In this reflection, I describe experiences I had reading Shakespeare as a student and as a teacher to consider the limitations of using texts in the literary canon to engage in anti-oppressive instruction.
Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew, out of all the plays and poems in the William Shakespeare anthology I had to lug down my highs school’s long halls, those were the three “essential texts” that Mr. H. tacked to the top of our syllabus. I read them once more in college, and again when I tutored J., a tenth grader who, just as I had, enrolled herself in a Shakespeare elective course because she “wanted to understand the hype.” We both desired to be the model English student; we both knew that meant finding a way to fawn over Shakespeare.
J. and I were both lucky Shakespeare students because our teachers carved out some class periods to engage us in reading the plays through feminists and anti-racist lenses. As Kumashiro (2015) notes, literary scholars often define quality literature through only an aesthetic analysis. At least we received the tools to begin to deconstruct the implicit ideologies within a text through lenses that educators often label “too political” (Kumashiro, 2015, p. 73). At least we understood that every reader could think about these works in multiple ways and that each way produced its own blind spots. I remember J. telling pointing to a line in The Merchant of Venice and saying “I did this whole explanation on how smart the word-choice was and then, the next day, we step back and look at what the play was saying about Jewish people. And wow, it was horrible.” Kumashiro (2015) notes that “the “classics” are not inherently oppressive: They can be useful in an anti-oppressive lesson if teachers ask questions about the ways they reinforce the privilege of only certain experiences and perspectives” (p. 75).
A student in J.’s class heard our discussion and wandered over, admitting that he thought the play was funny until his teacher printed out a list of stereotypes about the Jewish people and asked him to consider if the play challenged or reinforced them. Appleman (2015) argues that the teacher’s job is to help students “make the ideologies inherent in those texts [they teach] visible” (Loc. 496). Learning contemporary literary theory was helping these students uncover the “often-invisible workings” of Shakespearean texts (Appleman, 2015, Loc. 499). And, from the interest J. was taking in connecting ideologies implicit in Othello to the many acts of terror that White Supremacists were committing against People of Color, I knew the lesson was helping her become an “enlightened witness” (bell hooks, 1994, as cited in Appleman, 2015), more critically aware of the world in which she lived.
Months later, when we were practicing identifying iambic pentameter in preparation for J.’s course final, I asked her, “So, do you get why Shakespeare is worth a whole class?”
“I think some of his plays are pretty messed up but, you know, I guess there’s a lot to unpack,” she shrugged, “and my teacher thinks he does some pretty cool things with language.”
“I think so too,” I said in agreement. Since I decided I wanted to become a teacher, I kept the fact that I could work with students to critically analyze the oppressive ideas and bigoted stereotypes embedded in much of Shakespeare’s work as a safety vest. It was a way I, someone committed to working to be an anti-racist educator, could continue to teach what I knew my school would want me to, and what I understood would help my students succeed in college, without drowning in my hypocrisy. However, the more time I’ve spent away from that conversation, the more I wonder if I am using the fact that Shakespeare’s works “have a lot to unpack” as a scapegoat for continuing to teach them despite the oppression that the political act of putting them in my classroom will cause. At what point does the warranted necessity of teaching students contemporary literary theory perpetuate the idea that the classics are the “most intellectual,” simply because they are the subject of most theoretical work? On the one hand, I think it is essential to engage students in reading the classics so that we can deconstruct the oft-labeled “greatness” of the canon. On the other hand, I worry how keeping these texts at the forefront of our classrooms, how organizing full courses around white, male authors, validates their place in academia as though they have “more to unpack” than any other text. Similarly, I worry about the cultural and political legacy of asking students to silo their New Criticism readings of Shakespeare as a “master of language” from their Feminist readings of The Taming of the Shrew. At what point does it become too dangerous to separate the artist’s impressive product from the oppressive work it does in the world?
Of course, as Kumashiro (2015) notes, “any piece of literature is necessarily partial” and will “challenge some stereotypes while reinforcing others” (p. 76). No matter what text I choose to bring into the classroom, I will be inviting in an ideology that it is my job to help my students challenge. In this sense, literary theory does become a tool to dismantle the notion that “the classics” are inherently more academic than other texts. It allows the teacher to demonstrate that every text has a “lot to unpack,” and therefore, is worthy of the same academic treatment of unpacking that teachers typically reserve for some the more-obviously oppressive texts in the literary canon. As Appleman (2015) notes “ideology is the most effective when its workings are least visible” (Loc. 488). Perhaps it is through critically examining the classics alongside multicultural and modern literary works that the notion of “greatness” our educational system has constructed around “the classics” begins to crumble.
The podcast episode “All that Glitters is Not Gold” from NPR’s Code Switch (2019) discusses some of the limitations of critical analysis and textual re-imagining in the efforts to make the three texts Shakespeare texts I read—Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew—less oppressive. It asks the question, can these texts ever be responsibly taught? It complicates the notion of Shakespeare as “good for” students.
Appleman, D. (2015). Critical encounters in secondary English : Teaching literary theory to adolescents [Kindle edition]. New York :Teachers College Press. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Kumashiro, K. (2015). Examples from English literature. In Against common sense (pp. 71-78). Routledge.
As always, I’m so appreciative of your insightful processing and thorough synthesis of the text! I enjoyed the return to what has quickly become the essential question of our program – what is the appropriate balance between using ‘the classics’ to deconstruct power and privilege in our own culture, and not allow them to be legitimized or dominate even in criticism. I agree with the conclusion (of sorts) you came to, that it’s important to deconstruct these texts but to do so in the presence of other viewpoints. Ideally, those other viewpoints would be other genders, races, and nationalities, but I took a class in college which was basically Shakespeare and friends, and it contextualized his plays with the contemporaneous works of Marlowe, Johnson, and Middleton, and even other viewpoints from the same privileged culture helped to question framings often taken for granted as a product of ‘the time’.
On the question of whether or not we can separate the language mechanics from the overall impact of the work in the context of today’s society, I think they are or ought to be impossible to fully silo. The core theme of Appleman seems to be that many viewpoints can be held at the same time without impacting one another, but I tend to think these lenses should be made to interact and questions of which lens is most salient or doing the most harm or good should be posed. There’s certainly something interesting about the history of Shakespeare’s use of language, but perhaps it’s more relevant as a historical feature to have a wholistic impression of Shakespeare and his work as a historical artifact, rather than a reason in and of itself to admire and continue teaching the works.
Having had many discussions about the positive benefits of critically studying Shakespeare and his era, I’m very interested to hear the case for perhaps never being able to responsibly teach works like Othello. I look forward to challenging my own frameworks and applying new lenses. Thank you for this take!
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