The origin of polysyllabic incomprehensibility as the key to academic success cannot be traced with any certainty, but the bilge that has long spewed out from the humanities departments of universities, as from a sewage pumping station, is a necessary condition of the current lamentable state of the Western mind, culture, and soul.

It takes training, practice, and willpower to write sentences such as the following, by Arthur L. Little Jr. in White People in Shakespeare, whose meaning is to be seen as through a glass darkly:

Far too many white people’s fancy that whiteness as such can be easily disentangled or distinguished from the vulgarities of white racism only works to impede a broader embrace of critical white studies and its wish not only to get the history “right” but to dismantle white supremacy and the elite status granted to the people who embrace it and are embraced by it.1

Or again:

For these reasons more than any other, this book’s title points its readers quite deliberately not to “whiteness” (which as a word sounds suspiciously ameliorative) but to “white people” (signalling a more privileged as well as a more deleterious way of relating to the world), which, as a term, often seems more accusatory and aims here, perhaps counterintuitively, to encourage white readers to resist defensive posturing and instead work towards embracing critical

These sentences are taken from the introduction to this volume, which, to do the publishers justice, is produced in such a way as to encourage as few people as possible to read it, since the close print and narrow margins make it a nightmare to decipher, independent of its contents. That it should be published in the venerable Arden Shakespeare series, now more than a century old, causes one to exclaim, “O Hamlet, what a falling off was there!”

The chapter on Hamlet in this book of essays by divers, but not necessarily diverse, hands is titled “Hamlet and the Education of the White Self.” Here is the opening sentence: “By the racist logic of Hamlet, King Hamlet was an N-word and deserved to die.” The racist logic of Hamlet? This will at least awaken somnolent readers like a double espresso. The author continues:

At best, this statement seems to strain beyond even the most liberal conventions of textual interpretations, and, at worst, its offensive evocation of the logic of modern racism seems grossly, if not ridiculously, anachronistic.


I have nevertheless insisted on thinking and writing it, because the fight over its underlying interpretive and political implications remains necessary . . .

In other words, politics first, evidence afterwards.

The essay reminds me of the state of intellectual life in the Soviet Union, in which obligatory citations from Lenin preceded the real work at hand, on the geology of Antarctica, for example, or the taxonomy of beetles—on both of which subjects Lenin had, ex officio, something important to say.

In this case it is rather a pity, since the author does have something interesting to say, contrasting the prince’s Erasmian intellectual pacifism with his father’s adherence to the violent old code of kingly honor, though of course the prince’s hesitations do end in an orgy of killing. Whether the author’s interpretation holds or not, it has nothing whatever to do with racism, but perhaps there is no possible career progression in universities without dragging racism in, like Lenin in the Soviet Union.

The same is true of the essay on the Henriad, in which the author, who has a doctorate in English, labors like a man with severe constipation to produce the desired result:

This chapter explores genealogies of English whiteness in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy . . . . These dramatic and monarchical deployments of genealogy attest to the persuasive force of natural and innate pedigrees . . .

One’s race, the author goes on to say, is hereditary (insofar as anything supposedly inexistent can be said to be hereditary). The Ku Klux Klan claimed to be defending the white race; therefore, there is a kind of apostolic connection between the Henriad and the kkk. “These genealogies are not distinct,” says the author. I cannot think he really believes it, but he is obliged to say something of the kind if he wants ever to be a professor.

The author’s style of argument seems to be current in the academy (since I have no personal connection to the academy, I leave it to others to say, “Nay it is; I know not ‘seems’”). Perhaps White People in Shakespeare is most succinctly summarized at the end of a chapter entitled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Shakespeare,” a transcript of a conversation. The actor and playwright Keith Hamilton Cobb concludes the conversation as follows:

If the country [the United States] is predicated upon structures of white dominance, cultures of slavery, and capitalism, which is slavery in another form, then Shakespeare is just another part of that structure.

The impression given by the book overall is that Shakespeare was a kind of Elizabethan Alfred Rosenberg and that the main reason to study him is to uncover the spider-like web he wove to further the eternal Judeo-Masonic conspiracy, or some such.

