Not enough of Shakespeare

Mina Shah wrote a thought-provoking column entitled Enough of Shakespeare, where she questions the reasons why Shakespeare is taught. She fully admits that her piece is not really about Shakespeare, he serves the role of a ‘scapegoat’. Shah’s real target is the dubious ‘universal human experience’, which is used to argue the place of Shakespeare, Austen, Brontë and Joyce in curricula.

Although I disagree with Shah on many points, she is quite right to be suspicious of the imposition of universal experience. Shah writes:

So when we say, “Shakespeare writes to universal themes,” what we really mean is that “Shakespeare writes to themes that reflect the experiences of white people of Anglophone descent who are either comparatively well off socioeconomically or have opportunities to gain such a status through upwards social mobility.” That’s not universal. It’s not even neutral.

‘Oppression’ is what can hide behind a simplistic appeal to universality. It hides in the blindspot that puts emphasis on Shakespeare as the white man from Stratford-upon-Avon as the author. It is, Shah underlines, ‘Oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and any other demographic categorization.’

Yet for Shakespeareans this immediately sounds a klaxon. The questioning of Shakespeare’s sexual orientation is commonplace, not least because his period had less simplified categories of identity than we do – even the existence of such categories can be questioned. (Not to mention, the inherent problematisation of gender by men acting as women acting as men.) An argumentative conundrum looms. Shah’s argument verges on hypocricy: Shakespeare’s works as the representative of an oppressive culture is reduced to the skin colour of their author. Yet, this kind of counter-argument verges on white-washing mansplanation.

I do not disagree with Shah’s point about cultural oppression, it is painfully true. But to represent the works of Shakespeare as an unproblematic instantation of cultural oppression just does not sit well with me.  Shah deftly describes oppression in society:

The politics of oppression, and social forces in general, always impact individually mediated interactions, including when these interactions are solitarily conducted with instruments of culture, such as works of literature.

Oppression mediates how individuals interact. It is how the ‘general’ impresses upon the individual, how the universal moulds the particular. Anglo-american patriarchal hetero-normativity has granted Shakespeare a cultural authority in the guise of his ‘universality’. Kiernan Ryan addresses the issue of this kind of dubious universality:

The contention that The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, or any other play by Shakespeare has the capacity to appeal to people in all times and places, whatever their nationality, race, gender, language, creed or sexual orientation, because it reflects a universal experience that everyone can identify with or relate to, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny for a moment. For millions of people in all parts of the world, Shakespeare holds no appeal whatsoever and for a host of obvious reasons, but it’s certainly not because they haven’t yet discovered that his drama distils the essence of humanity, and thus holds a mirror up to the lives of everyone everywhere.

Shah is quite right to be suspect of this kind of simplistic universality, to be hostile to a universal cultural authority that Shakespeare is used to represent. When it comes to Shakespeare I am also suspicious of authority, though in a different sense of the word but one to which Shah has referred.

The main problem for me here is the equation of person with the works, biography with the bibliography. For Shah, Shakespeare represents ‘the experiences of white people of Anglophone descent’. The author’s identity controls how the works are ‘supposed’ to be read.

Interpreting the text according to its author is to oppress the text; but, as Barthes famously declared, the author is dead.  Yet, despite Shakespeare being actually dead, his biography, his authority is extended over the works. This is an issue not limited to Shah, but in this case the fight back against authority and oppressive culture need not happen against Shakespeare, it can happen with Shakespeare. Nelson Mandela’s relationship with the Robben Island Bible testifies to this.

The Robben Island Bible, smuggled into the prison by Sonny Venkatrathnam, became a source of inspiration for inmates.

However, the Robben Island Bible brings us to that problematic word ‘universality’ – the word used to describe Mandela’s interest in Shakespeare. Kiernan Ryan suggests a different way of understanding ‘universality’ in the case of Shakespeare:

What is universal about Shakespeare’s drama is not the plights and fates of his characters, but the perspective from which they are depicted, and from which we are invited to view them.

The universality lies less in the content of the plays but more in the form that they take. They are an aesthetic object that refuses to be completely subjected to authority, either political or literary.

Shah’s argument seems simplistic and decades late: as an undergraduate in Finland (doing English, mind you), Shakespeare was read alongside Austen, Joyce but also Aphra Behn, Frederick Douglass, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, N. Scott Momaday, to name a few. However, my presumption is that Mina Shah’s classroom is that of a university; perhaps, her classroom is full of children or teenagers somewhere, where going to university is something that middle class white kids (like myself) do, not them.

The politics of austerity as practised in the UK, Finland, and many other countries has made the seemingly decade-old argument of Shah very pertinent and up-to-date. Identity-politics is a lifeline when identity is threatened by conservative politics. Shah refers to the McGraw-Hill textbook, that describes African slaves forcibly brought to North America as ‘workers’ or ‘indentured servants’ – a whitewashed mockery of history. Austerity makes people look for simplistic answers and adopt black and white world views – a turn to the political right frightfully spreading over borders, continents. This turn is accompanied with a sense of culture as a monolith, the simplistic ‘universality’ that Shah quite correctly derides:

Don’t confuse whiteness and socioeconomic privilege with neutrality or universality. They’re not the same thing. The incorrect equation of the two contributes to reinforcing terrifyingly omnipresent white supremacy, both in our own country and internationally.

I’ve come across this kind of ‘neutrality’ in Finland: some people have tried to argue that the words ‘negro’ and ‘nigger’ is a neutral descriptive word derived from the Spanish word for ‘black’. These were not uneducated people, they have Masters’ level degrees in business or engineering. Their obvious racism is trying to hide behind the pseudo-neutrality of an educated, socioeconomically privileged white man.

Austerity is like a body going to starvation mode: it reduces activity and puts an immediate focus on minimising energy expenditure by atrophying muscles and building fat reserves. Politically, emphasis is put on ‘practical’ activity, which in education means a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects whereas the humanities (unless exportable as cultural commodities) are viewed as superfluous. (The Finnish Minister for Economic Affairs and former European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn recently demanded that university research must yield more commercial gain.) Under austerity, the focus on efficiency sets up the battlefield in which Shah is caught. In this situation Shakespeare is not an exploration of the freedom of imagination and expression but reduced to a cultural monolith that is imposed as a tautology to be studied for tests – with an implicit agenda of cultural supremacy. This is akin to taking Iago’s side in Othello: Iago is then truly ‘honest’ and correct, instead of the performed racist false consciousness that reveals cultural supremacy for the fallacy it is.

Shakespeare in its [sic] privileged position in literature must not be relinquished to this kind of simplistic thinking. Shakespeare allows for subversive readings as well as conservative, which is why in his privileged place, Shakespeare should be discussed in terms of questioning the current status quo. A simplistic reading of Shakespeare just doesn’t have enough of Shakespeare in it. That is why Shakespeare still needs to be read (but certainly not in isolation).

The question of reading the Bard should not merely address the ‘why’ but also consider the ‘how’. Shakespeare read as a bibliography of plays can challenge our current politico-economic hegemony but not if he is read merely as a historical person. The play as an aesthetic object can speak for the oppressed but only if someone gives a voice to that suffering – against authority.

This is a Thinking Through Shakespeare blog post. Please comment and give the writer feedback.

About Timo Uotinen

Timo Uotinen is a Finnish PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London working on Shakespeare and philosophy - more specifically on Baconian philosophy, Shakespearean tragedy, and ethics.
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