[Note: Over the past several years I have been engaged in an interdisciplinary research agenda related to the Shakespeare Authorship Question (SAQ) which concerns doubt and skepticism regarding the dubious biography of “William Shakespeare” and the more promising authorial candidacy of Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. In 2014, the Shakespeare journal Brief Chronicles: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Authorship Studies (volume 5) published my article entitled “By Nature Fram’d to Wear a Crown? Decolonizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question,” which was followed the following year with “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries” which was published in volume 17 of The Oxfordian, a journal focused on research into Oxford as Shakespeare.
The argument in the first paper was that a major reason why it is so difficult in the academy to question Shakespeare’s biography (the myth of the thrifty businessman and theatre shareholder who supposedly rose from humble provincial origins to create the greatest literary works in the English language) is not just that Shakespeare has always been a secular British national icon, but that the mythos of his alleged “natural genius” closely mirrors (and is in fact tied to) the imperial, exceptionalist mythology of the “genius of the West” used to justify centuries of colonialism. The second paper is a Foucauldian look at how SAQ-related scholarship is subjugated and marginalized in the academy, specifically in terms of the extent to which library subject headings and classification contribute to these forces.
Recently, I received the following amazing response to these articles from Paris-based novelist and publisher Amita Mukerjee, which builds upon my ideas but from the powerful perspective of someone raised in the culture of the post-colonial global south. As a librarian, academic and Shakespearean I found her remarks extremely insightful, provocative and generative; with her gracious permission I share them here not so much for the positive comments about my own work — however appreciated — but rather for her original and literary insights into the historic and ongoing influences of colonialism. — MD]
On Decolonizing Shakespeare, the Publishing Industry and the Academy
By Amita Mukerjee
I would like to congratulate you on two fantastic articles (“By Nature Fram’d to Wear a Crown? Decolonizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question” and “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries”), both of which I found phenomenal, the former especially. I grew up in India, and as such, have always been keenly aware of the Colonialist-Imperialist issues at stake in Shakespeare authorship; in fact, I have been looking to see if someone would raise the issue in the SAQ context. But really, both articles spoke to me, because I am also painfully aware of the institutional barriers your second article examines. In addition, I am an avid reader of Foucault, Said, Fanon, Deleuze etc. and nurture a full-blown obsession with the devoted upkeep of nineteenth-century racism-jingoism by leading Western institutions in the domain of culture (literature, music and art), but also in the fields of History, Philology and Anthropology. Lastly, since I am continually grinding my teeth at the ongoing, tiresome cacophony of Western exceptionalism, ubiquitous in the news and in ‘Entertainment,’ to read someone who actually refers to this exceptionalism by name and connects it to the SAQ was brilliant indeed. So for all these reasons, thank you and bravo!
I am a writer, and with my brother Gopal Mukerjee, (also a writer), I created a publishing company in 2007 (Revenge Ink, currently in a state of suspended financial animation owing to the institutional barriers you discuss in your second article), because we both discovered quite unexpectedly when we set out to publish with the mainstream, that we were trapped inside the asphyxiating Orientalist label: ‘Indian writer.’ In fact, we learned, entirely to our naïve surprise, that to be published in the mainstream as an ‘individual’ was nothing short of a pipe dream, especially if you happened to come from India. And that conversely, to tailor your work to Western elite-liberal expectations was the key to gaining access. To limit your writing, in other words, to a set of representations that continued to exclude a vast territory of potentially threatening ‘subjugated knowledge and discourse,’ which could only be neutralized by the Western mainstream via neatly framed categories such as ‘Indian writer.’ (The first page of Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’ encapsulates perfectly what I mean and what the publishing industry likes to read if you’re submitting as an Indian writer, combining as that page does, in one single brilliantly obfuscated image, the representations: brown female [with her quasi-animal burdenedness and swollen pregnant belly], sweltering heat, implied gender inferiority via isolation from the husband, grotesque exotic foods made out of familiar all-American products like ‘rice crispies,’ etc. etc.)
