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"Bringing Race into the Shakespeare Classroom Through Performance-Led Assignments"

By Dr. Lily Kelting, Flame University

(December 2019 Issue / PDF)

I love teaching Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest. After reading histories, comedies, and tragedies, I pause and ask the students: “so, what is this?” The silence that inevitably follows is a productive one. There is the sense that, nearing the end of his career, Shakespeare goes for broke and throws all his best tropes from throughout his career into one play. This makes the play easy to teach, because this assemblage of motifs helps students draw connections with other plays on the syllabus. For a professor at a new university in India, where the liberal arts present an entirely new educational model and pedagogy, reading for intertextuality is something I try to model actively. In The Tempest, brothers become vicious enemies, and the space of exile becomes the space of transformation, just like in As You Like It.  A legitimate ruler is overthrown by sabotage, like in Macbeth.     

And like Othello, The Tempest asks how to define the British “us,” and who defines the “Other.” As Kimberley Coles, Kim Hall, and Ayanna Thompson write, “The colonial project is stitched in and through the language and literatures of the pre- and early modern periods; the politics and economics that ultimately produced settler colonialism, chattel slavery, the forced migration of peoples, and the development of the British empire animate these early English texts. If more faculty members do not confront this history, we may actually be aiding those whose political, cultural, and social beliefs many of us find personally abhorrent and intellectually bankrupt.” (Coles, et al.). Both Othello and The Tempest bear the stamp, then, of wider Early Modern interests in the exploration and exploitation of Africa and the East and West Indes—as well as bear the necessity to confront that history in the classroom, especially a postcolonial classroom in India.

Mentions of the Americas in the play cement this reading: the courtier Gonzago directly quotes of Montaigne’s “Of the Cannibals,” which was in turn based on manuscript accounts of returned shipwreckees from the Jamestown colony (see Go). The Tempest, with its direct mentions of New World Indians, is foundational for Stephen Greenblatt’s “Learning to Curse” and “Martial Law in the Land of Cockaigne,” early examples of the New Historicist mode of critique (Greenblatt; Shakespearean Negotiations). Thus, The Tempest is a key text for situating Shakespeare within larger material and historical currents of Renaissance British culture. Though post hoc non ergo propter hoc, drawing a simple timeline on the board can quickly demonstrate for students that the colonial project is “stitched in and through” The Tempest: The East India Company was incorporated by royal mandate in 1600; from 1607-1609, the EIC set up their first factory on the Coromandel coast.[1] The Tempest was staged in 1610.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare gives us the character Caliban, the son of the Algerian witch Sycorax, who grew up on the remote, nameless island on which the play takes place. The banished Duke of Milan, Prospero, arrives on the island and presses Caliban into service chopping and carrying his wood. Caliban is the original inhabitant of the island (“this island’s mine by Sycorax my mother” [I.ii.347]), who taught Prospero how to find fresh water and gather food when he first arrived. After an assault on his daughter Miranda, Prospero concludes that Caliban is a “devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick” (IV.i.188–189). The abuses and threats hurled at Caliban continue throughout the play: he is called “poisonous slave” (I.ii.323), “tortoise,” (I.ii.319), “a freckled whelp, hag-born” (I.ii.285), “servant monster” (III.ii.5), “debauched fish,” (III.ii.24), the child of the devil himself.

Conventionally, Prospero is the hero of The Tempest: an author-figure, benevolent patriarch, even champion of the liberal arts. But as Caribbean novelist George Lamming notes, if a reading of The Tempest as a play that celebrates Caliban was a mistake, it was “a mistake, lived and felt by millions of men like me” (Loomba 5). Rather than accept the insults hurled at Caliban at face value, Lamming and millions others like him (including me!) see these insults as a prime example of the way the play reflects Early Modern ideas about the limits of the human: ideas that enabled British colonial expansion.

Of course, the field of race and Shakespeare studies has had a long history: from Caribbean writers like Lamming and Cesaire reclaiming Caliban to the active conversations around #shakesrace on Twitter today. But for undergraduates for whom discussing race in the classroom might prove as new—and as challenging!-- as the language of Shakespeare, performance-led assignments form a pragmatic way in to interpreting Shakespeare’s plays with an awareness of race. Scaffolding Shakespeare’s texts with historical and theoretical frameworks lays the groundwork for the performance-based approaches I have adopted to teach these texts, as I expand below. Thus, we begin not with secondary scholarship in postcolonial Shakespeare studies, but with a text from the first wave of postcolonial engagements with the play, one that might mirror more closely students’ own fresh responses to the play, especially students in the Global South.

