By Medha Anoo
I have been taught Shakespeare’s work by instructors both in the United States and across the globe in India. He is a central figure in the Anglophone literature education of anybody, but the first time I remember getting excited about his work—really excited, like the way I felt when I pre-ordered Rick Riordan’s Blood of Olympus—was in my senior year of high school in AP Lit, when my teacher showed us the 2015 Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Othello directed by Iqbal Khan. In this famous tragedy, Othello, a Black general, overlooks his personal ensign, Iago, for a promotion; he also marries the white Desdemona. Betrayed, Iago manipulates the other characters in the play into Othello’s murdering Desdemona and then suicide after realizing what he has done. Khan is faithful to Shakespeare’s notoriously confusing Early Modern English, but he makes one significant, revolutionary alteration: he casts a Black actor as Iago. Suddenly, it didn’t matter to me that Shakespeare’s every third word was confusing. It didn’t matter that betrayal and murder-suicide and forbidden love are among the most overdone literary tropes. I became emotionally invested in the play. Shakespeare clicked.
Faithful Shakespearean productions and adaptations each have their place, and while I’ve loved adaptations for as long as I can remember, blind casting was what made me fall in love with the faithful productions taught in school.
Khan’s decision to cast a Black Iago is part of larger trends in contemporary theater to blind cast Shakespeare. You might be familiar with color-blind casting from Netflix’s Bridgerton, which, while being luridly entertaining, checks off so many problems with color-blind casting it’s almost comical. Blind casting applies similar principles of casting actors regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, size, gender expression, sexual orientation, disability status, neurodiversity, and religion. When theater directors blind cast Shakespeare productions, they often integrate the cast actors’ identities into the narrative, thereby enhancing a pre-existing narrative. Olivia Rutigliano writes the following on Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), which integrates the actors into the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth wonderfully:
“The significance of casting Washington and McDormand, and the five acting Oscars they have between them, is major: Macbeth and his wife are long-respected in their community, esteemed and decorated.”
For me, blind casting has the power to change a Shakespeare production from being faithful to an adaptation—a faithful Shakespeare production is one that retains its narratives, and an adaptation is one that emphasizes (or introduces!) particular narratives at the loss of others. The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), for example, is an adaptation. Director Joel Coen highlights, above all else, lines which underscore the Macbeths’ childlessness and Lady Macbeth’s infertility; “rather than tell a story about hubris and power-hunger, [the film] locates a story of heartbroken parents and orphaned children.” My favorite adaptation is the 2013 Bollywood production Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, which is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s take on Romeo and Juliet if Romeo (Ram) and Juliet (Leela) were heirs to rival gun-running Gujarati mafias.
Faithful Shakespearean productions and adaptations each have their place, and while I’ve loved adaptations for as long as I can remember, blind casting was what made me fall in love with the faithful productions taught in school. Khan’s Black Iago (he retains a Black Othello and white Desdemona) radically changes the racial dynamics in Othello. and brings new depth to the character and the conflict/relationship between Othello and Iago:
“…it addresses the character of Iago in a very different way, I think. Because suddenly, it heightens—for me anyway—the sense of betrayal. The sense of broken trust, the sense that you and I—as [Iago] says right at the beginning to Roderigo—we have fought in Rhodes, in Cyprus, on others’ grounds, Christian and heathen, we’ve seen war together, you and I, we are brothers. We’ve done it all together. But you went and chose that [white] guy over me.”
—Lucian Msamati (Iago), interviewed by Sabo Kpade
Color-blind casting is a longstanding tradition on the stage. Matt Wolf explains that as performers of color have been playing historically white roles in London theaters for years, their audience has seen themselves represented in Anglophone literary canon. Shakespeare’s intent was to write for his audience as well. His plays were for the 16th c. working class—which included Black and brown people—the middle class, the upper echelons of society, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Some of Shakespeare’s audience was illiterate—he himself left schooling at age 14—others were fluent in three or more languages. His plays deal with the profound questions of human existence while brimming with phallic jokes and theatrical displays of machismo—not unlike the kind you’ll find in a high school cafeteria at lunchtime. Shakespeare has written something for everyone in the vast expanse of his audience.
Blind casting can return us to a Shakespeare that was written for us.
His work has been lauded as timeless by many (including every single one of my literature instructors, and I have gone through 10), but it has not been accessible for a very long time. Who has the time and energy to painstakingly translate Shakespeare’s Early Modern English themselves? How many people don’t live in affluent school districts that can hire instructors with experience teaching Shakespeare? Given how pervasive he is in the instruction of Anglophone literature, his work should be done justice, if only to prevent boredom in the classroom. It is therefore necessary that 21st-century Shakespearean productions are performed for its audience.
