Monday, 1 August 2011

Grotesque Racial Stereotypes

I've just been watching the BBC Shakespeare version of Titus Andronicus. The play is one of The Bard's earliest writings and the action is grotesque and violent on many levels of the physical and the psychological. It reminded me how much the placing of Shakespeare within "classical" literature and the "heritage industry" conceals and erases the shocking and disturbing elements of his work.

Let's recall that the 2006 performances of Titus at the Globe Theatre in London required public warnings and reassurances: more spectators than usual were reported to have fainted during the performance. I'll be devoting a blog to the topic of "consuming violence" and Shakespeare's Theatre of Cruelty at a later date.

Notably, Titus also features a black villain called Aaron, who is perhaps a precursor to the other flawed black killer, and monster of jealousy, Othello.

But we need to be careful in rushing in with comparisons. In a sense, the successor to Aaron is not Othello but Iago, and the "dark matter" is the art of plotting; the dexterity of dissimulation; the playwright's craft. The crafty villain is a theatre artist and his curious plotting mirrors the author's trade.

It's also worth noting that we are often faced in Shakespeare with roles and allegorical typologies, rather than fully embodied characters (in the shape we are accustomed to encountering them since the emergence of novel forms and the discourses of the individual subjectivity/consciousness in the eighteenth century.) Character often becomes caricature where there is a lack of depth or complexity. Reduction is part of the satirist's art and a dangerous form tool of propaganda and oppression.

But I would still suggest that in the later plays, the black/white embodiment of the "other" is more nuanced and less schematic; it is less stereotypical, as we might say. In The Tempest, Caliban is far more complex than his earlier incarnations, and perhaps more difficult to write off or write out. He is less black, for one thing. In his monstrosity he is paradoxically on show and yet difficult to see, to make sense of. A close examination of the language of the play suggests a polymorphous creature whose true nature is difficult to grasp. He stakes his claim to an island; resists the assimilation of an oppressor's language, and ends up with an ambiguous acknowledgement from Prospero ("this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine") V.i.275-6.

As I hinted earlier, the creativity and art-artifice of evil springs out of a kind of darkness. As Aaron confesses in Act II

Away with slavish weeds and servile thoughts!
I will be bright and shine in pearl and gold

The results are to be achieved by a "policy and stratagem" (II.i.104) and "coin[ing] a stratagem" (II.iii.5) which is also the wicked villainy of a hunchback prince such as Richard III, or a crafty Machiavelli. Aaron is rich in cunning but he does not have a monopoly on the theatre of cruelty that dominates the drama.The spectacle of violence is shocking and repulsive, but the language of cunning and cruelty has a poetic justice that is seductive and tempting.

Does Shakespeare's racial and segmented world and its people turn out to be more or less complex than the dreadful stereotypes that a later age was able to produce and enforce? How do the options for a Calibanesque freak show compare with subsequent versions of the black monstrous other? Let's turn the recollection of cases of freakery in Carson McCuller's The Member of the Wedding:

The Wild Nigger came from a savage island. He squatted in his booth among the dusty bones and palm leaves and he ate raw living rats. The fair gave a free admission to his show to all who brought rats of the right size … The Wild Nigger knocked the rat’s head over his squatted knee and ripped off the fur and crunched and gobbled and flashed his greedy Wild Nigger eyes. Some said that he was not a genuine Wild Nigger, but a crazy coloured man from Selma.

Shocking on a first reading, I'd argue that it's not as black and white as it first seems, and it would repay further study in terms of entertainment, pest management and mental illness. More contextual research would focus on the deformity industry of the period and the options to cash in on one's abnormality - as in the case of "Millie-Christine" the black conjoined twins who escaped slavery to embrace fame and prosperity.

Another useful thought experiment with the quotation above replaces "came from" with "arrived in." Taking that further, the physical union of opposites common in discourses of conjoined twins becomes a grim satire on the "civil" war of the "united" states. Also the grim continuities between enlightenment, modernity, paranoia and terror.

As a popular form, Gothic writings often play on terrible racial stereotypes, by raising them up and (sometimes) exorcising them. The monstrous in the nineteenth-century becomes more self-conscious about a romantic notion of the other. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein the Creature has many likable features before society's hostility and prejudice brings out  and 'produces' his capacity for evil. Victor Hugo's writings also provide an interesting case of redeeming vision, paradoxically through a kind of blindness. (I'm thinking of The Man of Who Laughs, who inspired the Joker in Batman, as well as the better known Hunchback.)

But the recurring monstrous stereotypes need to be re-viewed as constant reminders of civilization's grotesque world. It is with us still. RIP Culture.

Title Illustration:  

The Black Gargoyle

by Hugh Barnett Cave (July 11, 1910–June 27, 2004)

who was a prolific writer of pulp fiction who also excelled in other genres.

Blog 20/1000

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