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Shakespeare on immigration: Professor examines political themes in Bard's plays

Monday, April 21, 2014

LAWRENCE — Today’s immigration policy debate has confounded Congress and state leaders for decades and seems to be more divisive than ever before. Perhaps for some perspective and insight, why not turn to a great voice from the past? A great unifier — like William Shakespeare?

According to a University of Kansas researcher, interpretations of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” offer insight into the immigration debate and clues about the legendary writer’s views on the tensions and issues that arise with immigration.

“Shakespeare lived at a time that was just as divided as ours,” said Geraldo Sousa, a professor of English, who recently had his essay “The Local/Global Nexus in Shakespeare’s 'The Merchant of Venice'” published as part of an Ashgate series.

“Like Venice, London was the thriving capital of a vibrant nation on the move, at the beginning of England’s expansion into what would become the far-flung British Empire, spanning the world,” Sousa said. “As in Venice, the local met the global in the streets of London.”

Conflicts and a strong anti-immigrant sentiment were inevitable. In 1601, for example, Queen Elizabeth I issued a decree expelling racial minorities from England.

The Bard’s work is perhaps the most scrutinized of any author, and his life’s work is gaining even more attention this month as the 450th anniversary of what scholars consider his likely birthday, April 23, 1564. Sousa, who has written two books and scores of articles on Shakespeare, said his plays continue to create a sense of fascination for scholars and students of literature as they identify and seek answers for issues humanity still struggles with today.

Regarding immigration, Sousa said Shakespeare doesn’t exactly present a solution in “The Merchant of Venice,” but he does show how conflicts between a nation’s global interests clash with a desire to remain insulated and isolated from foreign influence.

“Global commerce makes contact with the world inevitable,” he said.

Shakespeare, Sousa said, shows how cross-cultural contact was seen as a threat to the European way of life. Shakespeare dramatizes this fear by representing three home fronts: “the home of a global merchant, a global bride and a transnational Jewish immigrant.” 

“But you also have the sense that Shakespeare is interested in presenting multiple perspectives on issues,” Sousa said. “If you trade with the world, you cannot avoid the world; you cannot erect border fences to separate yourself from migrants, whether they are legal or undocumented, skilled or unskilled. Everyone should share in the economic prosperity that comes with global commerce.”

In the play, he argues, Shakespeare manages to use something different characters do have in common.

“One thing I really think is fascinating is the concept of home. That’s where things play out, the political debates, the problems,” Sousa said. “Shakespeare’s masterful in representing the home in the context of the political, the civic issues, racial and religious conflict, gender, all of those things.”

Unlike some of other contemporary authors who took strong political sides in their writing, such as John Milton or Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare was different, Sousa said.

“Shakespeare is not that hard-edged. You could say maybe he’s hedging because he doesn’t want to be too out there,” Sousa said. “Maybe he wants to present different perspectives rather than be out there.”

While Shakespeare doesn’t present a solution to difficult political issues surrounding immigration, today, Sousa said Shakespeare would be a moderate seeking a way for opposite sides to come together and reach agreement and reconciliation.

“My guess is he would be sympathetic to the under-privileged, to a large extent, but without alienating the other side,” he said.

As one of his next projects, Sousa is researching social justice in Shakespeare and how Shakespeare gives voice to the disenfranchised. For example, earlier this month, international media covered 100 Syrian children at a Jordan refugee camp performing “King Lear.” Sousa said Shakespeare has been appropriated over and over again for causes of social justice and that there is no doubt that Shakespeare would be sympathetic to the plight of the transnational migrant.

“For Shakespeare, opening a door to friends and strangers,” Sousa said, “is a powerful symbol of hospitality, of acceptance, of reaching out. Shakespeare would show that borders are always permeable, that you just cannot separate humanity that way. If you do that, if you just erect barriers, build border fences, you just keep trying to separate core from periphery, haves from the have-nots, instead of working together for mutual benefit.”