William Who?

I recently came across this editorial from the Toledo Blade detailing the wane of Shakespeare’s influence in English departments across the country. Here are two amazing paragraphs:

Just 15 of 70 institutions surveyed require their English majors to take a course on the 16th-century author. And since a similar study was done in 1996, at least six of those schools either dropped or weakened those requirements.

It’s hard to believe that Shakespeare is not essentially “a dish fit for the gods” for students studying English at the top 25-ranked universities and liberal arts colleges in the nation, plus schools in the Big 10 and a selection of California and New York colleges. 

It boggles my mind how anyone can have an English degree without at least devoting one semester to Shakespeare. He’s essentially the basis of all modern English literature. In some way, any author writing in English has, if not directly at least indirectly, been influenced by his work. This includes Carribean writers such as V.S. Naipaul who, it could be argued, writes, at least partially, against the patriarchy and imperialist sympathies some critics read in Shakespeare’s work. However, even if a writer is smashing his or her views against the views of the previous norm, it is still being influenced by that earlier work. Shakespeare helped shape centuries of minds, and while some of the ideas propagated are now seen to support imperialism, sexism, or racism, we can revise how we read Shakespeare in light of our changing awarenesses. This is the more acceptable and scholarly responsible way to approach English departments’ move toward a greater awareness of world literature.   

I fully support a given university’s autonomy and respect an English department’s decision to, say, scrap Hemingway or Steinbeck, or limit the amount of time students spend on 18th century English Literature or whatever, but I cannot believe that Shakespeare could somehow be dropped from the canon of Western Literature. 

Ugh. Put his mug on a milk carton.

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2 Responses to William Who?

  1. writerchick says:

    I know it’s a shame what they are doing to the Bard. I actually heard something on the news a few years back, that a middle school in England was boycotting him because he was anti-gay. Of all things, one could say about him – where the heck did this come from?
    Anyone with half a brain could not sit down and read his sonnets without walking away a changed person. I could read them for hours and hours on end and never tire of them. He was the universal writer who transcended all races, all religions, all times and places. He spoke to the heart of things, whether they were pleasant or crushing.
    Methinks that any effort to quash our man William has more to do with incompetence and narrow thinking than anything else. Not to mention lack of creativity. A beautiful mind, a beautiful soul and an incredible poet and author. What’s not to love?
    WC

    That’s hilarious about accusing Shakespeare of homophobia, especially considering there has been reams of paper written on homoerotic tensions in his plays. Not to mention that many critics speculate that the speaker in the sonnets is referring to another man, which would sort of toss out the whole anti-gay sentiment in his work. I had mentioned V.S. Naipaul in this post, and I think his work Guerrillas applies here too. There’s a particularly gruesome scene where this wretched boy’s camp leader sodomizes a European woman. It’s so foolish to think that therein lies Naipaul’s sympathies or, worse yet, that he’s advocating that. Same with Shakespeare or any author. They try ideas on, they give characters hate, love, passion, and all the rest. It doesn’t mean that the author’s using any one character as a spokesperson for the author’s own views. That’s just shoddy thinking.

    Alot of the pressure to demote Western writers comes from the growing attention Universities are putting on multicultural literature. I’m all for inclusive literary training. I mean there’s no ethnic corner market on literature. That said, it’s disingenuous to merely nix attention to Western authors in favor of, say, Chinese nationalist literature or whatever. For myself, I believe that, because I grew up in a particular cultural and social setting, I should at least know my literary tradition. I love all literature–especially Russian and Latin American, but I also like to be grounded in my specific literary tradition. Not becuase it’s better, but because it’s the one I’m from. So, those are some of my thoughts. Phew. Thanks for swinging through, WC, and I hope you’ve a post up!
    Puddlehead

  2. jakjonsun says:

    I’ve heard that The Merchant of Venice has been controversial because of the antisemitism. But when I took Shakespeare in college, my professor, who’s Jewish had no problem teaching it.
    My favorite Shakepeare play is Othello — something about Iago’s character which naturally manipulates everyone he comes in contact with.

    Hey, Jakjonsun. I’ve heard the same things about The Merchant of Venice and do think that there are elements of antisemitism in the play. But to say that Shakespeare was advocating antisemitism is sort of foolish. I bet your professor saw beyond that, and that’s why he had no problems with it. Also, if I remember rightly, Shylock keeps his word regarding the bet. Isn’t the Angloes who backtrack on their words?
    And you’re my kinda guy if Othello’s your favorite. It’s mine too. For a lot of reasons, not the least of which is Iago’s ultimate refusal to give any sort of explanation for his actions. A brilliant move, really, to let the evil he brought go unexplained. Nabakov wrote a short story taken from Othello’s last speech entitled “That in Aleppo Once.” I had read the short story first and didn’t know the reference. Once I read Othello and went back and read the Nabakov story, it changed everything for me.

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