It comes as something of a relief—the relief being relative, of course—to turn to Farah Karim-Cooper’s book The Great White Bard.2 At least she writes clearly; her sentences are not, as in so much of the previous book, miasmic, conveying an atmosphere rather than a definite meaning. She writes for a general audience and not as ballast or filler for a curriculum vitae. And though she has race on the brain, she is not so extreme as the authors in the previous book. She loves Shakespeare and acknowledges his marvelous fecundity and the beauty of his language.

I was delighted that she began with Romeo and Juliet, because I often quoted Juliet’s plea to her mother—to spare her a forced marriage—to my young female patients of Pakistani descent who were being forced into such a marriage themselves, and who had made a suicidal gesture to try to persuade their parents to release them from their purgatory:

O, sweet my mother, cast me not away!

Delay this marriage for a month, a week;

Or if you do not, make the bridal bed

In that dim monument where Tybalt lies.

The patients told me that they had made precisely such a plea to their mothers, sometimes because the whole idea of marrying a first cousin back “home” revolted them, and sometimes because they loved someone else. And then I would ask them whether their mothers had told them yet that they (their mothers) were going to have heart attacks or strokes because of their refusal to do as their fathers required. They (the daughters) would laugh and say, “How did you know?” to which I would reply, “Because I’ve heard it before.”

Capulet reacted to Juliet’s disobedience exactly as the fathers of my patients did to their disobedience:

An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend.

An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,

For by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,

Nor what is mine shall never do thee good.

Trust to ’t, bethink you. I’ll not be forsworn.

In Pakistan, the equivalent of Capulet’s friend in the first line was usually one of those first cousins, and all the women knew of peers who had been murdered in so-called honor killings because they had refused to redeem their fathers’ pledge of their hands, made long ago, without their knowledge or consent. The back of the female lavatory door at my local airport—so my wife told me—had a notice affixed to it telling such young women that if they were being taken to Pakistan against their will, they had only to call the airport police. This was futile, of course; their telephones had long been removed from them, as had their passports, which were in their possession only at the immigration posts and during security checks.

All this does not mean that Shakespeare is or was universal: I doubt that Juliet’s reaction to her forced marriage would mean very much to the uncontacted tribes of Amerindians in the Amazonian Forest. But it surely does point to Shakespeare’s wonderful capacity to imagine himself into the shoes of others, a capacity greater than in any other author known to me. And if one adds to this that he was also the greatest poet in his language, we can begin to appreciate just how extraordinary he was. And I don’t think Karim-Cooper would disagree with this.

Nevertheless, some of her readings seem to me forced, precisely because she is determined to see so much through the lens of race. Her reading of Othello is almost monomaniacal. At one point she says that:

The scene [of Desdemona’s murder] is distressing not just because a woman gets murdered by her husband, but also because of the way color is itself hyper-objectified in a blatant act of racial formation—color being positioned as the crucial factor in the murder.

But it is not the crucial factor. It is a factor, in a way that I shall try to elucidate, which speaks to Shakespeare’s great psychological acuity.

People who are surrounded by strangers are more inclined to become paranoid, because they may feel themselves disliked or because they do not understand the social cues around them. People who are uncertain of themselves who walk into a room full of people and hear laughter may think that the laughter refers to themselves; this is especially so if the people in the room speak another language from their own. The deaf are more than averagely prey to paranoid ideas. And, of course, Othello, the Moor, though he has succeeded mightily in the Venetian state, is still ineradicably an alien and prey to the anxieties of an alien, however honored he may be.

That there were prejudices against such as he can hardly be denied, and so, when he wins the hand of Desdemona, he remains somewhat unsure of himself. Jealousy of the extreme form being a kind of paranoia, he is therefore more susceptible to it than another might be. But not all jealous murders are interracial, nor do all interracial marriages end in murder. Moreover, murder motivated by jealousy is common, at least in the sense that it is common among murders.

When Desdemona tells her maid, Emilia, that she never gave Othello cause to be jealous, Emilia answers:

But jealous souls will not be answered so.

They are not ever jealous for the cause,

But jealous for they’re jealous . . .

