Author Interview: Leah Marcus

We caught up with Leah Marcus to discuss her book, How Shakespeare Became Colonial: Editorial Tradition and the British Empire. Read on for our exclusive interview with Leah.

Leah S. Marcus, born Leah Powell, began life in northwest Indiana, in a small town since assimilated into what is now called ‘greater Chicagoland.’ Her father was a keyboardist/musicologist and her mother was a poet. Her father was bent on making her into an internationally celebrated pianist, but she rebelled by reading books instead of practicing She became interested in the early modern era during a Carleton College internship at the Newberry Library in Chicago, where she took seminars on literature and history in interaction and was also at one point accidentally locked up after hours in the Rare Books stacks.

After that catalyzing experience, she did her graduate training at Columbia University in New York, where she learned to love city life and continued her interest in the literature and history of sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. Her first university positions were at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Wisconsin. She was initiated into the world of bibliography years later at the University of Texas, when a colleague, Warner J. Barnes, sat her down and asked her why, despite her interest in paleography and textual scholarship, she had never studied the book as a book. He proceeded to give her a personal tutorial in book history, with special emphasis on the fakes and forgeries that were rife in the Texas libraries, having been acquired by prominent oilmen with more money than bibliographical expertise. A fascination with the whole problem of how we decide what is genuine and what is not is one of the origin points behind How Shakespeare Became Colonial.

Over her career, Marcus has published several books on seventeenth-century poetry (Childhood and Cultural Despair and The Politics of Mirth) and Shakespeare and Renaissance drama (Puzzling Shakespeare and Unediting the Renaissance). She has also published several editions of Shakespeare, one of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, and two coedited volumes of the writings of Elizabeth I. At Vanderbilt University, where she is now Edwin Mims Professor of English, she became fascinated by the ways in which the Bard had been enlisted in the British Colonial enterprise, and began offering courses in modern Anglophone South Asian literature as a way of exploring the decline of the imperial dream that we can occasionally glimpse as a vision for England’s future in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

How did this book come about?

Like many people who teach Othello, I had long been disturbed by the proto-racial sentiments evident in the play and by editors’ attempts to save Shakespeare from association with ideologies that we now regard as loathsome. When the field of Shakespeare Studies became excited by the ‘two-text’ theory of King Lear, by which the 1608 quarto version and the 1623 First Folio version were accorded more-or-less equal status as different Shakespearean versions of the play, I began wondering about the two texts of Othello. Why, given the high interest in the two texts of Lear during the 1980s and beyond, has there not been a parallel interest in the two texts of Othello? Contemplating that conundrum set me off on a general investigation of how textual description and annotation reflect and transmit racial attitudes, and eventually to an investigation of colonial elements in Othello and other Shakespearean plays.

How important do you think it is to consider the colonial context when editing Shakespeare?

Well, obviously, if I hadn’t thought it was important I wouldn’t have written the book. But it only dawned on me as I was writing it how profoundly colonial assumptions shaped assumptions behind the New Bibliography in the early to mid-twentieth century, when many of the features of Shakespeare editing that we now consider standard were being codified. Just at the point when the pursuit of empire waned in the British imagination as an actual geographic project, it waxed as an underlying motif in bibliographical and editorial studies of Shakespeare. That observation is bound to be controversial, but it is at the core of my book.

Can you tell us a little about discussion of colonial race and gender, and how that was exhibited in Shakespeare’s plays?

In my view and that of many other recent scholars, the attitudes toward race and gender that we associate with colonization are only incipient in Shakespeare. We see him playing with the fear of contaminating outsiders and the conflation of sexual and colonial conquest in plays like The Tempest, which I use in my book as a bellwether for changes in the degree to which colonial assumptions seep into editorial practice. But even as Shakespeare explores attitudes towards colonization that are typical for his time, he sometimes likes to disrupt them. For example, the feared colonial ‘outsider’ Caliban is the one character in The Tempest who expresses the traditional European conflation of sexual and colonial conquest, through his desire to rape Miranda and people the ‘isle with Calibans’. What does Shakespeare accomplish by placing a standard Elizabethan and Jacobean colonial trope in the mouth of the only character in the play who can be regarded as native to the island rather than in the mouths of the Europeans who discover and dominate it?


