One thing that is abundantly evident from the demands for the cancellation of Shakespeare in public schools is that none of those demanding his removal from the curriculum have been able to read or understand his work. Had they been able to do so, they would know that Shakespeare’s plays show us relevant, perennial truths.
The public school system in the United States is proof of G.K. Chesterton’s prophecy that the “coming peril” facing culture was “standardization by a low standard.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the removal of Shakespeare from the classroom.
A report in the January issue of School Library Journal encapsulated the arrogant and ignorant rationale for such iconoclasm, epitomized in the claim that “‘Shakespeare’s works are full of problematic, outdated ideas, with plenty of misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism and misogynoir.” The final word in this litany of postmodern sins, misogynoir, apparently refers to a hatred of black women.
The problem with such a sweeping dismissal of Shakespeare’s oeuvre is that it illustrates the pride and prejudice of the person saying it. There is no way that the person who uttered this dismissive judgment has ever read Shakespeare in any way that conforms with the moral and philosophical dimension of the works. It is ignorance and the arrogance which is the cankered fruit of such ignorance. It is pride and the prejudice that always accompanies such pride.
Let’s take the litany of postmodern sins, one by one.
With respect to misogyny, Shakespeare can only be accused of this in the sense that the radical feminists consider anyone who disagrees with them to be misogynistic. In the judgment of the radical feminists, those who oppose the systemic killing of children are misogynists who have declared a “war on women,” and this applies to the millions of women who think that the killing of children is wrong. It’s not only men who declare “war on women;” it is every woman who disagrees with the radical feminists. To be judged a misogynist by such judgmental fascists is like being judged a race-traitor by Adolf Hitler.
The foregoing being said, and it needs to be said, we should point out the strong female characters in Shakespeare’s plays, of which there are so many that we scarcely know with whom to begin. Cordelia has more virtue and more wisdom than any of the male characters in King Lear, a wisdom and virtue which are accompanied by the courage of her convictions and the suffering that such courage embraces. In Julius Caesar, it is the very failure of the male characters to heed the voices of the female characters that presages the tragedy that follows. And then there’s the incomparable and indomitable Portia, perhaps the strongest and wisest character, male or female, that Shakespeare ever created.
Strength is, of course, a double-edged sword, which can serve the forces of evil. Shakespeare gives us Lady Macbeth, who is much stronger than her husband or any other character in the play; he gives us Goneril and Regan, who match the devilish Edmund in their acts of invidious and insidious treachery. He gives us Cleopatra who uses her “liberated” attitude to sexual promiscuity for selfish ends, which results in self-destruction. (Perhaps the self-destructive consequences of selfishness are one of the “problematic, outdated ideas” for which Shakespeare must be cancelled.)
Next on the list of postmodern sins for which Shakespeare should be censured is his alleged “racism.” This accusation is quite frankly bizarre. The most overtly racist lines in a Shakespeare play, and those cited ad nauseam as evidence of his alleged racism, are those uttered by Iago in Othello. These lines are offensive, but they are placed in the mouth of arguably the most offensive character that Shakespeare ever created. In short and in sum, Shakespeare illustrates the offensive nature of the character by the offensive nature of his rhetoric. Accusing Shakespeare of racism for words uttered by the obnoxious Iago is akin to accusing him of nihilism for words uttered by the mass murderer Macbeth.
As for the charge that the alleged anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice constitutes racism, it is clear from a reading of the play that Shylock is villainized for his practice of usury and for his vengeful hatred than for the fact that he is Jewish. Insofar as there is what might be called anti-Jewish rhetoric in the play, it is evident that this is a question of theological and not racial differences. The fact that Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, is fully accepted following her conversion is evident that her Jewish identity is seen as religious and not racial. On a deeper level, expanding upon which space precludes, the Jewish presence in The Merchant of Venice was merely a euphemistic device for attacking the Puritans, who were the moneylenders in Shakespeare’s England. As it was illegal to attack the Puritans by name, the moneylender was given a Jewish mask to circumvent censorship.
The next postmodern sin of which Shakespeare stands accused is “homophobia,” a word and a concept of which he would have been entirely unaware. It is true that every culture throughout human history has considered the practice of homosexuality a sin, which is one of the reasons that postmoderns want to cancel the past. Shakespeare, in this respect, is not a child of his age but of every age, except our own. Is this ground for cancelling him from the curriculum? In the eyes of the postmodern neo-puritans, the answer is resoundingly in the affirmative.
The next postmodern sin is “classism.” It is true, of course, that Shakespeare failed to see the cosmos through the eyes of Karl Marx. He would have seen kings, aristocrats, merchants, and peasants, and not the rich, the bourgeois, the middle class, and the working class. More to the point, however, his plays are full of condemnations of the corruption caused by the pursuit of wealth, position, and power. His sympathies are with those who resist the lure and allure of the world. His sympathies are with the poor. His scorn is poured forth on those who sell their souls for worldly advancement and for those who employ Machiavellian cynicism to gain power at the expense of the weak and the innocent.
This brings us to the last and newest and perhaps the worst of the postmodern sins, that of misogynoir. For the life of me, I cannot recall any reference to black women in any of Shakespeare’s plays. Am I missing something? Or perhaps the very absence of black women in Shakespeare’s plays, as they were effectively absent in Shakespeare’s England, is proof that he must be guilty of the neologistic misogynoir. In any event, I’m nonplussed and therefore unable to comment.
If there is one thing that is abundantly evident from the demands for the cancellation of Shakespeare, it is that none of those demanding his removal from the curriculum have been able to read or understand his work. Had they been able to do so, they would know that Shakespeare’s plays show us perennial truths that are at least as relevant today as they were in Shakespeare’s own time. They show us the difference between the selfless love that lays down its life for the beloved and the selfish “love” that sacrifices the beloved on the narcissistic altar of self-gratification. They show us the corruption that is inherent in the desire for power and the necessity of the just and virtuous person to resist such power. They show us that the will must be subject to reason and not to desire. None of these timeless aspects of human life are “outdated” and they are only “problematic” in the sense that they show us the problem and challenge us to think about it and do something about it.
The tragedy and the comedy of the situation is that these critics of Shakespeare can’t read the plays. They don’t understand them. They are ignorant. This would be bad enough were it not for the fact that they are also arrogant in their ignorance. They can’t read and therefore they won’t read. And, being puritanical in their pride and prejudice, they are determined that everybody else won’t read with them. Such is the spirit of arrogant ignorance that masquerades as education in the public school system.
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The featured image is an imaginary portrait of Shakespeare (1770s) by Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.