Blind casting can return us to a Shakespeare that was written for us. Color-blind casting is not new, but blind casting without regard to disability status and neurodiversity is a burgeoning idea in theater. I recently watched Hamlet (2018), performed at the Shakespeare Globe. Michelle Terry directs and stars as Hamlet, a grieving Danish prince. Hamlet is driven mad by the spectre of his murdered father, whose ghost orders him to avenge him by killing Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle who has married the Ghost King’s wife and usurped the throne. Nadia Nadarajah, a Deaf actor, plays Guildenstern, and her Deafness is integrated into the play.
At their introduction, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand in a closed triad with Hamlet, and the three of them communicate freely and openly in British Sign Language (BSL). No one interprets Guildenstern, so at times the audience is also blocked from understanding the three, like a family conversing with each other in a language only they know. Hamlet’s, Rosencrantz’s, and Guildenstern’s intimacy and companionship with each other are underscored relative to Claudius’ treatment of Guildenstern—Claudius misuses sign language, speaks over Guildenstern, and at one point dismisses him entirely. As the play progresses, Claudius recruits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to ship Hamlet off to England. In their last interaction as a triad, Hamlet stops signing entirely, so hurt by his friend’s betrayal he effectively refuses to acknowledge him anymore.
Among other things, Hamlet is about grief. Terry’s blind cast centers this narrative. The loss of his father sinks him into a deep depression. Over the course of the play, the remaining people in his life for whom he cares abandon him as well—his mother by marrying his uncle so quickly, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for turning their backs on him. Blind casting Nadarajah as Guildenstern and integrating Deafness into the production enhances this narrative, emphasizing that by the end of the play, Hamlet is well and truly alone. The people he loves have either died or betrayed him.
The integration of Deafness into Hamlet suggests a production that is conscious of its audience—at the most basic level, representing Deaf and Hard-of-hearing (HoH) individuals and acknowledging their presence in society. It goes further by spotlighting Hamlet’s pain and isolation, cutting through the dense prose of Early Modern English and facilitating empathy for Hamlet—which may have not been possible had the audience not known of the depths of Hamlet’s trust in his friends and his hurt at their betrayal. The audience’s empathy for Hamlet represents a zenith of accessibility to Shakespeare, and it was made possible, at least in part, by blind casting Guildenstern’s character.
O God, God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ’t, ah fie!
—Hamlet, Hamlet Act I Scene II, 136-139
The use of blind casting in The Globe’s Hamlet (2018) also, however, has cost the play one of its central motifs, which is why I consider it an adaptation rather than a faithful production. Ophelia is played by Shubham Saraf, a male actor. This revolutionized blind casting, not Shakespeare production. While it has become somewhat normalized to cast feminine-presenting actors in male roles—Michelle Terry as Hamlet and Catrin Aaron as Horatio, for example—Saraf as Ophelia surprised me.
It becomes apparent as we read Shakespeare that the bigotry of his time is alarmingly relevant to the bigotry of our time, and vice versa. Timelessness goes both ways.
Shakespeare’s weak female characters are well-documented; in Hamlet (2018) specifically, blind casting a man as Ophelia ignores the rampant misogyny and (lack of) female agency in the original work. In Shakespeare’s version, Hamlet is verbally violent—even degrading—towards Ophelia. Gertrude, his mother, is written to be easily manipulated. In her adaptation, Terry’s Hamlet is also physically violent with Ophelia and Gertrude, the only two canonically female characters in the play. Neither Gertrude nor Ophelia have any agency in the play; Gertrude serves as a plot device to support Hamlet’s isolation, and Ophelia is swayed, and sometimes outright controlled, by Claudius and her father, Polonius. Furthermore, despite Hamlet’s documented declarations of love for Ophelia, she is insignificant to him in his grief-fueled madness—her kindness and concern for Hamlet are forcefully rejected, as would her hypothetical betrayal have been nonchalantly dismissed—because she is never truly a person with worth to him. Being a woman in Hamlet, Ophelia is doomed from the beginning to be unimportant—like Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, existing only to further the narrative—making her attempts to love Hamlet all the more heartbreaking. Saraf is gut-wrenching in his portrayal of Ophelia’s drowning, but at the cost of Shakespeare’s female narrative.
Hamlet (2018) is a Shakespearean adaptation for the contemporary audience. It’s great achievement is accessibility; blind casting a Deaf actor meant that everyone, regardless of wealth or education, could understand the story. However, Hamlet (2018) is not the production that should be a person’s introduction to Shakespeare’s works, nor should it be used in classrooms to teach Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Anyone’s first contact with Shakespeare—especially if they are likely to engage with Anglophone literature for years thereafter—must be faithful to both the source material’s profundity and bigotry. (In my opinion, Othello (2015) accomplishes this task while being relevant to its contemporary audience.) It becomes apparent as we read Shakespeare that the bigotry of his time is alarmingly relevant to the bigotry of our time, and vice versa. Timelessness goes both ways.
