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March 28, 2015 12:05 AM   Subscribe

Elsinore is an adventure game set in the world of Shakespeare's Hamlet - which places it, historically, in 16th century Denmark. Since we began work on the project a year or so ago, I've shown the playtest build to family, friends, and strangers alike. After they're done playing, intermingled with their feedback on gameplay, they often point to Ophelia and ask: Why is she black?
For Gamasutra, Katie Chironis, team lead and writer of Elsinore talks about why they made the protagonist black, the possibilities of black people living in Denmark in the 16th century and why history and "history" in games is so often whitewashed.
posted by MartinWisse (110 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
What I'm wondering is: why is Ophelia wearing a hideous lavender prom dress? It looks more 1990s than... 1590s. And what is up with her hair? Side-swept BANGS?

The game looks fun, but man that is seriously distracting.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 12:39 AM on March 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Wait. What? That made Ophelia the *protagonist*!?

How does anyone get past that to noticing what color she is?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:51 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


That's as ridiculous as making Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the protagonists!
posted by Elementary Penguin at 12:54 AM on March 28, 2015 [61 favorites]


Yeah, god, who ever interprets and builds upon existing works these days, especially to add in underrepresented views and perspectives? Who does that?
posted by flatluigi at 12:59 AM on March 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


Steve Coogan.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 1:13 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I had this confused with To Be Or Not To Be. There are a lot of Hamlet video games.
posted by squinty at 1:33 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, but no. It's like rearranging McDonaldland so that the Hamburglar is Mayor and then everyone getting hung up on what sort of sauce the Fry Guys are coming with. It's like "Fine, whatever, they used honey instead of ketchup! But they put a CONVICTED CRIMINAL IN THE MCMAYOR'S MANSION?!?"
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:35 AM on March 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm annoyed that I'm supposed to care if Ophelia is mixed race or not, when the person who designed her has barely any passing notion of what people actually wore in the 16th century. I mean, what the hell is that lavender thing, which is accessorized with a choker? And a CORSAGE? I mean if you're just going for something vaguely 'historical' like Reign, just put her in Alexander McQueen or whatever! But just don't go on about history and historical accuracy, because Jesus.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 1:43 AM on March 28, 2015 [15 favorites]


And don't get me started on the time loop, lord knows that chronological anomalies weren't in vogue until decades later
posted by flatluigi at 1:46 AM on March 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


This sounds awesome! I've always been fascinated by Ophelia and how dismissed she was - how much could exist beneath the surface - and making her come from a completely different culture from Hamlet makes it all so interesting!
posted by Deoridhe at 1:50 AM on March 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


Wait. What? That made Ophelia the *protagonist*!?

Ophelia, in many ways, is the linchpin around whom the entire plot revolves. So it's not that much of a stretch.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:07 AM on March 28, 2015 [12 favorites]


I'm sorry, but no.

Tell that to writers as diverse and well-respected as Jean Rhys and Alan Moore or, as noted above, Tom Stoppard. I don't personally think it's as unusual a practice as you are suggesting, or even sufficiently unusual to merit much comment.
posted by howfar at 2:10 AM on March 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


It's a game, they can do whatever they like. And Shakespeare himself adapted Hamlet from an older story. But the style is just horrible.

And the argument is wrong. Hamlet is set in prehistoric/myth times. Which they would have known, if they had done their research.

Now if you had been at the Globe Theatre back in Shakespeares day, Ofelia would have been played by a boy, wearing 16th century clothes, or maybe something the 16th century imagined was medieval clothes. That boy could have had a dark complexion and have ancestry from anywhere in the growing empire - which did not include Spain, England's arch enemy. But the game is not about the Globe.

In what was Scandinavian iron-age and the Viking age, there was lots of trade with the Byzantine empire over Russia. There were viking raids in Spain and North Africa from the Atlantic side, but probably not as early as Hamlet's (Amled's) day. So the most probable way for Ophelia to be of a dark complexion is for her mother to be a slave-girl bought or captured somewhere in Turkey or the Middle East and sold to Polonius at one of the markets in what is now Sweden after a long journey up the great rivers in Russia.

At that time, a slave could be of any color. Generally, free people of color in Southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa led more sophisticated lives than even princes in Denmark and they were rarely enslaved by northern barbarians because they lived under protection in the vast Roman empire. The association of slavery and African ancestry is a modern one would have been nonsense in the early Iron Age; in fact, if Polonius had a slave-girl, she would most probably be of Slavic origin, as many slaves were. Which is why those peoples are called Slavs.

However, as mentioned, the barbarians might have legally bought a slave of African origin from a Roman slave-trader.

Here's a link to some possible dress styles.

Still, it doesn't really matter. I am no gamer, but if the game is fun, it is good. In my view, they don't need the argument in order to create the game, why should they? Shakespeare moved Prince Hamlet from Jutland to Elsinore in Zealand, probably because Elsinore was an important site, well-known by his audience. Most Hollywood movies changes plots, sites, dates, styles of history. Anything goes - it's fiction.
posted by mumimor at 2:34 AM on March 28, 2015 [32 favorites]


Yeah, I don't know if the second bloody mary has broken my sarcasm meter but really? What's so outré about Hamlet told from the point of view of Ophelia?

Game looks very interesting, agree that the art direction would not have been my first choice. Disagree about side swept bangs.
posted by arha at 2:40 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ups - now I reread the article, and I can see they deliberately set the game in the 16th century, which is all fun and well, if completely ahistorical. But wouldn't the purpose of choosing an era, rather than just choosing disney-era old times, be to have some stylistic inspiration. And in that case: no sidebangs, no purple disney-dress. This is a painting of a Danish king and queen from the 16th century. Here is a young Danish princess of that time.
posted by mumimor at 2:54 AM on March 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Hamlet is set in prehistoric/myth times

I dunno, it has like a King of Norway, which sounds like historical time to me
posted by thelonius at 3:23 AM on March 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


Thanks, Mumimor. Yeah, I mean, the article features the author discussing history and rooting the game in the culture of 16th century Denmark, which means there very could be mixed race people running around-- and then they put everyone in poorly drawn Disney costumes? Okay, sure, whatever.

Arha, if you love side-swept bangs, you totally need to watch the Tudors! That show is filled with side-swept bangs, AND plastic jewels attached with hot glue to polyester AND spandex corsets with plastic boning. It's a wonderland filled with vaguely RenFaire-y crap, because golly, who cares about period correct costuming? (And, speaking of side-swept bangs, I am reminded of the Frock Flickers' hilarious riffing on the first Tudors episode, where every time bangs were seen, someone took a drink.)
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 3:26 AM on March 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Oh, this is exciting! Like I said in that Sierra thread we had a few weeks back, adventure games have been coming back strong after a long period of dormancy, and my inner twelve-year-old is SO HAPPY.

The dev's Twitter has some cool stuff--one of either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern is going to be a woman, and they have some examples of environment artwork that I quite like. I also LOVE the character portrait of Hamlet in a few of those screencaps; they really captured his sulky douchiness.
posted by brookedel at 3:35 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Just defending my own poorly thought out hairstyles, suburbanbeatnik ;) The breaking point for me with the Tudors was Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
posted by arha at 3:35 AM on March 28, 2015


Arha, LOL! Speaking of poorly thought out hairstyles, mine is a scraggly ponytail. They should totally put Ophelia with a ponytail and a scrunchie. It would be so historically accurate!

