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What's at Stake in Representing Race?

"Enter Blackamoors with music," reads the stage direction in act 5, scene 2 of Love's Labors Lost. Unlike "Exit, pursued by a bear" in The Winter's Tale (3.3.58), which scholars believe may have involved a real trained bear rather than an actor in a bear suit, (though not, of course, a bear actually in deathly pursuit), "Enter Blackamoors" undoubtedly signals the entrance not of actual Africans but of English minstrels in blackface. For all that, "Blackamoors with music," holds forth a prospect that stage directions like "A street in Athens," "A Tavern in Eastcheap," and so forth, cannot, namely that of a perfect coincidence between dramatic representation and reality: the tantalizing possibility of presence. Of course, the direction "Enter Blackamoors with music," dating at the latest from 1597, was not available to Shakespeare's audience any more than the expectation that, even if impersonated ad vivum by virtue of mimetic and cosmetic proficiency, these musicians might be real Africans. There is a wealth of evidence about how early modern performers achieved racial impersonation by means of theatrical integument, and although English monarchs employed black musicians from the reign of Henry VIII--Henry had a "blacke trumpet," while Elizabeth I is depicted with a group of black minstrels and dancers in a painting dated ca. 1577 and attributed to Gheeraerts the elder, and James I later had a troupe of black minstrels--there is no record of black performers being borrowed from royal or aristocratic households to play roles on stage.(1) The stage direction, then, signals not that the players borrowed royal musicians but that they are dramatizing the richness and exoticism of court culture.

However problematic or fleeting, the possibility of presence offered by this stage direction shares an epistemological affinity with Stanley Cavell's account in Must We Mean What We Say? of the apocryphal incident of the southern yokel "who rushes to the stage to save Desdemona from the black man."(2) The "joke" is not so much that the yokel thinks that Desdemona--a white actress performing in the old South--is really being killed, but rather, that he believes that the white actor playing Othello is really black. Though he nowhere remarks upon it, Cavell's yokel is not simply a naive spectator who contrasts with "the state of mind in which we find the events in a theatre neither credible nor incredible," but a racist spectator whose fear of miscegenation inhibits his capacity to distinguish between dramatic representation and reality. That is, the problem of representation in this incident coincides with specific problems attendant upon the dramatic depiction of gender and race.

What is significant about the blackamoors in the stage direction from Love's Labors Lost and Cavell's yokel is that they bespeak fantasies of presence about people who for reasons far in excess of problems of geography and practicality could not possibly have been onstage. Love's Labors' blackamoors and Cavell's yokel thereby exemplify the specifically political dimension of the dense philosophical problems posed by dramatic representation. In what follows, I want to suggest some of the ways in which Shakespeare's racially homogenous stage can serve as a site from which to address the stakes of representation, especially for those who in spite, or perhaps because, of their hypervisibility have been historically its objects and not its subjects.

Despite the absence of women and Africans from early modern public theater, the only visual depiction we have of a Shakespearean performance, Henry Peacham's drawing of Titus Andronicus, contains a vivid depiction of conspicuous racial and gendered difference and seems to point to the inclusivity of Shakespeare's stage. One has the sense that Peacham's depiction of Tamora and Aaron reflects the fact that they captured his attention so as to make an enlarged and more vivid impression on his imagination than that of the other characters. A Roman spear marks center stage, while to its right (stage left) a kneeling Tamora pleads for her sons' lives. Aaron is the only standing figure on this side of the drawing. Black and gesticulating, he offers a stark contrast with the outlines of the nondescript Romans lined up stage right. The picture emphasizes Africans as visibly different from Europeans, which has been the intriguing phenomenon in Western art history: in the fifteenth century existing white images were painted over with the figure of the Black Magus, and in the nineteenth century depictions of Ham, which had been white hitherto, suddenly were rendered as black. It seems, indeed, that, as Don Hedrick has observed in the Marxist literary journal Mediations: "the ideology of the visual image ... pertains to race in ways that differ from the discursive meaning of race or ethnicity."(3)

In the context of the iconography of racial representation, Peacham's picture, and especially Aaron's hypervisibility within it, makes for a fascinating juxtaposition with an observation made by the late Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow: "Malcolm said if you are looking at a picture of the world and you don't see yourself in it, your task should be obvious: to get in the picture."(4) That Aaron, a villain, a distorted image of African identity, is in the picture is itself problematic and constitutes evidence of the troubled contiguity between cultural representation and representation understood in the broader political sense. Certainly, as Shabazz's comment indicates, we in the twentieth century have come to equate sheer visibility with power.

Many of Shakespeare's contemporaries did not share our faith in representation. Both theatricalists and antitheatricalists feared the encroachments mimetic representation made upon the real. When in 1642, with the advent of the Commonwealth period, those who had been the nonentities of English history gained representation for the first time, the site of that representation, singularly, was not in the theaters. Indeed, far from equating cultural representation with political power, the Puritans, who were, in Marxist terms, the vanguard class of the new economic and social order, deplored as lewd and idolatrous what went on at the playhouse, and did so despite the fact that representational practices of all kinds became necessary as part not only of an economy based on increasingly abstract systems of exchange, but also on a social system that replaced what Richard Halpern calls "the visible or patent form of sovereign power with an invisible and resolutely latent form of economic domination."(5) That is, the coercion that inheres in social relations whereby the aristocracy takes and maintains power gives way to an invisible function of the economic system itself. Thus, visibility, which at a later historical moment comes to signify representation in its political sense (that is, representing the interests of a particular constituency rather than mere depiction) becomes prominent precisely at the moment when crucial aspects of power and economic exchange become invisible.

