In Defense of Shakespeare’s Relevance for Today

New Zealand Arts Council Fails to Cancel Annual Shakespeare Festival

The arts council in New Zealand recently announced that it would cut  funding for a thirty-year running Shakespeare festival, concerned that the event promoted a “canon of imperialism.”

“Every year, the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand runs the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare festival – a secondary school competition where students perform excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays,” writes Eva Corlett for The Guardian:

Students are given the scope to direct, compose music, perform and create sets and costumes for their show. It has been a popular event, with more than 120,000 high school students from more than half the country’s secondary schools having participated in the festival since its inception.

Despite the festival’s popularity among students, teachers, and other community members, the New Zealand government’s arts funding body, Creative New Zealand, still opted to end the long-standing tradition. Why? The arts council repeatedly cited the festival’s “irrelevance,” claiming it did not urgently apply to the contemporary art world or appeal to indigenous and minority populations.

However, the Shakespeare Globe Centre chief executive, Dawn Sanders, resisted such an assumption. The Guardian article goes on quote Sanders:  

Creative New Zealand say it is irrelevant to modern day New Zealand – the opposite is true. We’re dealing with what people are thinking, the human psyche, competition, jealousy, misogyny and so many things that are totally relevant…

Over 76% of the plays are student-directed, so we are also producing young leaders and thinkers.

Sanders referenced the prominent number of Māori, Pasifika and other ethnic minorities who annually participate and even direct the Shakespeare plays.

Shakespeare the Imperialist?

It is obviously tragic that a national arts council would pull funding for an event that faithfully brings together a diverse community. But why the disconnect between council and community? Despite Shakespeare’s enduring relevance to people of all backgrounds, why are organizations rejecting him as “imperialistic”?

Shakespeare fits a certain negative profile: a white male born and raised in the patriarchal British empire. According to the intersectionality checklist, the playwright, who some scholars count as responsible for developing modern English, fails to make the cut. The New Zealand art council’s decision to cut funding, then, seems to stem from the idea that it doesn’t matter the content of what an artist produces, but his or her ethnic or social status.

What this reductionist approach misses, though, is that Shakespeare’s writings, as those who read them would know, involve characters from incredibly diverse backgrounds and have relevance today because they deal with universals. Shakespeare’s plays are about being human.

Literature for All Humanity

Dr. Anika Prather and Dr. Angel Adams Parham make a similar argument in their 2022 book, The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature. These scholars, both African American women, defend the classical tradition, including Shakespeare, noting that many Black intellectuals and reformers in American history, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr., were steeped in the classics. These outstanding men and women found in classical literature examples of what it means to be a free and wholistic human being, which helped them voice their case for freedom from slavery and oppression.

In addition, the “classics,” often regarded by critics to be dominantly European, have a much more diverse foundation. St. Augustine, author of The Confessions and The City of God, was a North African. Several early church fathers were from present day Syria and Jordan. Dante was an Italian, and ancient Greece, responsible for Plato and Aristotle, was a cosmopolitan capital of trade, culture, and ideas. Note also that the Bible itself is a Middle eastern document composed across multiple centuries.

Celebrating Shakespeare can go hand in hand with welcoming other overlooked voices into the conversation. Why not read Dante and Ralph Ellison hand in hand? Or Pride & Prejudice alongside Beloved by Toni Morrison? What readers might discover, however, is that these literary gems all explore the meaning of being human in all its variety, and so can speak to all of us.

Interestingly, the Shakespeare festival in New Zealand is still happening, despite the lack of funding. People will always find a way to celebrate truth, goodness, and beauty, wherever it’s found.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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