In ‘Shakespeare: Rough or Smooth”, Maurice Charney makes a throwaway comment about the unusually large number of students taking Shakespeare courses at his department in Rutgers, suggesting that “it may be because New Jersey has such a large ethnic population waiting to stake their claim in Anglo-American culture”. When I read Charney’s remark a couple of years ago, it focused my attention on the way Shakespeare is not only a symbol of cultural value, but one specifically identified in some parts of the US with a particular image of what it means to be American. I’d been investigating the production history of The Duchess of Malfi, noticing the way the play keeps cropping up as a focus for anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic feeling, but – despite doing this work in Exeter, on the coast from which the Armada was sighted – I hadn’t connected it with the cultural politics which I could distantly see being played out across the Atlantic, as the Republican party lurched increasingly to the right and anti-immigration rhetoric became more heated.
Since then I’ve been interested in how Early Modern drama represents Spain and Catholicism, not as a matter of historical record, but because these works are continually being studied and performed in powerful institutions, like universities and theatres, which contribute to our culture’s image of itself. The versions of Shakespeare and (a few of) his contemporaries which get replayed and discussed around us help define the cultural prestige which Charney’s students saw Rutgers University could offer them. If Early Modern plays are such a powerful component of “Anglo-American” culture, we need to be alert to the vision of the world they present, particularly when it maps uncomfortably across our own beliefs. There’s a persistent strain in plays from England’s “Golden Age” which depicts Catholics and Spanish people as violent, depraved, dangerous and racially “other”: an element which we can explain in historical terms with reference to power struggles in the Atlantic and the Counter-Reformation, but which nonetheless intersects dangerously with some representations of Hispanic people in our own time. It can also contribute to an image of British and American culture as specifically defined in opposition to Catholics and people of Spanish descent, which is eagerly picked up by popular proponents of “civilization clash” like Samuel Huntingdon.
In this article I’m going to look at a couple of examples which might give us pause for thought. Taking the 1623 first edition of The Duchess of Malfi and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet, I’m going to suggest that both these artworks frame their romantic heroines as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who have “accidentally” been born into a Hispanic Catholic culture and need to be rescued. Their respective relationships – though neither ends well! – come very close to presenting romantic love as the means by which they can be extracted from their corrupt culture and restored to their “true” WASP identity.
When Webster’s revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi was first printed in 1623, the play was already ten years old. The most likely cause for it appearing in print at this particular moment was the controversy surrounding the so-called “Spanish Match”, a plan to marry Prince Charles of Britain to the Infanta Maria of Spain. This scheme, intended by King James to bring peace in Europe, made a large portion of English popular opinion absolutely furious, especially when Charles smuggled himself over to Madrid to try to sweep the princess off her feet (he failed, but that’s another story…) The Duchess of Malfi shared bookstalls and printing houses that year with virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish works like An Admired and Painful Peregrination, The Golden Trade and Divine Epistles (of which more below), and was followed the next year by Thomas Scott’s England’s Joy for Supressing the Papists and The Second Part of Vox Populi, which suggested that the Devil was present at the Spanish councils.
The works I’ve just named share a vicious strain of anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish rhetoric, gloating over the deaths of Spaniards in history, describing the seven hills of Rome as the seven heads of the beast which carried the Whore of Babylon, and making unpleasant remarks about the supposedly polluted blood of Spanish people. A play like The Duchess of Malfi, whose main villains are a cardinal and an incestuously-inclined Duke who boast of their descent from the houses “of Aragon and Castile”, was inevitably going to be read in similar terms. Likewise the scene in which the Cardinal tricks his mistress into kissing a poisoned Bible, a clear parody of Catholic devotional practice. There are odd parallels in the verbal texture of the play to the controversies at the time, as when the Cardinal is said to have paid bribes instead of trying to achieve the papal throne by “the primitive decency of the church”: by coincidence the chaplains who were sent to Madrid to accompany the negotiations over the proposed marriage were instructed to take church ornaments “so that their behaviour and service shall prove decent and agreeable to the purity of the primitive church and as yet as near the Roman form as may lawfully be done”. The language of this play is the language of Protestant suspicion and hostility to Spain and Catholicism.
In fact, when returning to the work with this knowledge, it is striking how many of the heroic Duchess’ lines seem to frame her as a Protestant without her knowing it, so to speak. For example, her declaration that her marriage is valid because “how can the church bind faster?” echoes the particular controversy over the right of the Catholic Church to “bind” and “loose” people from their sins which loomed so large during the Reformation debates. Her hope on leaving Antonio that “in the Eternal Church, sir/ I do hope we shall not part thus” also implies a wholesale rejection of the visible and temporal institutions of Catholicism in favour of another church she imagines existing but has never encountered. After reading the stream of racist imagery in those texts I mentioned, the references to the Duchess’ whiteness by Bosola and Ferdinand take on a different aspect. She seems to be separated from the other characters and placed on the side of the audience, looking over at the racial, religious and cultural “otherness” of the Catholic court.