Only in 2007 then, did my brother and I discover that the phrase ‘Indian writer’ was not merely a marketing/sales category, but a type of ‘discursive formation.’ And as such, not only was it eerily similar to those ‘enclosing/excluding’ Library of Congress categories and headings you describe in your second article, but like pretty much every other profoundly insulting category in the publishing industry, actually made this industry a stalwart nineteenth-century-style Imperialist relic. Today, I have come to see quite clearly that the publishing and elite literary (academic, reviewing, etc.) institutions of the Anglo-Saxon world almost single-handedly uphold Western exceptionalism in culture, through their enabling/withholding of fictional and historical narratives, and by continuing to represent as ‘generally accepted,’ narratives and perspectives on/about race, gender and class that are actually patently ahistorical, but which get set down as ‘true’ as they enter generalized (seemingly unchallenged) mainstream discourse. Of course, as your first article so brilliantly suggests, even as this type of propagandist cultural reification is increasingly being challenged, Shakspere of Stratford remains at the heart of the argument. Shakspere’s transhuman ahistoricity mirrors the transhistorical superiority of the West. In both cases (Shakspere and the enclosing publishing categories we encountered), the elite literary institution claims to be letting the ‘text speak to us directly’ in a kind of naïve ‘Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’ or ‘Indians write about India’ logic, but in reality, the academy and the publishing world strictly control which texts and representations reach the public, thereby determining which texts we should read and how we should read them. In the case of novel-writing, this ‘control’ includes the very definition of what novels are, rules about who gets to write them, and (most remarkable of all) what constitutes ‘literature.’ In fact, the label ‘Indian writer’ carries within it a tacit Imperialist contract: the mainstream publishing industry lets you in (essentially) to testify as an ‘insider’ to the backwardness of your people, and in return, asks that you declare your unquestioning fealty to the Western literary-institutional worldview and to its ‘modern,’ supposedly universal (read: superior) outlook.
Then there is the nineteenth-century notion of ‘high seriousness,’ which continues, I think, to imprison both the SAQ and the modern novel. For my brother Gopal and myself, the straitjacket category ‘Indian writing’ did not cover merely an atavistic Orientalist type of narrative (as exemplified by Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’), but also a fundamentally nineteenth-century bourgeois understanding (and academic/elitist circumscribing) of novelistic discourse. As far as I’m concerned, Shakspere in his Stratfordian guise not only perpetuates Western exceptionalism in culture, he also sits at the core of a certain ‘exceptionalist’ conception of literature itself: as fundamentally ‘high-serious’ in its moral concerns and ‘timeless’ in its ahistorical grandeur; as transhistorical but ‘modernizing’ in its influence; as culturally specific but unassailable as historical/socio-cultural object. Shakspere allows the Western literary and cultural institutions to say to the world and its writers: ‘(only) we know what literature is, because (only) we have produced the highest example of it.’ This then means the Western elite can further define (through access to publishing, reviews, and reification via awards, etc.) what kind of writing gets published and what is termed ‘literature.’ In this context, publishing categories (such as Literary, Women’s, Indian, Memoir, etc.) serve not as marketing labels, but as strictly circumscribed channels within the mainstream, to ensure literary discourse does not ‘leak out’ of ‘high-mindedness’ and begin to fuel subjugated discourse (as it did in the 1920s and more particularly in the 50s-70s). Shakspere then, in the Holy Trinity of the Western domination of global culture, is the Son, whose Father is the ever-superior Anglo-Saxon West, with the Holy Ghost embodied in the power to say what constitutes ‘great’ art and what does not. Part of this process, of course, involves Western critics retroactively (and preposterously) imprinting reified authors (liberated as they are from troublesome historical association) with contemporary hagiographic fantasies, such as ‘Shakspere, the first modern man’ or ‘Austen, the proto-Feminist.’
