Dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism in Shakespeare: A Field Guide
-- kihana miraya ross for The New York Times
Who This Field Guide is For
This guide is written by a non-Black theatre artist and educator for non-Black theatre artists and educators.
I hope it can also be a resource for all artists when working on Shakespeare’s plays -- which are almost always cut and/or adapted in contemporary performance.
Black lives matter.
And words matter.
Words can do harm.
It is time we stop harming Black people with our words.
Why This Guide Exists
I don’t believe in cancel culture, I believe in “call in” culture.
When looking at Shakespeare’s plays through a contemporary lens, many problematic words and phrases emerge. I don’t think that means we should “cancel” these plays -- they contain poetry and truths and stories that I believe are still worth telling. But I do think some of Shakespeare's plays and language and many of the people who continue to produce and direct it need to be “called in.”
“In social justice circles, calling in refers to ‘the act of checking your peers and getting them to change problematic behavior by explaining their misstep with compassion and patience.’ Picture a huddle where you bring someone in and talk about the game plan to get on the same page.” Source: dictionary.com
How to Use this Guide:
Examples of Harmful Language (and How to Avoid It)
Challenging Language: black
What it Meant Then* (source: Shakespeare’s Words):
What it Means Now** (source: Oxford Languages):
1) of the very darkest color owing to the absence of or complete absorption of light; the opposite of white
2) relating to Black people
3) (of a period of time or situation) characterized by tragic or disastrous events; causing despair or pessimism
When to Avoid It: Here’s the disconnect -- my contemporary ear often hears “black” as “relating to Black people” and that is a definition that did not exist during Shakespeare’s time. So unless “black” clearly contextually relates to the color (ie, “they’ll suck our breath, or pinch us black and blue” from Comedy of Errors, 2.2), I consider how a contemporary ear might first hear the language, and consider rephrasing if the original language has the potential to do harm.
In these instances, 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.
Iago: If she be black, and thereto have a wit
She’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit.
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.
Challenging Language: Ethiop, Ethiope
What it Meant Then: Ethiopian, African, person with a dark countenance
What it Means Now: Ethiopian (source: dictionary.com)
Reasons to Avoid It: on a micro level, the definition of this word has evolved -- Shakespeare was using it less geographically precisely than we do now. But on the macro level -- in Shakespeare’s plays, this word is almost always used in a context which implies that a person with dark skin has less value than a person with “fair” or “white” skin. More on that below, but in short -- there’s no reason to repeat or reinforce those archaic views on beauty or purity, which are rooted in colonial mentality.
Possible Substitutions: just cut it.
Example: “And Silvia--witness Heaven, that made her fair!--
Shows Julia but a swarthy Ethiope.”
There’s many comparisons between the characters of Silvia and Julia throughout this problematic play; little is lost by cutting this one.
Alternate solution: acknowledge the potential harm of this word. This is another case where I defer to the expertise of my Black colleagues on if/when to do this. Martel Manning, a Black actor in Chicago, did this during a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream several years ago: https://howlround.com/color-conscious-directing
Challenging Language: master
What it Meant Then (noun): teacher, school-master; dignified form of address to a professional person
What it Meant Then (verb): own, possess, have at one's disposal
Reasons to Avoid It: In America, this word can have an anti-Black racial charge, because of our country’s history of enslavement of native African and African American people. Context is everything -- I start by examining who is saying the text and who is receiving it. What story does that tell and how does racial identity factor in?
For example, the word "master" is used 50 times in The Comedy of Errors, in various ways. The first time it is used is in Act 2, Scene 1. The scene begins with Adriana saying:
Neither my husband nor the slave return'd
That in such haste I sent to seek his master?
The combination of the words slave and master both 1) describe the power dynamic between Antipholous of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus and 2) can have a racial charge.
I encourage you to examine your casting, and if a racial charge attached to the word “master” is not part of the story your team wants to tell, change it.
Possible Substitutions: As always, context matters. “Mister” (or any other two syllable honorific) can work in instances of formal address; “captain” and “neighbor” are also options, depending on the relationship. “My lords” can replace the plural “masters.” If you have other ideas, I’d love to hear from you!
When to Keep It: When the word master is in reference to an idea as opposed to a person, I find that the definition Shakespeare used is clear. For example, a few lines later in Comedy of Errors, 2.1, Luciana says "A man is master of his liberty; Time is their master..." and because the word "master" is used in reference to "liberty" and "time", it does not carry the same charge as it does when it refers to a person.
Challenging Language: minstrel
What it Meant Then: [derisive term for] a musician
What it Means Now: a medieval poet and musician who sang or recited while accompanying himself on a stringed instrument; a troupe of comedians, usually white men in blackface, presenting songs, jokes, etc., and portraying negative racial stereotypes (dictionary.com)
Reasons to Avoid It: To Elizabethan audiences, this word referenced one culturally shared image of a musician. To an American audience, the definition of this word contains two different, culturally specific meanings. Context is everything. If the first meaning (“medieval singer”) is clear, then you’re close to Shakespeare’s original intent. But if the second is implied, you’re changing the meaning, and therefore the context of the moment.
For example, in Romeo and Juliet (3.1), Mercutio says to Tybalt, “Consort! What, dost thou make us minstrels? And thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords.”
What is the story of that moment if:
The above are examples of four possible stories; there are myriad more. I’m not arguing for one over another, but rather asserting that the use of the word minstrel has a different charge in each of those different stories. If using the word minstrel tells a story that is not the one your team wants to tell, then change it. If you’re not sure, consult with the Black members of your production team. If you are asking those members to do work that is beyond the scope of their contract, you should compensate them appropriately.
If there are no Black artists on your production team, ask yourself and your team why that’s the case.
Possible Substitutions: “musicians” or “buskers.”
