Let the Brilliant Bard Shine

Students Deserve Teachers Who Will Let Shakespeare Speak for Himself

In Circumscribing Shakespeare, historian Casey Chalk critiques the movement among Shakespeare troupes to delegitimize Shakespeare as an unworthy product of  “white supremacist” culture whose works may cause harm to people of color. In response, Chalk points to the influence of Shakespeare on fields ranging from politics to theology. While acknowledging the richness of reimagined settings for the plays, he also decries the poverty of reinterpretations that limit themselves to treatments of the cardinal sins according to the Woke: racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc.

The assault on Shakespeare is not new. It emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with accusations that he did not write the plays that bear his name. Journalist and novelist Joseph C. Hart asserted that Shakespeare’s plays had been written by others, among them Ben Jonson. Not long after, author Delia Bacon took up Hart’s view, attributing the plays to Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Edmund Spenser. Since then, critics have argued for Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere, and even Queen Elizabeth I as the true author. Often the questioning of authorship arose from an incredulity that anyone not university-trained could have written with such broad-reaching knowledge of the world, such wide literary allusion, or such psychological insight.

The current assault arises from universities as well.  A 2015 article by Sandra Guy stated that only four of the top-ranked universities and colleges according to U.S. News and World Reports require English majors to take a Shakespeare course. Today, only three – Wellesley College, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the University of California-Berkeley – maintain that requirement. Marxist Critical Theory, of course, flourishes in academia, where its proponents call for the “decolonization” of the curriculum.

To “decolonize” is “to free from the dominating influence of a colonizing power,” to revise or replace “assumptions, ideas, values, and practices that reflect a colonizer’s dominating influence and especially a Eurocentric dominating influence.” In demands for decolonization, the word decolonize often appears alongside diversify. However, diversification has a long and honorable history while decolonization seeks to erase Western culture.

Diversification of curricula in general, and performances of Shakespearean plays in particular, have been ongoing for centuries and should naturally continue. In the United States, the Bard did not enter most college curricula until the late nineteenth century. In Africa, Kenya eliminated all literature of the West until Romeo and Juliet returned in 1992. Now it flourishes there again. In Kuwait, senior students study Henry V to facilitate discussions of universal human values. All students in Azerbaijan study Shakespeare at least once in their school career, and those in Denmark study him both in the original English and in translation.

The influence of Shakespeare is especially noteworthy among peoples of color. For example, in the 1820s the African Grove Theatre staged Othello with an African-American cast in New York, a state where slavery had only been abolished a few years earlier. Japanese playwright Tsubouchi Shoyo translated the complete works of Shakespeare in 1928, in large part to enhance Kabuki Theater, but iconic characters such as Hamlet, Romeo, and Juliet can still be recognized in contemporary Japanese novels and films. In 1945 Pei Te Hurinui Jones translated The Merchant of Venice into Māori (an indigenous Eastern Polynesian language). His translation served as the basis for the script of the first Māori feature-length film ever produced in 2002. After the burgeoning of national pride in countries like Congo-Brazzaville, Shakespeare’s plays were performed to express political and cultural frustration. In 2011, a translation of The Tempest by Oh Tae-suk adapted the play to express the cultural values of Korea.

Neither in school nor on the stage do these diverse places seem to regard the works of Shakespeare as harmful. Rather, they examine how the themes of his plays illuminate or reflect their own experience. American professors who wring their hands over imagined white supremacist content would do well to read Shylock’s speech from The Merchant of Venice:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

The humanness of the speech allows for the substitution of any religion, any nationality, or any ethnicity. In a similar manner, rereading Emilia’s assessment of women in Othello should make clear that Shakespeare is no misogynist:

Let husbands know

Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell

And have their palates both for sweet and sour,

As husbands have. What is it that they do

When they change us for others? Is it sport?

I think it is: and doth affection breed it?

I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?

It is so too: and have not we affections,

Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

Then let them use us well: else let them know,

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

These speeches reveal the great poet’s empathy and insight into those not like himself. He did not share Shylock’s religion, nor did he share Emilia’s sex. His characterizations demonstrate their humanity.

Shakespeare poses no threats. He needs neither deconstruction nor substitution to reveal human truth. He does not fragment humanity into ever shrinking identity groups. Instead, he sees the drama of humanity as a whole, as Jacques declares in the famous speech from As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players.

As Jacques goes on to detail, we all play many parts, sharing much in common despite our individual differences.

The Bard deserves to survive. Students who experience difficulty when they first tackle his poetry deserve teachers who can open up the language to them, not curriculum writers who want to restrict them to interpretations constrained within the limits of identity-themed categories.

People who assert that Shakespeare comes from the heart of white supremacy need to watch Laurence Fishburne’s Othello or Denzel Washington’s Macbeth or attend performances with multi-ethnic casts. Many voices have spoken the Bard’s words. When they have, they have expressed the human experience in the fullness of defeat and triumph, the depth of pain and height of bliss, the reality of our fallen nature, and the hope of our redemption.

* Image credit: Romeo and Juliet, Ballet at Sunset

is a retired secondary teacher of English and philosophy. For forty years he challenged students to dive deep into the classics of the Western canon, to think and write analytically, and to find the cultural constants reflected throughout that literature, art, and thought.

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