My memory is spotty, so I can’t remember which one it was. All I know is what it looked like: a dog-eared, ratty, slim little paperback volume with yellowing pages and a cover that was hanging on by its fingernails. It had that musty smell that old books have, the accumulated sweat of an infinite number of fingers. Worn, used, read over and over. And now it was in my little hands.
Freshman year of high school, Leonia, N.J., the Folger Library Shakespeare copy of Romeo and Juliet. You all know the ones: In each edition, there’s a page of footnotes alongside each page of text, providing context to the references, jokes, archaic language.
By the time I finished high school, I had four: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Hamlet. All battered, with notes scribbled in the margins from LHS students of yore. When the new editions started showing up, I was offended. Shakespeare is old; the books should be old. They should feel old. When I got the Much Ado About Nothing with pictures of the cast from the Branagh movie, it was wrong. Denzel Washington shouldn’t be smirking up at me from the cover of a Shakespeare play!
Yes, Shakespeare was dense, hard to read and comprehend, but I learned things from him. Tangible things. I expanded my vocabulary. I learned mythology, history, philosophy through those paperbacks. I became a better person through lines and lines of poetry and dialogue.
At the very least, I learned to read Shakespeare.
That’s more than I can say for Dana Dusbiber. Ms. Dusbiber is a teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif., and she is done with Shakespeare. She penned an essay, published in the Washington Post this weekend, making the case that Shakespeare should not be taught in high school. She starts here:
I am a high school English teacher. I am not supposed to dislike Shakespeare. But I do. And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because 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.
This is not an auspicious beginning. Mostly because Shakespeare, in most editions, isn’t in an “early form of the English language.” Sure, there’s some archaic language in there, but it’s still pretty recognizable as English.
Her argument doesn’t get much better from there. She goes on:
I was an English major. I am a voracious reader. I have enjoyed reading some of the classics. And while I appreciate that many people enjoy rereading texts that they have read multiple times, I enjoy reading a wide range of literature written by a wide range of ethnically diverse writers who tell stories about the human experience as it is experienced today. Shakespeare lived in a pretty small world. It might now be appropriate for us to acknowledge him as chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.
Sigh. I don’t even know where to begin with this. Shakespeare’s world stretches from the moors of Scotland to the “coast” of Bohemia to the New World. It spans from Ancient Rome to mythical Greece to fantastical realms of the imagination. Shakespeare was not Samuel Pepys. He didn’t write Elizabethan kitchen-sink plays. He wrote boldly, passionately of the world around him—the entire world. The wrongness here is nearly enough to sink this whole endeavor. But Ms. Dusbiber isn’t done.
Here then, is my argument: If we only teach students of color, as I have been fortunate to do my entire career, then it is far past the time for us to dispense with our Eurocentric presentation of the literary world. Conversely, if we only teach white students, it is our imperative duty to open them up to a world of diversity through literature that they may never encounter anywhere else in their lives. I admit that this proposal, that we leave Shakespeare out of the English curriculum entirely, will offend many.
But if now isn’t the time to break some school rules and think about how to bring literature of color to our student’s lives, when will that time be?
Let’s let Shakespeare rest in peace, and start a new discussion about middle and high school right-of-passage [sic] reading and literature study.
Throughout her essay, she refers to Shakespeare as a “white” author—which, yeah, he is—and argues in favor of replacing him with African or Central American folk stories. Those are, I’m sure, lovely and beautiful and may have deep meaning for her students. Bringing them into the classroom would be a great idea. But keeping Shakespeare is essential, too.
Shakespeare teaches us about love, honor, duty. About parents and children. About ambition and greed. These are things that all of us face, the things that make us human. There are other writers, of course, who write about these things, but most of them are in conversation with Shakespeare in one way or another. I don’t think Shakespeare should be alone in the classroom (or on our stages), but he should be there.
J. Holtham writes things in Los Angeles these days. You can find him on Twitter (@jholtham) or Tumblr (jholtham).