Trustees | General Education

Students remove Shakespeare portrait from English Department at Ivy League school

WASHINGTON POST   |  December 13, 2016 by Valerie Strauss

Shakespeare takes another hit.

At the University of Pennsylvania, the student newspaper reports that a group of students took down a large portrait of William Shakespeare, which had for years been displayed above a staircase in a building housing the English Department.

Why? According to the Daily Pennsylvanian, the students wanted the wall art in the department to represent the world’s diversity of authors, so they replaced Shakespeare on the Heyer Staircase with a photo of Audre Lorde, an African American writer, feminist and civil rights activist.

The Shakespeare portrait taken off the wall at the Ivy League school wound up in the office of Jed Esty, the English Department chairman and a professor of English. Esty, who, his website says, specializes in 20th Century British, Irish, and postcolonial literatures, wrote a Dec. 8 email to majors and minors in the English Department and shared it with the student newspaper. This is the email in full:

 Some years ago, the Penn English faculty voted on a motion stating that we would like the FBH entryway to represent the full range of writers, texts, and media that we teach and study. We planned at that time to relocate the large Shakespeare portrait, but the effort stalled as we considered options for a suitable alternative in that public space.  Late last week, following a town hall discussion in the department, some students removed the Shakespeare portrait and delivered it to my office as a way of affirming their commitment to a more inclusive mission for the English department.  That commitment is shared by the faculty.  After winter break, we will initiate an open and collaborative conversation among students, faculty, and employees in English to come up with a plan for that public space.  In the meantime, someone has posted an image of the celebrated poet and activist Audre Lorde, and it will remain until we’ve arrived at a collective solution.  The department will continue to explore, in all of our classes, the meaning of important works produced by artists and writers well before Shakespeare and well after Lorde, in several media and from across the globe. We invite everyone to join us in the task of critical thinking about the changing nature of authorship, the history of language, and the political life of symbols.

The University of Pennsylvania does not require English majors to take an in-depth course on Shakespeare, which is also true at the vast majority of the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities, according to a 2015 report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. You can read about the report here.

Of 52 schools reviewed in the report — schools ranked among the top 25 on the U.S. News & World Report national universities list and the national liberal arts colleges list — only Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, the U.S. Naval Academy and Wellesley College required a Shakespeare course.

But Esty said in an email that his department’s requirements “include the study of early modern and medieval literature (Shakespeare, of course, included).” He also said:

“[N]o serious English department doesn’t teach Shakespeare, but neither do any serious English departments in 2016 take their mission as exclusively oriented to a single writer or even a few classic writers.  Our students are expected to know the classics and so much more.”

In high school English classes, the Bard is still a staple, and is a requirement in the Common Core English Language Arts standards, mentioned in specific standards throughout high school.

Incidentally, Bob Dylan referenced Shakespeare in his speech to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan didn’t accept the prize in person, but his speech was delivered by Patti Smith, and it said in part:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

Why still study Shakespeare in the 21st Century? Let’s let Yale University’s Harold Bloom, the world-renowned export on the Bard answer that. This is from an interview with Eleanor Wachtel published in 1996 in the Queen’s Quarterly:

“We have to read Shakespeare, and we have to study Shakespeare. We have to study Dante. We have to read Chaucer. We have to read Cervantes. We have to read the Bible, at least the King James Bible. We have to read certain authors. … They provide an intellectual, I dare say, a spiritual value which has nothing to do with organized religion or the history of institutional belief. They remind us in every sense of re-minding us. They not only tell us things that we have forgotten, but they tell us things we couldn’t possibly know without them, and they reform our minds. They make our minds stronger. They make us more vital. They make us alive. … Shakespeare is universal. Shakespeare is the true multicultural author. He exists in all languages. He is put on the stage everywhere. Everyone feels that they are represented by him on the stage. … I don’t know who Shakespeare was. He has hidden himself behind all of these extraordinary men and women. … One cares about wisdom, and in the end one wants to be judged by wisdom. If one hasn’t got it, one has to ask the biblical question “Where shall wisdom be found?’ And I suppose, for me, the answer is: wisdom is to be found in Shakespeare, provided you get at it in the right way.”


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