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Equality, Diversity, Inclusion: The Social Values of Shakespeare

Ours is currently a world that is necessarily fixated on inclusion and exclusion - who we want in our communities and who we don't, who is 'one of us' and who is 'The Other' or, as Lear on his way to prison, that symbolic place of exclusion, says, "who's in, who's out."
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Multi-colored paper people representing diversity.
Multi-colored paper people representing diversity.

The great British actor Simon Callow launched the British Council and the GREAT Britain campaign's 400th anniversary Shakespeare celebrations on Twelfth Night by tweeting the first item using the hashtag #PlayYourPart. This global digital campaign asks social media users to participate and tweet their favorite Shakespeare moments. Very quickly others, such as William Shatner, Sir Richard Branson and Hugh Bonneville, joined in. The game was afoot and, two weeks later, it seems that everyone wants to have their say about Shakespeare with the site exceeding 130 million hits.

But it was the choice of the initiating Shakespeare quote which set the tenor for this yearlong, worldwide commemoration of Shakespeare's death. Turning to the play Twelfth Night, Callow reminds us of Shakespeare's great words of tolerance and compassion:

"In nature there's no blemish but the mind. None can be called deformed but the unkind."

In a week in which the USA, and the world, remembers the vision of Martin Luther King Jr, we are rightly alert to the many questions of diversity which challenge the inclusiveness of our societies and the cohesion of our communities. Such questions preoccupied Shakespeare and, in condemning "unkindness," he wasn't just advocating for goodwill and civility, though he did that too. For Shakespeare, kindness and kinship (Hamlet "a little more than kin and less than kind") were as one. To be "unkind" is to subvert the natural familial sympathies that make societies work.

Ours is currently a world that is necessarily fixated on inclusion and exclusion - who we want in our communities and who we don't, who is 'one of us' and who is 'The Other' or, as Lear on his way to prison, that symbolic place of exclusion, says, "who's in, who's out."

Shakespeare's comedies in particular enact what feels like our contemporary struggle to constitute a society of acknowledged and unacknowledged diversity. In As You Like It and The Comedy of Errors we see outcasts and exiles struggling with new homelands. In The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night we see condemned, "deformed" men, Shylock and Malvolio (and there are others even in these two plays), excluded from the social, including marital, harmony which blesses the end of a Shakespearean comedy. And, in nearly all the comedies, questions of gender and gender identity, what it means to be a man, to be a woman, to be neither, both or any joyous combination, riddle the plot and ruffle all social assumptions. Shakespeare was our diversity champion centuries before his time.

In these tragedies, questions concerning diversity are vibrant and violent. In Antony & Cleopatra Shakespeare navigates the diversity of ethnicity as he conjoins Middle Eastern and classical European cultures in a love and power story of "infinite variety." In Othello 'black lives matter' in what has come to be an iconic narrative. In Richard III physical disability underpins political struggle. And in King Lear the king grows to understand the commanding meaning of equality when we are all reduced to "poor forked (yes, the pun is meant and meaningful) animals." "None does offend, none, I say none" as the king, the beggar, the outcast, the fool, the blind man, the insane huddle together in an abating storm and in defiance of "the gilded butterflies" who seize the power, the money and the authority ("the laws are mine, not thine").

Equality, diversity, inclusion - these are the crowning social virtues of the multiple worlds Shakespeare created, ultimately out of our will to sympathy, compassion, tolerance and love. These are the values which authenticate the abiding humanity which is the definition of us all. Sam Johnson famously wrote how Shakespeare's plays depict "the real state of sublunary nature which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveler is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design."

"The world must be peopled," says Benedick and behind his cheeky plea for copulation ("let copulation thrive" as Lear would have it) lies the deeper resonance of recognizing that finally we are human, completely human, and only human, and that no one can be excluded from the piece of work that is man.

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