In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s classic manifesto calling for women to claim the independence and space to be creative, there’s a fictional character called Judith.
Judith is the imaginary sister of William Shakespeare. She has all the natural talents of William. But where William went to study, Judith stayed at home. She is chastised for reading, she is married early, experiences domestic abuse and is laughed off when she runs away to London and tries to make it on the stage. Eventually she kills herself, while her brother goes on to establish himself as a legend.
The story is meant to be an illustration of the way men have dominated culture because of the opportunity to develop their natural gifts - gifts that are warmly received by a society designed for them. But their sisters and mothers, born with the same talent in the same family, struggle to actualise their talents in a world where their labour exists in the service of men to pursue their dreams.
It’s something only writer Nakkiah Lui, creator of ABC’s Black Comedy whose theatre credits include Black is the New White, Blackie Blackie Brown and How to Rule the World, seemed to understand in ABC’s "Q&A" on Monday night. The playwright was joined by director Neil Armfield, actress Zindzi Okenyo, Pop Up globe theatre director Miles Gregory and actor Toby Schmitz in responding to the show’s provocative question ‘Was Shakespeare a whitesplainer?”
The men on the panel seem to miss the point completely, waxing lyrical about how Shakespeare was timeless and eternal, spoke to all cultures and was the modern standard for genius, with one panelist equating him to ‘God’.
Lui was more circumspect. While giving props to the Bard, she seemed to understand Woolf’s point and extended the feminist analysis to people of colour, who are emerging in the post-colonial landscape as the new inheritors of a western tradition that has until only recently glorified a canon reflecting a largely male and white-dominated world. Men, who because of their access to education, power and the creative time and freedom this provides, can spend their time in intellectual pursuits creating ‘universal’ stories, politics and philosophies.
“I think this idea of (Shakespeare) being beyond race, as if racialising it makes it bad, or racialising makes it any less, I don’t accept it. I don’t think that bringing up race is a bad thing. I think one of the reasons Shakespeare is so prolific is because he was a white guy, because white supremacy was something that has been very prevalent around the world and part of that was bringing in culture and Shakespeare is a part of it.”
"I think we need to question the past and we need to dissect it because we need to grow from it…growing from something and saying at some point that was wrong or problematic doesn't make you adversarial to it, it just means you are evolving," she said.
"You have been called the Shakespeare of Mt. Druitt," host Tony Jones interjected, in reference to Lui's working class roots.
"I have now I guess, (but) maybe he was the Nakkiah of London," Lui shot back.
This kind of analysis is nothing new in feminist and critical race circles but needs to be more widely disseminated in broader society. The myth of sheer talent and meritocracy continues to prevail, ignoring the forces of class, education and access that allow artists to develop their talents and become cultural forces.
Why is this important? Art and literature are often used in ‘civilisational’ politics as a racial slur. ‘Western culture’ pundits have often used canon artists to assert cultural domination over non-white cultures: “We are superior because we are the culture of Shakespeare and the Enlightenment and the inheritors of the Greeks.” (The fact that Greek knowledge was preserved and added upon by non-white cultures during the Middle Ages is conveniently glossed over.)
As a Muslim woman I have heard the term “Enlightenment” used so much by pundits to assert their ascendancy and moral high ground over my faith and culture that it is almost nauseating (also skating over the colonialism and genocide that occurred almost simultaneously). Downgrading and erasing the traditions, languages and intellectual achievements of native cultures is a classic subjugation tactic – if people have no idea of their history, their art and the sense of pride this engenders, they are easier to conquer.
It’s a reason why Jesus, likely a brown historical figure, is depicted as white in western art and churches. It’s the reason why Jalaluddin Rumi, known as ‘Rumi’ in the west and perhaps the greatest poet in history, is whitewashed, his Islamic and Iranian credentials erased in simpering new age English translations of his Farsi spiritual masterpiece The Mathnawi.
I can only imagine what it would feel like having the western literary God (Shakespeare) and western religious God (Jesus) as literally a man in your own image. It must improve your self-esteem 3000 percent.
I can only imagine what it would feel like having the western literary God (Shakespeare) and western religious God (Jesus) as literally a man in your own image.
It’s one of the reasons I have made an effort to learn Urdu and Arabic, why I (try) to read Urdu ghazal poetry in the original form. It’s why I decided to make a deliberate effort to engage with my South Asian and Islamic literary inheritance in my early twenties – reading everything from Iqbal, Rumi, Bulleh Shah and the mystics, in addition to navigating my complex relationship to the western literary canon as a second-generation migrant. It’s a canon I love artistically but can still engage with critically and politically - because that’s what good art does, it helps us understand our own lives.
It’s the reason I can love Jane Eyre’s feminist spirit but simultaneously feel perturbed by her missionary zeal to convert Indian women, and nonchalance in shoving ‘crazy’ Jamaican Bertha into an attic (white lady feminism 101).
Actor Toby Schmitz told the panel Shakespeare fits everyone.
“I think he fits everyone… he’s been prolific because he was in the right place and the right time but somehow spookily he fits everyone.”
You could almost hear Lui’s head shaking. “The white man’s journey is always what it means to be human,” she said.
“The people make it talk to everybody because we embrace it. And so I would like to see the way that we all still continue to embrace Shakespeare today, is start to embrace the stories of the people who aren’t Shakespeare...people who don’t necessarily fit the role or the canon or don’t come from the culture that Shakespeare comes from," she said.
“The reason why they are not embraced as much is because how our countries came to being.”
Lui said it was time now to expand to re-imagine new possibilities for the Shakespeares of the future for a new canon.
"The median age of a writer in Australia is getting older every single year...are we listening to new voices? Is our culture growing as our community grows? I think when it comes to theatre we need to also emphasise and really support putting on new works and new shows to include these voices... so we have a black female Shakespeare," she said.