And the Tudors... oh God, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. I can't think of anything he's ever been good in. And yet, somehow, I watched every single episode of that show; I think I might be a masochist.

You really should listen to the Frock Flicks podcast I linked to it my last comment. It's SO FUNNY.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 3:42 AM on March 28, 2015


They must have had tumblr in 16th c Denmark.

I won't ever understand gaming culture.
posted by spitbull at 4:01 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


thelonius - the story Shakespeare built Hamlet on is from a Danish history written in the 12th century: Gesta Danorum, which was first printed in the 16th century. There are other medieval sources which mention Amled, but the Gesta Dacorum is the only one Shakespeare likely could have found.
In the 12th century they had an other perception of history than we have today, and myths and facts are happily muddled. And for obvious reasons, what we call "prehistoric" was not prehistoric to them, they still had living traditions passed from mouth to mouth, and they had the sagas, which they saw as history. Amled was presumably a prince living in Jutland in what we call the iron-age, or maybe very early viking-age, though most of the real viking-era princes in Denmark are accounted for with more reliable historical data.
It's a bit hazy what constituted Denmark, Norway and Sweden during the iron-age, but the names definitely predate the Vikings.
Prehistoric times go up to about the year 700 in Scandinavia, because the written sources are so few up to this time, in spite of rich civilisations in other parts of the world. There were travellers from Rome and even an Arab traveller who wrote about the North, but sources are rare.
Amled is like King Arthur, in terms of historicity, maybe he lived, maybe he didn't..
posted by mumimor at 4:04 AM on March 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'm not at all bothered by the appearance of that character. I didn't get the sense that the point of the game was to faithfully recreate 16th century Denmark, and I could be wrong about that. She said she's striving to be reflective of history, and I don't think that precludes having a character with bangs.

It's very easy to get too caught up in the idea of as much historical accuracy as possible, and sometimes I think that can detract from the overall product. I like the idea of having historical characters that are well-researched and yet who look and act in ways that are more relatable to modern audiences. If the point of the game is sharing the characters' lives and experiences, I think there's a lot to be said for having them be more familiar. But who knows, maybe the designers don't actually care that much (or I'm totally looking at this the wrong way).

I mean, either way, I feel like the point of this was just to address the people who get all "it's not historically accurate!" when they see nonwhite characters in historical settings (and you have to wonder if she's gotten as many questions about the costume as she has about the character's race).
posted by teponaztli at 4:15 AM on March 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Look, if she truly wants to be reflective of history, I think a reasonably correct period appearance is key. Clothing, from shoes to hairstyles, is key to culture and who we are, where we come from, how we think, and how we behave-- how can we understand the culture of the time period if we're distorting it through this ahistorical Disney-inspired lens? And I'm not the one to bring up the historical accuracy argument; the game designer is. I'm just pointing out that she's hardly being consistent, or even truthful about the extent of her research, given what I'm seeing at the links.

Honestly, I've just seen so many badly written historical novels (for example, one that featured kudzu in medieval Ireland, or a Komodo dragon in Arthurian Britain) where the authors claimed to have spent an amazing amount of time on research. This just seems to be more of the same, but in a game setting. I'm not impressed.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 4:26 AM on March 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yes, she is the one claiming OMG history. I don't care the least about her design choices - but I think her argument is really annoying.
posted by mumimor at 4:34 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Clothing, from shoes to hairstyles, is key to culture and who we are, where we come from, how we think, and how we behave

With all of this in mind, then, would a totally foreign way of dressing automatically place a certain character at a distance? Dressing up a certain way doesn't automatically change the way you think or behave, and it doesn't give you more than a superficial taste of a culture. A modern audience has grown up seeing people dress a certain way, and their idea of normal and comfortable will be very different from what a historical person's would have been. The modern audience has no point of reference for a historical culture, and I have to wonder if there's a utility in interpreting history in a familiar way - if a point of reference can actually make a character and setting more relatable than it would be if it looked as authentic as possible. To certain ends, anyway.

I mean, I don't know, I'm just curious. Honestly, the way she writes about it, yeah, she may just be making weak claims about her work. I'd just like to entertain the idea that there might be an interpretive reason to make a character look a certain way, besides laziness or carelessness. This is sort of what I study, so I'm not trying to be grating, or anything, I just think it's interesting. At the very least, I'm glad someone brought it up.
posted by teponaztli at 5:08 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


My glass is half-full.
posted by Mogur at 5:09 AM on March 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Look, I agree. But if we are going to go down that particular rabbit hole, I'll start raising a defense about Ophelia being designed to reflect decades of insidious expectations of what a Princess should look like, thanks to Disney.

Then getting annoyed that I am arguing about female protagonists unrealistic fashion choices before actually engaging with the text. About what those protagonists are doing.

I am just super happy that games like this are getting made. At all. Kudos.
posted by arha at 5:15 AM on March 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hamlet is fiction. Don't sweat the small stuff.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 5:21 AM on March 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


the story Shakespeare built Hamlet on is from a Danish history written in the 12th century

I think it's unlikely that Shakespeare was working from Saxo's account. I believe there was a French translation of contemporary (to him) vintage circulating, as well as one in English (the ur-Hamlet) that Shakespeare may have cribbed heavily from.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:30 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh - I think we agree, I was thinking of the French translation (or maybe rather abridged version) when I wrote it was published in the 16th century, and yes, it might easily have been via Ur-Hamlet.
posted by mumimor at 5:38 AM on March 28, 2015


I am up for a Groundhog Day Ophelia video game, whether or not her outfit is ugly (what is up with that weird choker?). I am pretty sure it's not supposed to be accurate to Shakespeare, what with a distinct lack of time travel and Ophelia saving everyone in the play.
posted by jeather at 5:52 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I see a lot of Shakespeare productions and I don't think I have ever, ever seen one that attempted to be historically accurate, either to when it is set or when Shakespeare wrote it. I know the Globe does that but does anybody else?

I mean, these are playing nearest me right now, Macbeth in vaguely modern dress with swords, Hamlet with an African-American woman playing Hamlet and a set with Banksy-esque grafitti, and the Taming of the Shrew in the 1930s with tango.

So why should a game based on Shakespeare be historically accurate?
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:57 AM on March 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Research Is Everything, And It's Really Not Hard

Here's the kicker: in the end, it didn't even take that long. The days of going to the library and checking out a stack of history books are over. We found everything we needed within about half a week.


Heh - - dig that alpha info vibe!
posted by fairmettle at 6:11 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


There seems be a lot of kneejerk omg-this-sucks going on here about the style and it's missing the point of the post and possible interesting discussion that could have come out of it.

What I got out of it is that people typically default to "characters in shakespeare are white unless otherwise noted," and her research into historical possibilities for the race of Ophelia's character was simply done to counteract the kneejerk response of people shocked to see a black Ophelia and who use the claim of "it's not historically accurate" to keep diversity out of fiction because it challenges their preconceived notions of the character.

