In the current battle for the classroom between traditional literature and overt propaganda, #DisruptTexts and its allies attack Shakespeare for hate speech. But is Shakespeare promulgating hateful rhetoric? Or is he thinking deeply into the dramatic situation of racial and religious conflict in the Mediterranean world to reveal the human heart in conflict with itself?
We live in enlightening times. For example, a young adult novelist in a movement called #DisruptTexts recently explained why schools should not be teaching Shakespeare. “Absolving Shakespeare of responsibility” for hate speech simply because “he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric.” As I understand the argument, Shakespeare might be a superb poet writing in a time of great divisions and passions, “when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed,” but that is no excuse for teaching him in literature classes. Responsible teachers, she tells us, should tremble at the idea of sending a subliminal message to students that Shakespeare’s excellence justifies his “hateful rhetoric.” Reading some of the greatest poetry on earth might damage the hyper-sensitized, safe-spaced, trigger-warned, woke little milksops who apparently constitute the upcoming generation.
Has there ever been a generation more belittled, more condescended to? They should rise up and demand more Shakespeare. What does it even mean to accuse Shakespeare of hateful rhetoric? Shakespeare’s characters certainly indulge in it—say, Coriolanus blistering the commoners of Rome with his contempt, or Antonio scorning Shylock, or Iago soliloquizing about his hatred of Othello. But since plays are made of speeches, the real attack must be on the conflicts that make them dramatic—in this case, “a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed,” unlike our own peaceful public life, where we have just enacted the ancient ritual of expelling a scapegoat. Shakespeare is responsible for depicting conflicts, yes, but the real attack of movements like #DisruptTexts is on history itself, which is to say on reality, and not just on Shakespeare.
For example, in The Merchant of Venice, reality is at fault because the difference between Jew and Christian came to be embedded in European life. In presenting this difference, Shakespeare gives a high, complex, dramatic otherness to the Jew whom Antonio openly scorns even as he borrows money from him. But to depict this conflict at all, as I understand the argument, furthers hate speech. Depicting black Othello, married to a white woman whom he murders, must also be hateful.
Having converted from his native Islam—already a colonization of his soul, #DisruptTexts would say—he has internalized the code of white European Christianity to his own detriment, and Iago uses it against him. Othello worships the whiteness of Desdemona and equates her with the heaven of Christianity. Iago demonically exploits Othello’s personal uncertainties. When the Moor calls for his own damnation after killing Desdemona and only then discovering her innocence, he rejects himself as finally unworthy in his spiritual blackness. He embodies the desperate self-hatred of the deceived and victimized.
But is Shakespeare promulgating hateful rhetoric? Or is he thinking deeply into the dramatic situation of racial and religious conflict in the Mediterranean world to reveal what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself”? Nowhere in the tragic canon is the heart more keenly in conflict with itself than in the Moor’s suicide. Only the death of Desdemona has a tragic pathos so pure as when he attempts to reclaim his honor by turning his blade on himself. Would it be better if Othello had never been written, better if we did not experience this pathos? What exactly would that solve?
In the current battle for the classroom between traditional literature and overt propaganda, #DisruptTexts and its allies claim that they will bring about a social order free of judgments of others based on race, class, sexual preference, and gender. Religion is a problem, especially Christianity, and of course human nature has to be canceled, but nature is just a social construction.
If you write nature out of the story, it will not exist, they seriously think. The real issue might be that Shakespeare is too good at depicting human nature. The assumptions underlying the ideological use of literature are old and familiar. Socrates argues in the Republic that stories have immeasurable formative power with respect to the essential framework of experience that people carry into adulthood—their sense of order, their expectations for themselves in this order, their social, political, moral, religious, and philosophical horizons. So important is the power of stories that the future of our civilization is at stake. We have to fight to make the stories real, as we do at Wyoming Catholic College, before another generation’s worth of damage is done.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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