Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Enough of Shakespeare

Contrary to what the title of this article might lead you to believe, this column isn’t going to be about Shakespeare. Well, not exactly. I was reading an introduction to a volume of Shakespeare last week for one of my classes, so he has become my scapegoat. Also, there are apparently a bunch of novelists who are lately excited about going through and modernizing Shakespeare’s works. Again. But this is much bigger than just him.

Why do we read Shakespeare? Because we’re told he’s great, sure. Because he speaks to universal themes, whatever those are. But is he that great? Does he really speak to an all-encompassing audience? Can anyone?

I believe that no human experiences are unrecognizable, which is just to say that if a person tries to understand someone else’s experiences, and truly listens to their stories, it is always possible to get (at least partially) into their shoes. We can sympathize (not always empathize, but certainly sympathize) with any experiences that we make a true effort to understand. But there aren’t any universal themes of human experience. Thus, it’s impossible for Shakespeare (or any other “classical, great” white writer) to write masterfully and comprehensively about the human experience. Those writers simply don’t exist.

Why is this? Oppression. Oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and any other demographic categorization.

Oppression fundamentally changes all social institutions to eliminate all prospects for a “universal human experience.” It is fundamentally impossible for two people to interact without histories of oppression being a factor, unless those two people are affluent, white, heterosexual and male-identifying individuals. In which case, they don’t have to deal with any oppression because they have the privilege to ignore that it exists. They are not forced to look at and grapple with the implications of its expression. The politics of oppression, and social forces in general, always impact individually mediated interactions, including when these interactions are solitarily conducted with instruments of culture, such as works of literature.

So when we say, “Shakespeare writes to universal themes,” what we really mean is that “Shakespeare writes to themes that reflect the experiences of white people of Anglophone descent who are either comparatively well off socioeconomically or have opportunities to gain such a status through upwards social mobility.” That’s not universal. It’s not even neutral.

Don’t confuse whiteness and socioeconomic privilege with neutrality or universality. They’re not the same thing. The incorrect equation of the two contributes to reinforcing terrifyingly omnipresent white supremacy, both in our own country and internationally. The eventual breakdown of white supremacy depends on our rejection of equating whiteness and socioeconomic privilege with “universality” and “neutrality.”

The destruction of white supremacy depends on ordinary people refusing to take on ideas of “universality” in experiences. It depends on parents discussing the subject at home. It depends on social studies teachers saying, “Fuck McGraw Hill and fuck textbooks. We’re going to work with a diverse array of primary sources, a collection of which will actually reflect history from the perspectives of all the people who lived it.”

The destruction of white supremacy depends on math and science teachers demanding more diversity in their own classrooms and more equity across analogous classrooms all across the nation. It depends on English teachers getting tired of Shakespeare and Austen and Bronte and Joyce, and electing to teach authors who write books with themes that are “less universal,” like Chimamanda Adichie, Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Kofi Awoonor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ama Ata Aidoo, Aimé Cesaire and countless other brilliantly talented authors of color. (If you’re curious what I plan to teach in my classroom in several years when I get there, well, I’ve left a couple of clues…).

If we want a better world, one in which a dream for equal opportunity can be realized, white supremacy must be destroyed. And it must be destroyed actively by us, by ordinary individuals who desire a better world. It’s a big project, but one that can begin in small ways that include realizing the fallacy of the term “universal art,” and teaching and learning specific cultures outside of an idea of “universal” that doesn’t really exist.

 

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.

  • seriously

    /r/nottheonion

  • Not Impressed….

    Makes the title about Shakespeare, tells the reader that this piece isn’t about Shakespeare, then proceeds to discuss and lower the status of Shakespeare….

  • Prg234

    Yikes! What an unfortunate position to take. Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets derive their power from universal themes that have little if anything to do with his gender or race. I very much doubt that many of the authors of color that you list would agree with your assessment of the great bard. Please do a bit of growing up prior to getting to the classroom.

  • What an Ignorant Article

    “Shakespeare writes to themes that
    reflect the experiences of white people of Anglophone descent who are
    either comparatively well off socioeconomically or have opportunities to
    gain such a status through upwards social mobility.”

    People of color are incapable of empathizing with the racism depicted in Othello? People who’ve lived their lives in two cultures can’t empathize with Caliban’s sense of not beloging? How on earth does that make sense?

    “It is fundamentally impossible for two
    people to interact without histories of oppression being a factor,
    unless those two people are affluent, white, heterosexual and
    male-identifying individuals.”

    Oh, now it makes perfect sense. Shah isn’t actually trying to criticize our use of Shakespeare’s literature – she’s just an ignorant hate monger.

  • you bet

    more like /r/tumblrinaction

  • If you want to teach,

    I hear the School of Resentment has a spot open.

  • guest

    I appreciate that you encourage reading authors from diverse backgrounds, but I disagree with your ideas about universal themes. I’d encourage you to read this article. http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/what-maya-angelou-means-when-she-says-shakespeare-must-be-a-black-girl/272667/

  • Greg Koch

    I’m impressed with the courage of Mina Shah. Actually, her tactic is the same as current scholarship, which dissuades you from believing Shakespeare a singular genius poet on the Elizabethan landscape who wrote royalist views, by convincing you that “he” was a “collaboration.” In that way, they (politely) downgrade Shakespeare into an uneducated country bumpkin with a great knack for making (trivial sums of) money.