In 1952, the Martiniquan psychologist Frantz Fanon wrote Black Skin, White Masks, a book that would become a foundational text in the field of postcolonial studies. Fanon weaves together anecdote, social analysis, psychology, and rhetoric to conclude: “[The black man’s] metaphysics, or, less pretentiously, his customs and the sources on which they were based, were wiped out because they were in conflict with a civilization that he did not know and that imposed itself on him” (110). In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon is writing about his own experiences as a colonized Black person, but he is also writing—you might say—on behalf of all the characters who are “colonized” by European literature: characters like Caliban.

The idea for this “Designing Caliban” assignment came out of a class I created at the University of California, San Diego: Performance Studies for Theatermakers. The deservedly prestigious MFA program trains some of the most creative and impactful actors, designers, choreographers and directors in the US theatre world. But I was disheartened by the disconnect between the work I saw produced on stage and the readings I was doing to support my Ph.D., with its emphasis on critical race and gender studies. Aaron in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, for example, depending on direction and design, is either the play’s scheming, stereotypical Moorish villain or the first example of a Black Power advocate in European literature: “Coal-black is better than another hue, / in that it scorns to bear another hue” (IV.2.103-104). Costuming him in a stereotypical hoodie, torn and stained wifebeater, and saggy jeans sat at odds with the critical theory I was reading across campus in the library. It seemed, in the white imaginary of a La Jolla Playhouse theatre audience, to signify that Aaron deserved the punishment he received at the end of the play. Performance Studies for Theatermakers was born.

We read selections from Fanon to introduce a unit on staging race and empire. In this iteration, I asked the MFA students to be dramaturgs for a day: one common task for a production dramaturg in an American theatre context is to create dossiers of reference images for the director and designer of a production. So we all brought in images of previous stage and film productions of The Tempest. How had other artists dealt with the character of Caliban? The results of our visual research were disheartening. Caliban was often covered in mud or adorned with antlers: usually at least mostly nude. Such choices reaffirm historical associations of blackness with primitivity and animality. The connection back to the theoretical reading came easily: in the cornerstone chapter, “The Fact of Blackness,” Fanon articulates way in which Black bodies are objectified through the image of a white child who calls out on the street: “Look, a Negro!” (Fanon 109).  The assignment proved that the split between theory and practice in theatre studies is a false dichotomy. Fanon, Shakespeare, and design are not indeed “strange bedfellows” (II.ii.19). Theory, literature, and artistic practice instead strengthen critical-thinking and close-reading skills when taught together.

That artistic decisions are interpretive decisions is something that all theatre artists know viscerally. The difference between a heroic or villainous Aaron the Moor might hang quite literally on a hoodie. When I was asked to teach the compulsory Shakespeare seminar in my university’s literature department, I wondered whether I could adapt this assignment. It was one thing to include Shakespeare in a Performance Theory class, but quite another to include a “performance-based research” assignment in a Shakespeare class. As an article by Dani Bedau and D.J. Hopkins that we read in class succinctly summarizes: “This disciplinary bias is firmly entrenched in the broader field of Shakespeare studies: that Shakespeare is literature” (Bedau and Hopkins). As with Shakespeare and race, there is indeed a vibrant field of study of Shakespeare as/in performance. There are books on Early Modern performance practices, there are books about performances of Shakespeare from the 1600s to the present day and all around the world. And yet: including an actual performance-based research module in English classes is usually met—in my experience-- with suspicion. How should you grade them? (see Wilson; Hellström: or simply, don't). Don’t you need theatre experience to incorporate performance exercises in the classroom? (Not the exercise I describe here). But mostly: wouldn’t that time be better spent reading?

The implicit bias against performance as a form of knowledge runs deep: because of the cross-cultural mingling that occurs in theatre audiences, because of performer’s association with licentiousness and sexual freedom. Theater scholar Peggy Phelan argues that this is because performance, unlike print, necessarily disappears (Phelan); Dwight Conquergood argues more polemically that performance is a necessary “oppositional force to the textual fundamentalism of the academy” (Conquergood 26). While Phelan and Conquergood are forebearers in the field of Performance Studies, their challenges to the literary paradigm remain fresh and incisive when it comes to Shakespeare studies as taught in English and Literature departments. It is one thing to research Shakespearean performance; it is quite another to think about Shakespearean performance as research. Such classroom exercises thus activate a key debate in literary, theatre, and performance studies: can we see performance as an equally potent producer of knowledge as literary analysis? And if so, can we then assign performance-as-research projects instead of research papers?

