Between Shakespeare, the World, and Me

Research projects always bear some intimate relation to one’s personal life and persistent preoccupations. The collaborative project I am beginning with Henry Turner about new understandings of the concept of “world” in the plays of William Shakespeare is no exception. This project had multiple origins and inspirations, but a primary motivation for me—often kept private—was the opportunity it provided to think about my own relationship to the world as an Asian American woman, and how my identity bears upon my approach to Shakespeare and his fictional worlds. I became aware of the fact that this project brought two different definitions of “world” together—my world of experience as a woman of color, and the world of imagination, representation, and art, anchored specifically in a place and time that was distant from my own.

When I was first fishing around for a field of specialty in graduate school, I oscillated between the English Renaissance and ethnic American literature, two fields that seemed to be worlds apart. I ultimately chose the Renaissance not because I felt more at home in that field, but precisely because it seemed so removed from my own lived experience. I turned to Shakespeare as an escape, as another world that I could visit where I didn’t have to think about what it meant to be me.

Now, as a practicing Shakespeare scholar embarking on a new study, my relationship to my field has changed. Of course, I am interested in what Shakespeare can teach us about the different meanings of “world” as a historically-contingent concept—especially how his plays show us a world where globalization lurks on the horizon but has not yet subsumed everything. But, perhaps more importantly, I want to recover the ways in which the world I live in has taught me to see Shakespeare.

It is not enough to approach Shakespeare within his own historically sealed-off world, as I was trained to do in graduate school and by the conventions of my professional discipline. Rather, to access Shakespeare’s world, I’ve realized that I need to embrace rather than deny the world of my own experience, and also to place Shakespeare in conversation with writers of my own time who offer new intertexts for understanding Shakespeare’s work. I believe that it is impossible to read Shakespeare’s plays in isolation from the influences of these other writers. I also believe that it is imperative to free Shakespeare from a history that secures him as the exclusive prop and property of a white Western culture.

One of the authors who has influenced my approach to Shakespeare’s worlds is Ta-Nehisi Coates, as his epistolary memoir, Between the World and Me, got me thinking about the world in a different way. I wondered why this major Black cultural critic of our time refers to his experience as a Black man in terms that emphasize a separation between himself and the world. What does Coates mean by “world,” and what in fact is it that lies between the “world” and “me” of his title? It didn’t take long for me to realize that Coates’s formulation is not unique. Many Black writers of the twentieth and twenty-first century employ the term “world” to describe their experience of alienation rooted in race. Coates takes his title most directly from Richard Wright’s poem by the same name. In that poem, Wright describes walking in the woods and suddenly stumbling upon “the thing” (the body of a lynched man) and then seeing how “the sooty details of the scene rose, thrust themselves between the world and me.” Wright in turn had adapted the phrase from W.E.B. DuBois, who located the central question of The Souls of Black Folk (“How does it feel to be a problem”?) “between me and the other world.”

What is this space “between”? On this question, Henry and I have found that we disagree; you might say that we discovered different worldviews. At the beginning of our project, we decided that this was a good thing—that our differences of opinion exemplified the inherent challenge of writing such a book by showing how the world is and has always been understood and experienced by different people in many different ways. For me the betweeness that distances a person from the world is an experience of exclusion and alienation. That experience is, ironically, produced and policed through the hyperbolic premise of the world itself. Although the idea of “the world” proposes an all-encompassing human totality, it is ultimately a totality that cannot be sustained. The experience of alienation is produced when the idea of “the world” comes into contact with the “real world” we live in, a reality that it cannot assimilate. When Wright stumbles upon the “thing” in the woods, he is awakened to this reality. He may have thought he was in one world, but this obstacle in the woods offers irrefutable evidence that he is actually in a different world—a world where this body could be his.

The contemporary Caribbean-Canadian writer Dionne Brand offers a different account of the discovery that one’s existence is irreconcilable with the world. In her A Map to the Door of No Return (2001), Brand describes the trauma produced by the Middle Passage as a “tear in the world.” For her, that tear becomes evident not through the presence of an obstacle one stumbles upon, but through a void that one falls into. She describes this void variously as a “fault line,” a “rupture,” and a “fissure.” She explains how it was first revealed to her as a child when her grandfather promised to tell her where their people had come from but could never access the memory to make good on his promise. She remembers asking him again and again, until she ceased to ask. The resulting trauma that she describes is not so much that of a tangible “wound” but rather that of an absence. Brand says, “A small space opened in me. I carried this space with me.”

Brand draws a connection between a geographically mapped rupture and a space that opens inside her. The space of absence defines both her own bodily existence and the world in which she exists. When Brand refers to the question left unanswered by her grandfather as a “tear in the world,” she is not just referring to the impossibility of drawing a line from here to there, that geographical point marking “the end of traceable beginnings.” As Brand explains, she is describing “a rupture in history, a rupture in the quality of being,” as well as a “physical rupture, [and] a rupture of geography.” These are ruptures from which there is no return. Brand shows, too, that it is as equally impossible to unknow the knowledge that lurks behind the unanswerable question as it is to return to the place of her ancestors’ origins.

