Monday, May 23, 2022

REALLY Minor Characters in Shakespeare


Let's talk about the minor characters in Shakespeare. I mean the really minor characters, those whose parts are so small, some of them don't even have names. Not that namelessness is necessarily equivalent to minor character status. Hamlet''s Gravedigger has one scene, but he's not a small character. Henry V's "Boy" is not a minor character, nor is the Porter in Macbeth. And then we have the named characters whom we rarely think of when we refer to the plays, but who nevertheless are crucial to the action. As You Like It’s Silvius, Henry IV's Bardolph, and A Midsummer Night's Dream's Peter Quince are major characters. Macbeth's Ross is a secondary character, but one so significant that in Joel Coen's recent adaptation of the play, he takes over the whole script (being outplayed only by Banquo's eyebrows).

So, what characters am I talking about? Ones most people don't even know exist, so microscopic is their presence in the play. Yet, like many trace elements, these characters are catalysts for the action, or for the illumination of some larger character or theme.

Adrian (The Tempest): Okay, Adrian is an exception to all that. He's been called, and is, the most boring character in Shakespeare. This servant of King Alonso exists only to be made fun of by snide Antonio (the hero Prospero's villainous

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

More on Othello and Blackface

ast month I wrote on the unfortunate choice of a University of Michigan professor to show his class a film version of Othello in which the protagonist was played by a white man (Laurence Olivier) in blackface. The professor fell afoul of students, and subsequently of administrators, not so much for showing the film as for failing (as his critics saw it) to contextualize the production: to say something about the tradition of white men using blackface to play this famed Shakespearean character. Even had the professor done so, he might not have realized that the part of Othello was actually created -- that is, it was scripted -- for a man in blackface.

This is not just to acknowledge that in 1604, all Shakespeare's characters, and those of his rivals, were played by male whites, except for the characters in elaborate masques written and staged in private palaces for the aristocracy, in which women sometimes took part. (The women were also white, of course. Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness is an interesting example of a play written to be performed by women in blackface.) It's a given that the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical world was not a racially diverse milieux, although it's not impossible that of the hundred or so black Londoners of the early seventeenth century, one or

Saturday, January 1, 2022

"Speak of me as I am": Shakespeare and the New Orthodoxy


In the fall of 2021, distinguished Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng committed what should have been regarded as a simple academic faux pas. In an introductory music class at the University of Michigan, where he teaches, he showed the famous 1965 film of Othello starring Sir Laurence Olivier in the title role. Sheng's purpose was to introduce his students to the play as groundwork for discussion of Verdi's operatic adaptation of the tragedy. However, they never got to Verdi. His freshmen may not have recognized Othello or Olivier, but they knew a white man in blackface when they saw one. Sheng hadn't provided any contextual discussion of this facet of the film (or none the students noticed). After class, a group of them expressed their shock, horror, and pain, not to Sheng, but to the higher authorities of the music department. The "safety" they had expected to find in their college classrooms had been compromised by their instructor's gross display of racial insensitivity. The end result was an official apology to the students on the part of the school of performing arts and the removal of Sheng -- by "voluntary" agreement between him and the dean -- from his role as instructor of the class.

Well . . . maybe that wasn't the "end" result. Since this incident was first reported in a university newspaper article entirely sympathetic with the aggrieved students' viewpoint, over 700 Michigan faculty and students have written in protest against