Part of the reason this move toward performance-as-research is controversial in the Shakespeare classroom is because of the status of Shakespeare himself.  As Ayanna Thompson suggests, “[The world] treats Shakespeare like intellectual spinach. He's good for you. He's universally good for you” (“All That Glisters Is Not Gold”).  Shouldn’t we be studying his works “seriously,” rather than “simply playing around”?  

But this, I think, is the strength of this particular assignment: asking students to “play around” is indeed asking them to articulate a reading of the play in a way that provides them more agency—and room to react and respond to the text in a variety of ways. I find that this assignment cuts out intial knee-jerk laudatory reprisals of Shakespeare learned from school, as well as empowering students and thereby avoiding some of the “anxiety of influence” that developing an original thesis about Shakespeare’s texts can cause. It is also, as Anne Boyer notes of a doubling exercise, “virtually cheating-proof. Any themed essay on Shakespeare—love or death in Romeo and Juliet, time in Othello, prejudice in Merchant of Venice, what have you—is liable to be found in the innumerable essays-for-sale sites on the internet” (Boyer).

The instructions themselves are very simple: to present to the class a design for the character of Caliban (drawn, designed on the computer, written in narrative, whatever), as though pitching the concept to a film or theatre director. In their five minute presentation of their design, I ask them to explicitly ground decisions they’ve made in citations from the play, submitting alongside the design a list of textual sources. In this way, the performance-based assignment forces students into the act of original interpretation with a great degree of creative latitude. If you have to take responsibility for every aspect of your design, you necessarily have to make decisions about Caliban’s look, his sound, and by extension, his character. To leave him faceless, as one student did, is also a statement. There is no “neutral option,” just as there is no objective approach to the text. Performance-based assignments like this one just make this fact obvious. 

Designing Caliban has led to conversations about hair: whether Caliban might have long hair to symbolize his power, or have his hair cut by his master Prospero as a sign of domination. Taking our cue from Fanon’s chapter, “The Negro and Language,” we spend a lot of time around the question: how does Caliban speak? With a gravelly voice? With a smooth, musical accent? Has he accepted Prospero’s “gift” of the English language, or does he reject it—and how? Might a Caliban who refuses to speak offer a reading of the text inflected by strategies of non-violent resistance? What about a Caliban who speaks only in a language that most of the audience will not understand? One student suggested that while Caliban himself should refuse to speak in the play, that his lines would resound in the space as though coming from the island itself. Such a reading cements Caliban’s connection to the natural resources of the island—adding an ecological critique to postcolonial readings of the text.

Is Caliban tall and muscular, to show that Prospero’s “book learning” has more power in the play than physical strength? Or do the tasks of chopping and hauling wood overwhelm an emaciated and abject Caliban? Is his nudity just another dark body represented as an object-to-be-looked-at? Or is his nudity a site of pathos, as he wraps himself tightly with a ratty blanket cast-off from his masters? Each artistic choice provides a radically different reading of the play, impacting how language, magic, power, and the body relate in The Tempest.

Why do characters constantly refer to Caliban as a fish? Some suggested that this was because of his smell. Several students imagined Caliban with some kind of skin condition: keloided scars from whipping, or cystic acne, or skin so dry it’s scaly. Or, perhaps, we could produce a Tempest in which Caliban is truly fish-like: which might seem far-fetched, except that directors of the Tempest must already contend with gender-bending spirit Ariel, who already requires screen projections, an aerial harness, or other stage technologies of the non-human. As part of this conversation, a student brought in the helpful reference point of the film The Shape of Water, in which a lonely janitor falls in love with an amphibious man-fish who is held as a research subject. One way, then, to interpret the fish insults is literally: that the project of the play could then become to humanize those who appear to be less-than-human. But most of the class pursued the opposite line of thinking: that showing Caliban as fully human and not-at-all fishlike would show that these insults were baseless, racist.

Several of the design interventions were powerful re-interpretations of the play. One student, for example, designed handcuffs for Caliban that were actually beautiful bejewelled gold bracelets: the idea was that this “gift” of European culture looked nice, but was actually the source of Caliban’s enslavement. She imagined that the character might bite or chew at these shackles. Another student also designed for Caliban a piece of jewellery that spoke volumes: a necklace comprised of natural treasures from the island, woven together with Miranda’s hair. Such a prop would show Caliban’s agency in exercising personal choice: Prospero is not the only “creator-figure” in the play, if Caliban too crafts objects of beauty.