She does not say “But Africans, or Moors, will not be answered so”: she is making a claim about all human beings.

Likewise, she says that:

Trifles light as air

Are to the jealous confirmations strong

As proofs of holy writ . . .

She does not say that trifles light as air are to the Moors or Africans confirmations strong, and Emilia is here making a very acute clinical observation. I have had many patients who found in bits of fluff or minor stains proof of their lovers’ infidelity, and I have known murders committed on the basis of such “proofs.”

In other words, Othello is what it has long been taken to be, namely a tragedy of jealousy, which is why psychiatrists often refer to the “Othello Syndrome.”

One might almost say that

Trifles light as air

Are to the anti-racist confirmations strong

As proof of holy writ . . .

at least to the “anti-racist” who looks at everything through the lens of race, as so many now do, though they deny the concept of race as having any objective basis. (At one point, Karim-Cooper denies that human groups have any physical differences of biological origin, surely an elementary confusion. Genetic diseases, for example, are not distributed evenly across populations; the question is not whether there are biological differences between populations, but whether these differences should translate into differing legal status—to which the answer is clearly no.)

When the author tells us that as “an elite woman in Venetian society, Desdemona is property, like Othello once was when he was a slave,” it does not occur to her to ask of whom he was a slave. No doubt she wants us to believe that he was a victim of the Atlantic slave trade; at any rate, most of her audience probably thinks that the Atlantic slave trade was the only slave trade in history.

But Othello was most likely the slave either of Moroccans or Turks. Unfortunately, acknowledging this would upset the four-legs-good, two-legs-bad historiography of which this book implicitly partakes. According to this historiography, non-whites are one big happy family, as the state of relations between India and Pakistan proves; it wasn’t Satan that brought sin into the world, but the white man.

The darker Othello was, the more likely was he to have been taken into captivity, but the author herself cannot quite make up her mind on whether he was black, brown, tawny, or merely a person of color, though she insists that he should now always be played by a black actor. What she sees as exaggerated blackness in Laurence Olivier’s performance as Othello, which allegedly caricatured black excitability, I see as overacting, to which Olivier was prone in other performances too.

It would be easy to turn the hermeneutics of suspicion against the author herself and accuse her of the most blatant racism. Why does she capitalize the word black? (She does this sometimes, not always, presumably according to some kind of arcane code that it would be racist not to know, let alone disobey.) Why should black be capitalized but not white?

The answer seems obvious—or, rather, the allegation could be made, which is not quite the same thing. Believing deep in her heart that blacks are genetically inferior, she gives to them a capital letter to give them a leg up. She thereby assuages her guilt at believing them inferior. But what kind of people are so feeble, so pathetic, so lacking in agency, that capitalization will assist them, even if only psychologically?

Or, conversely, is Karim-Cooper a black supremacist, thinking blacks so superior to whites that they alone merit capitalization? Short of asking her, we may never know.

Then again, taking modern performances of Shakespeare in Britain as an example, why are there so many black actors in the cast but very few, practically none, of Indian subcontinental origin? One would never know from the casts of Shakespeare productions that people of Indian-subcontinental descent are by far the largest ethnic minority in Britain. Perhaps the latter do not want to be actors on the British stage—in which case, they ought to be made to want to be. Or perhaps they don’t want to be condescended to in this fashion.

At any rate, by any sort of acceptable logic, the Royal Shakespeare Company could be called institutionally racist, in the sense that it is obviously very concerned with ethnic origins. It requires doublethink of its audiences, who are not to notice that Ophelia is black while Polonius is white, but also to applaud the company for its inclusivity—which means choice of cast by race, or rather choice in favor of some races.

Of course, I do not think that the author is racist, even though the word “white” as an epithet has in her book approximately the same valence as the epithet anglo-saxon in French. At least she sees great virtues in the Bard and genuinely loves him.

  1.   White People in Shakespeare: Essays on Race, Culture and the Elite, edited by Arthur L. Little Jr.; The Arden Shakespeare, 320 pages, $90.
  2.   The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race, by Farah Karim-Cooper; Viking, 336 pages, $32.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 3, on page 20
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