A Letter to My Shakespeare and Race Summer Class

I sometimes teach a five-day-a-week, five-week (got that?) summer course. In the past few years I’ve only taught an Austen summer course, and this summer I am teaching a Shakespeare course. I love both authors’ works, so it’s all good. I only want to teach summer courses on authors or topics that I am absolutely in love with because as an instructor my summers are my time to recharge. I believe that we can recharge through teaching a class we love–summers are good times to try out new things (at least for me). Here’s hoping the summer course on Shakespeare and race goes as well as I hope it will.

I like to ask online summer classes to begin with introductions because the pace of the class is so fast, and we really just have a day before we jump right in to the work. For this class, I’m asking the students to introduce themselves in two ways:

  1. as readers familiar with Shakespeare (to explain what their experiences have been with reading and seeing his works)
  2. as readers who have a racial/cultural identity that affects how they read literature and live in the world.

For #1 the students will publicly post to the class discussion forum their answers. They will comment on each other’s posts. I, too, have posted in the forum, and I’ll share what I’m calling my “love letter” to Shakespeare.

Willy Shakes and I go waaaaaay back. We first met in high school when I read his play, Romeo and Juliet. I was the same age as Juliet. Then we met again a year later when Julius Caesar didn’t beware the ides of March. Then I found him again in Hamlet and Macbeth–two plays read in my senior year. 

When I went to college I found Shakes again. I read Othello as a new English major. Then I took an entire class on the bard: the later plays. I read plays I had never heard of like CoriolanusThe Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. I even tried my hand at writing stage directions for a scene from Macbeth (the one where poor Lady Macduff and her boy are murdered), and to prove my dedication to the play I also performed a black-light scene as one of the witches. My teeth glowed. happy with light skin tone emoticon Another cool thing I did was help the London Stage Actors, who came to my uni once a year, put on their plays. They do a bare-bones staging–no props, not elaborate costumes. It’s all about the body language and the words. I saw performances of The Tempest and Twelfth Night that blew me away. (That’s a pun, y’all.)

After this, I felt like Will and I had a thing going on. I actually read his plays for fun on my own time. Imagine how excited I was when I went to graduate school and got to take another class that focused on his plays. It was a class called “Shakespeare and Tragedy,” and, you guessed it, we read his tragedies, including my favorites. But I also read a new-to-me play: Titus Andronicus. What was this revenge tragedy?! I was hooked, and I decided thereafter to write my doctoral dissertation on revenge tragedies and an adaptation of this play. So, yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Willy Shakes. 

I’ve taught his plays many times. Sometimes I teach a single play in a class; sometimes I teach a class, like this one, focused on his works. Sometimes I teach his sonnets. I love his sonnets. I love his structure. I love “that time of year thou may’st in me behold….” I love his eternizing conceits–we all die, but literature never does as long as there are people reading it. I read one of his sonnets at my wedding (Sonnet 116) and cried my way through it. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments….” Blubbering like a fool I was. 

One summer in 2007 I even spent a couple of weeks studying his works in his birthplace: Stratford-upon-Avon, England. I went to his house, his wife’s farm, and his final resting place. I went to two theaters in his hometown and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust learning center. There I got to sit with Shakespearean actors and talk about staging. I got to meet the costumers and makeup artists–I even volunteered to let them use me as a model one time to show a crowd of students how quickly they can transform actors’ costumes and appearances. I saw Richard IIMacbeth, and Macbett (an adaptation) in Stratford-upon-Avon. I saw The Merchant of Venice in London at the Globe theater, too, that year. By the way, the Globe is a reconstructed version of Shakespeare’s famous theater. 

The Globe in London, Summer 2017

^^that’s the Globe! I took this pic.

In 2017 I returned to London and visited the Globe once again. This time I saw a really cool reinvention of Twelfth Night. It had a drag queen, y’all. Cool, right? Funny story–that night I got separated from my spouse who had all of my belongings on him–including my phone–and it was 11 p.m. at night, and I didn’t know what the heck I was gonna do until we finally found each other after 30 minutes of searching in the dark. Sounds like a play, right? After we were reunited we wandered down a dark corridor near the Thames and found this mural. 

Shakespeare Mural

^^you’re seeing this pic a lot this semester.  

And now here I am again teaching Willy Shakes again, and I’m excited to teach some plays I know really well from a different perspective. I’m excited to teach some reinventions/adaptations of his work that I love and some that I’m reading or viewing for the first time along with you. 

I’m looking forward to this course, and I hope you are too.love eyes with light skin tone emoticon

For #2 students will email me either a written narrative or a video where they talk through their response. I, too, share my own narrative because I am a part of this class. At first try, I made a video, but it was not coherent, so I tried my hand at a narrative today. It’s so hard to talk about these things, and that’s why I have to do it. Here’s what I’m sharing with my students.

