Caroline M. Kisiel
In William Shakespeare’s turn-of-the-17th century play, “The Merchant of Venice,” a key character, Antonio, reminds us, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
This may be the case in the reaction to a recent School Library Journal report that discussed teachers’ considerations of the relevancy of Shakespeare for today’s classrooms.
The report interviewed numerous teachers who are questioning the central focus on Shakespeare in the English curriculum, noting that “with plenty of misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism, and misogynoir,” his work is problematic and outdated. Teachers’ new approaches include studying Shakespeare alongside contemporary literature, using Shakespeare as an opportunity to analyze global perspectives, adding authors “to enrich study of Shakespeare,” and some are replacing Shakespeare entirely.
Spins in follow-up pieces claimed teachers were “refusing” to teach Shakespeare, and using charged language such as “woke teachers want Shakespeare cut from curriculum.”
Diversity within Shakespeare
I thought back to my own love of Shakespeare sparked at age 15 in my mostly-white evangelical Christian high school. I learned about anti-Semitism through studying “The Merchant of Venice.” I learned about racial identity and difference through “Othello.”
I became an English major in college, and lived in the United Kingdom to pursue a PhD in literature. In my work as an educator for over 26 years, I’ve taught Shakespeare to high school students and as a university professor, I designed and co-led a study abroad course to London twice, focused on performance and representation.
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The London course draws students from a diverse, urban university population, and includes a tour of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Students learn how his productions entertained, educated, and widened the world views of 16th and 17th-century audience-goers, many of whom were poor and illiterate.
As a high school English teacher in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, I polled the mostly Latinx and African American students on which stories they were interested in studying: “forbidden teenage lovers whose families hate each other,” “a young prince plots to kill his uncle, who murdered his father,” “four lovers bewitched by fairies and love potions fall for the wrong people.”
In these classes, students also studied the works of Richard Wright, Sandra Cisneros, and Luis Rodriguez.
Class, race, culture, discrimination, jealousy, power, death, money, gender, love, and betrayal are among the themes explored in Shakespeare’s 37 plays, which are set in countries across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Culturally responsive teaching
My love for Shakespeare was sparked by an exceptional English teacher, one who brought literature to life. This love did not keep my world small, rather it opened up a love for history, culture, storytelling, and an understanding of humanity.
He is a friend and colleague now, and was equally outraged by the idea of Shakespeare being “canceled.” He told me that it is essential to teach and learn from literature across time, to learn how past societies lived and expressed themselves, and to foster discussions about how the world has learned and evolved.
It’s not texts, but educators who must connect with students.
Through methods like culturally responsive teaching, educators have an opportunity to contribute to repairing historic inequities, trauma and harm. It is essential for educators to acknowledge their own identities and those of students, and be willing to learn from each other. It is important to include Shakespeare’s views and identity in the learning.
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The movement #DisruptTexts supports teachers in creating inclusive curriculum that offers students access the diversity of human experience, and critical thinking approaches to literature. Describing itself as “a movement to rebuild the literary canon using an antibias, antiracist critical literacy lens,” they have almost 10,000 Twitter followers. After push back from critics, #DisruptTexts issued a statement in January asserting they do not advocate banning any books, nor are they calling for censorship.
Diverse students, white teachers
To be sure, some critics argue there is a widespread movement afoot for the Great Books and the classics of literature (including Dr. Seuss) to be removed from our schools, and by extension, traditional values. But rather than seeing expansion of literary voices as a threat, this can be an opportunity.
In the United States, students in K-12 schools are touted as more diverse than ever, as are colleges and universities. Yet the most commonly taught books in high school, according to a 2010 survey, included primarily white male authors.
As one Duke University English major put it in 2020, “Being an English major shouldn’t just mean we know how to read Shakespeare.”
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Part of the problem is that while classrooms are more diverse, faculty are not. According to a Department of Education survey from 2018, 79.3% of public school teachers are white, 9.3% are Hispanic, 6.7% are Black or African American, and 2.1% Asian.
In higher education, a 2017 Brookings Institution study found that 80% of English faculty at selective public universities were white, 9% Black, 6% Asian, and 4% Hispanic. Out of the 378 doctorates awarded in English literature in 2019, 7 went to African Americans, 19 to Hispanic or Latino, 15 to Asian, and 286 went to white candidates.
This suggests that literature classes at the secondary and post-secondary level invite or create access for primarily white students to pursue the study and teaching of literature.
Courses from grade school through graduate school need to have more diverse and inclusive voices, without eliminating the giants of literature, so that all students feel invited into the world of books.
Shakespeare isn’t going anywhere
Regardless, Shakespeare is likely not in any danger of being “canceled.”
Shakespeare’s complete works have been translated into more than 100 languages. When London hosted the 2012 Summer Olympics, The World Shakespeare Festival held a Globe to Globe series across the U.K. His 37 plays were performed in 37 languages, including Swahili, Belarusian, sign language and a hip-hop production of Othello.
A total of 140 countries held celebrations for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016. Shakespeare invented more than 1700 of our commonly used English words. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has also developed antiracist approaches to teaching Shakespeare.
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Ideally, there are more teachers intent on inspiring young minds and widening access to literature. Hopefully the worlds of more students enrolled in courses now are being expanded to think not only about history, but about difference. The study of literature can support this learning.
This does not have to mean canceling established voices. But canceling our students’ lived experiences would be far worse.
It is ill-advised to misinterpret the Bard’s work for an agenda of fear mongering and divisiveness. Rather, it is important to use literature to help students think. As Hamlet advises, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Caroline M. Kisiel is an associate professor in DePaul University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project, and an Illinois Humanities Road Scholar. Follow her on Twitter: @CarolineKisiel