The Taming of the Shrew, Cymbeline, and the World Shakespeare Congress

I’m in decompression mode, having spent last week immersed in one of the largest gatherings of Shakespeareans and early modernists on the planet, the World Shakespeare Congress. It’s been an incredible learning experience, and a great chance to catch up on what’s happening in Shakespeare studies–not to mention an opportunity to mingle with the “greats” and catch up with friends and colleagues from around the world. I think most delegates would agree that the exorbitant cost of admission was worth it just for the phenomenal plenary talk by Adrian Lester and Ayanna Thompson.

What’s sticking in my mind this afternoon, however, is not the amazing conversations I had or the cool people I met, but the webs connecting the RSC’s current production of Cymbeline, the Globe’s Taming of the Shrew, and the issues of intersectional feminism raised for me by participation in the WSC. We must always be allowed to critique the things we love, and that’s what I’m attempting to do here.

The director of the Shakespeare Institute, Michael Dobson, welcomed us on the first morning of the Congress with a brief history of Shakespeare-commemorative events in Stratford. Highlighting the pale, male, and stale qualities of a 1964 conference committee, Dobson quipped that the current representation was much better–though they were still “working on it”. The room responded with a mix of groans, applause, and chatter. Sarah Olive tweeted:

I have to confess that “working on it” is one of my least favourite institutional euphemisms. It implies that there aren’t scores of people who don’t fit the narrow old, white dude mould ready and waiting to step in if given the opportunity–which is absurd. All it took was a look around the assembled WSC delegates to realise that the old stereotype of an academic as an older gent in elbow patches is on its way out.

And yet, out of seven advertised plenary speakers (not including the “international directors” speaking with Tom Bird on Saturday morning), there were two women and two people of colour–Ayanna Thompson, as a black woman, counts for one in each category, and she wasn’t even speaking on her own. Adrian Lester was amazing, but I would very happily have watched Professor Thompson give a full plenary lecture in her own right. Claire van Kampen, too, shared the stage with Gordon McMullan, who welcomed us to the London portion of the event, and Bill Barclay, the Globe’s director of music. Following van Kampen’s lecture, the first question was directed at Mark Rylance–who had not participated in the lecture and, to his credit, gracefully deflected attention back to van Kampen. The women and PoC involved in the final discussion between international directors of Shakespeare were framed by and filtered through the chairmanship of Tom Bird, the Globe’s Executive Producer, whose photograph was displayed on the conference website and in the printed programme.

So it seemed fitting, in many ways, to end the week with the final performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe. Taming is one of those plays that make life very difficult for the people who like to argue that Shakespeare was some kind of enormously open-minded and forward-thinking proto-feminist. This particular production, directed by Caroline Byrne, tackled the play’s gender problems partly through a darkened tone, in which Petruchio is portrayed as the sort of “nice guy” that many of us will recognise: he’s friendly and funny and chatty and flirty until you try to say “no” to him, at which point he turns nasty.

The flip-flopping between the genuinely funny and the truly disturbing highlighted the complicity of the audience in Kate’s torture. More than once I found myself laughing, only to stop and realise, “wait, that isn’t funny”. When Petruchio first deployed his famous “Kiss me, Kate”–playing the following line “We’ll be married o’Sunday” as coercive–Hortensio encouraged the audience to join in a chant of “KISS! KISS! KISS!” with him, as Kate herself weighed her options. The audience’s willingness to pressure her into a kiss was genuinely unsettling, especially given that we had just witnessed a scene in which Kate made it abundantly clear that she wanted nothing to do with Petruchio.

Interestingly, the production’s figuring of Petruchio’s violent and controlling side contrasted sharply with the presentation of masculine power in the RSC’s Cymbeline, which I had a last-minute opportunity to catch on the second night of the conference (THANK YOU to the previous owner of my ticket, who was generous enough to give it away for free!).

Despite casting Cymbeline as a Queen rather than a King (and making the evil Queen an evil Duke), Melly Still’s production presented a highly sexualised, dystopian view of masculine power, including a number of gratuitous sexual assaults. It seemed to me that Byrne and the Shrew cast largely avoided the presentation of sexual and even physical violence between the two protagonists, choosing instead to represent Petruchio’s psychological abuse of Kate. This choice to abstract the physical side of abuse was, perhaps, a desire to avoid sensationalising. But the production didn’t shy away from the physical effects of Petruchio’s “reign” on Kate herself. It’s the first production I’ve seen that keeps Kate in her increasingly tattered and dirtied wedding clothes throughout the second half, for example, taking Petruchio’s dismissal of the Tailor’s efforts to its logical extreme.

