Why brand they us with base? | Guest Lecture Series

Dr. Imke Lichterfeld! Taken from the University of Bonn website.

Before the university shut down, we had one final, brilliant guest lecture given by Dr. Imke Lichterfeld from the University of Bonn, in Germany. Her lecture topic was inspired by an interaction between Gregory Doran and Dominic Cavendish, in which Cavendish argued that ‘wokeness’ was going to go so far as to cause us to ‘cancel’ Shakespeare. Traditional (i.e. white, able-bodied, straight, and exclusively male if you’re really being strict) casting for Shakespearean plays has, apparently, become almost ‘taboo’ in today’s political-correctness-gone-wild!™ society. 

(It’s not taboo, by the way. It’s just boring. Use your god-damn imaginations and include marginalised people, please. Geez.)

I found Dr. Lichterfeld’s discussion absolutely fascinating. She gave examples of diverse casting in productions of Shakespeare, but then asked: why these characters? Why have they cast Edmund or Othello as a black man? Or played with the genders of characters like Goneril and Regan? Why not cast main characters, heroes, as black, or disabled, or gay, or transgender? 

Why brand they us

With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base?

(Edmund, I.2.7-10)

A lot of my research lately has been about the Other, monster theory, and queer/trans identities, so while I usually consider myself a sort of passive Shakespeare fan, my interest was instantly piqued. 

Dr. Lichterfeld then turned to the subject of bastards such as Edmund. She proposed that characters who are bastards, or of ‘illegitimate’ birth, can act as a vehicle for an author’s opinion, for social criticism, and have more leeway for social mobility. Bastard characters can be classed as the Other, too; Edmund transgresses social laws in order to get into “the legitimate world order”. Anyone familiar with monster theory will recognise that characters who are deemed Other (think Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, etc.) are given a peculiar sort of freedom to explore what hegemonic characters cannot – it depends on what culture and time period you are discussing, of course, as difference is dictated by what is considered normative at any given time and place – things like homosexuality, gender fluidity, breaking out of gender roles, etc. So, would it be considered racist, or ableist, or homophobic, to cast a person of colour/with a disability/who is gay or trans, in the role of Edmund, for example? 

I can only speak from my own experience, of course; I am white, and cannot speak on behalf of people of colour. But I was reminded of how much I admired Edmund while studying King Lear in secondary school. I could relate to him much more than other characters, but that was no surprise to me. I have often fallen in love with the characters you are supposedly meant to dislike, and I do believe that this is, at least in part, because of how I have been made the Other as a queer, trans, neurodivergent individual. I am still inclined to say, “Hell yeah Edmund, fuck those guys, you can do this!”, even though I’m well aware his actions are more than dubious. I don’t identify with the heroes who are simply born heroes,  or characters who have power handed to them; which is maybe the reason why I love Edmund, but don’t particularly like Goneril and Regan – to me, they’re villainous, but still part of the norm. 

Chella Man, a deaf, genderqueer man of colour, playing the role of Jericho in DC’s new Netflix show, Titans.

But would I consider it transphobic if a trans person was cast in the role of Edmund? I suppose it depends. Is that trans person the only marginalised actor in the entire production? Then that’s a little suspect. If the ‘good’ characters are played by cisgender, white, able-bodied people, and the ‘bad’ characters are played by people from marginalised groups? That’s a big yikes from me. But if it were mixed? If there was a balance of diversity between the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters?  Then, no, I don’t think that’s transphobic. 

I think being mindful while consciously trying to be diverse is so important. Our internalised biases creep out in significant ways that we may not always see. A casting choice that is not intentionally racist or homophobic can still be those things. Sticking one actor of colour into your cast does not make you inherently inclusive. I absolutely know that some of the things I write are lacking in representation, and I have become more and more aware of that simply by listening to marginalised groups. The world is brimming with beautiful people of all shapes, sizes, colours, genders, cultures, ages, and abilities – how could we do the disservice of dulling that picture down?

Note: Today’s featured image is Lear and Cordelia in Prison by William Blake, c.1779. Taken from Wikipedia.