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Circumscribing Shakespeare

The push by Shakespeare companies to abandon Shakespeare in the name of diversity seems driven by resentment of his greatness and our smallness.

In the prologue to Henry V, the Chorus begins by begging the audience pardon for the play’s actors, who will imperfectly attempt to portray the glorious deeds of the English king in France. He asks with rhetorical flourish if the stage is the proper forum to tell such historic events:

But pardon, and gentles all,

The flat unraised spirits that have dared

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth

So great an object: can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

The answer to that question, according to a growing number of American theaters and acting troupes is: “Who cares?”

The Shakespeare Theatre Association, the Washington Post recently reported, is “trying to move toward a more inclusive membership.” It is “attempting to understand contrary perspectives, some rejecting the argument that Shakespeare’s texts are boundless treasures; that they may even inflict some harm.” This is part of a broader trend at “de-centering” or “revising” Shakespeare to address alleged systemic racism in the theater industry, which sometimes means dispensing with him altogether. “Seeking contemporary relevance, classical theaters are increasingly receptive to playwrights’ departures from original texts,” explains the Post. Recently, Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company staged the world premiere of Once Upon a One More Time, a feminist fairy tale set to the music of Britney Spears.

This is not surprising. Calls to end America’s honoring of the “canon” of Western literature and art have been rising for more than half a century, so of course Shakespeare must exit stage left as well. Allan Bloom catalogues much of this in his 1987 The Closing of the American Mind: students are increasingly ignorant of the “great texts” of Western civilization, while empty values such as “greater openness,” “less rigidity,” and “freedom from authority” are fashionable on American campuses. We can perhaps update the language to “inclusion,” “intersectionality,” and “safe spaces,” but the general theme is the same: Western civilization represents something oppressive, intolerant, and archaic that should be taken off its pedestal for the sake of diversity.

“You can make it all the way through K through 12, college and grad school, never reading a Black playwright,” an assistant professor of performance studies at State University of New York at New Paltz told the Post. “You won’t make it past ninth grade without reading Shakespeare. So then, what does that do to our culture as a whole?” I don’t know, but I presume he would say it perpetuates white supremacist, patriarchal norms, while demeaning the accomplishments of persons of color. “Shakespeare was the weapon that was used to tell us we were not good enough,” explained the head of the Bahamas-based Shakespeare in Paradise.

Well, perhaps sometimes we need to be humbled. Is it the worst thing to realize that others who came before us may have achieved an excellence we may strive for, but never attain? And what contemporary writer or playwright is arrogant enough to dare to compare himself to the Bard? We’re talking about someone whose corpus is considered brilliant not only for its aesthetic qualities, but for its depiction and analysis of the human person in all of his passions, failures, yearnings, and excellences. Theologians, political theorists, psychologists, and countless others have plumbed Shakespeare’s works for wisdom and instruction.

Moreover, it is not as if reimagining Shakespeare in a different historical period or culture is anything new. Akira Kurasawa’s 1957 film Throne of Blood reinterprets Macbeth, and his 1985 film Ran imagines King Lear in feudal Japan (the latter, I would argue, is one of the best films ever made). Ten years ago, I saw the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s performance of Much Ado About Nothing, reimagined in 1930’s Cuba (it was fantastic). That’s what makes objectively superior art and literature superior: It speaks so profoundly about the human condition that it can be translated between cultures and generations and still communicate eternal verities.

But many educators and artists don’t see Shakespeare that way. A teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento told the Post several years ago that she does not like Shakespeare because she “cannot always easily navigate” him. She adds: “there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.” Put more bluntly, Shakespeare the dead white male is too distant to relate to non-white, 21st-century students. This same thinking has much to do with the abandonment of Shakespeare on stage.

This is patronizing and demeaning. What about 20th-century urban “ethnic” youth whose first language was Italian or Polish? Are Latino kids incapable of being inspired, challenged, or taught by someone simply because his language and culture are different from theirs? If Shakespeare represents an excellence not only of the English language, but of storytelling and human psychology, wouldn’t we want all people, regardless of race or ethnicity, to know him?

Certainly, advocates of multiculturalism feel this way about the value of non-Western art and literature—and well they should. Whatever anyone has written, rhymed, or sung that is good, true, and beautiful, it is worthy of our consideration, regardless of its original language or continent. And yet even here Shakespeare’s legacy encounters fierce resistance.

“This pedestal we have put him [Shakespeare] on should be smacked down to the floor!” asserts Tai Verley, artistic director of Philadelphia-based Revolution Shakespeare. Stephen Burdman, artistic director of New York Classical Theatre, agrees: “We used to say ‘Shakespeare is for everyone.’ Well, Shakespeare’s not for everyone…. Maybe, if white men had not been the predominant culture, Shakespeare wouldn’t be ‘Shakespeare.’” In other words, Shakespeare is only considered great because white-supremacist power structures coerced us to think so. I don’t know how anyone exposed to Hamlet, Othello, or Romeo and Juliet could think such rubbish.

Be that as it may, Shakespeare must be platformed, as it were, for the sake of diversity and inclusion. Even if it amounts to cutting off your nose to spite your face, denying an intellectual and cultural inheritance that has influenced the world for 400 years. This is about as self-defeating as doing away with academic exposure to the Bible because you don’t believe it is of divine origin. But hey, if Western civilization is a self-congratulatory myth, as an Ivy League-educated professor and friend once told me, we can dispense with all of it.

Or, as many of these theater troupes are doing with Shakespeare, dismantle, reshape, and recast it in such a way that it’s no longer about avarice (Richard III), romance (Taming of the Shrew), or revenge (Titus Andronicus), but the sins of our zeitgeist: racism, homophobia, colonialism. The irony is that in doing so we make Shakespeare less universal and more parochial—his words no longer transcend time, place, and culture, but speak only narrowly to our current (and ephemeral) fetishes. How sad and counterproductive, especially given the fact that the global appropriation of Shakespeare has so often been both profound and exhilarating. When I first saw Kurosawa’s Ran in high school, I didn’t even know it was an interpretation of King Lear. For me, the play will always bring to mind daimyo and samurai.

The diminishing influence of Shakespeare means more than simply the loss of our heritage. It means a weakening of our ability to appreciate that cultures and eras different than our own have something of eternal worth to tell us. If we can’t accept that transcend the fact that Shakespeare’s profundity transcends his whiteness, maleness, or Englishness, then there is nothing stopping us from rejecting any writer whose race, sex, or language does not meet our fragile and fleeting definition of value.


Casey Chalk writes about religion and culture issues for The American Conservative and is a contributing editor for the New Oxford Review. He is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands (Sophia Institute Press).