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Trustees | Shakespeare

Too male, too pale, too stale: why academia is turning its back on William Shakespeare

August 22, 2021 by Josh Glancy

As the Globe issues trigger warnings, English departments are binning the Bard in favour of classes on Lady Gaga and Game of Thrones


Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving. Or so William Shakespeare might say if he assessed his position in the world of letters today. He is the most famous writer of all time, his work still reproduced daily across the world. And yet his reputation is under fire, as his writing is deconstructed by the bards of postcolonialism and the minstrels of diversity.

What was once very fair in the world of literature is now deemed rather foul, at least in some quarters. At the Globe Theatre in London, Shakespeare’s home turf, anti-racism seminars are being held on decolonising his work and illuminating his problematic views on whiteness and empire. The theatre was lambasted on the front page of The Sun last week, after it was revealed that it is giving fans “trigger” warnings about upsetting themes in Romeo and Juliet and offering a number for the Samaritans in case audience members need emotional support.

In America, not a single Ivy League university has a Shakespeare requirement for its undergraduate literature students any more. At Pennsylvania University, students took down a portrait of Stratford-upon-Avon’s finest and replaced him with a picture of the radical poet Audre Lorde, sending a message to the faculty. In British universities, discussion about making Shakespeare palatable to modern tastes has been turbocharged by the conversations about empire and Black Lives Matter.

Problem? That depends who you ask. A prominent British Shakespeare scholar, who preferred not to be named, worries that the import of modish American concerns about race and colonialism are narrowing the rich field of Bard studies into a single social justice-oriented conversation.

“Over the last three years, it’s increasingly the case that the racial prism is the only way one ought to teach Shakespeare,” they said. “This has become hampering, and worrying for the future.”

The scholar views America as the source of this shift, and worries that the change in attitude to Shakespeare across the Atlantic is filtering into Britain too. “What’s happening there is that Shakespeare studies have come to be seen as a leftover sign of colonisation or even white supremacy. Now we’re also having endless meetings about how we can decolonise Shakespeare.

“You can and should diversify, of course, set diverse readings, use diverse casts. But you can’t stop him being a 400-year-old dead white man. If you don’t want to be an apologist for your own subject, then you’re in a difficult position.” The net result of this shift in America appears to be less Shakespeare. “We’re worried that will be the case here,” the scholar said.

America, which traces its modern origins back to the imperial projects of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan era, has had a long affair with the Bard, who was beloved by its founding fathers. Yet relations have cooled of late, at least on campuses, where the author of Hamlet and King Lear competes with classes on “Lady Gaga and the sociology of fame” and “The linguistics of Game of Thrones”.

Truly a noble mind is being overthrown, or so says Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, who has documented the decline in compulsory Shakespeare study on American campuses.

“This is like classics majors not having a dedicated course in Homer,” he says. “The subject is so foundational for English literature, it is an act of irresponsibility not to have that as a core requirement.”

Poliakoff is concerned that a generation of students is being deprived of the best Shakespeare has to offer. “Readers are being told to don a hazmat suit and be chaperoned by a PhD, else they might be corrupted by Shakespeare,” he says. “It is just fatuous and presentist. There’s an obsession with finding whatever could possibly seem wrong from a modern perspective, at the loss of all that insight into justice, leadership, morality and so forth.”

Yet Farah Karim-Cooper, co-director of education at the Globe at the Globe and the brains behind the theatre’s anti-racism seminars, which launched earlier this year, believes this is all much ado about nothing, and wonders why her reinterpretations of Shakespeare have caused a furore.

“I’m not trying to cancel Shakespeare,” she says. “I’d be out of a job for one thing. I absolutely love Shakespeare.” Instead, Karim-Cooper says she is seeking to make his work “accessible for all”, rather than simply viewing him as “the epitome of white genius”, as many have done since he was first canonised in the 18th century. In her view, the critics ought to simmer down. “Why is it that talking about race and Shakespeare is somehow making people frightened? He’s not fragile. He’s going to be here long after we’re gone.”

She gives an example of how to approach decolonising Shakespeare from The Tempest, suggesting that the play’s protagonist Prospero, who takes control of a magical island and its indigenous resident, Caliban, can be seen as a colonialist figure. “There is thought that needs to be given to the language that describes the indigenous character in that play,” says Karim-Cooper. “He’s highly racialised and portrayed as a barbarian. The traditional ways of reading The Tempest reinforce ideas of going into a space and occupying it.”

In many ways this fight over Shakespeare is a proxy for a much broader struggle: how to approach the entire western canon in an age that prizes diversity? If you think Shakespeare studies are fraught, try Chaucer, who was all but cancelled at Leicester University earlier this year when it ditched medieval studies for new modules on ethnicity, sexuality and diversity. In America, the prominent classics scholar Dan-el Padilla Peralta has questioned whether Latin and Greek should have a future at all, because of their roles in “constructing whiteness”.

And yet while there’s a clear danger of overreach here, there may also be a degree of fusty panic in response to passing trends. Is the Bard really in serious peril?

“I take a long view,” says James Shapiro, one of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars. “Shakespeare is not being cancelled, he’s really being embraced. What’s happening is exciting. Yes, senior white scholars like myself have to take a back seat, but it’s time for that. I might feel a twinge for some very talented middle-aged white male directors, but there are good reasons why.”

In his 40-year career, Shapiro has been through many waves of Shakespeare controversy. This may just be one more. “I’ve lived long enough to hear complaints about second-wave feminism, deconstruction, new historicism,” he says. “Right now we’re going through a period where race matters. To those who are complaining and are disturbed by the current focus, I’d say give it 10 years.”

This article originally appeared here.

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