Jess Hamlet | Outstanding Dissertation

Jess HamletShakespeare, Race, and Adaptation in Times of Unrest, 1601-1888
Department of English
Committee Chair: Michelle Dowd

Hometown: Astoria, Oregon

Degree earned: I hold a BA in Theatre from Pacific University (Oregon), a Master of Letters degree in Shakespeare from Mary Baldwin College (Virginia), a Master of Fine Arts degree in Shakespeare & Performance from Mary Baldwin College (Virginia), and PhD in Renaissance Literature from The Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies in the Department of English at The University of Alabama.

My dissertation explores Shakespeare in the cultural consciousness during moments of unrest and change in England, Scotland, Ireland, British India, and the United States from 1601 to the present. I am interested in the literary history, artifacts, adaptations, and afterlives of Shakespeare’s plays and poems that exist in these places, and I want to know what these artifacts can teach us about how different communities used and thought about Shakespeare in response to or in conjunction with the events, policies, and politics of their worlds. Especially in the latter half of this project, I am concerned with how Shakespeare informs and contributes to White ideas of non-White people and White national identity. I move through four case studies and examine how Shakespeare’s works were important tools for creating power structures, ideas of identity, and responding to the cultural moment. The project begins on a microscopic level by engaging with a single event and a single play: 1601’s ill-fated rebellion by the 2nd earl of Essex has shaped 400 years of scholarship on Shakespeare’s Richard II, and I am interested in how the reporting of anecdotes and events after the fact and the repeating of those anecdotes and events over the centuries has handed down to the modern era the play we understand today. This event opens my project with an exploration of the genealogy of a historical and literary process that spans four hundred years and illustrates one of the more exciting moments that characterized the end of Elizabeth’s reign. From there, I move through the English Civil War and Interregnum and then turn to the early American frontier and Indian removal policies to explore how Shakespeare can be used in creating a new and rapidly expanding nation. I end with the First War of Indian Independence in mid-nineteenth-century British India, further leaning into ideas of national sovereignty, national political crisis, and empire. In each time and place, I look for the literary, non-dramatic artifacts that show evidence of “regular” people using Shakespeare as a means to an end.

Why Shakespeare? Because Shakespeare’s wide proliferation means his words can be found in most English-speaking times and places from the mid-eighteenth century onward, his works become a useful index to social change, political thought, cultural identity, and methods of agitation. Outside of England, Shakespeare sometimes functioned as a tool of colonial oppression and subjugation as well as a device which the oppressed occasionally used to fight back against their oppressors. Paying attention to Shakespeare’s uses gives us insight into the establishment and codification of power structures. Tracking who wields Shakespeare, for what purpose, and against whom helps us identify how dominant narratives come to be, why readers find Shakespeare useful for different purposes, and illuminates readership practices.

About halfway through the process of writing this dissertation, the World Health Organization officially classified COVID-19 as a pandemic (announced on March 11, 2020), amid mounting frustration from academics nationwide whose college campuses were moving all classes online mid semester and shutting residence halls. The irony of working on Shakespeare during times of social upheaval while myself living through a time of social upheaval is not lost on me. Just as we began to adjust to staying home all the time, Minneapolis Police murdered George Floyd in broad daylight, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement took to the streets, staging worldwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality. Amid this reckoning with America’s structural racism, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 presidential

election, and two weeks before their inauguration, the outgoing president incited a White supremacist coup at the United States Capitol on the day Congress met to certify the election results. With this all mattering so much, the stakes of a humanities project—about Shakespeare, no less—can feel incredibly unimportant. And yet.

The Folger Shakespeare Library, located just around the corner from the United States Capitol, was not under attack on January 6th, 2021, but was nonetheless in the line of fire. Coup organizers drafted—but did not send—a letter to the Folger explaining that their building would not be bothered, but access would be blocked. This letter appears to indicate that an initial idea was simply to barricade and isolate Congress and not let them leave until they invalidated Biden’s win. Importantly, it also indicates that the seditionists have a level of respect for Henry Folger’s monument to Shakespeare that they do not have for the American people’s monument to democracy. As Kim F. Hall writes, the “Shakespeare industry” is largely White, and “subtly maintain[s] ownership over Shakespeare while at the same time insisting that Shakespeare is a universal public good.”1 The seditionists’ acknowledgement of and respect for the Folger, and their desire to apologize for the inconvenience their coup would cause, illustrate just how dangerous it is to maintain Shakespeare as a White property without interrogating his role in creating and maintaining power. Just as White supremacists have a demonstrated love of Norse mythology and “Anglo-Saxon” history, they also feed and perpetuate bardolatry as a signifier of (educational, social, cultural) worth and create and maintain fictions of there being a “right” way to perform, read, study, or interpret the plays.

Whiteness coalesces to create and maintain a field that values Whiteness and discounts the presence and experiences of other races. Making Whiteness visible is the first step in decentering Whiteness in literary study. We need look no further than the seditionists storming the US Capitol to see both the value of making Whiteness visible and the trouble caused when Whiteness claims a property for itself (in this case, Shakespeare) to the exclusion of all other peoples and cultures. The seditionists’ intent to spare the Folger from desecration during the Capitol coup, and their desire to apologize for the “inconvenience” of their coup, shows us that White supremacist Americans still see Shakespeare as both a White property and a commodity more deserving of reverence than the United States Constitution and democratic process. The letter also indicates to us that the seditionists expected the Folger to reciprocate their respect and to be somehow grateful for their consideration.

In this atmosphere, it is paramount that we understand and acknowledge the ways White communities in positions of power have always treated Shakespeare as their own and perpetuated the false notion of Shakespeare’s “universality.” Dismantling Shakespeare’s “universality” does not cheapen or diminish his works in any way. On the contrary, recognizing Shakespeare’s shortcomings opens up wider avenues of inquiry. If we accept that Shakespeare does not reflect a universal Black experience, or a universal female experience, or a universal queer experience, and so on, we actually create a more inclusive and just body of works. Recognizing shortcomings, identifying moments of representation, and asking “what if” questions about Shakespeare’s plays and how modern communities might use them to serve their interests destabilizes the White supremacist chokehold on the texts and preserves them for a more diverse and inclusive present and future.

1 Hall, “Introduction,” American Moor, ix.