In any field, it’s tough to sell the extreme perspectives. Ornette Coleman didn’t always make friends by playing free jazz on a plastic horn. Trotsky ended up in exile once Stalin built the new status quo, and Ron Paul would’ve only had a chance in this year’s election if we lived in a country full of college students.
But what would happen if some ideological absolute, after centuries of intellectual fermentation and inquiry, not only sprung to life but became the norm within a certain group of people? And what if those people had a unique ability to keep cementing it, year after year, into the collective mind of the next generation?
Well, you’d have a Shakespeare class for undergraduate English majors.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the fact that I’m required to take certain classes at SUNY Oneonta that particularly galls me. And it’s not that one (out of two) of them is devoted to hopelessly shallow summarizations of the work of a poet and playwright who died 396 years ago. It’s that no one else thinks this is stupid.
Bardolatry, in its extremism, certainly isn’t a view akin to restructuring our economy based on the gold standard; but I do think it’s time for academics to reevaluate the strangely singular way in which they present Shakespeare to future professors, high school teachers, critics, and anyone else dumb enough to pay for an English degree. We shouldn’t stop teaching his work at the college level, of course, but it shouldn’t remain such a blatantly central foundation of my, or any, English department. It comes down to two things for me: critical relevance and cultural relevance.
First of all, (and, yes, I know I’m not at Harvard or anything), the discussions that take place in my Shakespeare class are so incredibly plot-based and lacking in depth, that I feel as if we’re being asked nicely to believe that he was the greatest writer the language has ever known, rather than delving into his work in order to find that out for ourselves. The problem there is that it becomes clear that, while Shakespeare’s plays indirectly influenced nearly everything that followed them, that influence isn’t something that readily appears in our criticism of modern or contemporary work. The connection isn’t being made because it doesn’t really exist at this point.
With that in mind, it makes more sense to teach the work of Shakespeare solely within the context of its own era, and not as a class ostensibly foundational to an understanding of English literature in the 21st century.
Culturally, I just don’t understand how Shakespeare escaped the maybe-we-shouldn’t-overvalue-dead-white-guys thought process. Our English department here at Oneonta is totally on-board with embracing — but more importantly, effectively teaching and promoting — literature with grounding both in American minorities and various international origins. But I’m still required to study the Bard; and the problem there is not that the texts aren’t worth reading, but that we’re still giving the impression that they’re the ones most worth reading. And that’s just not true anymore.
So, yes, requiring Shakespeare for undergraduates is the literary extreme that sneakily became the norm. And if it were my department, I’d give certain hip-hop lyrics the same weight I would the Bard’s sonnets. But that’s a different story.