"I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition," wrote a teacher in the Washington Post in 2015—referring, of course, to none other than William Shakespeare. The following year, students at Yale University petitioned to “decolonize” the literary canon demanding that pre-1800/1900 courses encompass a study of “literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.” Around the same time, students at the University of Pennsylvania removed a portrait of Shakespeare replacing it with a printed photo of Audre Lorde the Black Feminist poet and novelist in order to protest the overemphasis in English degrees on white male authors
What these protests reveal is that the elite exceptionalism that has been built, with Shakespeare as its talisman, can feel oppressive. Because Shakespeare has been the centre of attention for centuries, writers who tell stories about communities other than those of the dominant culture must be found in and extracted from the shadow of the great white Bard, the ancient word for a great poet, applied to Shakespeare 150 years after he died, the work of whom has, for some, grown increasingly irrelevant. The institutionalization of Shakespeare in schools, universities, and theatre, has traditionally meant centering a white, male perspective and preaching that it speaks for everyone; in other words, making it “universal.” The historical use of Shakespeare as a vehicle for moral and civil education stretches this “universal” perspective into something akin to a straitjacket.
Shakespeare’s universality has been upheld as a positive force. At the turn of the 21st century, famed literary critic Harold Bloom unashamedly championed Shakespeare’s universalism, going so far as to claim that Shakespeare “invented humanity” as we know it. Such commentary hearkens back to exorbitant praise of the playwright, which poured forth in the 18th century—from literary critics, poets, actors, philosophers, and even artists. It was in this century of “Enlightenment” in England when Shakespeare was finally boosted up on to his towering plinth and from where he has remained ever since. Branding Shakespeare a “native genius,” “god of all our idolatry,” and identifying his English roots as the source of his exceptionalism became crucial endeavors in the 18th century—a time when the slave trade and maritime conquest was making the newly United Kingdom one of the world’s wealthiest powers.
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With fortune came high culture and the myth of Shakespeare was placed securely at the apex. His identity as a man of theatre became extracted from his work, and he emerged the literary Goliath of the sacred Western canon. This image of Shakespeare as an Anglo-Saxon paragon of masculinity, humanity, and creativity was gladly transported from England to America in the 18th and 19th centuries. But this Shakespeare is bound up with the colonial project and has yet to be properly untangled from it. His so-called “universality,” combined with the insistence that we continue to learn from his 400-year-old benign wisdom in our complex modern moment, is beginning to look unstable. So, do we pull him down from his pedestal and say time’s up?
My answer is yes. Sort of.
The truth is that there are really two Shakespeares. The first is the real Shakespeare of 16th century London, a a commercially-minded, jobbing playwright who worked closely with a company of actors. Simply put, they needed his work to be popular and marketable. The collected works of Shakespeare, his First Folio, was not published until seven years after he died, which means he was not part of an esteemed literary canon when he was alive. Playwrighting was scrappy back then, the texts fragmented, messy, showing signs of collaboration and intervention, sometimes by royal censors. What emerged though are glorious stories, sublime poetry, and characters that are miraculously true to life—once the plays were gathered and sold as works, Shakespeare started to gain traction as a literary giant. By the end of the 18th century, he was properly deified.
The second Shakespeare was the 18th century mascot for English white supremacy. He is also the Shakespeare that is still with us. This is why teachers are struggling to sell him to an increasingly fed-up student body—the traditional curriculum doesn’t allow for much deviation from bardoltry. As Director of Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, I am sometimes asked why we still “push” Shakespeare on to young people and university students when he is "no longer relevant." What on earth could a 400-year-old author possibly have to say to a 21st-century teenager?
Quite a lot.
Shakespeare hailed from the early modern era, when many of the ideologies, political, and social systems we are familiar with in the modern world were forming, including ideas about nature, race, gender, and class. The plays express concern for the destruction of the natural world at the cost of human life. Shakespeare writes with unimpeded curiosity and imagination about people who are “othered” in society, about Black, indigenous, and Jewish lives. For example, his first Black character, Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus who appears a few years before Othello, speaks boldly in defence of Blackness: “Coal-black is better than another hue/In that it scorns to bear another hue.” Yet we must contend with moments in his comedies of racist humour (“She’s too brown for a fair praise,” for instance, in Much Ado About Nothing) and misogyny (The Taming of the Shrew).
Is it Shakespeare or simply his era that offends? His female characters are not one-dimensional dolls though, but complex women, sometimes complex women of color, like the “tawny Queen” Cleopatra. Yet, at the time, professional theatre companies did not cast any women; instead, young male actors performed the female parts, making cross-dressing a crucial feature of theatre and tantalizing the imagination with queer identities and actors in drag. As a result, the plays raise questions about the very instability of gender identity and the glory of its performance.
The contemporary relevance of Shakespeare is starting to catch on. Ironically, some of Shakespeare’s plays are now banned in Florida because of the cross-dressing, gender-switching characters. What more evidence do we need, once we see beyond the 18th-century fantasy, that Shakespeare can be of immense use to our own urgent political and social questioning?
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