Years ago, I read a certain interview with Sir Peter Hall. (I have since tried to find it many times, to no avail.) If I recall correctly, he talked about the crazy ways Shakespeare’s plays are sometimes directed and performed. This wasn’t a complaint. He made the point that, thus far, the undeniable quality of the plays has rendered them indestructible. He said something like this: Shakespeare is somewhere smiling; you simply cannot take him down.
But just a few months ago, a group of Neo-Puritan English majors at the University of Pennsylvania did just that. They took down Shakespeare. That is, they righteously took down a portrait of Shakespeare. His race, gender, and possible religious perspective lacked sufficient identity credit. Not even his ambiguous sexuality earned him indulgence.
Not surprisingly, these students learned their religion from the English department faculty. It’s they who originally voted to replace the offending portrait. Also not surprisingly, the faculty had a hard time coming up with an alternative. After all, this was Shakespeare they were trying to replace. Frustrated by the delay, the good students took matters into their own hands, and now the space is sanctified by a picture of Audre Lorde.
This religious revival can be found on campuses throughout the country, and Shakespeare is a favorite target. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, only four of the top 52 universities and colleges in the country currently require an in-depth course on Shakespeare. Finesse your schedule just right, and you can get a degree in English literature from UCLA without ever reading the greatest writer in the English language. Where identity is the doctrine, English departments are the seminaries.
But it’s important to understand that, where Shakespeare is concerned, identity politics aren’t really the issue. They’re just the current weapon of choice in a centuries-long, fascinatingly strange movement to unseat the bard. I say movement, but that sounds too organized. Phenomenon is a better word. Shakespeare has weathered everything from scholars trying to take credit for his work to conspiracy theorists trying to credit others with his work. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf highlights the odd tendency of frustrated people to turn their frustration on Shakespeare––even people who have no connection to the literary or theater worlds.
Why? Because Shakespeare is, without question, the best. They hate Shakespeare because his work is so objectively good.
You see, it’s not that Audre Lorde is unworthy or shouldn’t be studied. No. Study her. English literature contains many more voices than it had or allowed in Shakespeare’s time. Make room for them. But here in 2017, like it or not, Shakespeare is still the greatest artist with a pen. Pretending that’s not true is perilous, sure, but it’s also stupid. Students who study literature-sans-Shakespeare learn an art and craft without experiencing its best practitioner. That’s just crazy. To excuse that omission because of Shakespeare’s race and gender––that’s even crazier.
But the numbers seem to suggest that the slow excommunication of Shakespeare is under way. Perhaps they’ll eventually rid themselves of this insensitive writer who so crassly stands out as better than everyone else.
For my part, I hope they succeed. Again, I think they’re crazy for doing it. But I sincerely hope they succeed.
The Puritans of Shakespeare’s time tried to shut down theaters in the name of the church. The Puritans of our time are trying to turn theaters and academies into their churches. I say get Shakespeare out. Kick him to the other side of the river. Let him build a new Globe. He’s good at that.
In the middle ages, a nearly dead Western theatrical tradition found a new ritual from which to emerge inside the churches of Europe. When it was no longer allowed there, it didn’t die. It flourished because it was set free. Western theater was born again.
For too long the academy has tried to make Shakespeare preach its myopic socio-political sermons. Unsatisfied with the success of that project, they’ve now turned to disparaging him, just like the frustrated Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.
Good. Let them. Set Shakespeare free. His works will emerge from the academy untarnished, showing that Peter Hall was right about their indestructibility. And free from the zealotry of these Neo-Puritans, the plays will be more beautiful than ever.
Shakespeare has faced off with Puritans before. He beat them then. He’ll beat them this time too. Let them do their worst.
He’s still smiling.