Toby Young Toby Young

The problem with decolonising Shakespeare

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Scarcely a day passes without a major British institution announcing it is ‘decolonising’ itself. Most recently it was the turn of Shakespeare’s Globe, which announced a series of ‘anti-racist Shakespeare webinars’ as part of its ‘commitment to decolonising the plays of Shakespeare’. That brought me up short. At the time of Shakespeare’s birth, England didn’t have any colonies, although other European states did. True, The Tempest can be read as a metaphor for colonialism, with Prospero taking Sycorax’s island from her and enslaving Caliban, but Prospero is Milanese, not British. And it’s not exactly an argument in favour of colonial rule. Prospero wants nothing more than to return to Milan to reclaim his dukedom. He’s only on the island because his brother usurped him — he didn’t colonise it to enrich himself or his royal patron.

Perhaps I haven’t fully grasped what ‘decolonising’ means. I was similarly confused when Oxford University announced last week that it is considering phasing out imperial measurements in its efforts to decolonise its maths, physics and life sciences faculties. Miles, inches, yards, pounds and ounces are ‘tied deeply to the idea of the Empire’, apparently. But aren’t kilometres, centimetres, metres, kilos and grams tied pretty closely to Napoleon’s First French Empire? Why replace a system of measurement linked with Britain’s Empire to one linked with France’s?

Nearly every country or region has tried to colonise others if you go back far enough

Sometimes the decolonisers single out Britain for special treatment in this way — any reference to our colonial past has to be accompanied by self-flagellation. The behaviour of other European colonial powers — France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, etc — is never quite as bad, even though it was often much worse. But at other times it’s Europe in general that gets placed on the naughty step — for instance, when university reading lists are cleansed of dead white European males.

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