Interrogating the Shakespeare System
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.
Whose Land Are We On?
It was not until my final year of my BFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts that I found out there were Native playwrights. This experience is not uncommon for Native theatre artists like myself, because what is funded, what is produced, and what is taught in this country is predominantly Shakespeare. As a teen, I could not go online or to the bookstore and acquire a copy of a Native play, but Shakespeare was easily available everywhere. This is no accident.
This land has an abundance of rich and complex Indigenous storytelling traditions, but Native people in America were stolen from their homes, taken to boarding schools, forced to give up their languages, and made to learn Shakespeare. In Miles P. Grier’s article “Staging the Cherokee Othello: An Imperial Economy of Indian Watching,” he chronicles newspaper articles from the 1600s to the 1800s that mocked Indigenous peoples’ responses to watching Shakespeare and how these responses were used as justification for taking our lands. We live in a place where policies have been written that have made Indigenous art illegal and learning Shakespeare mandatory, and to be honest a quick look at current school curriculums would show that not much has changed. This is the foundation of Shakespeare in America. It is as rotten as the foundation of America itself.
I’m not saying Shakespeare’s plays don’t have merits, but they are finite and do not represent all of us. No one should be forced to see themselves through his work. He is one voice from one time period, and his existence should not render anyone else’s voice, language, or culture as lesser than. It is likely there are many other playwrights who, given the same positionality, would have been equally prolific. The perpetuation of “the Great Man Theory”—that there is one example of what is best and deserving—only serves the United States’ system of capitalism and oppression.
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?
Dismantling the Hierarchy
I’m not saying that if you love Shakespeare you shouldn’t, or for people to stop producing his work, but I am saying the Shakespeare system—where everything is compared to one white man’s legacy—is inherently destructive. By believing there is innate virtue in his work, people overlook all the harm it is capable of doing. For example, it’s often determined whether or not a student is “smart enough” based on whether they are able to translate Shakespeare’s poetry into contemporary English “well”—as determined by the teacher. This is an absurd act. Poetry should be about the vast possibilities of interpretation, not limiting students to one correct answer. There is no right and wrong when interpreting Shakespeare, but, in this scenario, a teacher has been handed all of the cultural authority over interpretation, potentially silencing the voices of any student who has a different worldview.
Similarly, how is it determined if an actor is good in Shakespeare class? By having them be forced to hit the “correct” posture and pronunciation and rhythm? And where do those “correct” postures and pronunciation and rhythms come from? Again, power is handed to the oppressors and the colonial system continues. If Shakespeare is to be done at all, it should be done in ways that encourage each student, performer, and artist to interpret it for themselves.
I personally am not interested in working with any Shakespeare institution that cannot reckon with this, because this reckoning is necessary for deep work and art-making that resonates with the present moment. Without it, Shakespeare is and will always be a part of the problem.
What Would Shakespeare Do?
Shakespeare did not know his work would be amplified in this destructive manner. Idolization is a hierarchy and we must be conscious of what has been erased when one person and worldview has been lifted to the top. We cannot continue to promote the idea that a white man is unquestionably superior.
The Shakespeare field is made up of an incredible group of researchers and dramaturgs, and if these individuals can dedicate hours and hours and hours to research on what a single Shakespearean sentence meant to folks four hundred years ago, they can spend as much time on what the sentence could mean to different groups of people today. Some of their time could easily be spent learning how to practice anti-racism.
I still believe there should be spaces for joyous celebration of Shakespeare. We all know that, as a poet, he wrote some mighty fine lines. But so have many others. Shakespeare lived in one world; our world today is different. If his plays are going to continue to be done, it’s important that Shakespeareans spend as much time learning about the world we are in today and how we got here. Honestly, if Shakespeare were still a person—if he were still a playwright, as opposed to a system—that’s probably what he would do.
The ideas in this article have been influenced by conversations between Madeline Sayet, Mei Ann Teo, Dawn Monique Williams, and Sarah Enloe leading up to their book chapter “The Shakespeare Problem” in Troubling Traditions: Canonicity, Theatre, and Performance in the US recently published by Routledge (2021).