By contrast, Still’s Cymbeline never resisted an opportunity to present sexual violence to the audience. While the Iachimo scene was appropriately disturbing, sexual assault became a shorthand for “danger” in the production as a whole, a lazy way to over-indicate which characters were in control and which were not. Cymbeline’s trousers were removed when she was captured by the Romans, as if it wasn’t already clear that she was in a vulnerable and dangerous situation. Watching from the safe distance of the upper gallery of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I wondered how complicit those sitting in the front rows, mere inches away from Cloten’s assault of Pisania, for example, felt during the performance.

Complicity is the note I’d like to end on here, and the thread linking Shrew, Cymbeline, and the WSC in my mind this afternoon. As much as I am convinced that it is important to be physically present–to be “numbered in the song” as Kate sings in the Globe’s Shrew–to what extent are we complicit in perpetuating, for example, all-male, all-white panels, unbalanced plenary line-ups, and the comfortable notion that “working on it” is enough by our mere attendance? Am I numbered among those chanting “KISS! KISS! KISS!” despite (or because of) my silence, guilty by association? What but our continued, insistent presence can change the demographics of the decision makers? What more should I be doing?

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Hamilton & hybridity: a response to Adam Gopnik

I’m taking a break from early modern stuff today to write about a more recent bit of theatre history: the Broadway musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second venture on the Great White Way and the most popular American musical of the year, if not the century. Pitched (reductively) as a “hip-hop musical”, it retells the story of Alexander Hamilton–“The ten-dollar founding father without a father” who “Got a lot farther working a lot harder, / By being a lot smarter”, as the show’s opening number tells us–through an astonishingly complex amalgamation of musical styles, including but certainly not limited to rap and hip-hop. Miranda, as both composer and star, is undoubtedly one of the greatest musical minds of his generation.

Obviously, I’m a fan. But the discourse around Hamilton‘s rise to fame is about much more than musical prowess and progress on Broadway–it’s about the way Americans tell our own histories, and critical responses to the show demonstrate just how fraught that question is. “You have no control / Who lives, who dies, who tells your story”, George Washington tells Hamilton before the climactic Battle of Yorktown. In Hamilton, the story of these white historical figures is being told by a deliberately mixed-race cast: Miranda himself plays Alexander Hamilton; Daveed Diggs, a hip-hop artist by trade, plays Thomas Jefferson; Phillipa Soo plays Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler; and Reneé Elise Goldsberry plays her sister, Angelica. Musically, thematically, and aesthetically, it’s a kind of fantasy portrayal of the “melting pot” we’re constantly told America is. It’s curious and disturbing, then, that Adam Gopnik’s recent review for the New Yorker ties Hamilton expressly to the white musical history of America in classic Broadway shows such as South Pacific, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. 

Respectfully, Mr. Gopnik, I disagree. In musical theatre terms, Hamilton‘s ancestors are not the American book musicals, but operas and operettas, as Hilton Als writes for the same publication (I think it’s worth noticing here that the New Yorker‘s only black critic to have reviewed the show, did so when the show was Off Broadway, whilst its transition to the Great White Way has been covered by its share of white critics who are able to do so without so much as accidentally mentioning the issue of race’). Hamilton is also more like pre-Showboat Broadway, when shows drew explicitly on popular music, than it is like Camelot. But Gopnik’s article also ignores more recent musical theatre history: Miranda’s work clearly builds on the legacy of Rent (whose closing production also starred Goldsberry), Spring Awakening (which also featured Jonathan Groff in the original cast), and In the Heights (also written by and starring Miranda). In some ways, the rap/recitative and leitmotif that drive its plot draw on the tradition of through-composed megamusicals and “rock operas” like Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar, too. Perhaps more importantly, however, Hamilton’s musical influences and its sampling of popular forms run the gamut from jazz and blues to BritPop and Destiny’s Child–there’s a reason Audra McDonald’s recent cover of “Say No to This” as Billie Holiday works so well. Miranda is not the first to attempt this kind of hybridity, but he’s perhaps the first to apply it directly to American Revolutionary history. So trying to tie this achievement down to an all-white, elite, Broadway legacy headlined by South Pacific and My Fair Lady just won’t cut it.

