Shakespeare Matters (And Always Will)

Dr. SJ loves to read books. Over the past few years, she’s taken to reading the books up for book prizes, which both she and her book club expect to be the best new books coming out. They tend to have one thing in common: they are about a young woman in another country, what we used to call a third-world country, who is overwhelmed by her sad feelings about her personal struggles. They are, I’m told, tedious.

Literature once reached up, elevated us to higher truths uttered in greater prose. If Disrupt Texts has anything to say about it, these will be the only books your child ever reads.

Disrupt Texts is representative of a broader, growing movement in K-12 education to teach literature through a social justice lens, with an emphasis on centering the voices and experiences of BIPOC (black, Indigenous, and people of color) authors and students. Informed by antiracist pedagogy, what we call Social Justice Lit is committed to reimagining “the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum.” Its ambitious mission is nothing less than to create English Language Arts curricula that “dismantle systems of oppression.”

As such, Social Justice Lit asks students to focus on how texts “support or challenge issues of representation, fairness, or justice” and whether they “perpetuate or subvert dominant power dynamics and ideologies.” (You can see representative examples of the Social Justice Lit approach herehere and here.)

This may not be your vision of education, but then, you’re not a teacher. You don’t get to choose the curriculum and when they discuss books in school, you won’t be able to raise your hand and dispute that the only reason to read Shakespeare is to criticize him for his awfulness and use him as an example of everything that’s horrible about literature.

The guiding assumption behind Social Justice Lit is that the canon is “for white people, by white people, and about white people.” Dominated by dead white men, it necessarily excludes and alienates BIPOC students. According to Disrupt Texts, the notion that we teach Shakespeare because his work is “universal” or “timeless” is a shameful rationalization. Instead, Shakespeare’s exalted place in the literary canon is really about “white supremacy and colonization.”

This is part one of a two-part assault on literature. It compels the hatred of what has been traditionally understood as great literature because it’s Books Too White, essentially lousy lit that was only adored because it was written by white people, as if white people only wrote a paltry handful of books over the past few millennia and so they became the standard because anything written by a white person was elevated to literature cult status and rammed down the throats of BIPOC students.

Part two is that the eradication of white supremacy lit leaves a void that must be filled, and that’s where social justice lit comes in.

Is there anything wrong with including modern books that are written by people of color about their feelings and experiences in the curriculum? Is there anything wrong with this? Amna Khakid offers two challenges.

While her criticisms are sound, they are still framed within the Overton Window of Pedagogy, accepting the basic notion that literature that has withstood the test of time, has proven itself worthy of standing out among the millions of tomes written as the handful worthy of teaching students who aspire to take their place as educated adults some day. She accepts, at least to some extent, the premise that what’s held out as great literature, from Homer to Shakespeare to Hemingway and beyond, really is just the perpetuation of racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

What is missing from the calculus is that great literature elevates a society to share common truths about humanity. We make reference to Shakespeare all the time. Our children will have no clue what we’re talking about because they’ve never read Shakespeare, or if they did, will view our references as hate speech because they’ve been taught by grade school English teachers that’s all Shakespeare is good for. Think of it as a literary Tower of Babel, where we no longer share a commonality of literature and what it contributes to our understanding of the world and ourselves.

The other side is that social justice lit reduces us to our least remarkable selves, wallowing in banal feelings, usually misery, to validate our most shallow experiences. Someone wrote a book about a sad teenager from Africa who shares your skin color and, like you, suffers from teenage angst. It’s the literature version of “I’m Okay, You’re Okay,” except without any greater purpose than to empower children to indulge their worst feelings.

I make no pretense of being qualified to decide what should constitute great literature or lousy literature. Assuming there are books written by people of color in the past decade that are every bit as great as Shakespeare, they deserve to be read and taught. But that’s not what the Disrupt Texts folks have in mind.

By predetermining which texts will speak to whom based on crude racial and cultural categories, we potentially deprive people of some of the most transformative reading experiences they may have.

Do readers have to “see themselves” in the writer or story to find it “relevant” to their life and, therefore, be interested and inspired? When you look in the mirror, do you see Hamlet, no matter who you are? Is your sole purpose in reading to find something to hate about literature?

This turns reading literature into a whack-a-mole game of spot the “problematic” -ism. It encourages students to take a self-righteous, judgmental stance toward fictional characters, scanning texts for any sign that they fail to live up to today’s socially progressive standards.

Just as we can’t teach “woke math” where two plus two equals five if you feel it does, and expect students  to function in society, we will become intellectually barren if we deny students great literature solely because it was written by some old white guy who lived in times we deem awful today.

