By David Kittredge
It seems today’s woke middle school administrators and teachers are on a wild goose chase in claiming that Shakespearean plays are no longer valid in today’s society. In a “The Comedy of Errors,” these woke folk are intending to cancel the pillar of English literature, whom when studied, provides a foundation for students, one that was secured 400 years ago by the Bard of Avon, regarded as the greatest writer and dramatist in history.
Shakespeare, who never went to university, wrote for the common man, although he did study the Latin and Greek classics at King Edward VI School, a grammar and middle school boys academy, in his hometown of Stratford upon Avon. When he and his plays started to gain popularity, he was chastised for his lack of a university education by fellow playwright Robert Greene as an “upstart crow” and as a mere jack of all trades.
“Measure for Measure,” this attack on Shakespeare’s background should nullify the notion of an advantaged silver spooned Englishman, rather it should set a good example for the downtrodden, disadvantaged student. Furthermore, the playwright was secretly Catholic, which meant he was a religious minority, an outlaw heretic, for which he could have been imprisoned, merely for his beliefs.
Granted, Shakespeare did have faults in his stars due to the circumstance of living in and never having traveled out of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. But can we not learn from other’s shortcomings and bad examples? Are we to ban all literature from the past that contain snippets of racism and misogyny, or can we learn from these bad examples?
Shakespeare should not be taken as the Gospel, but rather as a formative structure of the greatest example of the art form known as literature. His play, “Romeo and Juliet,” about an unforbidden love affair between a gang member and a rival gang member’s sister, still has much value, especially today, in inner city communities where gangs still exist. The Broadway play and 1961 movie “West Side Story” was a modernized version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” where rival gang members dance with switchblades, in an unnerving predatory scene, hearkening back to the swords and daggers carried by most men in Shakespeare’s day.
In the original play, Romeo’s soliloquy describing Juliet’s beauty by comparing her personality with the sun and her countenance with the stars is one of the most exquisite love poems ever written. Would our educators seek to deprive our young men and women of this wonderful passage?
Ironically enough, 200 years ago, the bawdy bard was censored for the sexual double entendres and mild oaths contained in his writing that were then considered blasphemous by Thomas Bowdler and his sister, Henrietta. The Bowdlers cleansed the Shakespearean plays with the intention that the works could be read and performed in a family setting. This action of censorship by the Bowlder siblings coined a new term, Bowdlerized, for when a work of literature is sanitized. I would imagine that many a modern student’s imagination would be piqued upon learning of this fact, just as mine was, when I was in high school.
Is our culture to be deprived of the greatest collection of poetical metaphors, aphorisms, many of which have become universal truths, and literary themes ever compiled by one man? “In a pickle,” “Pure as the driven snow,” and “Green-eyed monster” are pithy maxims that have become part of our cultural western heritage. “Seen better days,” “It’s Greek to me,” and “Break the ice” were all coined by Shakespeare. These concise truisms are still used to this day. It is thought that he invented and/or introduced 1,700 new words to the English language.
We must remember that when Shakespeare lived and wrote, cultural norms were much different in England, due to their myopic view of the world, which was just beginning to be explored by English navigators. Although America had been discovered, the pilgrims had not yet made their 1620 voyage to the New World, four years after the playwright’s death.
Have the Communist manifestos of Karl Marx or of Mao Zedong ever been excoriated by modern educators? The pamphlets written by these philosophers have lead to the brutal subjugation and deaths of multitudes of human beings. In the words of the immortal bard, “These violent delights have violent ends.”
Shakespeare, rather than fomenting revolution, wished for peaceful order in his Elizabethan World, a world fraught with the bubonic plague, the potential starvation of the poor, or the possibility of being thrown into prison for being in debt or for your beliefs. He ventured into areas of political philosophy deftly as he told his stories without lecturing the audience, his primary goal was to entertain, which he did so beautifully. He carefully broached the subjects of potential blind ambition by a monarch, the hubris of political leaders in general, along with other social commentaries at his own peril, for which he could have been imprisoned or even decapitated.
In the words of one of his contemporaries, writer Ben Jonson, “[Shakespeare] was not of an age, but for all time.”