This essay assesses two dominant modes of understanding William Shakespeare’s effect on world cultures. Those two modes are anchored on the ideas of tradition and commerce. Each offers valuable insight but also carries with it inherent limitations. This essay borrows from recent interdisciplinary work on ecosystems to offer a third way of approaching the life of Shakespeare’s work in the centuries after his death. We suggest that this third mode, which can be called “naturecultural”, offers fresh ethical perspectives on Shakespeare’s life in contemporary culture. This article is published as part of a collection to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
It is hard to overstate the effect of Shakespeare, but then again, it is also hard to conceptualize it. Shakespeare’s afterlife seems stronger than ever. In the exchange above, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard imagine Shakespeare to acknowledge his debt to Marlowe in a way that only becomes possible after his rival had safely passed from activity to passivity, and thus is visible to Will as a tutor because he is no longer a competitor. Just as Shakespeare owed a debt to Marlowe, we owe a debt to the Bard; our culture is both touched by him and built on his foundations. But how do we understand this debt, this complex relationship with a man now dead for 400 years, an anniversary that this volume commemorates? In this article, I delineate two existing ways of understanding the diasporic presence of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry: as literary influence and as traffic in cultural capital, and I counter with a third, as a kind of biodiversity.
Broadly speaking, there are two tendencies that scholars have shown in approaching the vast shadow of Shakespeare, which can be taken to include his works themselves, as well as their permutations and effect on subsequent literature and culture. The first is to work with a paradigm of inspiration and influence. That perspective encourages a focus on the idea of tradition, and presumes a kind of sanguine faith in the power of Shakespeare’s works to live beyond their era. The other is to think in terms of cultural circulation. From the perspective of influence, Shakespeare is seen as a powerful creator, and sometimes edified with almost too much generative power, as a kind of primum mobile. Shakespeare has been accurately credited with some impressive accomplishments, and the title of Bloom’s (1998) Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human may not be an overstatement, but to see Western culture as an emanation of the Swan of Avon is clearly a distortion. That notion of influence, indeed, is inseparably associated with the wider and more obviously political impact of the English language and the British Empire, so Shakespeare has often become as much of a target for rebellion as an idol for praise. Though Shakespeare himself wrote in a time when the British Empire was barely a twinkle in the eye of King James I, his work became a key symbol for, and personification of, the presentation of the idea of a culturally superior Britain, and that association, though roundly rejected both inside and outside Shakespeare’s homeland, still haunts the postcolonial performance and adaptation of his work. The adaptation of Shakespeare inevitably partakes in a broader conversation with the past, with traditional ideas of high culture, and with the modern meaning of whiteness. Thus while Shakespeare’s voice has had a powerful and pervasive influence, almost equally powerful now is the response to that voice. That speaking, and speaking back, has been called a “boomerang business” by Huang (2014: 191), and it was nowhere more visible than in the 2012 “Cultural Olympiad” performance of Shakespeare’s plays, which witnessed multilingual Shakespeare performed in the heart of multilingual London.
An entirely different way of understanding Shakespeare’s afterlife is to view his works as a cultural commodity, if a particularly beautiful and humane one. That perspective, perhaps most famously articulated by Greenblatt (1980), in effect puts the beauty of Shakespeare in parentheses, and asks that we see the works as fully engaged in a circulation of cultural capital, or social energy, fully drawn from their own time and thus easily recirculated in subsequent eras. Although the original manner of New Historicism has gone out of style, it inaugurated an influential tendency to see the work of scholarship as well suited to the effort to situate poetry within the culture that surrounded it. According to this model, Shakespeare’s work may be unlike such commodities as wool and boats in terms of art and conscience, but it is like those commodities in many other ways. And like gold mined from the earth hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare is moulded and circulated in a continuous series of exchanges and valuations, cut and signified in new ways, with new motives, in perpetuity. Subsequent scholars have been prone to look for more tangible economic systems, turning away from a Marxist emphasis on the ubiquity of imaginary circulations. They have also been interested in various kinds of materiality, by which one can understand Shakespeare’s words and life within a set of temporally specific uses of objects as various as animals, books, clothing and paper.