38 thoughts on “Shakespeare Matters (And Always Will)

  1. Hunting Guy

    Christopher Hitchens.

    “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”

      1. Jake

        If you rolled up SJ by categories of perspective and one of your esteemed readers wrote a foreword for each volume, you could publish ten books without lifting a finger. And yes, I’ll be happy to write the foreword on ‘My Thoughts on Wokeness’ by Scott Greenfield.

  2. Skink

    Velda the Doll works the front desk in this here Hotel. For several years, she loans books to guests. Her effort is especially important “in these uncertain times.” She has a question that’s above my grade: does this mean she has to eliminate Runyon and Spillane?

    1. SHG Post author

      She can just put them in brown paper wrappers and keep them under the front desk until an older guest requests something to read.

  3. Drew Conlin

    “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. “. Frederick Douglas.
    What gets me is most of the people advocating for “ Disrupt text” seem unaware that most of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance cite those too white authors as major influences…,
    Oh well hope this ( response) passes muster Mr. Greenfield.

    1. SHG Post author

      There were some excellent examples of people today, even in prison, to whom Shakespeare spoke, but as much as they contradicted the assumption tnat no one is inspired unless the writer or protagonist “looks like them,” I reject the assumption that “looks like them” is a relevant factor and, accordingly, reject the notion that it’s worthy of being argued.

    2. Dan H.

      One of America’s greatest contemporary writers, Toni Morrison, cites Shakespeare as an important influence to her work. A lot of this is literature is young adult level books. Easy to read, it is not challenging in any way. It explicitly explains its point of view with almost no interpretation needed. It takes the rigor out of literature curriculum and is another step towards dumbing down our culture.

      It is predictable and disgraceful that some educators are embracing this movement even as the Western Canon has never been more diverse with genuinely great literature.

  4. B. McLeod

    In the past, controversies were about the books that were too dangerous for kids to read, like Death of a Salesman, or Catcher in the Rye. Now, it seems we are on to the question of what children should be made to read, so they can conform their external stereotype to the satisfaction of our “progressive” comrades.

    It’s hard enough to get kids to read. Making it about bullshit indoctrination with works that explain to students the evils of the existence of white people is probably not going to help.

    1. SHG Post author

      Many of my crim law brethren were moved to defend by Atticus “The Racist” Finch. They must hate themselves now.

  5. rxc

    This movement is indeed transformative, in the sense that it is transforming the educational system into a transmission vector for mental illness, inoculated into children and then spread to their families.

    1. SHG Post author

      Even if students (who, fortunately, also are subject to some influence from their family) survive the mental trauma of self-loathing, anxiety and depression, they will still be intellectually barren. Fortunately, they now offer a Ph.D. in grievance studies, so they can find employment as a barrista.

  6. Jeffrey M Gamso

    From The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1:

    The quality of mercy is not strained;
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
    ‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
    The throned monarch better than his crown:
    His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
    The attribute to awe and majesty,
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
    But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
    It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
    It is an attribute to God himself;
    And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
    When mercy seasons justice.

    Disgraceful, just disgraceful how that teaches us all to hate.

    N.B.: And yeah, I know about Shylock and the anti-semitism, though I can discuss that at length, too, and point out how the Bard mitigates the man even beyond Portia’s speech in mitigation of his punishment.

    1. SHG Post author

      As I was writing this post, I tried thinking of the perfect quote to include and fell short. Thank you for doing what I could not.

  7. Dan H.

    In the Time Machine the empty headed Eloi are humanity’s future. They read no books, know no history. It feels that this Dismantling Texts is a project towards that goal.

  8. Anthony Kehoe

    I hate the movie ‘Idiocracy’. My wife made me watch it once and it was just horrible. Such shallowness of the people and a dumbing down that was just painful. Seriously, Gatorade because ‘Plants need Electrolytes!’

    I wasn’t aware it was an historical piece, though.

  9. Nigel Declan

    What is galling to me is that this approach is incredibly reductive. The greatness of literature is not measured in terms of how easy it is to read or how much it speaks to the concerns of modern-day youths. Were that so, entire canons of literature would vanish within a generation or two, because teachers and students of the future would not be able to relate to them, or because it would be too challenging trying to explain how books used to be written in words and sentences, rather than emojis.

    There is a very solid case to be made for supplementing traditional Western canon with more contemporary works, including those from underrepresented authors who may provide unique perspectives and styles of writing. To suggest, however, that this proposition should extend to effectively replacing the canon is to essentially relegate all literature to merely being historical artifacts from a bygone era, something kept in a museum to be gawked at but never engaged with.

    I’d suggest to the teacher in this article that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, but I fear she’d ignore me, claiming it was something an old white man wrote, making it irrelevant to today’s youth.

