Dana Dusbiber, the Sacramento high school teacher who recently committed to print her intention no longer to teach Shakespeare in part because of his skin color, created something of a tempest about “The Tempest.”
In fairness to Dusbiber, Shakespeare’s being ”a long-dead, British guy” was only one of the things she holds against him. As she explained in her Washington Post op-ed:
[N]ot only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest [sic] in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.
Why not [instead] teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior?
At the risk of beating a dead horse, I submit — again — that Shakespeare’s ability to remain relevant to readers 500 years after his death is at least as much a function of his art (including his consummate skills at characterization, plot development, suspense, and more) as it is his commentaries on human behavior. It also bears repeating that the either-or argument Dusbiber poses — it’s Shakespeare’s way or the highway — is a straw man. The oral traditions of Africa and elsewhere have rightly or wrongly had a place in the high school literature curriculum alongside the Bard for the past half-century, ever since multiculturalism reared its ugly head.
You might expect that Dusbiber’s remarks would suffice to give you the liberal take on long-dead, British guys. You’d be mistaken. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, writing at the New Republic, gives us what she believes to be “The Progressive Case for Teaching Shakespeare.” [Emphasis added]
Her thoughts on the topic begin with the same straw man: “I agree with Dusbiber that Shakespeare should not be taught to the exclusion of writers of color or contemporary authors.” In fact, no one has suggested that he be taught to the exclusion of those writers.
But where Bruenig ventures off into uncharted territory, she presents a rationale for reading Shakespeare that is as vapid as Dusbiber’s reasons for not reading him. She writes:
Reading the literature of the past opens a window into a world in which the assumptions that dominate our lives were not yet imagined or fully formed, and shows us how people might live without the principles we mostly accept without question now.
She segues, abruptly and seemingly unwittingly, into a discussion of theology, comparing the views of the poor in the Middle Ages with those held now:
An 1189 sermon by French theologian Alain de Lille argues Christ could no live among princes, knights, or merchants, becase they live by plunder and greed: “Where then, can Christ live? Only among His paupers.” It is one thing to entertain the thought of such a civilization that doesn’t view poor people as deadbeats, leeches, or shiftless layabouts, and another altogether to peek into the interior lives of people who lived in such a world.
To get a glimpse of a civilization that does view the poor as deadbeats, leeches, and shiftless layabouts, just click on the links she provides. You are taken to critiques of heartless conservatives by Media Matters, Dylan Byers, and MSNBC, respectively. Once again, seeing literature as an art form independent of the social commentary it might contain seems lost on this writer. Any joy that might be derived from lingering on one of the soliloquies or from losing oneself in Shakespeare’s poetry (the plays, you will recall, are written in blank verse) goes unrealized.
In the end, like Dusbiber, Bruenig views literature — past and present — as a springboard for airing grievances. If that’s all you are going to get out of Shakespeare, you might as well stick to hip-hop.