A particularly striking parallel to the play is provided by the lengthy poem Divine Epistles, which was published the same year by a clergyman called Augustine Taylor. Though presented as addresses between “The Bridegroom” and “The Bride”, thus drawing on traditions of imagining Christ and the Church in these roles, it is pretty clearly applicable to the proposed marriage between Charles and Maria. It thus manages to recast the relationship between them from adoring chivalric lover hoping for grace from his lady, to stern lord rebuking the faults of his intended and outlining the redemption their marriage will provide. Along with this charmless misogyny comes condemnation of the bride’s family, who are described as having “No sparke of innocence, but shame and sinne”, and the Bridegroom claims he found her “Lapt in the ragges of woe, and well-nie drownd/ In thy polluted, sinfull, filthy blood”. The racism continues with tropes of “blackness” used when discussing the sin which needs to be removed from the Bride before marriage. Aside from bolstering the anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish context within which The Duchess of Malfi’s first publication should be understood, this provides another example of a “romantic” relationship imagined as extracting a woman from her family and thus removing a cultural and racial “taint” from her. The marriage at the heart of The Duchess of Malfi seems to create a space within which the Duchess can find a “true” identity as an Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the implicit identity of those watching the play.
A similar dynamic appears at times in Baz Lurhmann’s film Romeo + Juliet. Emily Oliver of the Shakespeare Institute has pointed out how twentieth century versions of Romeo and Juliet have increasingly presented the Capulets as a distinctively villainous group. Rather than casting both families as jointly responsible for the mayhem, the trend over the later part of the play’s history seems to be for imagining Juliet’s family as far more threatening than Romeo’s. In this version they are clearly cast as Catholic, with some parts of the Capulet household troped as of Italian descent and some as Hispanic. Despite some gestures at the beginning towards the likeness of the houses, the Capulets come across as the more sinister presence – the darker palate used for them in the first fight sequence, the gradual reveal as their car appears and Tybalt steps out: all this seems to play more securely into media and film imagery of gang violence. This may be a misunderstanding from over the Atlantic, but the Montague boys look more like something from a dystopian fantasy, sitting comfortably alongside The Warriors or the punk sons in Julie Taymor’s Titus who borrow their stylings from The Lost Boys. The imagery surrounding the Capulets seems more in line with some media presentations of threats which supposedly exist right now, not in a projected postmodern fantasy. And in the centre of the first scene is of course that slow-motion shot in which Tybalt kisses his pistol before trying to kill the Montagues. The most visibly Catholic character onscreen in a gesture which conflates Catholic devotion and violence, which recalls the array of similar gestures in Early Modern tragedy, not least The Duchess of Malfi.
The action in and around the Capulet mansion seems to emphasize Juliet’s separateness from the family she belongs to. The devotional kitsch, the twitchy mother, the “comedy” Spanish nurse, the vulgar Italian father belting out “amore!” with his arm round another woman. And walking in a daze through all this, the dreamy-eyed, blue-eyed Claire Danes, wearing an angel outfit. The dynamic of the story requires Romeo and Juliet to form an alliance against both their families, but in this version Juliet looks as if she was never a member of hers. And both families don’t seem to be rejected equally: the cultural context Juliet needs to be “rescued” from via a relationship with a boy who turns up dressed as a medieval knight, is powerfully and sinisterly visualised, whilst his origins aren’t nearly so threatening. The film’s odd relationship with Catholicism isn’t a quirk of contemporary cultural politics, by the way, it’s present in the Early Modern theatrical context of Shakespeare’s play and even in the source material. One of the previous prose versions of the story of Romeo and Juliet explicitly offers the tale as a warning that allowing young people to participate in Catholic practices like confession will encourage them to rebel against their parents and indulge in licentious practices like marrying each other in secret. Lurhmann’s film brings out aspects which we might not be able to see so clearly in Shakespeare’s play (though we can if we try), but which are obviously present in both previous and subsequent versions.
The reason I’ve chosen examples from both ends of the production history of Early Modern drama – one from the 1620s and one from the 1990s – is because I’m interested in how this isn’t simply a matter of drawing parallels between past literature and modern contexts. This isn’t art speaking to us of timeless truths across the centuries. These plays don’t happen to produce this image of Catholicism and Hispanic people by a historical accident: they were first constructed in a period rife with such beliefs, and we are now living in a time when this strain within them connects dangerously with xenophobic media narratives. The cultural work which institutions such as universities and theatres undertake is enormously valuable, which is why we need to scrutinise the meanings which emerge in the performance of plays like this. When threatening Spanish accents, crucifixes and Catholic imagery are unthinkingly used to signal a play as excitingly “relevant”, “edgy” and “deviant”, it can reinforce those narratives of civilization clash which Rush Limbaugh and his listeners find so congenial. The racial and religious othering of people in these works needs to be acknowledged and understood if we aren’t to reproduce it in the name of a conservative and titillating “edginess”.