These two tendencies are not mutually exclusive, of course, but they do pull in different directions. Callaghan and Gossett (2016: 3) have recently identified a version of this duality in their distinction between Shakespeare’s role as “a vital link to the past and a powerful testament to the relevance of history and historicity for the twenty-first century”. To see Shakespeare as a “link to the past” is to be fundamentally sanguine about the power of voices to transcend time, and to see Shakespeare as an object of relevance is to prioritize the networks (present and past) that surround “Shakespeare” over that singular voice. This tension radiates throughout Shakespeare studies, and is evident in the alternate terms for referring to his epoch: the “Renaissance”, which denotes a rebirth of ancient voice, and the “early modern period”, which connotes a time close to, and relevant to, our own (Marcus, 1992). The first, traditional, approach understands Shakespeare as something like a Byronic voice and a creator, and indeed as part of a conversation. Shakespeare’s own propensity for lifting plots and occasionally collaborating with other writers was typical for his time, but it never gybed with this mode very well, because a focus on influence prioritizes originality and singularity over stylistics and embeddedness. The Marxist perspective sees Shakespeare as a Foucaultian subject and a merchant, and as fundamentally engaged in political and economic systems of value. One may see how the two modes operate in distinct ways by looking at how they conceptualize the pervasive habit of citing Shakespeare, a practice that is done as much by T. S. Eliot as by modern TV commercials. The former approach sees this as a sign of greatness and cultural impact. The latter views the same habit, which began while Shakespeare was still writing, as symptomatic of the role of art as a commodity, marketable for money or prestige, especially in synecdochal phrases that carry the imprimatur of a great originator of cultural value. They are recirculated, as commodities have always been; George Washington’s face validates the dollar bill, and Shakespeare’s quotations validate the person who cites them, but in neither case is the authorizing figure more than a figurehead. The point of the song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from the musical Kiss Me Kate is that no one much cares what the quotations mean. The person of Washington or Shakespeare is not of any deep interest. Though one (the dollar bill) is serious, and the other (the musical) is comedic, the “author” is almost purely symbolic in both.
These two conceptions have dominated efforts to account for Shakespeare’s aftermath. I supplement these with a third model. In this third conception, drawing on recent work in biodiversity, Shakespeare can be seen as analogous to “native species” such as certain varieties of birds, mammals and flowers. Recent ecological scholars, such as Hartmann (2010) and Gröning and Wolschke-Bulmahn (2003), have questioned how we moralize the transfer of what are called “invasive species”, that is, when a species which we perceive to be native to one region is transferred and thrives to the extent that it causes problems in another. A “naturalized” species thrives in a new environment without causing problems. These distinctions, between naturalized, exotic, introduced and invasive species are not always obvious, although some strong efforts to clarify distinctions have been made (Colautti and MacIsaac, 2004). I offer that emerging field as a new way to understand the dispersal and survival of Shakespeare in a profoundly heterogeneous world. In a brilliant and relatively new book that participates in this field, Subramaniam (2014) begins with an account of her doctoral research on the genetically determined variation in colours of morning glory flowers. She ended up doing work that is both disciplinary and interdisciplinary, researching not just how and why various colours are apparent in these flowers, but also delving into the broader epistemic framework that biologists often take for granted: could elements of these flowers really be called male and female? Did the species “belong” in a particular geographic region? Asking these questions led to a book of much wider scope than she had originally intended, and it meant that the logic of Western science became as much a subject for investigation as the flowers themselves. It turns out that the way in which our culture characterizes “invasive species” is highly political, and not at all times clearly tied to science, in the narrow sense of a rigorously determined fact. The fact that we often speak of transferred fish, grass and trees in terms that strongly resemble our worst caricatures of immigrants is troubling and worthy of serious consideration. Gröning and Wolschke-Bulmahn (2003: 20) argue that “Those who doctrinarily plead for native plants often condemn foreign or exotic plants as aggressive intruders,” and they link this moralism to “the idea of the nation”. This school of scientists would certainly not advocate for the indiscriminate transplantation of species globally, but rather pose fundamental questions about allocation of resources and the epistemology of nativity.