Ultimately though, I enjoyed your articles because they (to my mind) correctly located the SAQ within the wider gamut of ‘subjugated knowledge’ and accurately described its stance within Western literary discourse as ‘insurrectionary.’ I had myself noted in most SAQ articles the kind of naïveté you refer to, with regard to what is simplistically termed the ‘Stratfordian’ position and its attachment to Shakspere’s ‘candidacy.’ Although I continue to enjoy the myriad focal points of research within the SAQ, I was glad to see that someone was at last suggesting that since mainstream literary discourse is a discourse of exceptionalism, non-Stratfordians shouldn’t hold their breath about finding large numbers of mainstream adherents anytime soon. More particularly, let me say how satisfying it was to see mention of Said, and to see Foucault’s methods and terms employed in service of the Shakespeare Authorship Question. I’ve been thinking of Foucault and Said ever since I became interested in this issue, because for me, the hysteria of the Stratfordian response clearly conceals a core terror of losing hegemonic discursive status in the field of culture and the attendant power to make infantile claims like ‘Shakespeare is the best writer in the world.’ I recall in my childhood, hearing my parents and grandparents rail against the sustained and calculated Imperialist contempt contained in this claim of Shakespeare’s uniqueness, which was of course specifically and continually used to rubbish India’s literary heritage as ‘casteist,’ ‘decadent in its Oriental profusion,’ and too culture-specific to be truly universal.
I might mention, I was brought up to appreciate India’s literary and artistic heritage. Both my parents earned prestigious post-graduate degrees (in Medicine and Engineering) in the UK, but were also richly schooled in their own literary traditions (in fact, until she passed away in 2015 at the age of 87, my mother continued to quote freely from 16th century Marathi poetry as well as 1st century BCE Sanskrit drama). I myself have studied North Indian traditional music, which, interestingly, has a long-standing tradition of pseudonymity, considered to be a sort of ‘noblesse oblige’ gesture of ‘open secret’ authorship… And when I studied in Mumbai for a BA in English lit, I often complained loudly and bitterly about Shakspere continuing to serve as archaic figurehead of British Colonial cultural propaganda (even in the 80s and 90s).
Gauri Vishwanathan’s work becomes highly relevant in this regard and I was delighted to see her early work mentioned in your article. I am not sure if she’s been as courageous an anti-Imperialist scholar subsequently, but her work about British education policies in India as well as your Macaulay quote were very heartening to see. Viswanathan’s admirable thesis Masks of Conquest examines how in India, culture intersected with and reinforced empire. Viswanathan’s book elucidates how colonial education policies in nineteenth-century India sought to neutralize ‘native’ rebellion and create a class of reliable bureaucrats, and how English literature, particularly, was mobilized to inspire in the ‘natives’ an enduring respect for their rulers. I had myself considered the issue of colonial education through the writings of Thomas Babington Macaulay, a figure notorious among pro-Independence fighters like my mother and grandparents, for his unproblematically racist, vituperative dismissal of Indian culture. Macaulay, a key adviser to William Bentinck in the enactment of education policies in India, was infamous for having said that although he had “…no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic…,” it took him just a few translations and conversations with Orientalists to conclude (in a way curiously reminiscent of the Stratford man’s knowledge of Italy gleaned from chats with travellers in a pub), that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” As it happens, Macaulay, in the following passage from his oft-quoted 1835 Minute on Education, after referring to the “intrinsic superiority of the Western literature,” quite brilliantly connects the Stratford man to our vestigially colonial construct ‘Indian writer’:
Had our ancestors (…) neglected the language of Thucydides and Plato, and the language of Cicero and Tacitus, had they confined their attention to the old dialects of our own island, had they printed nothing and taught nothing at the universities but chronicles in Anglo-Saxon and romances in Norman French, – would England ever have been what she now is? What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India. The literature of England is now more valuable than that of classical antiquity. I doubt whether the Sanscrit literature be as valuable as that of our Saxon and Norman progenitors. In some departments – in history for example – I am certain that it is much less so.
