Emer O’Toole Says Shakespeare is Globally Popular Because of Colonialism

If a student were to ask me why people, the world over, read and put on performances of Shakespeare’s plays, I would basically say the following:

A difficult achievement is universally recognizable. Shakespeare has done something, aesthetically and imaginatively, very far from entropy. You can see that he did not write as a monkey at a typewriter (that is, dashing off random letters across a page). People don’t read many writers the world over, only the best, and Shakespeare is one of those to have done something quite noticeably well. It is Shakespeare’s shocking distance from entropy that people are drawn to. Academics can get lost in his plays; lay audiences can delight in them. Shakespeare’s plays amount to the creation of a world.

But this explanation would be, by Emer O’ Toole’s lights as expressed in today’s Guardian, hopelessly reactionary and wrong-headed. The real reason people read Shakespeare is colonialism.

Here she is saying it:

Shakespeare is full of classism, sexism, racism and defunct social mores. The Taming of the Shrew (aka The Shaming of the Vagina-Bearer) is about as universally relevant as the chastity belt. I’m sick of directors tying themselves up in conceptual knots, trying to frame poor Katherina as some kind of feminist heroine. The Merchant of Venice (Or The Evil Jew) is about as universal as the Nuremberg laws. […]

So where has the idea that Shakespeare is “universal” come from? Why do people the world over study and perform Shakespeare? Colonialism. That’s where, and that’s why. Shakespeare was a powerful tool of empire, transported to foreign climes along with the doctrine of European cultural superiority. Taught in schools and performed under the proscenium arches built where the British conquered, universal Shakespeare was both a beacon of the greatness of European civilisation and a gateway into that greatness – to know the bard was to be civilised.

Well, yes. Everything she says here is true. Who can deny it? Shakespeare traveled with colonialism (as did Christopher Marlow). And Shakespeare can be sexist, racist, classist, and antisemitic.

But people don’t, the world over, hold festivals for the performing of Marlow, do they? Something more is going on. Shakespeare’s staying power belongs to Shakespeare himself (because he achieved things with language, literary ambiguity, complication, and character creation that are quite obviously remarkable).

The same can also be said of the ancient Greek dramatists (Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes). The Greeks too travel well. You can probably find, for example, somewhere in Japan, this very week, a production of a Greek play.

Is this because of colonialism as well?

Imagine if the plays of Shakespeare had been written, four hundred years ago, by an Indian woman who gleaned her knowledge of Europe from books (as Shakespeare did for the plays he set in Italy, which he never actually visited)? Would Emer O’Toole not be celebrating her intellectual and imaginative triumph? And does Emer O’Toole seriously believe that such an Indian playwright would not have been discovered and globally celebrated in the 21st century?

The Bhagavad Gita has long been recognized as a great piece of Indian literature that travels well. Perhaps Emer O’Toole attributes its global reception to colonialism as well.

What Emer O’Toole represents is what the retired Yale critic, Harold Bloom, rightly calls “the school of resentment,” which he defines as consisting of those who bring leftist political commitments, accompanied by a general indifference to aesthetic judgments, to works of literature and art. Hence Emer O’Toole’s explanation for why she has been attending the World Shakespeare Festival in Britain:

Palestinian collective Ashtar made a powerful political statement about displacement through its stripped-down Richard II. The festival has offered UK audiences their first chance to watch the National Theatre of China, and this week sees India’s Arpana theatre perform in Britain for the first time with an all singing all dancing Gujarati All’s Well That Ends Well. Woop!


We have reached the point where what’s interesting about Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare at all – it’s the themes and innovations that theatre artists bring to the texts.

What’s interesting about Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare at all? Really?

Well, if Emer O’Toole has reached such a point of boredom with Shakespeare that she prefers to focus on directors and song and dance interpretations of the plays (or not attend Shakespeare plays at all), fine. But that’s not why Shakespeare remains vital to so many people the world over. Shakespeare remains vital because he is the exemplary writer in the genre of drama. He is a treasure that belongs to humanity, and we may not see a writer of his power again for a millennium or more (or ever). It’s not politically reactionary to say so.

Here’s Blondie channeling Hamlet:


And here are the lyrics:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Emer O’Toole Says Shakespeare is Globally Popular Because of Colonialism

  1. Gato Precambriano says:

    Shakespeare was a genius who happen to live in the “right” time and place, and speaking in the “right” language. If it Happens that he lived in Africa then, speaking banto, nobody would have hear about him, ever. And as far as we know maybe this have happened already.
    That’s trivial though, and don’t, in the slightest, diminishes Shakespeare genius, evidenced by the fact that he speaks, language notwithstanding, to everybody and anybody, now and then, here and everywhere.

    • colinhutton says:

      Mind you, he might have found it difficult to transmit his universal truths, given that there were no written languages in black Africa at that time!

  2. Paradigm says:

    It ironic how she in her leftist white self-hate diminishes the non-Western world into mindless drones just embracing whatever their colonial masters feed them with, long after the era of colonization is over.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      You make a good point. Her assumption that non-white young people in the 21st century are racially insecure, adopting a view of themselves in keeping with what older white racists have long had of them, needs to be scrutinized. In an internet and international culture with lots of contact between different races in globalized urban areas, nonwhites can see that they are quite obviously not the inferiors of whites (and whites who are not already blinded by habits of prejudice can see this as well).

      That translates into a willingness by whites and nonwhites to enjoy objects of international culture (from yoga to Shakespeare). If anything, I get the impression that young nonwhites PITY white racists for their stupidity and are somewhat insulted at the premises that activate white leftists (such as that nonwhites need constant reassurance that they’re okay). Young people, whatever their race or gender, already know they’re okay (just as gay individuals know about themselves that they have a complex inner and behavioral life that does not conform to homophobic stereotypes). It’s pretty clear that the world belongs to young people and not to the oldsters.

      The very mastery of technology by the young puts a gap between young and old that is far more pronounced than any perceived racial differences. A young and urbanized middle class Indian in Calcutta is likely to have far more in common with a young middle class Berliner than either do with their elders. The world is going urban, international, and cyborg, and the young are at the cusp of these shifts.

      This is not to say that there are no racial problems going forward and that issues like the history of colonialism and cultural imperialism should not be addressed and reflected on in school and out. Obviously, they must. At this level, Emer O’Toole at least gets points for getting us talking. But there’s also a 20th century feel to her obsession. And Emer O’Toole, to get us talking, indulges in what amounts to something like a reductio ad absurdum.


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