One of the most radical adaptations of the character proposed that Caliban, like Prospero’s other servant, Ariel, was also a shapeshifter. But while Ariel had the ability to control his own shapeshifting, Caliban lacked the ability to choose his form. He then was forced to physically transform into the insults hurled at him: “hagseed”, “mooncalf”, “puppy-headed monster,” “fish.” An adaptation with such a Caliban poses a strong postcolonial critique as well as a nonce instantiation of the concept of performative speech-acts.

Usually, one student presents a stereotypical image of a “subaltern” person-- in a grass skirt, for example-- and we have a conversation about stereotypes. These moments are painful, but productive. Often, other students in the class jump in. “Casting white actors does not mean that you have made the play less about race,” one student corrected another, “whiteness is not the absence of race.”

“Representation Matters” is a 2019 commonplace, but representation has mattered since the 1600s. When the drunken butler Stephano stumbles upon Caliban, he basks in his good fortune: he could take Caliban back to England as part of a travelling exhibit of “New World Discoveries.” Putting Caliban on display could make him rich. This is not fictional: “Any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian” (II.ii.17) is not idle talk. It is a likely reference to the display of embalmed Inuit corpses brought by Martin Frobisher from the Arctic to England in the late 1500s.

As our final class on The Tempest was winding down, I asked the students what they would choose as the final images of The Tempest, if they were directing a film adaptation. Shakespeare’s play itself does not specify Caliban’s fate, but what we imagine happens to Caliban is the moral litmus of the whole play. One student mused that she would show the European characters dressing up Caliban for such a display and leading him in chains toward a ship waiting to return to Italy. This student’s single image synthesized historical and theoretical approaches to the text into a singular moment of critique: a critique articulated not through academic argumentation, but through performance design. Teaching Shakespeare has given me the opportunity to reflect on my own complicated relationship with “the Bard,” especially my own disciplinary investments in literature and theatre. More importantly, it’s taught me the value of teaching Shakespeare through performance-led assignments. Even having run the course this way several times, it still feels risky: the course-time required for student presentations of this exercise and other similar ones inevitably means that less time will be spent reading and interpreting the text of Shakespeare. We read fewer plays in this class than in the Shakespeare lecture I myself attended in college. My own anti-theatrical bias creeps in, and I ask myself the same questions others have posed to me: shouldn’t we get back to the “real work” of reading?

In the final days of class, I show the students Charlie Rose’s “Why Shakespeare?” roundtables, in which Shakespeare scholars and theatre directors laud the universality of Shakespeare. This year, one student entered class angry: “how can these fancy professors be so uncritical in the way they talk about Shakespeare? They don’t even support their interpretations with evidence from the plays! Haven’t they read Fanon?” I laughed. Foregrounding history, theory, and performance means taking some air time away from Shakespeare, yes. But it’s a trade-off I’ll gladly make again next year.


[1] Other materialist, historical connections between Shakespeare and the British colonial project, like the probable staging of Hamlet about EIC vessel ‘The Red Dragon’ in 1607, strengthen this link.

Works Cited

“All That Glisters Is Not Gold.” NPR.Org, Accessed 8 Dec. 2019.

Bedau, Dani, and D. J. Hopkins. “The Shakespeare Laboratory: Intercepting ‘Authenticity’ through Research, Pedagogy, and Performance.” Theatre Topics, vol. 23, no. 2, Sept. 2013, pp. 145–56. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tt.2013.0015.

Boyer, Anne. “Teaching Shakespeare through the Theatrical Practice of Doubling.” This Rough Magic, Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.

Coles, Kimberley, et al. BlacKKKShakespearean: A Call to Action for Medieval and Early Modern Studies – Profession. Accessed 25 Nov. 2019.

Conquergood, Dwight. “Beyond the Text: Toward a Performative Cultural Politics.” The Future of Performance Studies: Visions and Revisions, edited by Sheron J. Dailey, National Communication Association, 1998.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox, Revised edition, Grove Press, 2008.
Go, Kenji. “Montaigne’s ‘Cannibals’ and ‘The Tempest’ Revisited.” Studies in Philology, vol. 109, no. 4, 2012, pp. 455–73. JSTOR.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. Routledge, 2007.

Hellström, Tomas. “Evaluation of Artistic Research.” Research Evaluation, vol. 19, no. 5, Dec. 2010, pp. 306–16., doi:10.3152/095820210X12809191250807.

Loomba, Ania. Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. 1 edition, Routledge, 2003.

Shakespearean Negotiations., Accessed 25 Nov. 2019.

Wilson, Jennifer. “The White Cube in the Black Box: Assessing Artistic Research Quality in Multidisciplinary Academic Panels.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 41, no. 8, Nov. 2016, pp. 1223–36. (Atypon), doi:10.1080/02602938.2015.1075190.

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