Shakespeare’s two versions of the refugee narrative
By Adam Corrigan Holowitz
One of the most pressing social issues in our current society is the massive need for refugees of political and environmental disasters to immigrate.
Over the past year Canada’s official attitude towards accepting refugees has become dramatically more open and welcoming. It is very fitting then that the Stratford Festival’s 2016 Season features two Shakespeare productions, “Macbeth” and “As You Like It,” that both have a strong refugee narrative in them. However they examine contrasting aspects of the refugee experience. They conflict with one another, in the same way that the experience a person has in a new country is a collision of both celebration and sadness.
Let’s begin with “As You Like It.”
The pastoral comedy presents the positive part of the refugee experience.
The play begins in a totalitarian state ruled by the usurping Duke Frederick. The deposed Duke Senior’s daughter Rosalind has remained in the court. In this police state we also have Orlando who has been cheated out of his inheritance by his older brother Oliver.
Threats to both Rosalind and Orlando’s life quickly emerge. Both characters escape to Arden where Duke Senior has set up a court in the forest.
Duke Senior’s court is the ideal of good government.
Whereas in Fredrick’s court, entertainment is found in wrestling, a violent and unintellectual past time, in Senior’s forest court music is the chief entertainment.
All members of the court are free to speak their mind and face no repercussions for doing so. There is an idea that in the forest people are more honest to their true selves. There is no corruption.
It is the ideal of the back to the land movement. As Senior says “Hath not old custom made this life more sweet, than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods, more free from peril than the envious court?”
Another connection to the refugee experience is that Rosalind dresses as a man in the forest to feel safer. In doing so she is allowed to say and do things that would not be acceptable for a woman to do. She experiences, in a way, gender liberation in this new land.
Similarly Orlando is no longer constrained by a class system that recognizes him as lesser because he is the youngest son.
Of course the two find each other in the forest and over the course of the play fall in love. New love is discovered in a new land and new beginnings are born. It could be the immigrant dream.
It is appropriate that Jillian Keiley’s production this season is set in Newfoundland, a Canadian location where new found liberty is possible.
This is not the first time “As You Like It” has had a Canadian setting at Stratford. Richard Monette’s 1990 production was set in New France, complete with canoes and courier du bois. Monette’s production made sense since the play has mostly French names.
The reason most of the characters have French names is because the Forest of Arden is likely the Ardennes Forest in France. Ironically this symbol of a peaceable kingdom in Shakespeare becomes a central point of conflict in the twentieth century when Hitler’s tanks roll through the forest.
Arden is not the scary forest of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or the barren heath of “King Lear.” Arden is a utopia.
In the lens of the refugee narrative, it is everything a person fleeing tyranny could hope for. It is full of welcoming farmers. There is food to be had in plenty. There are lots of sheep. Oddly there is reference one lone lion hanging out in the woods- though it never makes an appearance on stage.
In “As You Like It” Shakespeare paints the removal from one’s society as an opportunity for new found freedom in a new world. However in “Macbeth” Shakespeare shows us the very real fears and dangers of fleeing one’s home land. As well as the existential crisis of identity that comes with it.
I believe that Act Four, Scene Three of “Macbeth” is one of the hardest scenes in the entire Shakespeare cannon to stage.
It is usually cut down.
The length of it is considerably longer than any other scene in “Macbeth”- a play commonly praised for being one of Shakespeare’s most succinct. The length and weight of the scene speak to the agony felt by the refugees fleeing Macbeth’s regime. Malcom and Macduff spend about ten pages discussing their home countries plight under the tyranny of Macbeth. It is the one scene in the play that is set in England. Perhaps this is part of the reason for the distinctly different tone of this scene.
In this scene, Macduff tries to come to terms with what has become of his country. He mourns Scotland’s decay saying:
“Bestride our down-fall’n birthdom: each new morn,
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds
As if it felt with Scotland and yell’d out
Like syllable of dolour.”
Macduff cannot recognize his former home. He is now part of the growing Scottish diaspora in England mourning the death of country they once knew. There is a shame felt in these lines. A shame for being from a country that was once grand and is now inhospitable.
This extended lamentation comes to a shocking climax with the arrival of news of Macduff’s family being slaughtered.
Shakespeare exposes one of the great threats to dissidents of a state. The threat to the members of their family who are left behind.
The Macduff murders are timely since Donald Trump has been constantly threatening to torture and kill the families of terror suspects if he becomes president, in order to “make them talk.” The torture of innocent family members quickly becomes, in a totalitarian state, not a tool to get suspects to talk- but instead a tool of blind retribution used against challengers of the regime. Such a challenger is Macduff.
The Scotland that Macduff and Malcom mourn never returns. Even after the fall of Macbeth.
“Macbeth” ends with an act of colonialism. With Siward’s defeat of Macbeth comes the conquest of Scotland. As the Malcom’s final lines of the play state “my thanes and kinsmen, henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland, in such an honour named.” The Scottish system of government that was destroyed by Macbeth has not been reinstated. Instead an English system has taken its place.
It is no different to how the United States topples dictatorial regimes in foreign countries in order to try to force “American style democracy” onto the country, instead of giving the country an avenue to develop its own system of fair government. The people who fled Scotland will never be able to return to the country that they once knew.
The collective narrative of the refugee is one that has two tales.
The one tale is told in “As You Like It.” It is a story of new freedoms, hopes, opportunity and dreams. It is the cheery story we as Canadians like to tell ourselves as we welcome newcomers to our country. It is certainly partly a true narrative. But as “Macbeth” reminds us there is a dark side to the refugee’s experience that should not be forgotten in all the celebration. A refugee has left behind a home that no longer exists, a home they can never return to. As we welcome our new neighbors into Canada we must be equally willing to celebrate and mourn with them. In the same way that “Macbeth” and “As You Like It” provide a theatrical pallet of laughter and tears.
Photography by David Hou.
Adam Corrigan Holowitz is the founding artistic director of London’s AlvegoRoot Theatre. Currently he is directing his new play The Cheese Poet. He works as a director, playwright and dramaturge. He is also the theatre columnist for the independent biweekly newspaper The London Yodeller. He is a graduate of Fanshawe College’s Theatre Arts Acting Program. He is currently attending York University.