I want to talk about Shakespeare. Not Shakespeare the playwright or Shakespeare the poet, but, rather, Shakespeare the system—and what it means for all of us artists, educators, and administrators to be upholding that system. For clarification, the Shakespeare system is not simply Shakespeare’s written work, but the complex and oppressive role his work, legacy, and positionality hold in our contemporary society.
Feeling defensive yet? After all, the education system in the United States has trained all of us to believe Shakespeare is the best. Why else would he be the only playwright required in the American Common Core, our academic standards for education? Why else would he be the most produced playwright in the United States? Why else would he be the way children are introduced to theatre? It is that very placement of Shakespeare as the pinnacle of theatrical achievement that I suggest we interrogate. It is time to examine the factors that have led us to assume there is a “best” and that it is him. Are all of his plays good? What exactly is it that makes him superior?
Promoting Shakespeare as the “best” writer of all time is a dangerous and white supremacist viewpoint. Until the Shakespeare field as a whole learns how to examine that, theatres that produce his work cannot be welcoming spaces for people whose ancestors were beaten and forced to give up their own languages and learn Shakespeare’s. As a Mohegan theatremaker, it is my duty to make clear that the immense amount of space his work currently takes up is an ongoing tool of colonization, just as his work has been used historically as a weapon to remove other people’s cultures and teach them that one British playwright is superior to all other writers. To be clear: I’m not talking about scarcity—there is always room for more plays and more artists. But Shakespeare has not been positioned amongst us. He has been positioned above us, and that is something entirely different.
The immense amount of space [Shakespeare’s] work currently takes up is an ongoing tool of colonization, just as his work has been used historically as a weapon to remove other people’s cultures.
Is Shakespeare a god? If not, why is “bardolatry” a word? And why is the Shakespeare missionary complex still a real one? Whenever I hear people preach about the universalism of Shakespeare the way missionaries once wielded the Bible, I think to myself, This is dangerous. And yet it goes unquestioned, even though not everyone interprets his work the same way—and not everyone even likes it.
If any other writer were treated as a deity it would not be tolerated, but something about Shakespeare’s role in the colonization of America has made him the exception. That’s right, I did not say his work has made him exceptional, but rather his work’s role in the colonization of America has enabled him to occupy a hierarchical space within a system of oppression.
I have seen the recent anti-racism statements pouring out of Shakespeare institutions both in the United States and internationally—institutions that benefit from and exist to serve and uphold this very system. But in order to begin to do anti-racist work or decolonizing work, the first step for every Shakespeare institution is to ask: What does the worship of Shakespeare do within society? We have to look at the immense space he takes up and the other stories that are silenced because of this.