Gopnik’s not the only one to misunderstand this: much of the white press on Hamilton has tried to circumvent or ignore the complex intersections of race, storytelling and American/Broadway history that the show plays with, particularly in the context of Barack Obama’s presidency and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. See, for example, this interview with Chris Hayes of NBC, who manages to talk about Hamilton with Miranda for seven and a half minutes without really talking about the casting, although he euphemistically tells us that Miranda is “re-making our vision of the founding fathers”. And even though Gopnik is quite right to point out some of the contradictions in the casting of Hamilton as an unambiguous hero, his subsequent assertion that the mixed-raced casting of the musical doesn’t change its story is absurd. “Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton and the rest of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) are all played by black, Latino, or Asian-American performers using an African-American musical idiom—and within seconds this seems neither jarring nor even particularly daring: it just makes sense”, he tells us: “Who else and in what other range? “Hamilton” [sic] is about the mutability of identity in American history. The players change, the story stays the same.”

But changing the players always changes the story; that’s why Miranda’s mixed-race casting of white historical figures is so important and so revolutionary. It matters, fundamentally, that the person making this version of American history is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants whose father learned English whilst completing a postdoc. It matters, as Als points out, that, had Miranda’s family stayed in Puerto Rico, they would have been “American citizens [who] cannot vote”. It matters that Hamilton became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history in the same year that millions of people across America were calling for justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and too many other black men killed by police officers. It matters, equally, that Hamilton became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history in the same year that millions of others across America denounced #BlackLivesMatter activists as violent thugs or irrelevant shit-disturbers. It matters that Hamilton is the most popular musical of the decade while Beyoncé (but not Bruno Mars) is getting attacked for her Superbowl halftime show. It matters that Hamilton came to Broadway during a presidential election cycle. It matters who gets to tell those stories because when the players change, so does the story. And that, actually, is the fundamental innovation of Hamilton: it shifts the power of narrative in America’s founding mythology.

 

 

Measure for Measure for Measure for Measure

It’s a big year for Shakespeare’s (and Middleton’s!) “problem play”. Cheek by Jowl brought their Russian-language production to London in the spring, Shakespeare’s Globe played their version during the summer, and the Young Vic’s production is currently in the final weeks of its run. I finally got the chance to see the Young Vic production today.

My immediate response to director Joe Hill-Gibbins’ latest foray into the early modern is that it tries too hard to bash us over the head with things that the play does pretty well all on its own. A number of people on Twitter have commented on the “Alanis moment”, for example: Cath Whitefield’s Mariana introduces herself to the audience by singing and dancing along to the chorus of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”, which replaces the song written into the play’s text. The “punk-light” aesthetic of Mariana’s oversized coat, heavy eyeliner, pixie haircut and tattered wedding dress–along with the song itself–sit uneasily against the use of “punk” to mean “prostitute” elsewhere in the play. I couldn’t tell whether this juxtaposition was intentional or not. There appeared to be no other reason for the choice of song, however, apart from the line ‘It’s not fair / To deny me / Of the cross I bear’, at which point Whitefield turned face-on to the audience and spread her arms to make the shape of a cross. Such a gesture seemed a rather heavy-handed way to remind the audience that Christianity is a powerful force in Shakespeare’s Vienna.

Indeed, the entire production bounced back and forth between extremes: images of sexual indulgence, personified especially in a sea of blow-up dolls, butted up against images of oddly historicised religious devotion, manifest in projections of Renaissance religious paintings and recordings of sixteenth-century sacred music. In one sense, this is typical of Hill-Gibbins’ developing style as a director of early modern drama: he tends to fixate on a disconnect or a juxtaposition that he perceives in a play’s text and test its boundaries in performance. In The Changeling, it was the relationship between the two plots; in Edward II it was the tension between private and public life; in Measure, it seems to be soul versus body.

To a certain extent, making a Measure about the tensions between sacred and secular in the text makes sense, and offers a tempting link between Shakespeare’s world and our own. But I would suggest that it’s hardly the most interesting thing to make the play about, especially since the play itself does such a good job of highlighting that problem already. The back-and-forth between the sinners and the righteous, and the transgressions and ethical quandaries that occur within that framework, do not require ham-fisted directorial intervention in order to be clear to a modern audience.