Challenging Language: niggard; niggardly
What it Means (Then and Now): a mean or ungenerous person, a miser; miserly
Reasons to Avoid It: to a contemporary ear, it sounds a lot like a word that does not belong to non-Black people. If you are not Black, I strongly suggest cutting or replacing this word. Its homonym is potentially triggering, and the word’s actual meaning is not commonly known.
If you are a Black theatre artist who believes that this old, Scandanavian word can be an asset in a different context, I trust your judgement.
If you are not a Black theatre artist, that’s not your call to make.
Possible Substitutions: miser or miserly is a synonym that scans perfectly
Example: instead of “Be not a niggard of your speech; how goes’t?” (MacDuff from Macbeth, 4.3), consider “Be not a miser of your speech; how goes’t?”
Challenging Language: slave
What it Meant Then:
What it Means Now: a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them
Reasons to Avoid It: I’d argue that the meaning has changed too much for us to now use it in the original context. As an American audience member, it’s challenging to hear this word and not think of the history of slavery in the United States and the transgenerational trauma that Black people experience today. The altered meaning will alter the stakes of the moment.
If continuing to use the word slave tells a story that is not the one your team wants to tell, then change it. If you’re not sure, consult with the Black members of your production team. If you are asking those members to do work that is beyond the scope of their contract, you should compensate them appropriately.
When making these decisions, It is important to remember that our context for challenging language, as non-Black artists, is irrelevant. If language does harm to the Black community, then it does harm to all of us.
Possible Substitutions: Knave (“a dishonest or unscrupulous man”) is a word whose contemporary use is closer to the original definition of slave.
Example: “Why came not the slave back to me when I call’d him?” (King Lear from King Lear, 1.4) Here Lear is referring to his Fool; “Why came not the knave back to me when I call’d him?” preserves both the original meter and meaning.
Challenging Language: sunburnt
What it Meant Then: of dark complexion, not fair-skinned [and therefore unattractive]
What it Means Now: to suffer from sunburn
Reasons to Avoid It: The original intent is harmful and not worth repeating.
Possible Substitutions: cut it.
Example: “Good Lord, for alliance! Thus goes every one to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry ‘Heigh-ho for a husband!’” (Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, 3.2)This line is in prose and the intent remains clear after the words “and I am sunburnt” are removed.
Challenging Language: swart
What it Meant Then: swarthy, dusky, of dark complexion
Reasons to Avoid It/Substitutions/etc: see “sunburnt,” above.
Challenging Language: white (whiter, etc)
What it Meant Then (source: Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary by Alexander Schmidt):
What it Means Now:
Reasons to Avoid It: The challenge arises when Shakespeare uses the word “white” to stand for purity and innocence; in a contemporary context, this reinforces white supremacy. Associating “white” with “pure” implies that the antonym is also true (ie, “black” then means “impure” or “not innocent”). This is harmful.
Possible Substitutions: Pure and true are both one syllable synonyms; I use “fair” with caution as it can reinforce colorism.
Example: “I swear to thee, youth, by the white hand of Rosalind, I am that he, that unfortunate he.” (Orlando from As You Like It, 3.2) In this case, both “pure” and “true” could substitute for “white.”
** Unless otherwise indicated, all entries under “What it Means Now” are from Oxford Languages
Questions? Feel free to contact Lavina -- her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Venmo is @lavinajadhwani.
A Note About Suggesting Additions: Please remember that this guide is specifically dedicated to eradicating anti-Black language from Shakespeare’s plays. His plays also contain language that is problematic in other ways; that is not the focus of this guide. If you would like to adopt this model and make a guide of your own with a different focus, I encourage you to do so!
Special Thanks: This document was developed during a residency in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2020 Writers Group. Thank you to my fellow writers for their feedback.
This document was created on July 1, 2020.
Last update: October 9, 2020.
^^ Additional Context on this Resource/its Development
Below is brief note written to the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (http://lmda.org/) on the context for this guide:
This is a guide written by a non-Black theatre artist and educator for my fellow non-Black theatre artists and educators. I hope it is of use/interest to you!
I believe that words have the power to heal or harm, and I aim to create work that does the former, not the latter. The power of words often depends on their context, and much of that context has changed from when Shakespeare first wrote his plays to when they are performed now.
This guide is intended to be used as a starting point for examining Shakespeare’s words in context; it contains suggestions but is by no means intended to be prescriptive. I am not attempting to “fix” or “sanitize” the text (as claimed by critics of this document). But I do think that, because language changes over time — for example, the term BIPOC wasn’t in use at the beginning of this year — some of Shakespeare’s language needs to be revisited through a contemporary lens in order to both clarify intent as well as avoid doing harm.
I love these plays and I want to continue to celebrate them — alongside other, non-colonial works that should be considered “canon.”
There are many problematic words, phrases, and themes in Shakespeare’s plays, and this guide is specifically focused on dismantling anti-Black language. Because Black lives matter.
As a South Asian femme, I have a relationship to colorism, however I cannot speak to the experience of a Black person, which is another reason this guide is not prescriptive. I wanted to remove the emotional labor of having to explain why certain words may do harm to the Black community from my Black colleagues, who I have witnessed do this work for free in countless rehearsal rooms across the country. I own that my perspective is a limited one, which is why I also encourage you to consult and compensate Black theatre artists for their work.
The impetus to write this guide came out of the dual pandemics that America is currently facing — the pandemic of racial violence against Black people in this country fueled my activism and the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down our industry gave me the time to write.
This guide was first published as a Google Doc on July 1, 2020 for two reasons: 1) I wanted this tool to be as accessible as possible and 2) I wanted to be able to update it regularly, as context continues to change. Please feel free to use it and share it and stay in dialogue with me as you see fit.