The same sort of nonsense occurred during the new trailer for Star Wars 7 and people cried "BUT THERE CAN'T BE BLACK STORM TROOPERS, THE EMPIRE WAS RACIST, THIS ISN'T CANON" (Sidenote: The Empire under palpatine wasn't racist, it was xenophobic and misogynistic, but not racist. Even then post-palpatine they opened it up to aliens and women, so it can be canon - see Post galatic empire section. See? just a little research.)
posted by Karaage at 6:13 AM on March 28, 2015 [23 favorites]


it looks awesome
posted by netawey at 6:19 AM on March 28, 2015


Previously on Metafilter about historical accuracy. Please give it a read if you haven't already, nitpickery artistes.
posted by automatic cabinet at 6:21 AM on March 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think it's great to see people talking about the historical inaccuracies of various styles, but I wish that were the common experience rather than white people flipping out over a story with a dragon or something similarly fantastic not being accurate because people of color are present.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:23 AM on March 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


I dunno, it has like a King of Norway, which sounds like historical time to me

You would be surprised; the Kings of Norway are pretty mythic. Heck, the current kind is still required by ancient tradition to stalk and slay a Frost Giant every Winter Solstice to ensure the prosperity of the country. He also has to show up at many public appearances, which are equally fictive.

Things used to be much much worse in the Renaissance, and even more so in Medieval times.

Strange, but true!
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:43 AM on March 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


I am ever amazed at the staggering diversity of arguments about why characters shouldn't be white.
posted by Etrigan at 6:59 AM on March 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


In re: costume choices "not being accurate", they have some things about it on their tumblr:

Our super awesome artist, Wes, comes up with most of the designs himself by looking at reference pics from the 16th century. The cool thing about making a historical game is that we don’t really have to dig for colorful source material. There’s so much of it already!

Some characters were surprisingly easy — for example, Laertes’ concept is pretty directly adapted from a portrait Wes found and liked of a young black nobleman in 16th century Italy: Juan de Pareja.....

With some characters, like Ophelia and Hamlet, we asked Wes to do a little modernization on them to bring them closer to the way modern stage portrays them (Hamlet in all black, Ophelia in a simple — usually white — dress).

posted by damayanti at 6:59 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I am ever amazed at the staggering diversity of arguments about why characters shouldn't be white.

I've just begun to categorize this under concern trolling nowadays. Like, whatever, who cares about your concern... OMG whitecasting too much?
posted by infini at 7:03 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


What I got out of it is that people typically default to "characters in shakespeare are white unless otherwise noted,"

The problem, as I see it, is e have two not very well thought out ideas colliding here. People who are "you can't have black people in Shakespeare (except Othello)" are idiots. Of course you cam; you just cast them. One of my favorite Shakespearean actors is Randall Duk Kim who has been horribly under-utilized by Hollywood). It is an incredible stretch to "realistically" put a man of Korean ancestry in any Shakespeare play, but theater doesn't run on that sort of realism. As pointed out above, Hamlet is approximately as historical as A Midsummer Night's Dream for the simple reason that Shakespeare wasn't writing history (even his Histories aren't history, for the love of Mike). So being "Julius Caesar can't be played by a Finnish woman" is mistaking theater for history and can't be taken seriously.

However, the other problem is the defense of Ophelia being black as being theoretically possible in a historical context is also pretty weak, especially since the historical reality of Hamlet is a) non existent, b) irrelevant, and c) apparently only of concern to the game makers some of the time. A much better defense of the game-makers' choices would be "Why did we decide to retell Hamlet as a mystery with Ophelia the protagonist, black, and bedecked with a purple corsage? Because we thought it was fun to do that. Make your own damn Hamlet-themed game if it bugs you so much." After all, Richard Loncraine did not spend a lot of time explaining why he set Richard III in the 1930s. He just did it. People do wacky things to the staging of Shakespeare all the time; it's kind of what you do -- sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't -- own your vision.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:06 AM on March 28, 2015 [15 favorites]


The historical reality of Hamlet is nonexistent, but the game is based in a specific historical reality. So their response to the questions about why Ophelia is black comes from that context, not simply a "this is my vision" argument. This is not a theatrical production of Shakespeare in which there's a long tradition of doing things like this. The same arguments don't work for gaming, and there's a reason that these kinds of discussions that are happening in gaming right now -- that's why the developer mentions based-in-specific-historical-context games like The Order, because that's a much more relevant comparison than Richard Loncraine's 1930s Richard III.
posted by automatic cabinet at 7:15 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


This article has nothing at all to do with the historical accuracy of clothing or hair, and almost nothing to do with promoting historical accuracy in general, other than as a creative tool for overcoming game designers' limited view of the characters they can introduce.

I'm kind of shocked how much we've avoided discussing race in an article that is 100% about race, so the following (in place of various rants I deleted) is just a summary of what the article is about.

Ahem:

Katie Chironis is making a game featuring the fictional character Ophelia, set in 16th century Denmark. People often ask her why the game's portrayal of Ophelia is black.

She's had the experience before that games end up with all-white casts because that's considered historically accurate. So the team did some research to find historically-plausible back stories for the diverse cast they wanted. This turned out to be a great creative approach:
[I]t's become clear that creating a diverse cast has brought a new element of life to our project. Each character in Elsinore now has a deep and individualized history; they come in all shapes and sizes -- a multitude of races and ethnicities, economic backgrounds, gender identities, sexual identities, and personalities. It was startling how quickly a little research made all this workable.
So then she wonders why she's heard so frequently that historically accurate means all-white. She speculates that this idea comes from Hollywood. Films are expected to do better with famous white actors, so stories like Noah's Ark end up with all-white casts, and game designers (like other Hollywood consumers) end up thinking that it's normal for all kinds of times and places to feature mostly people who look like famous white actors.

Since games don't feature famous actors, she says that it should be easier for them to break out of this cycle and start including diverse casts in "historically-influenced" fantasy games -- and that a good way to do that, given the wealth of research materials on the internet, might be to do what she did and research the range of people who might have lived in the historical inspiration for any given game.
posted by jhc at 7:19 AM on March 28, 2015 [28 favorites]


This is not historically accurate unless Bob and Doug are angling for some free Elsinore.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:23 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Simple version: Hamlet's source material falls into roughly the same place in Danish history that King Arthur falls into in English history.

And yeah, I have more trouble myself with the details of costuming and whatnot than with making Ophelia a person of color, which I think is a nice choice. I, like Tell Me No Lies, think it's weirder that Ophelia is the protagonist, simply because Ophelia has basically no agency as a character. She has an inner life, but her actions are almost all things that Polonius or someone else tells her to do. Hamlet storms around her and she reacts in a courtly manner while going mad. Even her one act of her own volition is only reported to us by Gertrude, who then actually describes it as an accident rather than a suicide.

So yes, there's a story to be told from Ophelia's point of view, but as a game, it's almost perverse. Compellingly so - I'll check it out for sure - but I'm just confused for now. What, exactly, is she supposed to be doing?
posted by Navelgazer at 7:25 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


So yes, there's a story to be told from Ophelia's point of view, but as a game, it's almost perverse. Compellingly so - I'll check it out for sure - but I'm just confused for now. What, exactly, is she supposed to be doing?


She has a vision that in three days, everyone's going to die; the idea is to run around and prevent it.
posted by damayanti at 7:34 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


The days of going to the library and checking out a stack of history books are over.