What does that have to do with Shakespeare? I argue here that Subramaniam’s work offers an alternative to, and indeed can function as a critique of, the two models by which we have understood Shakespeare’s afterlife. She argues that species change locations, and always have done, with or without human assistance, and that our human need to defend ideas of nativity often entails waging a rhetorical and physical attack on species that are harmless. This is apparent in some symbolically powerful cases: the American Southwest boasts tumbleweed that derives from Russia and the Georgia peach tree is originally Chinese (147). Those imports are conferred a special native meaning, like America’s horses and white people, and so are not associated with threat and danger. But in other cases, species such as the Chinese snakehead fish (103) are seen in terms that precisely match anti-immigration hysteria. That is not just a waste of time, it is potentially a fundamental diversion from the goal of good science, which is to see things accurately. Other scientists have raised similar concerns, focusing more on the interface between scientists and activism. For example, Lodge and Shrader-Frechette (2003) have drawn attention to the “mixed message” being sent by ecologists who do not always acknowledge the value judgments they are making, creating misunderstandings which are in turn magnified by the popular press (Cassey et al., 2005), and distorted by cultural tendencies towards xenophobia that may be entirely absent from the science at the heart of the debate. The end result is that people who see themselves as progressives end up voicing, and thus reinforcing, ideas of deeply proprietary locality and nativity that mirror and abet political impulses on the far right. Subramaniam takes these concerns one step further towards a conversation with other disciplines, and therefore is crucial to this essay. She proposes that we see things with what she calls a naturecultural lens, which would involve a deep interdisciplinarity—in this case primarily between Feminist Studies and Biology.
In this article I suggest that one element of her argument that is particularly relevant here is her suggestion that we consider the psychological and political weight that migrations are made to bear, and compare that with the migrations themselves and their roles in what are often rich and diverse ecosystems. To make the point more sharply, tumbleweed came from Russia to America just as Shakespeare came from England to India. If seen in those terms, Shakespeare’s arrival in a foreign land is not really, or perhaps better not necessarily, an imposition of an intentional and original foreign voice (as the paradigm of influence would have it), nor is it precisely the cross-border trade in an exotic commodity, a trade which is by its nature indifferent to intentions and origins (as our second paradigm would have it). To see Shakespeare’s transfer to foreign lands from a naturecultural perspective would be to ask a different set of questions: Did Shakespeare’s art ever “belong” to England? When Shakespeare arrives in a foreign land, do his texts influence that culture, are they new raw material for that culture to integrate, or are they reproducing a species of art in a new cultural ecosystem? Is Shakespeare perceived—in various places—as an interloper or as a common property? And does his arrival narrow or broaden the cultural ecosystem that receives him? Of course, these questions have been extensively explored within the field of postcolonial literary studies. What I offer here differs from those approaches in a way that can most clearly be explained in relation to the notion of hybridity. Hybridity is a crucial concept for postcolonial studies, and it is articulated by Krishnamurth (following Homi Bhabha, 1994) as an “ambivalent, ambiguous space occupied by the narrative in the formation of the colonial subject” (Krishnamurth, 2002: 56). That model of hybridity is useful in the analysis of a novelist who is entangled in the colonial project—her subject is Rudyard Kipling. By contrast, the model of hybridity explored below is one more closely linked to genetics, and it is more suitable to address the transgressive modern presence of an early modern English author, Shakespeare, who so fundamentally predates the British imperial project.