    1. SHG Post author

      Would it be wrong to simply wait to see what contemporary works survives the test of time rather than decide that Western canon needs supplementing by seven authors of varying marginalized demographics, whoever they may be?

      Just so I’m clear, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, and I didn’t like it. Will it prove to be great lit 100 years from now, or just a book written by a black guy about his black experiences that was immune from criticism during its fashionable moment? I don’t know. I could be completely wrong about the book.

      1. Nigel Declan

        Your position is certainly reasonable. Perhaps I would have been better served to say that there is value in teaching students other works as well as those in the canon. Having students read Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Chinua Achebe alongside Shakespeare, Dumas and Twain would likely benefit school kids, at least as long as they weren’t taught that one set of authors was better than the other because of their identities.

    2. Rengit

      I have heard this approach advocated for, that unique styles or outside perspectives contribute something valuable in and of themselves, and the problem it presents is determining the standards for what qualifies, because every book and every author is unique and presents a singular perspective in their own way. Unless you put up some strange qualifier (something like “the author must be an MFA grad” or “the MFA grads reviewing books at NYMag must give the book glowing reviews”), it just ends up being a grab bag, more often confusing students rather than expanding their minds, leading to the obvious conclusion of, “Why are we learning any of this?” The overwhelmingly common end result is that students, even intelligent ones, are unable to differentiate between Harry Potter fanfiction and Moby Dick in terms of quality, messages, or cultural relevance.

  10. Sandia

    “And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate”

    This is the saddest quote I’ve ever read. It shows an intellectually disinterested teacher who’s in charge of shaping children’s reading habits. So if Shakespeare takes too much effort to understand, does it follow that his students who find long form prose hard to read because they’re used to communicating with memes don’t have to write essays anymore and can turn in their papers in memes?

    1. Jeffrey M Gamso

      I know my vote on this isn’t entirely disinterested, and may be deemed unreliable since my graduate work focused on Renaissance English lit, including Shakespeare (my first career, and all that), but Shakespeare’s language ain’t all that different from ours.

      There’s much to think about in the plays, but just reading (or better, watching) and enjoying is really pretty damn easy.

      1. Anthony Kehoe

        Maybe this somewhat explains the lack of language rigor we see today. My main memory of studying the Bard in school (I went in the UK and Ireland) was having to figure out what the seemingly easy to understand words really meant and the constructions used. You had to come to terms with many alternate meanings for words. Today, people seem to use words and are shocked that the word they use might mean something else. I remember the first time I used the word ‘reticent’ in a work setting here in the US and was teased by colleagues after they asked me what the word meant.

    2. Dan J

      >And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate”

      I was going to make a similar comment. As a 14 year old high school freshman, I mostly read sci-fi. When we started studying “Romeo and Juliet” I was fascinated to learn that the weird words on the page actually had meaning, or even multiple meanings, that would have been understood by the people of the time. But I guess thinking is hard, and nothing matters that happened more than 4 years ago, especially if it was done by a white guy.

  11. Curtis

    I have seen Shakespeare plays turned into modern anti-war or feminist productions while staying true to the story. If done well, the power of Shakespeare can magnify the modern message. Back in the 90s, I saw a version of Othello with a black Iago. It did not quite work but I am glad I saw it.

  12. KeyserSoze

    I recall our conversation on actors. How about a book should be intrinsically good on its own merits instead of the author’s skin color or other brand of wokeness?

    1. SHG Post author

      Unlike actors, this goes beyond the author to the subject matter, characters and genre of the book as well.

  13. Bryan Burroughs

    There’s a warranted place for literature from outside Western authors. Reading “Things Fall Apart” greatly challenged my world view in 10th grade. It also helped me better appreciate “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and helped me more critically evaluate Kipling’s work.
    But, it was also good literature in its own right, and didn’t involve dropping other great works.

  14. Andrew

    One of my favorite graphic novels is “V for Vendetta”. In that dystopian world, the masses have one news outlet and a far greater amount of banned books as you speak. I watched the film “V for Vendetta” the other day and actually saw it in the theater when it came out. It’s a sad day when that dystopian alternate reality is starting to become a reality in our modern times

  15. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    Po-faced fundamentalism sucked in the 80s when it was right-wing, called itself the Moral Majority, and wanted to censor the teevee. It sucks no less today when it’s left-wing, calls itself Disrupt Texts, and wants to do away with Shakespeare.

    The irony is that there are great books in the “BIPOC in another country who’s overwhelmed by their sad feelings about their personal struggles” genre. Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia comes to mind. But part of that book’s charm is that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously, which would make it anathema to the “Social Justice Lit” crowd.

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