Radical Shakespeare: Why do we get him so wrong?

By Pauline Kiernan

A timely study which restores the revolutionary message of Shakespeare's art.


Racist, anti-semitic, misogynistic, Tudor propagandist, nationalistic warmonger. It’s hard to find a writer who has provoked such a diverse number of abusive terms. Slapping lazy, simplistic labels on Shakespeare’s plays is an intellectually sloppy and theatrically naive way to approach them. We cannot recover the mind-set of his audiences but we can do the playwright the courtesy of trying to avoid misrepresenting what he was attempting his drama to do.

Here are a few sample excerpts from the book:



The language of racist stereotypes in ‘Othello’ is spoken mainly by Iago and Roderigo. At the opening of the play, the audience is given a vivid portrait of the Moor by two characters: one a bitter disgruntled career soldier who hates his General, and a dumb, dissolute Venetian who is paying Iago to get him into the heroine’s bed.:

‘Thick lips’, ‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe.’ etc.

If that isn’t enough to set up in the audience some doubt as to the reliability of these characters, we are then made to watch the subject of their conversation appear, a rather impressive-looking figure whose words reflect his status as a commanding officer, and in language that can only be described as eloquence (we will watch this transformation of quiet dignity to uncontrollable, jealous rage, which makes this early appearance so significant)


Signior, it is the Moor.


Down with him, thief!

They draw on both sides


You, Roderigo! come, sir, I am for you.


Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.

Good signior, you shall more command with years

Than with your weapons.

It’s clear, within a matter of minutes, that we’ve been given two conflicting views of Othello’s character. Racist language is in the play, but it is spoken by dramatic characters, not its author. Shakespeare carefully constructs his work to affect us moment by moment, manipulating our response, turning our moral compass this way and that.

Tudor propagandist?
Richard III

He may have a hump for a back, ‘a foul lump of deformity’ for a body, a misshapen penis and just one ball (’half made up’), but Shakespeare’s Richard III certainly knows how to seduce an audience.

But which audience? Think about the actor who originally played this King. Richard Burbage was the sexiest man alive on stage in the most popular form of entertainment for aristocrats, the middle-class and the ‘groundlings’. The actor playing the ‘poisonous bunch-backed toad’ who says he’s sexually impotent, is the most glamorous star of the day. 

So, what does Shakespeare do? He lays on the deformity, the physical repugnance, exploits the discrepancy between handsome actor and disfigured role for all its worth. Can you imagine being in that audience the moment Burbage limped onto the stage with his hump back and crooked frame? The powerful physical presence of that athletic body twisted into monstrous shape? And when Richard tells you he cannot be a lover, ‘I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,/Nor made to court an amorous looking glass,’ his adoring fans of all shapes in the audience were almost certainly cracking up with the rest of the audience. To then have this seductive creature draw you into his secret thoughts to become an accomplice to his evil plans would be to feel an irresistibly guilty thrill.        

But what was truly revolutionary about this opening scene was the language. Shakespeare gives Richard the most astonishing rhetorical tricks.

When Burbage came to the front of the stage and delivered that stunning first speech audiences had never heard a character talk to them with such intimacy.

A Head of State requesting legal sanction to invade a foreign country, a dodgy dossier, a pre-emptive strike, war crimes, the torture of prisoners, rape as a weapon of war, the eroticism of military violence, soldiers questioning the morality of the conflict - and one very accomplished spin doctor.

         Do the war leaders and reporters who carelessly reference Shakespeare’s Henry V to whip up patriotic fervour or justify military expansionism ever read the play?  

         Shakespeare’s scrupulous interrogation of the politics and ethics of war presents a charismatic skilled political performer, a conjuror of illusion able to offer his people the myth of national unity and the glory of territorial conquest, and at the same time shows us how it’s all done. How do you get the legal and moral right to invade a sovereign country? How do you get exhausted, starving soldiers facing certain imminent defeat psyched up to fight an enemy that massively outnumbers them? How do your spin doctors, with a war to sell and a media to control, ensure the message gets across?

         And most chillingly resonant throughout the four centuries since it was written is the question the play is most concerned to dramatise: ‘Can there be such a thing as a ‘just’ war?

The Merchant of Venice

With the play that has haunted the world since the most horrifying atrocities of  recent history, our estrangement from Shakespeare’s audiences poses more serious difficulties. Our post-Holocaust sensibilities make The Merchant of Venice the most problematic of Shakespeare’s plays. It is routinely described as anti-semitic and racist.

 The racist abuse of Shylock by the Christians in the play would have been familiar to the original audiences. The shock which Shakespeare inflicted on them when he put a Jew on the stage who wasn’t the caricature evil villain of every play, tract and ballad they were used to, who murdered children and drank their blood and poisoned Christians, would have been staggering. As well as giving him a speech that is an eloquent testimony to the shared humanity of Jew and Christian, Shakespeare adds one of his characteristic touches of sudden sympathy for the Jew. When Shylock hears that his daughter has left him and sold the precious ring of his dead wife, his anguish at the memory of his Leah, the loss of the ring which was worth nothing, momentarily draws us into his pain. The audience had never seen anything like this Jew.
Measure for Measure
Again and again, Shakespeare chastises the men in the plays for breaking vows and the ways they mistreat their women.
Shakespeare’s women often speak eloquently about the injustice of the male double standard that allowed men to play away, but called women who did the so slags.

But I do think it is their husbands’ faults

If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,

And pour our treasures into foreign laps,

Or else break out in peevish jealousies,

Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,

Or scant our former having in despite;

Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,

Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know

Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell

And have their palates both for sweet and sour,

As husbands have. What is it that they do

When they change us for others? Is it sport?

I think it is: and doth affection breed it?

I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?

It is so too: and have not we affections,

Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

Then let them use us well: else let them know,

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

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