What was less clear in Hill-Gibbins’ production was his use of live-streamed video footage. He’s been obsessed with off stage spaces since The Changeling, and in Edward II the use of video worked seamlessly with the through-lines of public versus private life, surveillance, and corrupt government. In Measure, however, the use of video feels rather arbitrary, even if it looks cool. Sometimes, it teeters on the edge of a “mockumentary” approach, where characters tell us, via the camera, what’s going on for them. Sometimes it does the surveillance thing it did in Edward II, showing us what’s happening behind the upstage wall. There’s a rather neat moment in which we see both sides of the door at once, with Lucio trying to enter the prison and the Duke (as Friar Lodowick) trying to keep him out. Sometimes it’s a Catholic confessional booth, with close-ups on a single actor’s face; Juliet is subjected to a kind of forced confession in front of the camera, for example. And sometime, it’s entirely unclear what the point is supposed to be: in Claudio’s first scene in prison, for example, he stood on stage, silently, with the camera shoved in his face and his face projected onto the back wall, whilst the Duke gave a long speech as the Friar. What?! Ivanno Jeremiah is handsome, sure, but why the close up on his face in this scene, especially since his face didn’t do all that much? The Young Vic’s main house is tiny compared to the National Theatre’s Olivier, where Edward II was staged, so there’s nothing the camera can show us—in terms of an actor’s performance—that we can’t see just by being in the room. In the end, it seemed that the camera work was simply an aesthetic choice rather than an interpretive one.

Still, the production made me think. The heavy emphasis on religion made the play’s sticky moments all the stickier. Angelo assaults Isabella with a Bible in his hands—and yet she’s about to take her vows as a nun, and we’re supposed to be on her side, so we can’t just condemn religion. There were also some beautifully performed moments: Isabella’s plea for Angelo’s life in the final scene was beautifully done, and Romola Garai portrayed the struggle of that moment with clarity and sincerity. Sarah Malin, as Escalus, gave a strong performance throughout, and was genuinely moving in her discovery that she had delivered the warrant for Claudio’s head.

What’s perhaps most troubling about this production—and, indeed, about all three big Measures this season—is that it made no attempt to resolve some of the play’s problems for a modern audience. What do we make of Mariana, for example, who has been deeply, deeply wronged by Angelo and yet still desires him as a husband—indeed, is willing to be pimped out to him at a moment’s notice? What about the games that the Duke plays towards the end, when he decides to keep Isabella ‘in ignorance’ of her brother’s preservation so that he can orchestrate his “big reveal”? What about Juliet, who “repents” for the “sin” of being in love and bearing a child? What about the play’s prostitutes, who are represented at the Young Vic by actual inanimate objects?

I’m not sure it’s possible to do Measure for Measure in the twenty-first century without falling into one of the play’s many, many traps. But I’d love to see a production that attempts to confront the play’s problems. For me, none of the three staged this year managed to do that.

Thesis/Existential Crisis Moments

It is my firm belief, evolved over the past eight years of study (and likely to change at some point, pending further study), that any notion of “fidelity” to an “authentic” Shakespearean/early modern/classical text is, from a theatrical perspective at least, outdated, irrelevant, and unproductive. This is one of the reasons you’ll find me defending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! project (though not the only reason). We can’t wake Shakespeare or any of his contemporaries from the grave to ask them what they meant. Even if we could, we might find that they–like so many living artists today–intended nothing at all, or not as much as we would have liked.

“Oh, ‘to be or not to be’? Yeah, I always hated that one, such a pretentious bit of poetry, but we had to cover a costume change somehow, and I thought, I dunno, Hamlet’s probably pretty depressed by this point in the play. It’s not that deep, y’know? You don’t have to read anything into it” (all spoken of course, in Ben Crystal’s best OP voice).

But as committed as I am to the idea that our collective love of Shakespeare is, to a certain extent, destructible and arbitrary, I am still a beneficiary of and a participant in a system that perpetuates his propping up. Without Shakespeare’s primacy, I wouldn’t have a job.

