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Shakespeare’s Black Language

A director publishes a guide to getting rid of the Bard’s “harmful” metaphorical use of a color

Another day, another Google doc. This time it’s a guide to getting rid of “anti-Black” language in Shakespeare. Not racist language, mind you. That’s a given, bien sûr. No, we’re talking about any negative metaphorical use of the word “black”: “I consider the contemporary interpretation of this word more important than the author’s original intent. Removing the potential to do harm is more important than preserving the original text,” Lavina Jadhwani writes. Here’s an example:

‘Let not light see my black and deep desires…’ (Macbeth, 1.4): I interpret the use of ‘black’ here as originally intended to mean ‘wicked, slanderous, calumnious’; but to a contemporary ear associating wickedness with ‘black’ reinforces colorism (discrimination based on skin color). I might use dark here (which still contrasts with ‘light’ and feels contextually clearer), but not in other instances.

You may be thinking, well, at least she sees it’s not always good to substitute other words for “black.” That is until you realize that what she means is sometimes you just need to cut the whole section:

‘Desdemona: Well praised! How if she be black and witty? / Iago: If she be black, and thereto have a wit / She’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit’ (Othello, 2.1): In this exchange, ‘black’ is used by both characters to mean ‘ugly’ and I think that association is too harmful (and the repetition too frequent) to work around. Subbing ‘dark’ or ‘darkness’ also does harm. In this case, I advise cutting.

Dark times for Willy Shakes. Can I say that? Listen, I’m all for getting more people to read or see a performance of Shakespeare, but this isn’t the way to do it.

In other news: Frank Ramsey was one of the most brilliant philosophers of the twentieth century. He died at 29: “During the 1920s, Frank Ramsey made massive contributions to no fewer than four disciplines: philosophy, economics, mathematics and subjective utility theory. In 1999, the philosopher Donald Davidson caught his brilliance by coining the term the ‘Ramsey Effect’: when you discover that your exciting and apparently original philosophical discovery has already been presented, and presented more elegantly, by Frank Ramsey.”

John Muir, canceled: “Last week, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. The Sierra Club is ‘celebrating’ the event in an unusual way. It is dumping any association with John Muir, the ‘father of the national parks’ who founded the Sierra Club back in 1892. Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, tells members that ‘it’s time to take down some of our own monuments.’ Brune says members must now ‘reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.’”

Ben Sixsmith reviews Vicky Osterweil’s In Defense of Looting: “‘As a mode of struggle, riots are marked by many characteristics traditionally defined as feminine: not driven by rational argumentation or “proper” political dialogue, they are instead driven by desire, affect, rage, and pain.’ I don’t know what kind of stone-cold misogynist thinks the irrational is necessarily feminine. That’s a level of sexism that even the outer reaches of the ‘red-pilled’ internet only aspire to achieve. You get the sense that Osterweil was just desperate to squeeze modish gender politics in somewhere.”

A rescue boat funded by Banksy to transport North African refugees to Europe gets stranded.

Siena, an Italian city with 30,000 residents, is the same size as a highway interchange in Houston: “Michael Hendrix of the Manhattan Institute, a free-market think tank, pointed out that the city center of Siena, Italy, packs roughly 30,000 residents into a space roughly the same size as one of Houston’s countless stack interchanges. Hendrix pulled this eye-opening comparison from a report compiled by the U.K.’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which sternly suggests that housing 30,000 Italians is less wasteful and more sustainable than using the same amount of acreage to simply move cars around. There’s truth to that, of course—designing cities around cars leads to high carbon emissions and road fatalities, and forces most folks to undertake interminable, congested commutes. But there’s more to the story. Understanding how Houston ended up with a seemingly endless array of five-stack interchanges, while the bulk of Siena’s population lives inside a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is complicated.”

The former judge who scolds journalists for poor English usage: “The first letter I got from Quentin Kopp — the retired judge and former state senator, San Francisco city supervisor and San Francisco mayoral candidate — complained that one of my articles used ‘summit’ as a verb. ‘It’s evident your editor and you are willing to use “fake” words,’ he wrote in jaunty, swooping cursive, ‘thus contributing to the degradation of our language and culture.’ Right above his ‘Yours truly,’ he added, ‘Shame on you.’” 

Photo: Èze  

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