The despair and grief brought about by novel coronavirus and not so novel racism has made radical change not just possible, but inevitable.
The new normal is already upon us, physically and culturally. As if heralding the era, Iqbal Khan’s 2015 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Othello starring Hugh Quarshie has been given a new lease of life on iPlayer and will be broadcast on BBC4 as part of the corporation’s Culture in Quarantine programme.
The underlying admirable objective of the production, in which Lucian Msamati is the RSC’s first black Iago, is to expunge the play of the racist notion that Othello behaves as he does because he is black.
Meanwhile, the RSC’s response to the killing of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter activism includes a video in which some of the country’s finest black actors recite the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech from The Merchant of Venice.
I happened to be talking to Quarshie recently about his acclaimed Othello and he was less than convinced that Shylock’s speech was the best way to articulate support for BLM. That it is not possible to use words from one of Shakespeare’s very few black characters such as Othello, Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus or Cleopatra, showed the limitations of Shakespeare, he said.
I get that. The killing of Floyd was such a specifically anti-black form of racism it is not hard to see how expressing outrage over the atrocity with words allocated to a Jew might distract from what is specifically black experience.
Still, for me, it is the most moving recital of the speech I have seen. Why? Possibly because we are not yet out of an era in which it became acceptable to trash Jews or dismiss their fears as being cover for a hidden, often anti-Corbyn, agenda. And because of this I am primed and thirsty for expressions of common humanity that include Jews.
Yet I remain uneasy about some of the change. It seems that a mood is asserting itself in the arts in which it will only be possible to represent a member of a group that has experienced prejudice in a positive way. Complex characters in which Jews, black or transgender people behave badly will become increasingly hard to come by.
That said, it can be no bad thing if, when plays start being produced again, BML focuses minds on how it is possible to portray Othello’s behaviour as having nothing to do with his being black. This would increase complexity not decrease it. But I doubt the same will be true of future Shylocks.
The “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech will continue to provide cover for the portrayal of a Jew as valuing his ducats more than his daughter, and as a debt collector capable of cutting his interest from the body of a Christian. De-Jew that.