Cancel William Shakespeare?

Woke culture will not rest until all evidence of Western culture is erased, and not even the greatest writer in the known universe is safe.  A new movement aims to eliminate Shakespeare from classrooms to focus on diverse voices, completely upending the nature of genius in favor of identity politics, but what else is new?

“Shakespeare must be a black girl.”

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou perfectly encapsulated the universality of Shakespeare in six simple words.  Ms. Angelou delivered this remark in 2013 at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA.  She was 84-years old, explaining how as a young girl she read every book in the small Stamps, AK library.  There, she encountered Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 and found a fierce connection to her own life:

When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Ostensibly, Shakespeare was writing about his love for another, richer, and more popular man, but the details don’t matter compared to the timeless emotion expressed.  Hence, Ms. Angelou concluded, likely somewhat metaphorically though she was a child at the time, that Shakespeare must have been black and a female child himself.

Until recently, she wasn’t alone in her belief that Shakespeare is timeless and universal.  Even in Shakespeare’s own day, his genius was revered, his works pirated throughout the world, translated into other languages, sometimes entire parts made up when there were gaps in the text.  Ben Johnson, a fellow writer and playwright during that era, said  The Bard was “not of an age but for all time.”

What about Shakespeare were these two very different writers, of different genders and races, centuries apart in history, referring to that makes him universal?

This seemingly simple question has, of course, been the subject of near endless scholarly debate since Shakespeare’s own day.  For our purposes now, we can consider two general principles, true of all great writers.  First, the author exhibits a deep understanding of human nature, or at least certain aspects of it.  We all experience joy and grief, pain and pleasure, love and hate, but some people are gifted with a vision that allows them to see inside the human heart and witness the emotion unfolding with the precision of a microscope.  Second, the author has the linguistic ability to step outside of their own minds, or at least appear to, and put the pure emotion to the page, raw, unfiltered, and unencumbered by their own experience.

The combination of these two factors allows a gifted writer to connect with a reader across the mortal boundaries of time and space.  It is an important byproduct of this process that the identity of the author is largely irrelevant, the words are all that matters.  This isn’t to say the time and place that shaped a Shakespeare is without interest at all, just that there are only words on the page when you read them.  Once created, a work of art is separate from the artist. What Shakespeare happened to have been doing when he wrote certain passages of Hamlet, what thoughts he might have had outside the work, what love he might have been enamored with, or his opinion on contemporary issues like racism, doesn’t matter in the least to the experience of the reader.

All that matters is what you find there.  This utterly non-controversial concept was one of the foundational tenets of literary criticism throughout the 20th century. It is what has allowed diverse voices from Maya Angelou to Frederick Douglass to Ben Johnson to myself to appreciate the genius of Shakespeare.

Helen Vendler, Porter University Professor Emerita at Harvard University, is a world renowned literary critic who has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books and The New Republic.  She describes this approach as being a “critic rather than a scholar, a reader and writer more taken by texts than by contexts.”  She explains, “When writing on poets, I have wanted to connect inseparably – as they are connected in the fluent progress of a poem – imagination, feeling and stylistic originality.”

Unfortunately, this whole edifice, indeed the entire field of literary criticism, is now in the sights of cancel culture. Today, we aren’t worried about the words on the page, so much as who wrote them.

Amanda MacGregor, writing for School Journal Library, ponders “To Teach or Not to Teach:  Is Shakespeare Still Relevant to Today’s Students?”  Ms. MacGregor notes that “A growing number of educators are asking this about Shakespeare, along with other pillars of the canon, coming to the conclusion that it’s time for Shakespeare to be set aside or deemphasized to make room for modern, diverse, and inclusive voices.”

Note the emphasis on the identity of the author, rather than the quality of the work.  The “voice” must be “modern, diverse, and inclusive” independent of the words on the page.  This framing inverts the entire purpose of literary criticism, literally turning the nature of genius on its head.  One of the reasons Shakespeare is Shakespeare is the sheer number of different voices he was able to create and speak through.  Despite tens of thousands of lines of text across dozens of plays, sonnets, and long form poems, we know practically nothing about what Shakespeare, the actual dead white man believed about anything.

Was he the Machiavellian prince of Henry V?  Was he the young “star-crossed lovers” of Romeo and Juliet?  Perhaps their older, jaded counterparts in Anthony and Cleopatra?  Maybe he was the nihilist of Macbeth who believed “life is a tale told by an idiot”?  Or was he Macbeth’s guilty wife who couldn’t remove the damn spot?  Perhaps he was the mad prince Hamlet or the even madder King Lear?  Or was he evil, like Iago?  Was he Jewish like Shylock or a Moor like Othello?  Was he a homosexual like the first sequence of Sonnets suggests or did he lust after the Dark Lady in the second sequence?

Of course, he was all of these things and none of them.  The point is it shouldn’t matter either way.  The creations remain on the page, as they were, hundreds of years after the author is gone.  It is the genius that endures.  Genius itself, however, is not enough.  Ms. MacGregor continues, “Educators must ask whose stories are valued and what voices are elevated or silenced. What does a syllabus say about your students and their places in the world?”

Again, the framing couldn’t be more backward.  The syllabus shouldn’t say anything about your students, it’s not a menu of choices for them to make.  Instead, it should say something about literary genius regardless of where it comes from.  Putting this another way:  Should a physics syllabus exclude Einstein because he didn’t look like his students? Should we no longer teach geometry because Euclid was an Ancient Greek and no one even knows what he looks like?

