Why do we study this? It was a question I should have expected from a fifteen year old to whom Shakespeare was nothing but a difficult name to spell, and yet he left me confounded. The only real answer was simply: the exam board has asked you to read this. I could have told him that Shakespeare taught valuable lessons about morality, interiority, even love, but there was a betraying lack of confidence in my own words that would have given me away.
I don’t know why we study Shakespeare. Other than the glaringly obvious fact that he is white, well-loved, and considered ‘high literature’.
But as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o argued in his piece ‘On The Abolition of the English Department‘, ‘the question of literary excellence implies a value judgment as to what is literary and what is excellence, and from whose point of view’. Who is to say that Shakespeare will be infinitely more valuable to a group of impressionable teenagers than someone like Aphra Behn? Or Zadie Smith? Or even Susanna Collins?
What about James Baldwin, Siri Hustvedt, Ayub Khan-Din, Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy and so many more?
There is an unspoken rhetoric within nearly every English department in this country that the older, the more established, the more painfully overdone a text is the better its merit stands. This is slowly changing as we see the incorporation of more diverse, modern texts within the curriculum. But this seems more like a pity stab at trying to appease the masses who are screaming: why is the course almost entirely filled with dead, white, (more often than not) men?
In my own secondary education I studied one text by a person of colour. Studying someone purely on the basis of their race and gender is something I am passionately adversed to (a topic for another day) but it was staggering to me to reflect and realise how white – and how male – my entire curriculum had been.
The Case of Othello
I have been a tutor for a little over a year – mainly focusing on GCSE and A Level English. The sheer notion of Othello is enough to send me into nightmares, not because of the graphic murders involved but because I have said the words ‘Moor’ and ‘passive victim’ more times than I can count.
The problem with a play like Othello is it creates a blanket notion that because this play is about race is it revolutionary. And in this way, studying it as an act of diversifying the curriculum in itself. It does not appear to matter that Othello is killed off at the end, given a tragic arc that can only be described as pitiful and pathetic, a hamartia that does more harm than good to the stereotypical assumptions of his race, and is ultimately a tale that black men were never going to succeed.
I have had to explain to more than one pupil that black people existed in England during this period. If we look a century later we can see Ignatius Sancho running his own shop. A black person was not synonymous with a slave all the time. They certainly were not seen as equal, but they existed outside of the fictional chains and tropes they have been placed in by the mainstream curriculum. These students throw about the notion of racism without ever truly being taught what that meant during this period.
In a world today where racial politics and relations stand at a precarious but exciting moment, merely studying Othello as an anti-racist piece is not enough. Especially if this study does not delve further into the history behind the racism we see today. How was race treated during this period? How has that impacted us today? These would be the valuable lessons a student could gain from studying Shakespeare. A genuine and very informative expense of intellectual energy.
In a subject which seems indulgent at best sometimes – all that diving into metaphors – educators need to make it their mission to bring these dead texts to life. And not in the whole ‘Eminem is technically a poet’ kind of way.
The Assumption of Stupidity
But, these kids don’t care. Why bother? I hear you cry.
They don’t bother because they don’t care. And they don’t care because there is nothing within a Wordsworth poem that will connect to them. As Richard Ohmann argues, ‘excellence is a constantly changing, socially chosen value’. As a new generation of educators we can decide what can be classed as holding enough literary merit to inspire schoolchildren. The incorporation of an Arctic Monkeys song in the AQA poetry anthology was a cheesy but genuinely innovative idea.
I am tired of the establishment’s prefaced, unspoken notion that teenagers are stupid. That they must be spoon fed Shakespeare, and Austen, and Shelley until they can’t take a moment to even think. I have worked with kids predicted 3s and 4s (equivalent of Ds and Cs) who have fantastic minds; they just can’t structure essays. This in itself is a huge debate about the value of exams and marking, but it would be too significant a digression to condone discussing in this piece.
Maybe English wouldn’t be such a declining subject, seen as invaluable and a waste of time, if these kids could see how the past and present work alongside each other. In a space where they encounter people from all walks of life in a way that is more meaningful than learning a half-assed attempt at informing them of context of these texts.
There is a place for Shakespeare, for Byron, for Wordsworth but I don’t necessarily think it is in the schoolrooms of today. For a standardised subject we need a curriculum that is more adaptable. That is changing with the times. That celebrates literature rather than condemns it to a dusty corner.