What we see here, so neatly encapsulated, is the fact that Shakespeare (as wise Renaissance ‘ancestor’ from the age of ‘More and Ascham’) speaks directly to India, with the full glory of the Classics shining, in turn, upon him. Indeed, Shakespeare and his ilk not only direct the sublimating light of Latin and Greek influences upon the English language, they also help to transmute England into an empire by awakening an erstwhile “barbarous” Saxon-Norman people to their neo-Classical Imperial destiny. Macaulay thus sees the English not only as the carriers of an exceptional literature (towards India’s hapless ‘natives’), but as doing so within the unfolding telos of unparalleled Imperial grandeur. As such, Shakespeare (with others in the colonial curriculum) becomes empire. And his centrality in canonical perspectives on literature means that Indian writing too comes to be immovably fixed in that Imperial gorgon gaze. Speaking personally, I feel indebted to Macaulay, not so much for casually denigrating (and almost decimating) the extraordinarily rich and diverse culture of my ancestors, but for so succinctly, in this one paragraph, mapping a perfect center-periphery line, with its zenith/source in Stratford (chez Shakespeare) and its nadir/terminus in Bombay (or Calcutta or Madras or even the immigrant’s America, wherever is ‘home’ for the ‘Indian writer’). Macaulay clarifies further, when he speaks of the elite Anglicized population he wishes to engender through British education policy: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” (emphasis added) And here we see the nascence of that all-important type – the ‘Indian writer’ – as privileged and “co-operative native” (to paraphrase Macaulay), and of the tacit Imperialist pact this kind of writer is asked to make when he/she represents an eternally backward India to the West, which in turn, via Shakespeare, represents itself as eternally exalted (West) to the world. Refuse that sacred covenant and you’re consigned to the ‘sick and pale’ lunar periphery, there to carve out a reputation with other (presumably) ‘envious’ outcasts who publish, print (even illustrate) their own (and others’) books – distinguished ‘losers’ like William Blake, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain (only a coincidence surely, that two of them also doubted the Stratford creed).
But what of all this is specific to Stratford, you may ask? Why, in this account, must Shakespeare necessarily be the ‘Stratford man’? Well, fascinatingly (and unsurprisingly), I find that the Orientalist moorings of Shakespeare as nineteenth-century Imperialist figurehead do absolutely require that he be the ‘Everyman-No man’ of Stratford and not a historical figure – particularly someone burdened with uncomfortable associations like violence of temper, marital infidelity, continental/Catholic tastes and hyper-stratified feudal-social privilege (à la Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford). After all, within the exceptionalist narrative Imperial Britain sought to establish for itself vis-à-vis India (and indeed continental Europe), the (supposed) common-sense egalitarianism of its history and people was a core focus, and to this day, is a theme that serves routinely to distinguish the West from India’s (supposedly) ‘caste-ridden’ backwardness. In other words, for Shakespeare to ‘work’ in an Imperial context, it was (and remains) imperative that he represent “the purer, cleaner literature of England” over the “basically immoral and sensuous” forms of Oriental literature. Simply put, the Shakspere/Oxford binary itself highlights the fundamental themes of a Colonial-Orientalist script: with an aristocratic, profligate, ardent, violently rebellious Oxford playing the part of the ‘decadent Oriental,’ and Shakspere of Stratford donning the garb of the quintessential, impecunious ‘middle-class English Everyman,’ with his ‘sound Protestant Bible principles.’
The terms used to disparage the Earl’s character and poems resemble in many ways the kinds of judgments made by British critics in the nineteenth century with regard to Indian art, when it was deemed fundamentally unfit for universal admiration, given its ‘decadence,’ ‘profusion/prolixity’ and ‘immorality.’ I have been personally struck by the sheer force of contempt and revulsion directed at Edward de Vere and how startlingly this evokes early denigrations of Indian art and literature (along with of course, other forms of non-European art, safely dismissed as ‘naïve’ and ‘primitive’). It is truly ironic that you still see this kind of condemnation of de Vere along with surprise at why on earth he would choose to publish under a pseudonym. It never seems to strike anyone that the derision expressed in his time at his profusive Italianate tastes may have extended to mockery of the kind of frank and personal poetry he was writing in the Sonnets, and indeed of the distinctly continental, Catholic-leaning, florid panache of his plays, and that this might have something to do with it! In fact, it seems not to come to anyone’s notice that this kind duality – personal frankness in one’s literary content and prolixity and ornament in one’s style – continues to be judged in exceedingly harsh terms by the Western literary academy.