I asked you to think about how your racial/cultural identity affects how you read literature and live in the world. You might think that race doesn’t affect you at all, or you might feel like your race affects who you are as a person. Everyone has a different relationship to race–their own and others–but sometimes people have things in common because of their race, and they might not realize this. What they might have in common is privilege or discrimination.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot for the last five years–the American and British literary canons have been shaped for most of their existence by whiteness. White people–particularly white aristocratic men–have decided what counts as “literature,” and what has been hailed as “universal” in literature is often really assumed to be white. To be a person of color and a writer that is a person of color, is to be marked in literature. White has been the baseline, the standard, the norm (and it was carefully crafted to be that way). Black, on the contrary, has been the deviation.

You have “American” literature, and then you have “African-American” literature, or “Mexican-American” literature, or “Asian-American” literature. What is “American” then, according to this label, if not white (this is what is implied but never stated)? You have “British” literature, and then you have “Afro-British” literature. Again, it’s the same thing. White is assumed to be the majority, and a space for non-white authors had to be carved out by name for these writers to gain a foothold in the canon. To do that, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) writers’ works have been curated by race or ethnicity to show that literature is as diverse as people on this planet, but this literature is still ironically marginalized because it is always situated as something that needs definition in relation to the seemingly non-racialized “American” or “British” monikers.

Where does Shakespeare belong in this literary history? He’s like an old grandpa that everyone loves, despite some of the awkward, uncouth things he says. But he’s the granddad who has authored great stories that keep getting passed on to the next generation, and then the next gen picks them up, and they become their stories, and then those stories get passed down, and so on. Shakespeare didn’t create the canon. Nah, he was just a working stiff trying to make some money. He was a poet/playwright, yes, but he was also a businessman. It was the next generation that made him into “the bard,” that picked up his image and his writings and began to immortalize them through staging them and adapting them. The people who did this were…wait for it…white until the 19th century when Black actors/actresses began to play roles, such as Othello and Cleopatra, and 20th-century BIPOC directors make his works accessible to non-white actors and audiences. (This is what we’re going to focus on in the latter half of our course.)

So you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get around to telling you how my racial identity affects the way I read literature and live in this world. Well, I had to tell you about the canon before I could tell you how I see myself in relation to it. For most of my life, I, a white American (family is German descent) never thought about how racialized the literary canon I’ve devoted my life to studying actually is and how I as a white person just accepted this as the norm. I didn’t think about how I too assumed characters were white unless I was told otherwise.

I didn’t think about how being white meant that I didn’t feel compelled to think about my race, how being white meant that I felt that I wasn’t raced. I was just like, I’m white, but I don’t really have a racial/cultural identity. I didn’t realize what a privilege that position is. I didn’t realize that not having to worry about race and being seen as white means that I live in the world of white supremacy. I don’t think any person is biologically or socially better than another. I am not talking about the version of “white supremacy” you’re familiar with (KKK, Arian nation, etc.). I’m talking about the fact that to be “white” in America is to live in a privileged position, and that I believe that white people do not face the barriers that people of color face. I believe that white people need to think about their/our own whiteness in order to try to understand what life is like for people of color who grow up in a culture of fear and hostility that is ingrained in our society. I believe that white people need to consider how they/we are complicit in systemic racism.

This has affected how I teach. In the last five years, I have looked at my syllabi and realized how “white” they have been. I mean, I taught entire courses where only white men, or white women, were the authors, and then I had a reckoning. I needed to replace white authors with more diverse authors, and that’s what I did. I wanted to give authors of color a more prominent place in my classes, but this didn’t mean I didn’t teach any white authors. I just needed to consider that unless white English teachers make space for authors and characters of color in their literature courses, these authors and characters will always be at the margins, or worse, go entirely unread. 

So my race affects me on a daily basis because I have inherited the white privilege that was passed down from a society built on the backs of slaves. I live in a society that still upholds white supremacy (not just the KKK kind) as the norm. This is not OK, and it’s not OK for me to pretend that not being racist in the aggressive prejudiced way some people are gives me a pass. I have come to realize that I need to sit with this idea, to recognize that it is a problem, to engage in race talk, to confront the racial biases I was taught as young as five years old, and to lean in to amplifying the voices of people of color because they have been suppressed or sidelined or demarcated as Other for far too long. 

I’m not claiming that I have all the answers or can even fathom all the problems associated with race, which I agree with many scholars is really a construct. I am saying, though, that I’m ready to think more deeply about it and to talk about it in my classes, and to begin to address how, at least in this course, the study of Shakespeare has been a study of whiteness put into conversation with blackness, both culturally and symbolically.

Talking about race in Shakespeare’s plays, racism in Shakespeare’s time, and even race and racism in my time doesn’t scare me. Talking about my own race does, and I’m doing my best to lean into this discomfort.

Thanks for listening.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: