Digging In: a response to (responses to) Dana Dusbiber

Those who know me know that I’m all about taking Shakespeare down a peg. But California high school teacher Dana Dusbiber’s now-viral dismissal of Shakespeare really made me think–or, more specifically, the responses to her made me think. Published by Valerie Strauss on her Washington Post education blog, Dusbiber’s article argues that Shakespeare does not serve the educational needs of her students, whom she describes as ‘very ethnically-diverse’. Following a rather weak opening in which she confesses that she simply doesn’t like Shakespeare herself, Dusbiber goes on to raise a few very legitimate concerns:

I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. […]

I am sad that so many of my colleagues teach a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago and do it without question. I am sad that we don’t believe enough in ourselves as professionals to challenge the way that it has “always been done.” […]

So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior? Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world? Many, many of our students come from these languages and traditions. Why do our students not deserve to study these “other” literatures with equal time and value? And if time is the issue in our classrooms, perhaps we no longer have the time to study the Western canon that so many of us know and hold dear.”

I’ve been disappointed to find that most of the counter-attacks from the Shakespeare scholarly and theatrical communities have taken one of two approaches: they appeal to an outdated argument regarding Shakespeare’s unique grasp of the human condition, or they suggest that Dusbiber has never been exposed to “proper” Shakespeare.

If we’re going to argue for keeping Shakespeare on a national curriculum, the first approach clearly will not change Dusbiber’s mind or the mind of anyone who agrees with her. She says right in the article that she doesn’t buy Shakespeare’s supposed “universal” applicability–and to be frank, neither do I. Reminding us that Shakespeare wrote about people of colour and women will not erase the fact that he was, after all, a white dude from a relatively privileged background who wrote for actors from a very similar demographic. I don’t think we can still get away with arguing that Shakespeare uniquely speaks to some kind of essential humanity that transcends race, gender, and social class (not to mention geography and chronological time). Reminding us that everyone can relate to themes like love and loss will not change the fact that other writers (as Dusbiber points out) are equally capable of engaging with them. This essentialist approach isn’t going to help Shakespeare’s case, no matter how ardently you believe in his universal applicability.

The second approach follows a similar logic, in that it implies loving Shakespeare is the default setting of humanity, and so the problem is not with Shakespeare but with ineffective pedagogy. It comes in many forms, perhaps the most popular being the argument that Shakespeare isn’t properly taught as literature at all–that he needs to be staged or at least analysed from a perspective of performance in order to be really appreciated. While I happen to agree that teaching Shakespeare exclusively at desks is ineffective, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that anyone who doesn’t like Shakespeare must not have been exposed to the more theatrical way of learning his plays. Some people will never connect with Shakespeare because–despite centuries of protestations–his plays aren’t actually universally applicable (cf. Artaud). No one’s are. There’s no such thing. Yes, the plays are wonderfully varied and quotable, but there’s only 37 of them for goodness’ sake. Lots of people will find it easier to understand and appreciate Shakespeare when they’re taught the plays from a performative point of view, but that doesn’t mean the ones who don’t walk away adoring the Bard are somehow defective humans.

Of course, the proponents of these defences of Shakespeare have no intention of insulting the very humanity of those who don’t appreciate him–they simply want to share the joy that they’ve found through engagement with Shakespeare. And it’s entirely understandable that Dusbiber’s article would provoke that kind of response: she repeatedly tells us that she feels no personal connection to Shakespeare, despite being a ‘voracious reader’. But both these kinds of responses conveniently avoid the central question buried beneath Dusbiber’s muddy appeals to personal taste: What is the place of Shakespeare–and indeed of the traditional Western literary canon–in an increasingly expanded curriculum?

If we’re going to argue for Shakespeare’s place in the classroom, we’ve got to come at it from a place of historical contingency. Shakespeare was once just a white dude from England who wrote some plays, but in the 400 years since his death he has come to signify much more than the cultural circumstances within which he lived. Shakespeare is now not only part of the Western literary canon, but he has been adapted and adopted by people all over the world–often in ways that speak back to the conservatism of the traditional canon and to the imperialism that brought them the canon in the first place. An obvious example is Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, which uses characters and situations from The Tempest in order to engage with issues of power, race, and imperialism. As Sonia Massai and Preti Taneja pointed out in a recent BBC Radio broadcast on Global Shakespeares, his plays were part of a British imperial agenda, and they have now become part of a worldwide conversation across literary and performance genres. They’re no longer limited to England, or even to the English language. That distinction between Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the cultural icon is one of the arguments we can make for the continuing relevance of Shakespeare in the classroom. It’s not that Shakespeare is somehow better at speaking to us about the human condition, but rather that he’s now so entrenched not just in Western literature but really in global literature. I certainly wouldn’t say that the plays are universally relevant, but it’s also hard to argue that they are completely irrelevant. Opening up the curriculum to include creative responses to Shakespeare allows a teacher to demonstrate the ways in which issues relevant to Shakespeare might also be relevant to us, while still questioning the canon and empowering students to critique and speak back to Shakespeare’s authority.

In addition, I would argue that teaching Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s sake is much different from teaching a unit, module, or entire course of English or European Renaissance literature. Lots of responses to Dusbiber have critiqued her by saying that Shakespeare’s plays range all over the world, and therefore should be applicable to everyone. His scope seems rather narrow, however, compared with other playwrights of the period. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, for example, ranges all over the Middle East and offers obvious departure points for discussions about racial and religious differences, xenophobia, imperialism, torture, and other issues that are still highly relevant today. So, too, does Fletcher’s The Island Princess, set in the “spice islands”, or modern-day Indonesia. The Island Princess also lends itself to discussions about globalisation and international trade. The subplot of Jonson’s Epicoene allows for conversations about globalisation, too, and its main plot offers plenty of space for discussions about sex and gender identities–as, indeed, most of the comedies from this period do. I could go on.

I realise, at this point, that I might be accused of making exactly the same argument that I refuted above: that the plays of the English Renaissance have some kind of universal relevance. That’s not at all my point in bringing up the various relevances of non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays. Rather, I want to demonstrate two things. First, Shakespeare’s plays are not unique in their ability to speak to contemporary issues. Secondly, and therefore, if we’re going to argue that English Renaissance literature is important, we can no longer limit ourselves to Shakespeare. I could envision an exciting and dynamic set of lessons covering global literature from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which uses English Renaissance drama as a point of departure for a much broader conversation. I could also picture a much less chronological syllabus that pairs a work of English literature with an adaptation or a piece covering similar themes from any period in history, and anywhere in the world. As an example from outside the Renaissance, I remember reading Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea immediately after Jane Eyre in my first year of undergrad and feeling like my entire world had been exploded–in the best possible way.

None of us will be able to convince Dusbiber that she’s wrong about Shakespeare, and Dusbiber probably won’t convince the Shakespeareans and early modernists of the world that we’re wrong about him, either. But if we’re going to argue for the place of Shakespeare and English Renaissance drama (or indeed, English literature more generally) in an expanding canon, then we need to stop countering calls for change by digging in our heels and start looking at how to adapt.

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