Coincidentally, I've just turned in the manuscript for a book dealing with the 16th century to my publisher for final edits. The research took a lot more than a week and a half, and required a lot more than google. Trust me, the days of going to the library and checking out a stack of history books are definitely not over.
posted by BWA at 7:35 AM on March 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


The same arguments don't work for gaming,

Of course the same arguments work for gaming; games are fiction, after all, at least in the broad definition, and fiction is never historically accurate; there are always going to be guesses and misrepresentations, and so on. Hell, movie hairstyles are pretty much always ahistorical, because the hairstyles of the past look weird to modern eyes, and distract the audience from the story. Adventure gaming is even worse, because most history doesn't allow for the sort of adventure that makes up the backbone of gaming -- individual and small groups of "adventurers," like the archetypal D&D "murder hobos" would be put down like rabid animals by pretty much any sensible society.

That gamers like to have arguments about this stuff just shows that gamers like to argue, not that their arguments have any particular literary or historical merit. As I said, own your vision. If you want to make a game retelling the 47 Ronin as a motorcycle gang in the Spanish Civil War, more power to you -- don't try to prove it's historically possible; just design the hell out of it and sell your vision to your audience.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:37 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I dunno, if To Be or Not to Be made Hamlet's dad a viable protagonist, why not Ophelia.
posted by KernalM at 7:37 AM on March 28, 2015


I'm kind of shocked how much we've avoided discussing race in an article that is 100% about race, so the following (in place of various rants I deleted) is just a summary of what the article is about.

I imagine everyone is talking about the historicity of the design instead of about race because everyone in this particular place in the internet agrees that a black Ophelia is a nice idea for a game.

I read the article twice (doh), and I completely understand that she is addressing an issue within the game-design culture - but why would it be impossible for game-designers to learn from theatre and film? Why would it not be a far better argument for her to say Because we thought it was fun to do that. Make your own damn Hamlet-themed game if it bugs you so much as GenjiandProust suggests?

Once I interviewed some quite famous game-designers for a journal, and it really struck me how they were struggling with the invention of methods and theories that have been invented and fine-tuned in other arts and professions. Not only methods from film and theatre, but also methods for planning and structuring complex products which they could have taken over from engineering and architecture, and methods for composition and design they could have got from photographers and graphic artists.
posted by mumimor at 7:38 AM on March 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


What's next, a book about Mr. Rochester's first wife? How preposterous!

I seriously don't understand how people are confused about retelling stories from different perspectives. How much agency did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern originally have?
posted by kmz at 7:41 AM on March 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


think it's weirder that Ophelia is the protagonist, simply because Ophelia has basically no agency as a character.

Surely that's the point, though? I assume designers asked "is there a way to give Ophelia enough agency to be the protagonist?" and answered themselves by making the game.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:41 AM on March 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


On another level - what I am thinking is that if they had really done the research and found more than one level of inspiration in 16th century Denmark, their imagery would have been richer and stranger and they might have brought something new and unique into the game industry. Knowledge can be a source of invention. Here, in my view, it's reduced to a conceptual element that is not really unfolded.
posted by mumimor at 7:42 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


damayanti, GenjiandProust - I understand that and agree. I think it's cool that they've made her the protagonist. I just think that choice is much more surprising, with more interesting implications, than making her black, which again is a nice choice and not the obvious one but isn't going to have much if any effect on the actual game/story itself.

And yeah, it's damn good to have adventure games again.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:46 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


The same arguments really don't, though -- you're looking at it very broadly as "it's all fiction!" but how theater is created, produced, and received is an entirely separate world from how videos games are created, produced, and received. Even a television or movie production of Hamlet will not be created/produced the same way as a theater production -- it will have these same race representation problems because there are more people involved, there's a different audience involved, there's more money and time involved, and thus, more strings attached to everything, namely the "if these aren't big name white actors, where's the money?!" ones.

In video games, the discussion about race is not because gamers "like to argue," it's, um, an actual. Important discussion? And dismissing it is just a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works, let alone gaming.
posted by automatic cabinet at 7:46 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's their game, they can do what they want. Her idea of " research" is fine for a high school paper, but laughable as scholarly, original-source research. Looks like they used Medieval POC as a source. But considering how little action takes place in Hamlet, why bother to turn it into a game? MacBeth would be a better choice--make Lady MacBeth the lead character. With automatic weapons. And maybe a nuclear device.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:47 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Maybe throw in some Ents in the Birnam Wood part
posted by thelonius at 7:59 AM on March 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


My glass remains half-full.
posted by Mogur at 8:02 AM on March 28, 2015


I imagine everyone is talking about the historicity of the design instead of about race because everyone in this particular place in the internet agrees that a black Ophelia is a nice idea for a game.

But the framing of the article is that race is historicity, and the character being non-white is exactly what people have been saying is historically incorrect. The game designer did enough research to be able to essentially say, "No, actually there were people of color in Scandinavia over many centuries," which for her was sufficient to answer the criticisms.

So I do think it's interesting that discussion here has focused much more on her dress and hair, which seem to be based on equally thin research.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:03 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


In video games, the discussion about race is not because gamers "like to argue," it's, um, an actual. Important discussion? And dismissing it is just a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works, let alone gaming.

Ah, I think I see the problem. We are talking about two different arguments. The answer to the question "why are people mad that Ophelia is black" is "racism." The gamers who are upset about that may not want to admit that they are being racist, but they pretty much are and need to own it.

The designer defending the choice by appealing to historical accuracy just opens herself up to a lot of nit-picking about the things in the game that aren't historically accurate, which, given the long history of Shakespeare staging, is a weak approach to take. Gamers live for nit-picking as much as for gaming, possibly more so, so why invite more? Just say "this is our vision," as countless directors have since the 17th C, and move on to the game. The gamers infuriated by the Ophilia's race aren't going to play it anyway; their opinions are irrelevant as they are incoherent.

Shakespeare movies and TV productions are as varied as stage productions; Richard Loncraine's Richard III was a movie, and Titus was even more ahistorical, and no one, but no one, complains about West Side Story and it's liberties. Not Shakespeare, but there is a very odd but fun version of The Revenger's Tragedy With Christopher Eccleston and Eddie Izzard that is a low-budget post-Apocalyptic SF setting with some mild race blindness in the casting. Worth a watch, if you are so inclined.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:07 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


One word: Kurosawa
posted by mumimor at 8:10 AM on March 28, 2015


Always ironic to have people worried about historical anachronicisms in a Shakespeare adaptation, Mr of course they had clocks in Julius Caesar's time.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:10 AM on March 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


The designer defending the choice by appealing to historical accuracy just opens herself up to a lot of nit-picking about the things in the game that aren't historically accurate, which, given the long history of Shakespeare staging, is a weak approach to take.

Other way around, actually.

I would think "well our game isn't historically accurate in all these other respects anyway" only reinforces the "black characters aren't historically accurate" argument as not only wrong, but also irrelevant.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:17 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Protagonist vs gamasutra??
posted by jyotixxx at 8:21 AM on March 28, 2015


The game designer's argument in the article, as I read it, is NOT "We decided to make a super historically accurate game and therefore created a racially diverse cast characters to accurate reflect the true diversity of that place in that era." Her argument is, "We set out to create a racially diverse cast of characters, and we anticipated that critics might claim that our choice was historically inaccurate, so we decided to do a little research to be prepared to defend our choices against that argument, which was not hard because it's actually totally obvious that many people of color in fact existed in Europe at this time, and if you think otherwise that is probably because you've been misled by an entertainment industry that reflects our society's institutionalized racism, and maybe we should all think about that."

Look, I love looking at accurate period clothing. But the designer said nothing about the general level of historical accuracy she was aiming for in the game. For all I know Ophelia shoots laser guns and drinks espresso in this game while wearing her historically inaccurate Disney prom dress. And who knows? That might be cool. I am not sure why 80% of this thread needs to be about the lack of historical accuracy in the costuming of the characters in a fictional video game when the author of this article was rather clearly trying to make an actually pretty damn important general point about how Western culture edits people of color out of history.
posted by BlueJae at 8:33 AM on March 28, 2015 [25 favorites]


Exactly, Blue Jae (well, not exactly exactly. Nitpicking is over half the fun for costume nerds. Come on.) But yeah, this is how I view this conversation, boiled down:

Q: Why is Ophelia black?
A: Because we wanted her to be.

Q: But isn't that inaccurate? Historically, I mean?
A: Actually, if you look into it, there were people of color in Scandinavia at the time.

Q: Sure, but I mean, what are the chances that Ophelia would be black? Seriously.
A: Since she is fictional, and we made the game, the chances are roughly 100%.

Q: But-
A: If it's that big a deal to you, make your own lily-white Hamlet adventure game.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:39 AM on March 28, 2015 [17 favorites]


As someone who is trained in 16th-17th century history, I found their backstory implausible. If they had decided that Polonius was a North African or black Spanish merchant or scholar who had come north and ended up serving as Prime Minister, that would have been great. It actually would be a situation very like that actually 16th/17th century story, Othello (talented foreigner rises to high position in European society).

But Polonius (as an upper-middle class man) marrying a servant? In that period, he would have been much more likely to keep her as his (possibly beloved) mistress, rather than wife.

Class: it really mattered in the 16th century (even if they didn't call it class, and their conceptions of it were far different from the 19th century conceptions that dominate currently, and there is a lot of excellent research on the changing ideas and realities of social status in the period ...)
posted by jb at 8:46 AM on March 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Or, they should have made her mother the daughter of a visiting dignitary, or a nobly born lady-in-waiting. But not a servant.
posted by jb at 8:47 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Coincidentally, I've just turned in the manuscript for a book dealing with the 16th century to my publisher for final edits. The research took a lot more than a week and a half, and required a lot more than google. Trust me, the days of going to the library and checking out a stack of history books are definitely not over.

Why am I not allowed to give more than one favourite?

I swear, in 100 years, when all the scientists and social scientists and even literary scholars are fully online and don't really know what this "library" building was before it hosted the servers and GIS classes - the historians will still be using old suitcases to lug books back and forth from the stacks.
posted by jb at 8:53 AM on March 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


As long as they make the ghost white, you know, for historical accuracy.
posted by davidjmcgee at 8:53 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


One word: Kurosawa

I considered this angle, and there are other compelling examples (I've just heard about a set of Shakespeare adaptions out of India that seem very promising), but I think there is a difference between "resetting the story in a new location and casting for that location" and race-blind casting.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:55 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


That said - in response to my previous comment: my knowledge of class relations is heavily biased to early modern England. Maybe Denmark was a much flatter society? (Any historians of early modern Denmark wish to comment? Also, how did the Reformation progress through Denmark?)
posted by jb at 8:56 AM on March 28, 2015


I swear, in 100 years, when all the scientists and social scientists and even literary scholars are fully online and don't really know what this "library" building was

OK, super-derail, but the library is neither the building nor the collection, and I expect they will be around for the foreseeable future, even if everything was digitized by magical OCR ponies sent by some benevolent info-god.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:58 AM on March 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hamlet doesn't take place in Denmark, it takes place in "Denmark" which is a fictional place. We're told immediately it's a fictional place and not the real Denmark because the play starts with a bunch of people being visited by a ghost, and ghosts aren't real. The play itself dispenses with historical accuracy approximately on page 2.

I'd much rather games, as interactive fiction, help remind us of our shared humanity than be "realistic", and there's not really a good excuse to not do this, especially when they take place in a world that is already canonically fantasy.
posted by davidjmcgee at 9:05 AM on March 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


I was going to write a whole thing about accuracy here, but in the middle of it I realized that I'd rather see a production of Hamlet with the sets and costumes from the History Channel show Vikings instead. Can someone get on that?
posted by graymouser at 9:13 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm kind of astonished by the pushback in this thread, personally. The way I read it, the only reason the author is invoking history is to deal with the astounding pushback that works set in historical Europe--or "historicalish Europe" as in a shit ton of other fantasy--has to deal with when it includes people of color in pretty much any contest. The whitewashing of pop culture history--as distinct from accurate history--is a huge issue. And racist pushback tends to have 'but it's not historically accurate for PoC to be in this location' as a huge central talking point, so I completely understand the authors' desire to pre-empt that point by invoking historical reality, even if their grasp of the history is less than perfect. Which, frankly, is not exactly an uncommon issue in game-makers setting works in historical settings--but no one seems to comment on that as long as all the characters are white.

Given all that context, it really strikes me as appalling behavior in this thread that kneejerk response has centered on the game not being historically accurate enough in details of costuming to 16th century Denmark--as if Shakespeare himself was some kind of stickler for intercultural historical accuracy! I mean, in that vein, come the fuck on! He was writing for a popular audience of his own countrymen, not an audience of historians, and certainly not an audience of Danes. All of this focus on the historical accuracy feels to me like a really nasty double standard applied to historical works which include PoC or which cast PoC actors, where those works have to be absolutely historically perfect but works with all-white casts can include the most ridiculous silly inaccuracies they want and no one turns a hair.

And this is pretty much universal no matter how historically focused the work is, too. I remember when Merlin, the silliest damn riff on Arthurian mythology out there, aired and everyone threw fits because they cast a brown actress as Guinevere. That show made no pretense about being historically accurate and people were still complaining about the historical accuracy of that piece of it, while ignoring all the other implausible stuff.
posted by sciatrix at 9:19 AM on March 28, 2015 [24 favorites]


One more word: Brook
posted by infini at 9:21 AM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


howfar: Tell that to writers as diverse and well-respected as Jean Rhys and Alan Moore or, as noted above, Tom Stoppard. I don't personally think it's as unusual a practice as you are suggesting, or even sufficiently unusual to merit much comment.

And earlier Dumas, pere and Thomas gave Ophelia larger roles in their adaptations of Hamlet. So it's not some crazy post-modern thing. Not to mention, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were themselves Elizabethan anachronisms as the only two historical figures in the play we can verify. Two men with that name were chums of Tycho Brahe and visitors to London prior to the dating of Hamlet. But Hamlet was much more about post-Tudor anxieties about continuity of power than anything 12th century Danish. We often forget that the lineage system that put Elizabeth on the throne as the last surviving child of Henry Tudor had been a bitterly contested political construction, and Claudius may have been entirely justified in taking the crown with approval of the nobility as the noble-born man with the most experience.

jb: But Polonius (as an upper-middle class man) marrying a servant? In that period, he would have been much more likely to keep her as his (possibly beloved) mistress, rather than wife.

Well, there was precedent that Shakespeare might have even known about. Possibly a factor in Tycho Brahe's political downfall was his common-law marriage to a Lutheran minister's daughter. Danish common law had a clause for this that let her have the keys to the house but denied her or her children rank and title. Religious authorities had a bigger problem and denied them communion. Beyond Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, one of Hamlet's monologues suggests that Shakespeare might have had second-hand knowledge about contemporary science.

But while editing, I kind of agree with sciatrix that reading Shakespeare as a realist body of work is reading Shakespeare wrong. The garbled historical and geographical details are just window dressing for human political and moral conflicts. Which I think is a secondary reason why theatrical Shakespeare has been moving to "best performance" casting or gender- and race-inverted casting. The more you break the audience's assumptions of realism and traditionalism up front, the better chance you have to bring the meaning to life.

Unless they're geeks who fixate on the realism and traditionalism, but they don't deserve Shakespeare.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:30 AM on March 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


The play itself dispenses with historical accuracy approximately on page 2.

Amendment: Page 1, line 1. Everyone's speaking English.
posted by davidjmcgee at 9:48 AM on March 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


This thread...my head is exploding in slow motion, and it's way too late to flag and move on. Some of you don't like or understand video games, and some of you are super into historical accuracy. That's fine, I guess, but the article has nothing to do with how video games are or are not some of kind stunted, degenerate medium, nor is it even remotely about clothing. You are shitting all over this thread, and you should feel bad. Moving on...

Games matter, and pushing back against racism matters. Pushing back against racism is places where people are actually paying attention doubly matters, especially when the loudest voices in gaming culture are often so toxic. This game features a woman of color as a protagonist. That's rare, even when there's no technical reason for it to be rare. I think she makes a really good case for why there's probably no financial reason for it, either.

There's what I felt was a unfair callout of the Bioshock series, which actually addresses the issue of race as part of its world building, being set in explicitly racist societies. They don't handle it perfectly, but they did put in a real effort, and succeeded more than they failed, I think.

I do think that points to an authorial choice that's relevant across media: When creating fictional minority characters, do you address the fact that they are minorities, or do you have most of the other characters ignore it? Dragon Age made a point of elves being second-class citizens, and that "stand in" racism is a pattern in high-fantasy settings. On the other hand, The Elder Scrolls games tend to go the other way, where any given soldier or shop owner is fairly likely to be from another continent and look it – though if there's a slave somewhere, there's a good chance it will be a kajat. Both have merits, I suppose, but they both miss an opportunity to better reflect the real-life complexities of discrimination. I'll be interested to see how Elsinore handles it.
posted by WCWedin at 10:17 AM on March 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


a portrait Wes found and liked of a young black nobleman in 16th century Italy: Juan de Pareja

None of the things bolded is true.

Anyway, I don't think they need a historical justification for making fictional characters diverse, even less with a Shakespeare adaptation.
posted by sukeban at 11:17 AM on March 28, 2015


(They must have mixed up Pareja with Alessandro de' Medici, duke of Florence who was an Italian nobleman with obvious African heritage)
posted by sukeban at 11:19 AM on March 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't think they need a historical justification for making fictional characters diverse,

The authors clearly felt otherwise, so criticism on those lines is a fair game. They go to scholars to back up a frankly remote possibility, but then claim artistic license (and progressive virtue) when anyone points out the unlikeliness of it. That's having it both ways.

To their credit, they do admit that the motivation is largely polemic. Which is fine. It is also, of course, intrinsically PR. Make Ophelia white and this thread would be a whole lot shorter.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:13 PM on March 28, 2015


They're not saying it absolutely happened. They're shutting down people who say she should be white because that's the only "historical" truth. Everyone has this idea that they know what history looked like, but there's no reason to think that's accurate in any meaningful way. None of us was there, and the point of the whole article is to say that what we expect to be "accurate" is itself based on huge artistic liberties.

It's much more likely that there was a black Ophelia than a Denmark with no nonwhite people in it anywhere, and yet the latter is the one that's accepted as "historically accurate" while the former is not.
posted by teponaztli at 12:32 PM on March 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Actually, it is completely unlikely that there was a black Ophelia in Denmark in the 16th century. The point is, it doesn't matter, because Hamlet is a play - it is fiction. As many have pointed out, Shakespeare himself wasn't at all into realism or historic accuracy, even though his queen, after Elizabeth, was a Danish princess who enjoyed his work.
posted by mumimor at 1:16 PM on March 28, 2015


I dislike the game writer/designer's tone of "our research is totes adorbs/we didn't have to look at musty books, like oldies used to cuz internetz." Did their character artist read any original sources in Danish? Why even both to pretend that historical accuracy matters in a work of art? She sounds dismissive and shallow, and I can't imagine that was intended. Maybe the company need a media liaison.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:29 PM on March 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Why even both to pretend that historical accuracy matters in a work of art?

This for a Shakespeare play in which poison is delivered aurally and is set with roughly the same historical accuracy as The Princess Bride.
posted by sukeban at 1:45 PM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I feel this thread is full of people who completely managed to avoid the constant complaints that having non-white people in fiction set in the past is historically inaccurate and felt that the people who made the game circumventing the argument was about the costuming and not the race of the characters.
posted by flatluigi at 1:52 PM on March 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Way too much nitpicking in this thread. Really? I don't care if you've read all of Shakespeare, or studied it in grad school, or teach it for a living. It's a game. Why don't we all just write our own Shakepeare games? The way we want them?
posted by triage_lazarus at 2:44 PM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


The game concept rocks, the choice of protagonist and mechanic rocks, the game developer (who probably knew what would happen to her when she agreed to the interview ) rocks. 99.9% win.

I don't even play adventure games, but if this one ever crosses my radar, I am buying it.
posted by Mogur at 2:53 PM on March 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


I dislike the game writer/designer's tone of "our research is totes adorbs/we didn't have to look at musty books, like oldies used to cuz internetz." Did their character artist read any original sources in Danish? Why even both to pretend that historical accuracy matters in a work of art? She sounds dismissive and shallow, and I can't imagine that was intended. Maybe the company need a media liaison.

Make your own damn Hamlet-themed article if it bugs you so much.
posted by Karaage at 3:30 PM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Did their character artist read any original sources in Danish?

Why on earth would that matter? Chironis isn't writing a journal article, and she's not claiming to have done rigorous research. Her point is that a bit of quick research can be a useful inspiration for designers who might otherwise fall back on stereotypes and tropes. She's encouraging others in her field to not be afraid of Google Scholar.

TV and film are rife with successful writers with a surface-level understanding of history (and science, etc.) — just enough to inspire their story. What's wrong with a game designer doing the same thing?
posted by Banknote of the year at 4:34 PM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was disappointed with the article, because it delved into a historical subject that interests me, hinted at some tantalizing facts about it, and then failed to fully explore them.

I agree that Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is set in mythic times, but I'm going to ignore that and assume the context here is historical 16th Century Denmark, because that's what the game-makers researched.

Okay, so Denmark circa 1600 was multicultural to some extent. My question is this: what would it have meant for a black person to have been at Court, dating the heir to the throne? Could that have happened? And if it did, what would people's attitudes have been about it? If the game-makers want to be historically accurate, then surely that's crucial.

In the 1970s, there were lots of black people in the USA, and there were black people in positions of power. But if you wanted to make a game about life back then, and you wanted it to accurately reflect that decade, you would not have it feature a black president. And I don't just mean because Nixon, Ford, and Carter weren't black. You wouldn't even invent an alternate 1977 in which, say, Carter lost to a black candidate, because there was no way 70s Americans would have elected a black president.

So I don't just want to know if there were people of color in 16th Century Denmark; I want to know if it's plausible that (a) they could openly have dated royalty, and (b) they could have done that without anyone commenting on it. (I am assuming that the same events occur in both the play and the game. I'm sure that's not entirely true, but if they're changing the events then all bets are off. They could include a scene in which Claudius wonders if it's seemly for his stepson to date a black girl. But if that's the case, then they could have just explicitly said in the article, "We've added some stuff to make our premise more plausible.")

In the play, both Laertes and Polonius warn Ophelia that she should be leery of Hamlet's advances, but what they tell her is that he's above her station. They don't suggest in any way that the relationship is doomed because he's white and she's black, as a father and brother would have in, say, 1950s America, if a presidential candidate has been dallying with a black girl.

And later in the play, by Ophelia's grave, the Queen says, "I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife." Was race such a non-issue that Gertrude would have publicly said that?

I want to repeat that I'm not suggesting any of this is impossible or unlikely. (And even if they're stretching historical plausibility, I'm cool with it.) I'm just curious about the historical reality and frustrated that the article didn't delve into it with more detail. The play (in their adaptation of it) isn't just set in Denmark. It's set in the palace of the royal family. That is the context the game-makers have chosen. Why didn't they discuss it?
posted by grumblebee at 5:07 PM on March 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


TV and film are rife with successful writers with a surface-level understanding of history (and science, etc.) — just enough to inspire their story. What's wrong with a game designer doing the same thing?

You're acting like history nerds aren't yelling at tv/films just as much. We complain about those, too.

In (supposedly) historical settings, I want to see diversity that also takes into account the reality of time. Otherwise, we're whitewashing the race relations, even if we're not white-washing the faces. Just like I want to see more female characters, but I want the writers to wrestle with the very real restrictions placed on women, and show their agency within those restrictions. I read fantasy for swashbuckling women warriors; when I read historical fiction, I like learning about what it really would have been like to be a woman in the past (who had to disguise herself as a man to be a warrior).

Frankly, a game/movie/tv show about what it would really be like to live in Northern Europe as an African or Asian person would be utterly fascinating. Or maybe a mini-series about the travels of Rabban Bar Sauma (Chinese man who travelled around Europe about the same time as Marco Polo travelled in Asia).

If it's pure fantasy (not our world), who cares - go crazy. That said, why just put non-white people into a pseudo-Europe? That is surface-level diversity. We need more fantasy inspired by non-white cultures, about non-European environments, to diversify the culture of fantasy as well as the complextion.
posted by jb at 8:22 PM on March 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


I agree that Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is set in mythic times, but I'm going to ignore that and assume the context here is historical 16th Century Denmark

The thing is, Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are or have been students at the university of Wittenberg which was founded in 1502, so no mythic times. It's not that the play is set on one time period or another, it's that Shakesperare doesn't give a rat's ass about historical accuracy or geography. Hence the Romans with clocks or the Bohemian coastline.
posted by sukeban at 1:31 AM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


What's really weird about this is how completely ordinary color-blind Shakespeare casting in the theater world is. Even here in Idaho Shakespeare productions will have black or Latino actors in "European" roles and it's only notable in a shame-the-cast-is-still-overwelmingly-white sense.
posted by straight at 8:08 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


I dunno, if To Be or Not to Be made Hamlet's dad a viable protagonist, why not Ophelia.

In an etymologically-indifferent sense of the word 'viable.'
posted by straight at 8:20 AM on March 29, 2015


I've been having a hard time finding people interested in discussing the plausibility of a high-ranking black courtier in Renaissance Denmark. Many of my friends are Shakespearean actors and directors, but as with folks here, most of them are more interested in "Does it make sense to set the game in 16th Century Denmark?" "Does it make sense to worry about historical accuracy in other matters if you don't care about it when it comes to fashion?" and "Should theatre be color-blind?"

Pushing all those questions aside, and forgetting about "Hamlet" for the moment, I still really want to know if, say, I was writing a novel set in the court of 16th Century Denmark, and I wanted it true to the historical attitudes towards race at the time, I could plausibly have the heir to the throne date a black girl--and whether or not it would be equally plausible for the Queen to openly sanction the marriage.

It's really hard to find online info about racism in 16th-Century Denmark, but this article, which is about Renaissance Europe in general, suggests that the game-maker's scenario is possible.
posted by grumblebee at 9:59 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


As someone who recently spent a year working on the play, I don't think that the only possible or reasonable interpretation of Ophelia is as a passive character. Certainly, her choices are limited, but she does make active ones in all her scenes, and in rehearsals we found opportunities for her to make others--ones that weren't specified in the script but which didn't contradict it, either.

In her first scene, she defies her brother, who is warning her to stay away from Hamlet. You don't have to interpret her actions as defiance, but you can, and such an interpretation is plausible. I've seen it work well on stage--in my production and others.

OPHELIA
I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

When her father also warns her about Hamlet, she argues with him:

OPHELIA
My lord, he hath importuned me with love
In honourable fashion.

LORD POLONIUS
Ay, fashion you may call it; go to, go to.

OPHELIA
And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven.

By the end of the scene, she's worn down and agrees to avoid the Prince in the future, but that doesn't make her passive. That just means she lost an argument. It's also possible to interpret her assent as shamming. Most of us, as kids, have said, "Sure, Dad. I'll do what you ask," without meaning it.

In her next scene, she runs to her father for help. I know that sounds passive, but I'd argue it's not. Real passivity would involve her cowering in the corner or shutting herself up her room, weeping into her pillow. Shakespeare specifically does not write that Polonious goes to find her or stumbles upon her. Instead, she makes the choice to seek his help. A particular actress can choose to play the scene weeping and cowering or demanding something be done. The play supports either interpretation.

We next see her just prior to "To Be or Not to Be" and in the Nunnery section afterwards. Here, she agrees to help out in the plot to spy on Hamlet. Or she's forced to do it. Again, the play is vague enough to support multiple interpretations. It's possible she does it willingly, both because she's pissed off at Hamlet and because she's worried about him and hopes that this will lead to her getting the help he needs.

When she and the Prince finally confront each other, she's bold with him:

OPHELIA
My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to re-deliver;
I pray you, now receive them.

HAMLET
No, not I;
I never gave you aught.

OPHELIA
My honour'd lord, you know right well you did;
And, with them, words of so sweet breath composed
As made the things more rich: their perfume lost,
Take these again; for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
There, my lord.

She also chooses to lie to him, claiming her father is at home. Is this due to fear of Polonius, guilt about betraying her boyfriend, or concern about his mental health? All are possibilities. In any case, Hamlet then goes berzerk on her, during which she cries out, "O, sweet heavens! Help him!" This could be a literal plea to God or a way of saying, "Dad! Get the fuck out here! He's going nuts! DO something!"

Next, she launches into her "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown" speech, which is, in my opinion, one of the hardest soliloquies in Shakespeare to play, because it reads on paper as a long lament. And many actresses strain themselves, squeezing out tears. That's certainly a plausible interpretation--maybe the most-likely one. She's just been attacked by a crazed price, after all.

But, in our production, we thought it might work as a demand. Ophelia crossed downstage and addressed the audience, basically saying, "Everyone else has failed Hamlet. I need you to get up off your asses, run after him, and help him!" This worked well and it was one of the most exciting versions of the speech I've seen.

The last time we see her before she goes mad--during which time she's explosively active--is in the "Mousetrap" scene. She doesn't speak much in it, but when she does, she seems to by trying to mollify or play-along with Hamlet:

OPHELIA
You are as good as a chorus, my lord.

HAMLET
I could interpret between you and your love, if I
could see the puppets dallying.

OPHELIA
You are keen, my lord, you are keen.

HAMLET
It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge.

OPHELIA
Still better, and worse.

Again, though, it's ambiguous--in a very juicy way. Is she gentle? Is she speaking through gritted teeth? Is she defeated? Is she sarcastic?

Readers and viewers tend to come away from a play with a general gloss or feeling about a character, and I totally understand why people come away feeling that Ophelia is passive: she gets jerked around by her father, her brother, and the royal family, and in the end they drive her to madness and suicide. (Or they possibly have her murdered.) But when you really grapple with a character in production, you often find she's more nuanced than the gloss.
posted by grumblebee at 10:32 AM on March 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


Brumblebee - As far as I know, there were no people of color in Denmark in the 16th century, because intercontinental trade didn't take off before the 17th century. (Except for Greenland). Possible exceptions are:

1: Members of the Spanish Embassy who might have been converted moors.
2: Africans who had been enslaved, and were given as gifts to royalty (this is how Pushkin's great-grandfather arrived in Russia and became a noble).
3: Descendants of someone like Pushkins great-grandfather, or Alessandro de Medici mentioned above who were legitimate nobles.

Now dating wasn't really a thing back in the 16th century, but powerful men having mistresses whom they valued higher than their wives was a big thing - not least in Denmark. All of the Danish kings of the 16th century had mistresses who were publicly known, powerful, and whose issue were eventually given noble titles. My impression when I read the play was that Laertes and Polonius meant that Ophelia was too good for the role of a mistress, and not of sufficient political valuable as a princes' wife.
Gertrude is unreliable - she reminds my of my auntie Golddigger. Don't trust a word she says..

One of the interesting stories about the mythical Amled is that he managed to marry both an English and a Scottish princess. Both for political reasons, because that is why one married back in the day.

In theory, any of the people of color mentioned above could theoretically be a princes' mistress with no special derision because of skin color. People were of course critical of those mistresses because they came out of nowhere and were powerful, and they were bad-mouthed by high and low, but I don't think race would have been a specific problem.

If there were any people of color in Denmark before the 17th century, they would definitely have been at court, for many reasons. So access would not be a problem.
posted by mumimor at 10:38 AM on March 29, 2015


Gertrude may be unreliable, though I'm not sure exactly what you mean by that, since she's not presented in the text in a way that's insane or incompetent, at least not in all reasonable interpretations, but, in any case, she makes her statement about Ophelia marrying Hamlet in public, and no one objects to it. I can explain that away as people being leery of contradicting the queen, especially at a funeral, but I'm wondering whether anyone would have given a thought to Ophelia's race, had she been black.
posted by grumblebee at 11:44 AM on March 29, 2015


Sorry, grumblebee I misspelled your name.

To me, Gertrude seems like a person who cares for no one but herself. What she said would have seemed stupid and untrustworthy in Shakespeares day. Specially in a play like Hamlet, which is all about succession, legitimacy of the throne and unity of the realm.

Come to think of it, even in a world where violence and war was the norm, the Danish court of the 16th century was exceptional. That might have been a factor in setting the drama in "Denmark". While today, Denmark is the symbol of a prosperous democracy, with "Borgen" as it's TV manifestation, I suspect that Denmark in the 16th century was the symbol of a failed state, something like Somalia today. Something was rotten indeed. When Hamlet was written at the outset of a new era, Denmark was a poorer and smaller but also better managed country, on the way to the rule of law and other things we enjoy today. One element in that was a strengthened continuity of government.

Christian the Second murdered almost all Swedish nobles at the Stockholm Bloodbath - which must have been reported widely.

His successors were no gentler, but perhaps better at controlling the narrative.

One of the 16th century kings, I don't remember which one, was talked out of marrying a woman beneath his standing; that might also have been common knowledge back then. Princely marriages were 100% political, unless the prince was Henry VIII, and he was a scandal. The idea that a Danish prince would marry a local girl, even if she was his good friend's sister, must have seemed ridiculous to Shakespeare's audience.

If he married a black woman, it could only happen if she was a princess in an important allied country. Which is not totally improbable, even if it never actually happened.

If Ophelia was his mistress, no problems, regardless of race.
posted by mumimor at 12:55 PM on March 29, 2015


I'm curious as to why you have such a negative opinion of Gertrude. I've talked to people who like her and people who have disliked her, but I've never heard anyone so confidently express an opinion of how she's viewed in general. She's a fairly complex character, and Shakespeare gives enough hints to the actors player her to allow them move various audience members in various ways.

In her first scene, for instance, her speech to "Hamlet" that triggers his angry "seems" reply can be played as genuinely loving or a political move.

You can interpret her as knowing that Claudius killed her former husband or not. If she didn't know (or possible, even if she did), than many of her subsequent actions could either be selfish or an attempt to keep the Danish state from harm. It's very complicated, because the Danish state is her husband, and the harm is coming from her son. She seems to love both of them.
posted by grumblebee at 2:23 PM on March 29, 2015


Oh dear, I'm not at all confident. Right now I'm just conveying an impression which is colored by my personal experience - my auntie golddigger - I do feel my interpretation is valid, but as plenty above including you have stated: One of the wonders of Shakespeare is the vast open expanse of possible interpretations.
posted by mumimor at 2:33 PM on March 29, 2015


"TV and film are rife with successful writers with a surface-level understanding of history (and science, etc.) — just enough to inspire their story"
Writers, maybe, but not production designers, who do a lot more research than quickly whipping through Google Scholar. That's the difference--she's claiming her designer got everything he needed in a short time, which seems to have been very little.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:34 PM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ideefixe: Thanks for linking a google search to prove that there are no africans in medieval denmark, but unfortunately there are also no kings, no ghosts, no horses, no murder, and definitely no shakespeare characters in medieval denmark either -- they've got a lot of work ahead of them, apparently!
posted by flatluigi at 4:21 PM on March 31, 2015


Thankfully, if you instead remove the quotes that artificially limit the search and move over to regular Google, you find some sources fairly quickly that support the developer's choice.
posted by flatluigi at 4:26 PM on March 31, 2015


Ironically, there were probably more people of color in Scandinavia in the 10th century than in the 16th century or even the 14th century. Because the religious strife of the 16th century was so murderous many formerly tolerant communities became bigoted and international communication was limited. And while there were lots of legitimate complaints about the Catholic church, as a fact, clergy of all races and nationalities would traverse the Christian world before the reformation, so in real life, a monk born in Syracuse might end up as a Bishop in Scotland. And Roma and Jewish families would travel cross borders, sometimes prosecuted, but also sometimes embraced. In Denmark, Sephardic Jews (refugees from Catholic Spain) were favored over other immigrants, but until the 17th century their status was precarious.

I worked at the National Museum of Denmark once, and though I do not recall every single item, I do have a fairly clear knowledge of what was where when. And if you wanted a multicultural Denmark in the modern sense of that term, the 17th and 18th centuries would have been more obvious than the 16th century suggested by the author. In many ways, Europe in the 16th century was like the middle east now: yes, it is multicultural. But no, it is not tolerant

There are tons of sources and items demonstrating how Denmark at during the 17th century was both multi-cultural and *almost* color and culture blind.
Before that - they were most probably color blind but they also most probably never met a person of color either.
posted by mumimor at 5:54 PM on March 31, 2015 [2 favorites]


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