Alas, Ms. MacGregor concludes that “Educators grappling with these questions are teaching, critiquing, questioning, and abandoning Shakespeare’s work, and offering alternatives for updating and enhancing curricula.”  Others are, of course, taking it much further.  It’s one thing to complement Shakespeare with a contemporary author to compare and contrast.  This can be helpful in understanding both works, and also in making Shakespeare more accessible to a modern audience.  The Bard is easier to connect with when you realize how many of his stories are still being told today in different forms, more on that in a moment.

Ayanna Thompson, director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and professor of English at Arizona State University, however, claims that “Shakespeare was a tool used to ‘civilize’ Black and brown people in England’s empire. As part of the colonizing efforts of the British in imperial India, the first English literature curricula were constructed, and Shakespeare’s plays were central to that new curricula.”  Jeffrey Austin, ELA department chair at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, MI believes whiteness is to blame for the very idea of “universal” themes.  “We need to challenge the whiteness of [that] statement: The idea that the dominant values are or should be ‘universal’ is harmful.”

Note the dodge: Shakespeare, in and of itself, says nothing about values. His plays are not political polemics or morality lessons. As mentioned earlier, we know next to nothing about what he believed about anything.

Lyz Mathews, a ninth grade English Teacher at Hartford Public High School in Connecticut passes on Shakespeare entirely.  “I replaced Romeo and Juliet with The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros last year and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds this year,” she says. “Simply put, the authors and characters of the two new[er] books look and sound like my students, and they can make realistic connections. Representation matters.”

A growing movement under the hashtag #disrupttexts agrees.  “There is nothing to be gained from Shakespeare that couldn’t be gotten from exploring the works of other authors,” Austin adds. “It’s worth pushing back against the idea that somehow Shakespeare stands alone as a solitary genius when every culture has transcendent writers that don’t get included in our curriculum or classroom libraries.”

This is where the cancel Shakespeare movement reveals it’s true insanity and their true purpose:  The demolition of the giants of Western culture simply because they are Western.  The same crowd targeting Shakespeare also targets George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, and just about everyone else who is dead and white. It’s also demonstrably untrue that there’s “nothing” to be gained from Shakespeare that can’t be gained elsewhere or that Shakespeare doesn’t stand “alone.”

This is cultural and moral relativism run completely off the rails, pretending it’s impossible to make objective value judgements about a work of art. Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare by accident or because of his whiteness.  Shakespeare is Shakespeare because his body of work is unmatched.  You study Shakespeare to learn about yourself and the nature of humanity through the lens of his genius.  It shouldn’t matter who he was, what he looked at, when he lived, or any of the particulars.  For all I care, you can say he was black and call him by a different name.  Indeed scholars have fought for decades over who Shakespeare actually was, and it didn’t matter one whit when reading or watching a play.

The works remain the same, and the works are what remain essential. This can be demonstrated conclusively in any number of ways.

For example, the average author uses a vocabulary of between 2,000 and 3,000 words.  Shakespeare used almost 20,000.  The depth and breadth of his language is above and beyond everyone else.  His influence on the language itself is also unique, contributing somewhere around 1,200 words and countless turns of phrase that are still in use today.  Quoting Ms. MacGregor again, this sentence uses 9 words Shakespeare invented, “Ask if Shakespeare’s time-honored works and syllabus fixtures should be bumped to embrace the multitudinous other writers and you get hostile, fretful, quarrelsome, or sanctimonious reactions.” If you’ve ever said “nail in the coffin” or “slept a wink,” you’re quoting Shakespeare.  He coined the word “lonely” of all things.  A single speech in Hamlet includes the titles to several movies, To Be Or Not To Be, The Undiscovered Country, and What Dreams May Come.

This is before you even get to the content of the plays themselves or the dozens of interesting, well-drawn, dare I say diverse characters.  There is no one else in the literary canon that has produced such a crowd.  Out of 39 plays attributed to him (a couple are generally considered only partially his), the number of classics is astounding:  Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Othello, Anthony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, and those are just the major ones.

As another great literary critic, Harold Bloom was fond of saying, Shakespeare would be considered a great writer if he’d written just Hamlet alone.  Independent of the brilliance of any individual title or turn of phrase, he fundamentally changed storytelling itself, introducing new dramatic techniques still in use today.  His plays fuse plot and character in a dizzying variety of ways, the outcomes hinging on misunderstandings, disguises, deception, luck, fate, choice, and sometimes a combination of all of them.  He fundamentally transformed comedy, romance, drama, history, and tragedy.

To put his influence in perspective, lists 1,566 credits for Shakespeare as a writer, meaning the most prolific writer in Hollywood has been dead for 400 years.  Does anyone truly believe this can be attributed solely to his whiteness?  Of course not, hence their must be another agenda at work, and that agenda isn’t pretty.

Claire Bruncke used to teach language arts at a small, rural public school in Washington State where she dropped Shakespeare from her syllabus.  Amazingly, she said “I know we must do better in the ELA classroom to stray from centering the narrative of white, cisgender, heterosexual men, and eliminating Shakespeare was a step I could easily take to work toward that. And it proved worthwhile for my students.”  She adds that she never had a student ask her why she stopped teaching Shakespeare.

Should we ask them if they miss trigonometry as well? The sad truth is that eliminating the greatest literary genius in the known universe isn’t worthwhile for anyone. The students are the ones who will ultimately be impoverished. Educators surely know this, or at least should know this. They simply don’t care and that should frighten us all.


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