The tear that ruptures the world belies the integrity of the concept of world; it reveals how the world as a whole and unified entity can only be a fiction. I would go so far as to say this: the concept of the world is itself a violence, and its destructive tendencies manifest themselves in the way that any holistic idea of a “world” can never sustain itself. “World” is the human will to subsume, to name, to harness power; it seeks to contain andit also cracks open. Was there ever a whole and untorn world?

The story of how Shakespeare contributed to the imagination of the world requires a whole book (ours!). The word “world” appears more than 650 times in Shakespeare’s plays. What did it mean for Shakespeare to refer to “all the world” (52 times) or the “whole world” (11 times) or the “wide world” (3 times), as he so often did, in a time when the ability to perceive the world’s wholeness or totality strained technological capacities? As critics such as Ayesha Ramachandran and Dennis Cosgrove have discussed, early moderns helped to inaugurate a new concept of the world as a cosmic totality forged in the human imagination rather than as a divine act of creation. Shakespeare’s use of the adjectives “all,” “whole,” and “wide” seem to underscore the audacity of this human enterprise. A discussion between Desdemona and Emilia in Othello reveals the conceptual challenge of trying to grasp the magnitude of the “whole world.”

Questioning Emilia as to whether there are any circumstances that would convince her to do the horrible injustice of making her husband a cuckold, Desdemona asks:

DESDEMONA: Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?

EMILIA:

The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price.
[ …] Marry, I would not do such a thing for a
joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for
gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty
exhibition; but for the whole world,–why, who would
not make her husband a cuckold to make him a
monarch?

DESDEMONA:

Beshrew me, if I would do such a wrong
For the whole world.

EMIILIA:

Why the wrong is but a wrong i’ the world: and
having the world for your labour, tis a wrong in your
own world
, and you might quickly make it right. [emphasis added]

Emilia’s recognition of the impossibility of placing a value on the world highlights the challenging concept of the world’s totality. At the same time, as she observes, the world is a place of power that privileges some and de-privileges others; it is a place where “right” and “wrong” are determined by privilege. It is a place that can be possessed by some and not by all. She draws attention to how the world that she and Desdemona live in is a white man’s world. She also suggests that by understanding the world as a dynamic and contingent entity—one rooted in white men’s imagination–we open ourselves to the possibility of conceiving of a different world: a woman’s world. Thus, if Brand and Coates map a “between” or a “tear” that characterizes their alienation from the world, then Shakespeare shows us the other side of the picture; he shows us the world that creates such ruptures.

We might ask whether the space between worlds is necessarily a vacuum—a dead space from which nothing can come. Or, do the cracks in the world also enable the possibility for new beginnings? For Brand, the “door of no return” is not only an absence, but also as a place of creation, a place for imagination and for art. She says, “I am interested in exploring this creation place…as a site of belonging and unbelonging.” This idea opened up for me a new way of thinking about the ruptures in the world as places of “creation” that might engender a space for art and, through it, new worlds of belonging.

Coates offers a particularly compelling metaphor for the kind of art that can grow out of the space between worlds. Describing the breach between himself and the (white Western) world, he says, “I was part of a world. And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds…worlds stitched into worlds like tapestry.” What happens if we think of this stitching of intersections as the work of art—of writers such as Dionne Brand, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Shakespeare? Together, these storytellers weave a world of many worlds, filling up the spaces of rupture and absence that tear worlds apart by viewing them as spaces of new creation. And as writers ourselves, Henry and I in turn stitch together their acts of stitching. Doing so helps me to embrace in a new way the spaces between Shakespeare’s world and our own. Whereas I used to rely on the “between” as a form of distance and escape, I now seek to bridge this space by allowing the ruptures and the absences to have meaning. I have come to see that new worlds are made possible only by confronting the spaces that lie between Shakespeare, the world, and me.

Jane Hwang Degenhardt is Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Islamic Conversion and Christian Resistance on the Early Modern Stage.

The contributors to this special issue were participants in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Colloquium on “Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies.” Organized and facilitated by Kimberly Anne Coles and Ayanna Thompson, the year-long colloquium met monthly to study a range of early modern cultural artifacts and texts. While exploring the Folger’s extensive collections, the participants also pursued innovative methods for bringing gender and race into dialogue with each other. Patricia Akhimie asked participants specifically to consider how questions of gender and race might be analyzed “in relation both to early modern texts and our own personal and contemporary experiences.” The contributions in this issue represent our efforts to do just that.

Jane Hwang Degenhardt

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