This approach would fall under the broad parameters of ecocriticism, but it would differ in an important respect. Ecocritical approaches to Renaissance literature have tended to approach poetic artifacts, which are prima facie linked to nature, and revisit that link. Some critics have sought to recover and enliven those connections from an epistemic perspective (Watson, 2006), and others from an economic or materialist angle (Weixel, 2010). They share a certain tendency to take science for granted, as the proverbial constant as poetry changes, and they typically focus either on the science of the early modern period, with its humours and parthenogenesis, or on our own science, with its presumed objectivity. But here there is a difference: when focusing on the knowledge of the past, critics have tended to be judicious in weighing the competing, and in some ways mutually contradictory, paradigms by which Shakespeare understood the natural world: as Biblical, Ovidian, folkloric, humoral and empirical, to name a few. Since Shakespeare was so fond of natural images and metaphors, there is plenty of material to work with, but when critics have focused on how modern science views nature, they have not tended to see that epistemic system as something that needs examination in its own right. O’Dair (2011) has defended the presentism inherent in ecocritical approaches to Shakespeare, but emerging work in the sciences continually offers the potential to destabilize our idea of what the present means. That is an important opportunity for interdisciplinarity, because at least one undebunked assertion of New Historicism is that history cannot be seen unless the present is seen simultaneously: our current environment, at the very least, conditions the ways in which we can understand the past. A naturecultural lens calls for a fresh understanding of the interpermeation of the human and the natural. We cannot, in this frame, see the natural world “objectively”, and we are also not outside of it. We are part of nature, our scientific perspectives are shaped by cultural histories, and the same tendencies that shaped the history of science also shaped the history of literary practice. In a move that anticipates the present study, Harris begins his monograph on early modern literary and medical history with a discussion of the panic the West experienced towards what was called the “Asian Flu” and its place in modern economic and nationalistic anxieties (Harris, 2004: 1–3). The stories offered by science, in both “high” and “low” cultural registers, are a rich source for insight into our current culture and its literary history.
Cultures, like ecosystems, play host to a variety of lives, and both thrive on simultaneous activities that are sometimes predatory, sometimes symbiotic and sometimes indifferent to one another. The paradigm of influence has a primary limitation in the fact that it tends to be patrilineal—one may see this in discussions of whether an adaptation is “true to Shakespeare” or, equally, in an adaptation that treats its literary father with patricidal rage. A naturecultural approach to literary influence might enrich the study of adaptation in part because it would expose the implicit genetics involved in the study of literary history in the first place. If Shakespeare is a kind of universal patriarch to Western culture, there are certainly a lot of other contributing genetic parents between the Elizabethan time and ours, and those cultural genetics have hybridized a thousand times. Perhaps more fundamentally, a naturecultural approach would remind us that no gene occurs in isolation, that Shakespeare was part of a complex cultural ecosystem and so are we. We can see these issues with fresh eyes, and ask important ethical questions, in part because nature offers us examples of many stories that defy the modern habit of thinking of local, stable, intact and even fragile natural worlds. It may be helpful to think of Shakespeare as a particularly successful invasive species, one whose path has been fundamentally tied to human power and commerce, and one who occupies profoundly different positions across the globe.
The tendency to fix science in a conversation with unfixed poetry limits the set of questions that can be asked, and conversely, a naturecultural perspective opens them up. It seems undeniable now that our ambivalence towards nature is a fundamental aspect of human culture, and merits integration with cultural criticism, but our culture is also a fundamental aspect of how we practice science, both at doctoral institutions and in the popular media. And if we are getting science wrong in demonstrable ways, we ought to look at both culture and nature with a more critical eye. A key example in which a naturecultural perspective would perform such a dilation of research is in its ability to reflect on ethical questions of genetic purity and hybridity, and that topic will concern the remainder of this essay.
One of the most interesting links between Subramaniam’s work and Shakespeare’s aftermath is the link between eugenics and genetics. The pioneers of genetic research were practicing work that was profoundly shaped by a eugenic project (Subramaniam, 2014: 54–55), and in 1914 the president of Stanford University avowed that “good stock” was a fundamental element of creating good children (53). Modern biologists are prone to discard such positions and relegate them to the history of science, as opposed to scientific discovery per se—that is, the foibles of the scientists, not relevant to the content of science. But Subramaniam shows that they are not so easily disentangled. Indeed it is fascinating that the high point of eugenic science, in the late nineteenth century, coincided with the high point in the promulgation of conspiracy theories of Shakespeare’s identity, which almost invariably imagine the Bard’s secret bloodline to be noble or even royal. The notion that the great British author must have come from “good stock” is, aside from being a defiance of reason and documentary evidence, a fantasy that resonates with ideas of “good” genes, plants, birds, races and classes, in contrast with, and in condescension towards, their “bad” equivalents. It turns out, of course, that “good” invasions are celebrated in terms just as unsettling as those by which “bad” invasions are condemned.
