular distinctions began to congeal. This simultaneous segregation (scientific and socio-cultural) was not so much coincidental as mutually (re)affirming.

Bardification and Shakespeare idolatry proliferated along with scientific discourses suggesting that whites were “better adapted” or “more advanced” than people of color. Shakespearean performances—most notably blackface performances of Othello but also early twentieth-century performances starring African American actors as Othello—gradually and perhaps unwittingly reflected the Spencerian drive to “preserve” the “favored” races.

This argument is the logical extension of Collins’s work; it compels a look at the continued influence of natural science on the next generation of American actors, directors, and theater-goers. Although the display of scientific racism and its corresponding effect on the theater may have changed, the underlying idea of racial superiority remained in place.

For further reading:

Collins, Kris. “White-Washing the Black-a-Moor: Othello, Negro Minstrelsy and Parodies of Blackness. The Journal of American Culture 19.3 (June 2004), pp. 87-101.

%d bloggers like this: