I'm sorry if you missed Milwaukee Shakespeare's production of "Henry IV (Part I)," which closed this past Sunday. The black box of the Broadway Theatre was transformed into the suggestion of a wood-beamed English pub, with the audience split in half on either side to watch the gambols and wagers of Falstaff, and then into a battlefield for Hotspur's bloody rebellion against the king. The staging put the viewer in the midst of the jokes and the scheming, the battles and the bawdry.
Shakespeare's spot-on depictions of barroom boasting and bloodlust show us time and again that the human animal hasn't changed too much in the intervening 400-odd years. I'm always stunned by the Bard's ability to push an unwanted mirror in our faces, his arm stretching across centuries to show us our flaws.
This time it was the ethnic stereotyping in "Henry IV" that caught my attention. The Scots and the Welsh are mocked throughout the play, sometimes subtly and sometimes with a heavy hand. The Scots, represented in the character of the Earl of Douglas who's come to support Hotspur's coup against King Henry, get the worst of it. "The Douglas" is a brute of a man, eager for war and claiming that the word "fear" isn't even in the Scottish vocabulary. He's the Terminator in a kilt, but not quite a man. Other characters make fun of his accent and there's a bit of a suggestion that he might be compensating for something.
It reminded me of the old Monty Python sketch, "A Scotsman on a Horse," in which a tartan-sporting, feather-hatted Scots dandy rides purposefully toward a church where a wedding is in progress. When he finally arrives, he breaks up the ceremony in the nick of time by scooping up the groom and running away with him. The homophobic gag obviously draws on some longstanding English stereotype of the Scots that we don't drink with the water here in the U.S.
And then there's that joke about if the Rolling Stones had written their "Hey, you, get off of my cloud," line in the dialect of Scottish sheepherders ...
The anti-Scots bits didn't run out with the end of "Monty Python's Flying Circus." I found a tutorial on YouTube today called "Scottish 101," in which the filmmaker tells us that if we learn the basic vocabulary he seeks to teach us, maybe the locals will hold off a little while and not punch us the minute we get off the plane in Scotland. But we will eventually end up in some physical altercation in Scotland, language lessons or no, he promises.
YouTube and the bestiality jokes aside, I do think we're getting better as a species. I think we are beginning to understand what stereotyping costs us in terms of safe and successful communities, in justice and in human rights. We've come a long way since Shakespeare's time, but not far enough.
Jennifer Morales is an elected member of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, the first person of Latino descent to hold that position. She was first elected in 2001 and was unopposed for re-election in 2005. In 2004, she ran for a seat in the Wisconsin state senate, earning 43% of the vote against a 12-year incumbent.
Previously, she served as the editorial assistant at the educational journal Rethinking Schools; as assistant director of two education policy research centers at UW-Milwaukee; and as the development director for 9to5, National Association of Working Women.
She became the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college, earning a B.A. in Modern Languages and Literatures from Beloit College in 1991.
In addition to her work on the school board, she is a freelance editorial consultant and a mother.