We could, as biologists are prone to do, discard such mistakes in the study of Shakespeare, but we might justly ask how they remain active in the present. To take one example, recent years have seen an increasing practice of teaching Shakespeare in prisons. Many of these efforts seem to assume that performing and understanding Shakespeare can ameliorate, rehabilitate or even transform the lives of prisoners, but upon what logic does this practice rest? Have teachers of Shakespeare consulted with prison educators about what education would be most useful? Could outreach efforts more effectively focus on financial literacy and job skills rather than performing Shakespearean plays that thematize violence and forgiveness? If we are not asking these questions, is it partly because we understand Shakespeare to be fundamentally curative, a kind of “good stock” that elevates the student and ennobles the teacher? Though respectable scholars have no interest in conspiracy theories of Shakespeare’s identity, we may be still influenced by some of the same underlying assumptions that prompted the birth of such stories. Elsewhere in this volume, Olive (2016) considers the way in which British reality TV presents the delivery of Shakespeare to underserved schools in urban Britain. Though such efforts at first appear simply good and heroic, when put in a broader context she shows that they at least have the potential to undermine teachers who work in those schools and provide cover for a government agenda of outsourcing and privatization.
Such questions on the optics and ethics of cultural transfer could equally be applied to a recent performance of Hamlet performed by Shakespeare’s Globe for a refugee camp in Calais, on 3 February 2016, on a makeshift stage (Brown, 2016). Summary translations were distributed on paper in Farsi and Arabic, but the performance was in English, which many of the audience could not speak, and it is not clear why the refugees would benefit in any way from such a performance. The Guardian celebrated the performance as an example of Shakespeare’s universality (Brown, 2016), but The Daily Mail noted that the play was halted after only an hour because knives were spotted in the crowd and the actors did not feel safe (Malm, 2016)—perhaps in part because the audience had no reason to request a performance of poetry over against, for example, clean water and shelter from the February rain. The questions raised by a naturecultural perspective, then, end up folding into a Marxist critique: as cameras were capturing a performance of a dead white man’s poetry before the huddled masses of migrants, who, exactly, was performing for whom? What poetic or academic capital was being exchanged as pentameter was made to seem relevant to a humanitarian crisis? The performance was undoubtedly intended as an effort to speak to human suffering at a very famous site of conflict between England and France, now given renewed significance as waves of refugees traverse a fraying European Union. But the use of Shakespeare in this scene risks the unintentional reaffirmation of the native and the foreign in a stratified relationship. One of Subramaniam’s reflections on natureculture could be applied to this performance: “In the very act of labeling humanity and biota into two categories—native and alien—marking the presumed good and the possible evil, our quest for an inclusive, ethical world is lost” (Subramaniam, 2014: 123). Quite clearly, Shakespeare was the presumed good and (though the event was in France) native culture presented before the refugees.
This line of enquiry may be relevant to one of Shakespeare’s most provocative treatments of the question of the natural, during the sheep-shearing festival in The Winter’s Tale. At this festival, Perdita, still unaware of her royal origins, is celebrating with her love Florizel, who must present himself as Doricles to conceal his own royal origin, and they are being spied upon by Florizel’s father Polixenes, who also must conceal his royal identity in order to blend in at the festival. Thus what appears to be a humble country gathering is in fact more like a royal court masque, filled with princes who are playing swains and maids. In this context, Perdita mentions to Polixenes that she does not care for “streak’d gillyvors” (4.4.82); she expresses distaste for the fact that these flowers are artificially bred. Polixenes (who, of course, ultimately becomes her father-in-law) lectures her, arguing that the artificial hand of man is not separate from nature, but rather a part of it. As such, these flowers are an improved version of nature, resulting from the marriage of
The scene is dense with irony. Polixenes is at the festival to prevent the marriage of his own nobler race (via his son, Florizel) with the baser kind of what he understands here to be Perdita’s peasant family, yet he appears to be testing her by arguing against his own position, at least with regard to hybrid flowers. She argues against miscegenation, though she does not put that practice in the terms of subspecies varietal hierarchies that Polixenes articulates. She scorns bastard flowers because, like human bastards, they lack legitimately, that is naturally, matched parents. Her belief in the importance of propriety in generation, from the perspective of the audience, validates her as an ultimately legitimate match for Florizel. Though she does not know it at the time, she is actually the rightful varietal for his flower. As a bonus, she has encountered him through natural (random) human activity, which would normally be an impossibility for a princess; in a familiar trope of the romance genre, she shows us that genetic royalty is impossible to suppress, even when human actors are unaware of their role in perpetuating its regeneration.