So this is where today’s (because there is one every day) thesis/existential crisis moment comes in: if the idea of fidelity to a classic text is irrelevant, and canon is fundamentally destructible, changeable, and arbitrary, why bother studying and producing texts like Shakespeare’s at all? 

I don’t have an easy answer. Like many of my thesis crises, it comes out of a certain degree of over-thinking. The canon is, even as it continues to be destructible, changeable, arbitrary. Shakespeare is a cultural touchstone; studying how and why this came to be doesn’t make it any less true. Canonical/classical texts, too, allow us to critique them in ways that wholly new texts (if there are such things) often don’t, or can’t. To what extent does Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead resonate precisely because it’s a brilliant piece of intertextuality, as opposed to a stand-alone work? (Yes, of course, it is also a stand-alone work, but I think you know what I mean.) I’m currently developing a project that asks modern women to respond creatively to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. I could quite easily create a piece of theatre about 21st century feminism without reference to Measure for Measure; but Shakespeare simultaneously grants me cultural capital with which to advertise the eventual performances and affords me an opportunity to create a piece in which a diverse group of women speak back to a white, masculine canon. Then again, to what extent is a piece about modern feminism necessary and timely as a result of that same canon?

I’ve procrastinated long enough, but I wanted to throw this question, this crisis, out to the universe. Is it possible, or even desirable, to escape from the grip of “authenticity” and “fidelity” in Shakespeare and early modern performance? And what would the implications be if we did? In the meantime, why continue to produce these plays?

Taking risks with Shakespeare: lessons from the Cumberhamlet

Although I haven’t yet seen the Cumberhamlet, it’s obviously been on my radar. Reviews and opinions from friends, professional critics, respected academics, and everyone in between flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Theatre reviewing etiquette has been breached, with reviews hitting front pages during previews, well before the official opening night. It’s the fastest-selling ticket in British theatre history. People who would not normally go to the theatre have flocked to see Benedict Cumberbatch have a go at the most famous Prince of Denmark. The combined star-power of Shakespeare’s tragedy and the darling of popular media is irresistible. It’s being broadcast to cinemas across the country. For many, this production will be their only viewing of Hamlet in a theatre; for them, this production will be Hamlet–its imagery, its voices, its style will form their mental picture of what the play is. 

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the critical establishment has taken the opportunity to highlight all the ways in which Lyndsey Turner’s production is not the Hamlet it’s supposed to be.

First, of course, there was the problem of ‘to be or not to be’, which were the first words of the play in early previews. Kate Maltby kicked off the backlash against the shifted speech by calling the change ‘indefensible’. Michael Billington tells us that it ‘mercifully no longer opens the play’, but that there’s still too much ‘textual fiddling’ overall. They’re replaced ‘hoar’ with ‘pale’ in one of Gertrude’s lines–shock! horror! Quentin Letts complains that ‘Ms Turner has still fiddled around with the opening and the order of other scenes’–but, then, he does work for the Daily Mail.

Critics are kinder to Cumberbatch himself than they are to Turner’s production, with most agreeing that he is, in Domenic Cavendish’s words, ‘a blazing, five-star Hamlet in a middling, three-star show’. The production as a whole is considered ‘half-baked’, full of ‘ostentatious act[s] of liberty-taking’ (Cavendish again). According to Andrzej Lukowski, Cumberbatch ‘doesn’t seem to have come up with much of a reading of the doomed Dane. Or if he has, it’s drowned out by Turner’s enormous production’ (how dare she, like, actually direct the play?!).

Turner is hardly the first (nor, I hope, will she be the last) to treat a Shakespeare text playfully. Matthew Warchus’s 1998 Hamlet at the RSC, which also famously moved the opening scenes around, attracted similar kinds of critical attacks, for example. What’s worrying to me is not just that opinions of Turner’s and Warchus’s ‘textual fiddling’ are scarily similar despite the distance of seventeen years–it’s that this kind of critique seems designed to quash theatrical risk-taking, especially with “classics” such as Shakespeare.

If we are to carry on producing Shakespeare and other classic, canonical writers (as I suspect we are), we have to get better at encouraging directors’ and actors’ risks. One of the best ways to innovate with these kinds of texts, to my mind, is to do precisely the kind of ‘textual fiddling’ that the critics so abhor, and to get past the persistent desire for the reproduction of an authoritative or “authentic” text.

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.