Consider The Comedy of Errors. Syracusan Antipholus and his slave companion, Dromio, are separated from their identical twin brothers, who are, confusingly, also named Antipholus and Dromio. Eighteen years later, the Syracusan pair travel to Ephesus, where Syracusan merchants are banned from entrance, to look for their brothers. Shenanigans ensue.
The Comedy of Errors is a funny play—and also serves as important commentary on the state of immigration in the 21st century, especially how racialized and politicized an issue it has become. In his essay, “Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the Stranger Crisis of the Early 1590s,” Eric Griffin writes, “If crown policy advertised public welcome, popular attitudes towards London’s growing immigrant community…oscillat[ed] between sympathetic identification and outright contempt…citizens were discomfited by the presence of ‘strangers’ in their midst.” Griffin also quotes Lien Bich Luu to contextualize that that period in London history was characterized by “severe inflation, unemployment, plague epidemics, [and] disruptions in trade and war”—eerily similar to 21st-century COVID-onset inflation, unemployment, and supply chain disruptions. While the pandemic has contributed to the rise of anti-Asian hate, Asians in the United States have long dealt with the dichotomy between the model minority myth and Asian fetishization. The following is an excerpt from The Comedy of Errors, where Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse comment on the body of Nell, an Ephesian kitchen maid, while also reflecting English sentiment regarding various countries:
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE
[In what part of her body stands]…France?
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE
In her forehead, arm’d and
reverted, making war against her heir.
—The Comedy of Errors Act III Scene II, 142-144
Of course, it is not a direct parallel. Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio are not commenting on the body of an Ephesian-born woman in Syracuse whom they consider to be a foreigner, but their misogynistic, generalizing comments on Nell’s physically unappealing body reveal patterns of thinking that also abound today: “Of course her forehead is large and her hairline is receding! It is French, the country which is known for overweight monarchs and weak heirs!” recalls the crass harassment Asian women, whose bodies are sexualized from stereotypes due to employment in domestic and care work, service industry, and the sex industry, might face walking home.
Immigration is central in Shakespeare’s works. The Comedy of Errors is thought to be his first play, and works including Sir Thomas More, Henry VI, Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello all play on English disquietude regarding immigrant presence—the latter two plays demonstrate an outright hostility towards Jewish and Black immigrants. This is not to argue that Shakespeare was xenophobic, but rather a playwright with keen business acumen who knew that capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiment was likely to make him more money. A responsible teaching of any of these works includes a discussion on immigration circa Elizabethan England versus the 21st century, including questioning exactly why Ephesus and Syracuse are such bitter rivals. However, this discussion is not accessible outside of academic institutions, but its nuances can be communicated to a wide-ranging audience by blind casting the play.
Blind casting makes Shakespeare’s original work more accessible to a contemporary audience simply because we can see ourselves in it.
The Comedy of Errors is frequently cited as a play dealing with issues of race and identity. Blind casting creates the possibility of casting actors of Turkish descent as Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, paralleling present-day questions of race, identity, and the assimilation of Germans with Turkish ancestry. The two sets of twins are separated in a shipwreck—what if the actors cast in their role were Cuban or Haitian boat people? Consider casting Antipholus and Dromio with Americans who have Syrian ancestry, or even Irish. A single, faithfully blind-casted production has the potential to comment on the assimilation of Syrian refugees in America and be simultaneously accessible to someone deeply entwined with geopolitical conflict and the ten-year-old Syrian child separated from its family.
Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail
Of you, my sons, and till this present hour
My heavy burden ne’er deliverèd.—
The Duke, my husband, and my children both,
And you, the calendars of their nativity,
Go to a gossips’ feast, and go with me.
After so long grief, such nativity!
—Emilia, The Comedy of Errors Act V Scene I, 413-419
It comes down to this: Shakespeare is a foundation of Anglophone literature. I remember memorizing a monologue from The Merchant of Venice as an 11-year-old for an assignment—across the world in India. Our Macbeth unit included a classroom table-read (I played Macduff because I liked being loud). During our Romeo and Juliet unit, after I moved to the United States, we watched Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation complete with loud hollering at Leonardo di Caprio’s first appearance. I plan to watch The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) as soon as I can, because reading Rutigliano’s review on it got me really excited.
Blind casting makes Shakespeare’s original work more accessible to a contemporary audience simply because we can see ourselves in it. It helps us look through confusing Early Modern English to the heart of his work: the grief, the joy, the politics, the love, the comedy, and the tragedy. It augments the timelessness of his work, and it underscores the relevance of his work to our present lives.
Blind casting brings Shakespeare back to its roots: a theater of people from all walks of life—the Globe. It is the great unifier of Shakespeare, allowing the doctoral candidate writing their dissertation on Ophelia’s characterization to thrill in his work just as much as the working mother who speaks English as a second language. That’s the magic of it.