The woke brigade are close to ‘cancelling’ Shakespeare

Wokeness is coming for the Bard, to bury him not to praise him…

Dromio of Syracuse’s ribald riffing on the unsightliness of an ardent kitchen wench is one of the highlights of The Comedy of Errors: “She is spherical like a globe…” Can such blatant fat-shaming be justified today? What about Shakespeare’s casual connoting of whiteness and fairness with purity and goodness? Compare the “alabaster innocent arms” of the young Princes in Richard III, say, with that curse in Macbeth: “The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!” Shakespeare may be, in Ben Jonson’s phrase, for all time, but he’s also the product of a patriarchal, Anglo-centric, proto-colonial age. To cut or not to cut will be the question. What if everything’s triggering?

Over the past few years, Shakespeare performance has increasingly marched to a “woke” drum. Some would say it has been galvanising, a corrective against conventionality and Bardolatry. We’ve seen greater diversity in casting and much gender-flipping. Fine, OK. A traditionally cast production is now a rarity, ever more unthinkable. That’s less fine. Doesn’t it suggest that those getting funds to promulgate his work are in some way embarrassed by it, or are so worried about being labelled reactionary – or worse – they duck the fight?

There’s no mention of Shakespeare in Arts Council England’s new 10-year strategy. At the RSC at the moment, you can see King John (with a gender-flipped lead); aside from that, a play about the slave trade The Whip, and a musical that flies the flag for transvestism: The Boy in the Dress. He’s not on a main stage at the National. At the Globe, they’re doing The Taming of the Shrew in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of a season looking at “gender power dynamics”.

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