This passage seems apt in the context of an examination of Shakespearean adaptations as comparable to what happens when Shakespeare is transplanted, at least in part because all adaptations are hybridized. One could understand that hybridity as a descent in bloodlines, and thus as a kind of bastardy—that would be Perdita’s perspective, and like a historian of literary influence, her priority would focus on the lineal honour of Shakespeare’s art. At this moment, at least, Polixenes would seem to be advocating something like a Marxist perspective, in which an all-encompassing system, Nature, mends itself through the transgression of three societal tiers, between the bastard, the base and the noble, corresponding roughly to the weed, the ordinary crop, and the elevated plant. My own inclination is to believe that Shakespeare’s central topic here is generic admixture more than that of social castes; that is, that Polixenes is subtly arguing for an innovative hybridity in the tragicomic genre, figured as an advocacy for innovative flower breeding. High tragedy meets low comedy in this hybrid play. If it is acceptable to mix colours in flowers, he implies, then it is acceptable to mix marriage and death, as the play so beautifully does. However, I find it fascinating that conflicting values are so readily visible, and so heavily felt, in this discussion of flower coloration.
Can we look at the vast array of Shakespearean echoes—from rock song cliché “Juliet” references to Cliff’s Notes, anime and farcical “Shakespearean” performances—and say “do not call them bastards”? Perhaps we can, but if we do, we will also ask a new set of important questions pertaining to the ethical, commercial and creative evaluation of Shakespeare, who now appears in such manifold duplications and fragmentary enactments. Those questions will be of particular value because a naturecultural lens would differ in fundamental ways from existing perspectives on reproduction and exchange. One salutary benefit of this approach is the way in which it might relate to the political weight of Shakespeare’s geographic origin. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with a traditional approach, it has always been prone to a slippage whereby the study and performance of Shakespeare resembles something like praise and worship, and the fact that the object of this praise is a white, European man is hard to miss in the awkward scene of the abortive performance of Hamlet in Calais. Transplantation, apology and even iconoclasm can easily affirm the patriarch they defy, and what may be intended as a progressive political statement can easily morph into a colonialist imposition of an English Shakespeare onto Syrian refugees in France. In a recent exploration of a similar collision between modern political imperatives and a Shakespearean text, Ayanna Thompson questions the value of radical appropriations of Othello, concluding that although well-intentioned, Toni Morrison’s play, Desdemona, is ultimately unduly limited by its tether to Shakespeare. Thompson (2016: 505) is intrigued by the stories the Malian performer Rokia Traoré wants to tell through that piece, but suggests that the notion of adaptation, however politically aware, may not be “the appropriate venue for Traoré’s political agenda”.
It is impossible to erase Shakespeare’s whiteness, but if we employ a naturecultural lens, he may be disburdened from ownership over the patriarchal symbolism of his cultural imprint. It is easy to sympathize with practitioners of contemporary dramatists who resent the funding and customers that seem to flow almost automatically to anything that relates to a white man from early modern England; he must seem like a particularly greedy and ravenous invasive fish, choking off resources and stunting creativity. But it is helpful to note that Subramaniam’s vision of naturecultural work is not wedded to a sentimental protectionism, like the version that Perdita voices as she forswears hybrid floral growth. Subramaniam embraces conservation ecology, but not as it aligns with the rhetoric and practice of cultural nativism, let alone caste reaffirmation. Decoupling the patriarchal model of greatness from Shakespeare, or at least interrogating that link, might finally allow Shakespeare to die, 400 years after his death, in the sense that his actual life can finally be severed from his patriarchal symbolism. That in turn might better enable us to embrace his poetry while also avoiding the ethical traps that we have tended to ignore. After all, a streaked gillyvor by any other biological classification would smell as sweet.
Data sharing not applicable to this article as no datasets were generated or analysed during the current study.
How to cite this article: Saenger M (2016) “Do not call them bastards”: Shakespeare as an invasive species. Palgrave Communications. 2:16065 doi: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.65.
Kind thanks for the comments provided by Norma Fowler in the preparation of this research. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Jason Cole Magnon.