There is clearly some significance around editions created for schools in India during British colonial rule. Can you tell us how they differ?

The differences are sometimes subtle, but often quite striking. For one thing, editions for Indian schools frequently exhibit in overt form assumptions which were more indirect in editions intended for schools in Britain and America. The edition of The Tempest that reads the play most directly as an allegory of the benevolence of colonial rule was created for India. Likewise, at least among the texts that I have encountered, the editions of Merchant of Venice and Othello that are the most blatant in their acceptance of racial prejudice were created for Indian schools. Then too, Indian editions offered much more detailed annotation and explication – a trait, as I argue in the book, that began as an accommodation for the deficient cultural knowledge of colonial students but was then transmitted directly to mainstream British editions.

In your own words, “this book is in some ways a long-simmered sequel to [your] 1996 Routledge book, Unediting the Renaissance: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton” -- how do you feel this field has changed since then?

Over twenty years ago when I published that book, the idea that Shakespeare and other playwrights of the period habitually revised their work -- and indeed never attained or aspired to the perfected ‘final’ version posited by traditional bibliographers and textual scholars – was still faintly heretical. Now it has become mainstream, in part because digital media have so thoroughly shaken up our view of textual permanence in general. Twenty years ago my students were sometimes upset to be told that there were different, and potentially equally valid, versions of the language of Shakespeare’s plays. Now that formerly destabilizing idea has become commonplace, something students assume rather than questioning. A more radical position now is the idea that Shakespeare, in his sonnets at least, imagined that his language could be rendered permanent by being carved on a monument.

In summary, to what extent do you believe that the colonial context in which Shakespeare was edited and disseminated during the British Empire has left a mark on Shakespeare’s texts today?

We can’t look past the fact that Shakespeare was enlisted, for a very long time and across a very wide terrain, as the ideal spokesman and embodiment of an imperial ideal of Englishness. Part of the fascination of his deployment for two hundred-odd years as the ‘ideal Englishman’ comes from the fact that he was so equivocal himself on the question of colonial conquest and the prospect of instilling of Englishness into colonial subjects. As I argue in the book, Shakespeare was effective as an ambassador of Englishness to the world in part precisely because he could be portrayed as innocent of colonial designs. As with the image of the man, so with his texts: Shakespeare’s plays were peddled to colonial classrooms as the sublime works of a great man who transcended his own origins to attain almost a divine state of power, knowledge, and beauty. 

Those three things are to be found in our received texts of the plays, but it is almost inevitable that they come to us intermingled with some of the colonial assumptions that lay behind the production of the texts. And some of these assumptions remain by default in modern editions despite the fact that most of us would now disavow the outmoded mindset that generated them in the first place. People once feared that Shakespeare would be deposed as the greatest English writer (or even the greatest writer in the history the world) if we gave up our colonially-inflected idealization of him and his works. Now we can operate more freely: Shakespeare can be a stupendously great writer without being made to carry the traditional colonial baggage that earlier generations thought were necessary elements of his greatness.

About the book

How Shakespeare Became Colonial: Editorial Tradition and the British Empire

How Shakespeare Became Colonial

Editorial Tradition and the British Empire

by Leah Marcus

In this fascinating book, Leah S. Marcus argues that the colonial context in which Shakespeare was edited and disseminated during the heyday of the British Empire has left a mark on Shakespeare’s texts to the present day.

Format – 2017-03-16 
Routledge  (Supplementary/Literature)

Unediting the Renaissance: Shakespeare, Marlowe and Milton

Unediting the Renaissance

Shakespeare, Marlowe and Milton

by Leah Marcus

Unediting the Renaissance is a path-breaking and timely look at the issues of the textual editing of Renaissance works. Both erudite and accessible, it will be a fascinating and provocative read for any Renaissance student or scholar.

Format – 1996-11-14
Routledge  (Supplementary/Literature)