Just when you thought our so-called cancel culture couldn’t get any more ridiculous, the calibrators of literary justice surpassed themselves recently by targeting the Bard himself as just another racist, genderist, homophobic fellow.
Yes, even William Shakespeare, who not only provided centuries of wisdom, tragedy and entertainment, but also gave us much of our modern vernacular, has become the latest target of those who can’t bear the burden of context. Which, as you know, really is everything. But some of the busybodies at #DisruptTexts — which describes itself as a “grassroots effort by teachers for teachers” to “challenge the traditional canon” — aren’t concerned with criticism in the academic sense, even if they think they are.
I understand the impulse to stop teaching literature and the lessons it holds the way we have done it for decades. But that doesn’t make it a good idea.
Why should students be forced to read Shakespeare, as some teachers on Twitter are wondering? Why, indeed? God forbid they should try to muddle through a sentence by Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy or, my high school favorite, William Faulkner. I loved Faulkner not because he was easy to read but because I had an unforgettable teacher whose passion shined light on the beauty and the sound and the fury of words.
Not that I’m a literary snob, mind you. I also read all of Harold Robbins’s trashy novels in junior high, much to the furrowed brow of my mother. One night, while I was reading “The Carpetbaggers” by flashlight under my covers, I overheard her say to my father: “Should we be letting her read those books?”
To my everlasting gratitude, he replied: “I don’t care what she reads as long as she’s reading.” Hurrah! Quite a concession from a man whose own father was an English professor who recited Beowulf (though surely not all 3,182 alliterative lines) in Old English on Christmas Eve. Mind you I wasn’t reading Robbins for school, nor did my extracurricular reading habits preclude my teacher-assigned readings. But we all drift toward what we like.
I can assure you I might never have read Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” or, probably, anything by John Steinbeck, had a teacher not assigned them. I didn’t enjoy them, to be sure, but this isn’t to say I should have been spared the burden. On weekly trips to the public library, I also checked out every biography of a woman I could find. There weren’t many in those days, which was a shame. So I understand the thinking behind expanding curriculums to include authors who deviate from the norm.
What makes any book, or play, or poem worth reading (and rereading) might seem subjective, but there are some sturdy guideposts. The test of time is one measure: There’s a reason people travel from all over the world to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace and to attend performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Another measure is whether and where a given work lands in the long continuum of arts and letters. Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” bored me to tears — I don’t like slapstick, either — but it was important to read because the story of the man from La Mancha is considered the first modern novel and one of the greatest of all time. Others, especially from other cultures, might join me in disagreeing. Islam had a Golden Age, too.
More voices from more cultures is likely all to the good. But the emphasis on singling out and censoring writers whose perspective, language or other details of verisimilitude (similarity to the truth) would be deemed unacceptable today is unwise and a missed opportunity. They still have much to teach us. History, though often painful, doesn’t become kinder through ignorance or wishful backward-thinking.
Back in the Dark Ages, one of my assignments for a humanities professor was to write a critique of “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy,” written in 1860 by Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. I still remember my first sentence, which was both banal and true: In any literary criticism, one must first consider the historical context in which a work was written. If Shakespeare is thought to be offensive by today’s standards, then what of it? He was writing for 1594, not 2021. By all means, talk about that.
Who knows? Such a discussion might lead to learning — about politics, manners, religion and history — which wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen lately in an American classroom.