Should We Cancel Shakespeare?

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May 16, 2024
Should We Cancel Shakespeare?
Jamie Litton
Shakespeare Now

Whether you dread the obstacles that come with teaching Shakespeare’s language, or you are absolutely in love with the experience (like so many of us English nerds are), you may have asked yourself at some point, “Should I even be teaching this?”

At the end of the day, educators want to teach material that offers real value to their students. Arguments against Shakespeare’s relevance in the curriculum have been brewing for decades now, often in response to the archaic and limited worldview presented in his plays. Why should we continue teaching works of a dead white guy from so very long ago? Why should we continue to grapple with the blatant sexism and racism in Shakespeare’s plays? What could he possibly have to say that is relevant to students’ lives today?

These are fair questions, and, we would argue, a critical part of working with Shakespeare in today’s classroom. But efforts to cancel Shakespeare aren’t limited to modern critical lenses. His works now  face a wave of attacks that claim to be rooted in morality. Following the passing of Florida’s Parental Education Act in 2022, many teachers began drastically modifying their Shakespeare units to avoid violating legislation that prohibits “depictions of sexual conduct.” These new restrictions put added pressure on teachers to help their students get Shakespeare, while toeing the line of legality. Florida teachers were eventually told that they could return to teaching the unredacted versions of some Shakespeare plays, but anxiety about these new and rapidly changing guidelines remains.

So is it all worth it? Should we be fighting so hard for a playwright who elicits eyerolls from students, strident criticism from young scholars, and moral panic from those seeking conservative educational reform? We say yes.

In an August 2023 TIME article, scholar Farah Karim-Cooper, writes “The institutionalization of Shakespeare in schools, universities, and theater, has traditionally meant centering a white, male perspective and preaching that it speaks for everyone; in other words, making it ‘universal.’” She goes on to explain the process by which Shakespeare has become a nearly-sacred beacon of white European male identity, a transformation she elaborates on in her book The Great White Bard. Despite all of the ways in which Shakespeare has been wielded to maintain oppressive power structures, Karim-Cooper ultimately argues that the flawed and human Shakespeare may be more relevant now than ever. 

“The plays express concern for the destruction of the natural world at the cost of human life,” Karim-Cooper points out, adding, “Shakespeare writes with unimpeded curiosity and imagination about people who are ‘othered’ in society, about Black, indigenous, and Jewish lives.” Thanks to recent scholarship focusing on the demographic reality of Elizabethan era England, we now know that Shakespeare likely interacted with “othered” folks in his community, no doubt using his experience to inform his depiction of marginalized and disempowered characters in his plays. At times it seems like Shakespeare held what we would consider to be very racist ideas about certain groups, while at others it seems like he is critiquing those views. But Shakespeare scholars today, even those who specialize in race and Shakespeare, are generally uninterested in whether Shakespeare was a racist. Instead, they ask us to consider the ways race, the color dichotomy, racialized beauty standards, and the process of “othering” operate in the plays. This mode of analysis is not only helpful in understanding the historical reality of race-making and imperialism, but can also offer an onramp for students who are unenthused about Shakespeare but have a lot to say about oppression.    

With just a bit of Googling, anyone looking for contemporary connections to Shakespeare to pique their students’ interest will find an endless body of work, newly sprung from the minds of young creatives who are excited about Shakespeare in its original form, and eager to add their own spin on it. Plays, spoken word pieces, pop songs, podcasts, and every other artistic medium imaginable constantly respond to the Bard. Scholars and performers alike offer new ways of thinking about race, gender, immigration, queer identity, and power with Shakespeare's plays as their framework. 

Shakespeare is not dead—he is more alive now than he has been in several centuries—finally freed from his deification to engage with all our modern criticisms and co-create with the next generation of artists who, like Shakespeare, tend to think outside the box.  While taking Shakespeare down from his pedestal is essential in order to begin wrestling with his work, it is in the humanizing of the man and his plays that we are able to enrich the classroom experience and add 21st-century texture to 400-year-old tales.