    I personally detest such acts of downgrading the plays and poems. But I also fully recognize the great poet was no egalitarian or humanist or libertarian.

  • This article is quoted in full with comment here:

    http://theatheistconservative.com/2015/10/22/america-going-down-2/

  • beepp

    It’s as though she is saying that people of nonwhite backgrounds cannot relate to themes of love, hatred, jealousy, guilt, loss, depression, familial duty….the list goes on. If these are not universal human emotions and experiences, I do not understand what it means to be human.

  • Ah, the certainties of youth, encouraged by the closed world of a university…

    Ms. Shah, is it possible that you have never truly read Shakespeare, but have merely been told about Shakespeare? And as such, you derive your views more from those of others than your personal direct and longterm experience?

    And that you are therefore responding less to what Shakespeare actually wrote, and more to objects of thought planted in you by well-intentins faculty and peers who also deal primarily in objects of thought rather than truth? Is it possible you still have something to learn fom Shakespeare?

    May I suggest that you are very much like Ms Powers in this essay, Why Is Shakespeare Great? If you are still of a nature to think that you could be wrong, and that your mind may create blind spots to truth by being so certain, perhaps you will take a few minutes to read this:

    http://markandrealexander.com/2014/09/29/why-is-shakespeare-great/

    Enjoy!

  • Herbie Taylor

    Funny, but my immediate thoughts when I first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez many years ago, was “This feels like Shakespeare”. The Tempest. The Winters Tale. Midsomer Nights Dream… What could be more Magical then Shakespeare? The Weird sisters. The Ghost in Hamlet. Hermione – “Things too strange to be believed?” Even that oddly shaped landscape occupied by Falstaff takes us to Magical places. Such places can be tragic or triumphant, soaring or sorrowful. Shakespeare’s characters include a Moor, a Jew and an African Woman; We also have a thin man, a fat man, a magical man, many fairies, at least three Witches, a few ghosts; Kings that Conquer and Queens that go mad. Betrayals and Betrothals. Potions and Passions.

    Does Shakespeare embody one of his characters or all of them? Could such an imagination burst forth from someone raised in a small town at England’s crossroads? A town which was also a popular destination for touring players – at least one company visiting every year from 1576 to 1587 – a year when no less then five companies visited. These players transported audiences to places of true wonder. They brought great characters and amazing stories onto the stage and into the imagination. Is it possible that a young William Shakespeare was one of those whose imagination was captivated and transformed? Certainly it is. “The applause ! delight ! the wonder of our Stage !” This is where Shakespeare came from: a town where we do know that the schoolmasters were University graduates and the youngsters sometimes learned a bit of latin with their trade. Where sons quoted familiar latin phrases in letters to their fathers. Some of those letters survive – unfortunately none of their report cards do.

  • Tom Reedy

    > Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets derive their power from universal themes

    Have to disagree here. Those universal themes have been the topic of many literary endeavors that have long been forgotten. Shakespeare’s longevity in the Western canon derives from his use of language–he said what everyone else was saying (most of his masterpieces are reworkings), but communicated it more memorably by his unique use of language.

  • A. R. Lyon

    While Mina Shah makes some good points, she writes from a narrow viewpoint. Does Ms Shah know there are English departments that teach Diaz, Morrison, Cisneros, Marquez and other writers who are not “white?” Let me add, more departments should teach these authors.

    Does Ms Shah know that authors and filmmakers who are not “white” have adapted Shakespeare? For example, Akria Kurosawa (Japan) adapted Macbeth (Throne of Blood) and King Lear (Ran); Welcome Msomi adapted Macbeth (uMabatha); Aime Cesaire (Martinique) adapted The Tempest (Une Tempete). These writers and filmmakers found something in Shakespeare that spoke to their culture and experience.

    When I’ve read Diaz, Cisneros and Marquez, there were things I did not understand I guess because I am “white.” On the other hand, there were things I did understand because I am human.

    I suggest Ms Shah consider this, the more a play, novel, short story, poem, film is culturally specific; the more it will be universal.

  • Paul Crowley

    Tom Reedy to Prg234
    >> Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets derive their power from universal themes

    > Have to disagree here. Those universal themes have been the topic of many literary endeavors that have long been forgotten. Shakespeare’s longevity in the Western canon derives from his use of language–he said what everyone else was saying (most of his masterpieces are reworkings), but communicated it more memorably by his unique use of language.

    This is transparent nonsense — as well as a typically Stratfordian non-explanation. Shake-speare’s words came from his heart, and were necessarily both original and deeply personal. (Try to name any great writer, or even a good one, to whom that does not apply.) He had an immense talent, but he also put in a staggering amount of work. Of course, to see all that in its true context, you first have to get his identity right.

  • Jonathan Poto

    My one sentence rebuttal: Tupac loves Shakespeare.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hysBt0nPG5c