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A Woke Richard III Will Truly Prove a Villain
Why wokes want to cancel Shakespeare’s villains.
By Daniel Greenfield
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
The outgoing artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has announced that from now on only disabled actors will be allowed to play Richard III. In a woke world where vice presidents and Supreme Court justices are chosen based on their skin color and gender, to “prove” a hunchbacked villain, you must be a hunchback or at least have something wrong with you.
The RSC boasts that it cast the first disabled actor in the role, Arthur Hughes, a 30-year-old who “has no thumb or radius bone in his right arm” and therefore identifies as “limb different”.
The real Richard III had scoliosis, Shakespeare used that to make him appear grotesquely villainous, while the new woke overlords use it to make the long dead king a victim.
Next thing you know, actors will need to have syphilis to play Hitler.
Now that Richard III is a member of a designated victim group, his namesake play can be reinterpreted as a commentary on social prejudice against the disabled. It may even have to be rewritten so that he prevails at the end. Or risk having everyone involved in it canceled.
Limiting the role to actors with some sort of disability, like limiting Supreme Court nominations to black leftist women, won’t lead to good performances. Richard III will move to the back of the Bard’s catalog and having been made woke will, like all woke things, become mediocre.
Either that or talented actors will fake a disability, Tootsie style, to get a shot at the role.
“It’s the Othello syndrome isn’t it? That moment when white actors stopped thinking of Othello in their repertoire,” Gregory Doran, the outgoing RSC director, scolded. “It’s the same with disabled actors and Richard.”
The woke critics applauding this move also cheered Denzel Washington’s half-hearted performance as Macbeth. The Scottish were much more of an oppressed group in England than black people, who were not even around, but the double standard is double for a reason.
The RSC’s insistence on wokeness and fidelity did not prevent it from casting Patrick Stewart in the violently antisemitic Merchant of Venice and then staging it in Vegas, complete with an Elvis impersonator and showgirls on a casino floor as a critique of capitalism. The scene of Stewart wearing a tallit and kippah while brandishing a butcher knife was especially Der Sturmerish.
Truly, “Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell”.
Instead of life imitating art, even the highest art becomes a mawkish rendition of life with the same rigid embrace of racial quotas and stereotypes as a government employment office.
Once the Royal Shakespeare Company went woke, it lost any interest in historical authenticity, and the pretense of sensitivity is just that. The movement to carve out roles for specific victim groups is a political act with no fidelity to any humanistic principle.
Reinventing Shakespeare for a woke age requires dropping his concerns with court politics and conscience and replacing it with the current court politics of race, gender, and sexuality, while entirely dispensing with questions of conscience. Instead of the dynastic politics of York and Lancaster, the dynasties that matter are those of inherited and adapted victimhood. But the underlying question remains the same. Who has the right to rule and at what moral cost?
The woke answer is that only the oppressed deserve power and at any possible price.
The moral concerns of Hamlet, Macbeth, and other court protagonists are now dismissed as white privilege. Richard III and wokeness is a marriage made in a perfect literary hell.
Wokeness unintentionally performs Richard III’s bitterness and megalomania, his self-loathing and cruelty, and his disdain for any limits on power. Leftists plotting to pack the Supreme Court, federalize elections, censor and imprison their opponents, and harass judges in their homes, reply to liberal objections with Richard III’s line, “conscience is but a word that cowards use.”
Unable to address that central issue, the moral limits of power, woke Shakespeare becomes a parade of victimized villains reinterpreted through the lens of identity politics, a disabled Richard III, a transgender Lady Macbeth, and a racially oppressed Othello, whose downfalls are not commentaries on conscience, but on the effects of an oppressive society on minorities, justifying their crimes in the name of identity politics.
They are not the villains. Instead we are all the villains.
The Soviets had trouble grappling with Shakepeare’s insistence on individual conscience instead of social collectivism. Western social collectivism has become nearly as impermeable to the fundamental questions in Shakespeare’s tragedies that it cannot even process the individual except as a reaction to social classes and racial groups. Shakespeare proved timeless because each generation was able to lift the moral dilemma from the social context. But in the woke era, there is no moral dilemma, there is only the relentless social context and political propaganda.
Shakespeare was always political propaganda, but the woke reinterpretations drop Tudor ambitions for leftist ones. The message of every theatrical production, every book and movie, every comic and poem, is that familiar Soviet one that only leftists have the right to rule because only they are willing to radically reform society on behalf of the “wretched of the earth.”
It’s an agenda that Richard III was familiar with in substance, if not in form. “And thus I clothe my naked villany/With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ/And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Virtue signaling is the art of devils playing saints. The devils are always victims, bewailing the plight of imprisoned terrorists, violent robbers, women unable to kill their babies, and other such oppressed victims they use to justify the seizure of total and absolute power.
Richard is a self-aware villain. His contemporaries, for the most part, lack all self-awareness. That is the difference between art and life. Stage villains know themselves while politicians, pundits, and activists rarely do. The radicals threatening Supreme Court justices in defense of inftanticide have no concept of their monstrousness. That is why stage villains are useful.
They remind us of what we can become.
Reinventing Richard III as a victim, a member of an oppressed group, sends the opposite message. And that’s intentional. By making it impossible for Richard III to be a villain, the leftists who terrorize society are immunized from the dictates of conscience. Villains who once warned of individual moral responsibility now serve to echo collectivist warnings of social responsibility.
And the wokes are shielded from the realization that they are the villains.
The outcome of this reasoning is familiar from art and life. “Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end”.
In life and art, men play roles, and in both, authorities mandate what roles they can play. The limitations are revealing of social boundaries. Banning actors from portraying members of certain groups is a statement that there is a vast gulf between them that runs in one direction. A white man cannot envision what being black is like and a healthy man cannot act out a disability.
Can a 21st century actor convincingly portray a Roman or a Greek, or a medieval noble? Can an actor whose great challenge is projecting emotion capture the brutal realities of power? Are these really far easier to bridge than the difference between a black and white actor?
The idea that different streams of experience represent different mutually inaccessible “truths” is central to identity politics and opposed to art. But the conviction that we are bound to be permanent strangers to one another lies at the heart of the Left’s apartheid power.
The roles that actors are being segregated from are also the ones that represent the ruling class. And the ruling idea that justifies their rule. Actors blasphemously insist that they can play anyone and deny the verity of identity politics. If anyone can play anyone then the boundaries of identity politics that justify every crime that leftists have committed are disturbingly fragile.
Actors acting across races and all the boundaries of identity politics are undermining the sacred segregation on which everything depends. Those who believe that art must imitate life, fear that life will instead imitate art.
That’s why, unlike Shakespeare’s day, men can’t play women on stage, just in real life.