Shakespeare: His Blackwashing

FOX’s “Empire” rewrites King Lear for 21st-century viewers.

[by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Many years ago, most people who earned a Ph.D. in English had to study the works of William Shakespeare. That was a good thing. The requirement ensured that a British-rooted variety of cultural literacy would circulate in the Profession. It could trickle down, through the public schools and Classic Comics, to the American common reader.

The wheel of Fortune has turned.

In 2015, people who are earning Ph.D.s in English can bypass Shakespeare. They may remember something from Hamlet, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, or King Lear–plays they might have read in middle school and/or high school. But unless the Ph.D. candidate is specializing in theatre or British literature, or desires to become the next great authority on Shakespeare, she or he may not be required to refer to Shakespeare on qualifying examinations. We don’t blame our Ph.D.s for having minimal interest in Shakespeare because the twenty-first century demands that they give more attention to what the living are saying than to what the dead have said.

But neither the Profession nor the humanities should fear that Shakespeare does not get attention. He does.

The American common television viewer has replaced the American common reader. The viewer profits greatly, as a result of what screenwriters produce, from the resilience of Shakespeare’s legacy.

For example, the ghetto-fabulous Fox network serial “Empire” is an elegant rewriting of Shakespeare’s King Lear, replacing Lear’s dementia with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and his kingdom with a parcel of the crime-infected and enormously lucrative American music industry. The very popular AMC series “Breaking Bad” obviously incorporated Polonius’ advice from Hamlet and Iago’s advice from Othello: Mr. White was most certainly true to himself as he put great amounts of drug money in his purse.

“Empire” and “Breaking Bad” are good examples of how bourgeois realism works in television and film. William Shakespeare, the masterful plagiarist, has achieved immortality in the Western imaginary. We have done an excellent job of blackwashing him more thoroughly than he blackwashed himself. And he did a damned good job of blackwashing in The Tempest. N.B.–blackwashing stands in diametrical opposition to whitewashing. Go figure.

In the spirit of blackwashing, we should invest time in reading Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s major contribution to the genre of revenge tragedy, and in viewing the clever film adaptations of that play from 1997, 1999, and 2000.

Titus Andronicus is a stunning situation report on the twenty-first century human condition and its meandering passions, including our confusion about virtues, viruses, and vices. It is a consciousness-catching play, an effective emotional trap. It generously answers this question: Who is Shakespeare and what was he, that all your elders commend him?

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
February 3, 2015