The perils of cultural representation seem to have been much more apparent in pre-Hollywood eras. The status of actors like Nathan Field, who was barred from receiving communion in his parish church, makes it clear that the practice of theatrical representation was parlous. In stark contrast to the dangers of visibility in early modern England and to Cleopatra's fears about squeaking boys, certain groups in the twentieth century, especially, as we see from Shabazz's comment, people of color, but also gays and lesbians and other marginalized groups, have tended to regard even misrepresentation as the necessary cost of visibility: "Representation at any price."(6)

My point here is, first, that it is necessary to maintain a certain philosophical skepticism about the mechanisms of dramatic representation as well as a specifically political skepticism about the benefits of representation, understood as cultural visibility, for marginalized groups. Secondly, on Shakespeare's stage as a result of both all-male mimesis and the production of racialized others in racially homogenous acting companies, the problem of representation in general--that it necessarily represents what is not actually there--thus becomes exacerbated in historically specific relation to femininity and racial difference.

Historically, however, in relation to Shakespeare, marginalized groups have not felt underrepresented and invisible. Indeed, generations of readers and playgoers, many of them racial and cultural "others," have experienced the powerful and pleasurable perception that in Shakespeare, they are indeed represented. This may be because, as Stephen Greenblatt observes in his introduction to The Norton Shakespeare, "[S]o absolute is Shakespeare's achievement that he has himself come to seem like great creating nature: the common bond of humankind, the principle of hope, the symbol of the imagination's power to transcend time-bound beliefs and assumptions, peculiar historical circumstances, and specific artistic conventions."(7) Roberto Fernandez Retamar, for instance, writes in a tradition of reading in The Tempest the script for resistance to colonialism: "I know no other metaphor more expressive of our cultural situation, of our reality.... [W]hat is our history, what is our culture, if not the history and culture of Caliban?"(8) Pioneering theater director Joseph Papp recalls: "I grew up in a home where Yiddish was spoken, and English was only a second language, I was acutely sensitive to the musical sounds of different languages and had an ear for lilt and cadence and rhythm in the spoken word.... Although Shakespeare lived and wrote hundreds of years ago, his name rolls off my tongue as if he were my brother."(9) In the complex structure of Papp's distinctly humanist identification, it is notable that he does not identify with a particular character: Shylock, for instance. Indeed, identifications regularly entail rather elusive correlations of self and Shakespearean character or situation. At a conference I attended in Providence, Rhode Island, a woman in the audience, responding to a paper on Shakespeare's histories, stood up and explained the powerful impact the plays had on her as an adolescent reader struggling with her sexual identity. "I came out," she declared, "with Henry V."

It would be futile and anachronistic to indict Shakespeare for failing to engage in twentieth-century casting practices or to blame him for the sex and race prejudices of his era, or, indeed, for those of our own. I neither know nor, frankly, do I much care to speculate about whether it would have been "better" if Shakespeare had used a real African rather than Richard Burbage to play Othello or Aaron. (If there must be an answer, it is that it would have been "different".) I am suggesting that presence cannot be equated with representation any more than representation can be equated with inclusion.

Let me explain what I mean by briefly examining what, on the theoretical register, we might describe as an instance of the instantiation of presence: the introduction of black actors. Representation, as Horkheimer and Adorno point out in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, is always one step forward and two steps back: "the capacity of representation is the vehicle of progress and regression at one and the same time."(10) Thus, when actors of genuinely African heritage finally began to play Shakespeare, these performers could not redeem a character such as Aaron because of the increasing racism of audiences and directors alike in the face of an actual black actor. Othello, for instance, often became less sympathetic than he had ever been when played by Richard Burbage. As he becomes less of a hero and more of a savage, his tragedy was simply that of reverting to his uncivilized ways. In a more recent example of the limits of corporeal presence, a director who chose to dramatize the figure of the Indian boy in A Midsummer Night's Dream (a figure who is alluded to but does not have a role in Shakespeare's play) did not manage to represent the role of race in the play but, as Margo Hendricks has shown in a recent article in Shakespeare Quarterly, to reenact and solidify its orientalist fantasies.(11)

Thus, the realization of the fantasy of "presence" in the body of performer serves more to uncover the limits of representation rather than undo them. That we expect otherwise is testimony to the hold of the fantasy itself, to our enormous investment in cultural representation, and, crucially, to its conflation with political power.

Notes

(1.) Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984), 4; 9. James Walvin, Black and White: The Negro and English Society 1555-1945 (London, Allen Lane: The Penguin Press, 1973), 9. See also Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, "Before Othello: Elizabethan Representations of Sub-Saharan Africans," The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, LIV, 1 (January 1997): 19-44; 35-6.

(2.) Stanley Cavell Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1969), 327.

(3.) Don Hedrick, "Framing O. J.: Tabloidation and `Tragedy,' or Analog Racism and Digital Racism," Mediations, 19, 2 (Fall 1995): 4-14; 2.

(4.) "All things considered," PBS, May 1997.

(5.) Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 5.

(6.) Harvey Firestein in The Celluloid Closet (1996) Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Distributed by Sony Picture Classics.

(7.) Stephen Greenblatt, "General Introduction," Stephen Greenblatt et. al. eds., The Norton Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 1.

(8.) Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays, trans. Edward Baker (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 14.

(9.) Joseph Papp, Forward to A Midsummer Night's Dream, David Bevington, ed. (New York: Bantam, 1988), ix; xiv.

(10.) Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1972), 35.

(11.) Margo Hendricks, "`Obscured by Dreams': Race, Empire, and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare Quarterly, 47, 1 (1996): 37-60.

DYMPNA CALLAGHAN, Associate Professor of English at Syracuse University, is author of Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy and coauthor with Jyotsna Singh and Lorraine Helms of The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics.
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Author:CALLAGHAN, DYMPNA
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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