For this reason, it is Joyce, not Céline, who enjoys the status of ‘greatest novelist of the twentieth century,’ when in fact Céline arguably had a vastly greater influence on twentieth century writers than did Joyce. After all, it is clipped ‘objective’ ‘Puritan’ self-control one seeks in the novel, without either excess of ornament or personal historical detail. Thackeray’s most enjoyable but shambolic prose, with its rich autobiographical detail about an identifiably historicized, racist, classist, sexist, Colonizing England can never, for this reason, partake of the kind of abject idolatry you see directed at the plain-speaking, dehistoricizing, naïvely patriotic, myopic plotter that is Jane Austen. Kerouac, Henry Miller, the Beats – none of them received the kind of academic recognition they deserved, because of this same duality in their writing, and if you happen to admire them as a writer and to locate your style within their sphere of influence, well, you’re doomed.
In this sense then, an Oxfordian reading of Shakespeare also constitutes an attack on what is essentially an eighteenth-century petty bourgeois parochialism in the Western literary institution’s criteria for deciding what is deemed ‘great art’ (or conversely, that personal content + stylistic profusion = primitive, aka non-white/decadent/feminine art). I have often said to my brother, Gopal Mukerjee (also a writer, as I mentioned), that were it to be proved that Oxford wrote Shakespeare, the entire Academic world would turn its back on the Works, because to recognize Oxford as true author would not only hit at core tenets of Western exceptionalism, it would also hack away at a heavily Enlightenment-influenced, Puritan-bourgeois, Anglo-Saxon distrust of the individual artist him/herself. It would signify that literary content and style might belong at last to the truly free writer and not to the academy. It would level the global cultural field and make room at last for true individuality, instead of everyone having to conform to the tired diktats of a tastelessly profit-obsessed, ungenerous and mediocre ‘Culture Industry’ (to borrow from Adorno).
Thus, I find that the SAQ has truly extraordinary insurrectionary potentialities, because it hits at a deeply ingrained Puritan-Eurocentric, Woman-hating atavism in the Western institutional field of ‘Literature’ itself. And that as such, with ‘smoking gun’ in hand or no, the SAQ community with its brave, conscientious, tremendously civil and eloquent effort at locating the truth, will serve to liberate the voice of not just one passing singular odd man of the sixteenth century, but all ‘singular’ and ‘odd’ literary voices everywhere.
Arnold, M., & Garnett, J. (2006). Culture and anarchy (Oxford world’s classics). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lahiri, J. (1999). “The Namesake.” Interpreter of maladies : Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Macaulay, Thomas Babington, “Minute by the Hon’ble T. B. Macaulay, dated the 2nd February 1835,” Selections from Educational Records, Part I (1781-1839), Edited by H. Sharp (Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1920. Reprint. Delhi: National Archives of India, 1965, 107-117) paragraphs 10-34. Web.
Viswanathan, G. (2015). Masks of conquest : Literary study and british rule in india(Twenty-fifth anniversary edition. ed., Oxford india paperbacks). New York: Columbia University Press.
[Image: India Today, August 16th 2014. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/the-complete-works-of-william-shakespeare-play-gurgaon-julius-ceasar/1/377340.html]
About the author
Amita Mukerjee is a writer and publisher who lives and works in Paris, France. Amita grew up in India and moved briefly with her family to the UK and US, before returning to Mumbai in her teens and going on to graduate with a BA in English Literature and a Sangeet Visharad (Bachelor of Music) in North Indian Classical (Vocal) Music. She then received an MA in Translation and Interpretation in Monterey, California, after which she spent ten years working as a professional Translator/Interpreter in Paris, for governmental, international and private sector organizations. Her first novel Ugly Duckling describes those years. In 2002, she quit to become a full-time writer and in 2007, created (with her brother, Gopal Mukerjee as Co-Founder) the publishing company Revenge Ink, whose avowed aim was to focus on new writers and challenge prevalent discourse on all things ‘literary.’ The project met with little financial success, but Amita was nonetheless able to publish eleven authors and fifteen books. Although currently dormant, the company has not closed its doors.