Shakespeare talk covers race, immigration issues

By Danielle Bettendorf, Living & Arts Editor 

Author Joyce MacDonald spoke on race and immigration in Susquehanna’s annual Literature Program Lecture on Oct. 4 in Stretansky Concert Hall.

MacDonald’s lecture, titled “Extravagant and Wheeling Strangers: Shakespeare, Race and Performance,” related race in Shakespeare’s time to current issues in the present day.

MacDonald was introduced by associate professor of English Rachana Sachdev, who noted racial issues that have happened in the U.S. over the past year. Sachdev specifically spoke on protests against police brutality, attempts at bans against travelers from certain countries and the calls for a wall to be built between the U.S. and Mexico.

MacDonald said the title of her lecture came from the first act of “Othello.” Throughout her lecture, MacDonald analyzed the roles of black and Jewish characters in “Othello,” “The Merchant of Venice” and “Titus Andronicus” and how characters of color are perceived as “outsiders” in comparison to their white counterparts.

One thing MacDonald noted about Shakespeare’s plays is how there is often only one character of color among an otherwise white cast.

“Being the only one, the only black character that is markedly different from everyone else gives one place for all these free-flowing anxieties and fears,” MacDonald said.

“Even though other people in the play do horrible things, what is happening is the power and vigor with which Shakespeare draws these characters from [comes] directly from the fear that was in this society,” MacDonald said. “He’s drawing something that’s real. Maybe not something that’s objectively real, but emotionally real.”

MacDonald also analyzed how people of color were treated in Shakespeare’s time, such as Roderigo Lopez, a Jewish doctor who was executed in the 1500s and may have inspired the character of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.”

“The hateful ideology you see in stuff like Lopez’s execution, the hateful ideology that you see put into action often takes on a political life and power of its own,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald said that there are differences between Shakespeare’s time and now, but less than we might want to admit.

“Too much has changed, too much is different,” MacDonald said. “Yet, my mind kept going back to our own political moment and the role that immigration is playing in it.”

Students who attended also noted the connections between the past and the present.

Sophomore Hannah Phillips said, “I think the beauty and relevance of continuing to study classics like Shakespearean plays lie in making these connections between the author’s time and our own.”

“Sometimes, literature forces us to say, ‘Yes, times are different, but maybe not as different as we want them to be,’” Phillips continued. “And Wednesday’s presentation was an important reminder of that.”

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