George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

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

Mon, 04/21/2014

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.”

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

RT @kulibraries : Check out this news feature & then check out his book with us: #KULibraries #KUWorks…
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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