Shakespeare is Dead, Again
I hear it every year: “Shakespeare! When are people going to get over this guy! No one relates to his works anymore!”, and although I don’t personally agree with every premise in that argument, it still brings up a big issue in our school’s English curriculum. Students can’t relate to a number of works assigned in our liberal arts courses, since there is an inherent lack of representation within them. This is because, normally, schools exclusively stick to the classics. These ‘classics’ were mostly written in periods of history where things like segregation were prominent and rights for women were minimal. These societal norms at the time would evidently impact who films, advertisements, and literature were catered towards.
So it’s no wonder almost every classic is centered around a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual man that is usually priviliged and has many opportunites offered to him that he refuses to accept. Since that is the only real conflict that can be created in these novels because they face such little discrimination, even in today’s society.
Here are some examples in reference to this statement; they are books that myself and peers of mine have read over the course of our highschool years:
Crabbe by William Bell - Privileged, white teenage boy with a drinking problem runs off to live in the woods.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding - A group of little white school boys are deserted on an island.
Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger - An erratic privileged white boy drops out of another one of his private schools while pining over an old childhood crush. (Who might also have a drinking problem)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - White man goes from rags to riches while pining after another long-lost love.
Do you notice the similarities? And I didn’t even mention Hamlet, Macbeth, or Julius Caesar! Now, I’m not saying that these stories are not important and that they don’t deserve the recognition they have received. No, I don’t think that the caucasian heterosexual male perspective should be completeley omitted from the future of English literature, I’m just saying things need to change.
And luckily I can already see that happening. When I speak to younger students I hear that they’ve had the option to read more modern novels that include different perspectives and bring up present social issues, like,
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood - A dystopian novel set in the future in a religious and patriarchal society, that deals with a fertility crisis by taking over full control of women’s bodies in the means of reproduction.
The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas - A black teenage girl faces racism and police brutality in her community and becomes a catalyst for change when she begins protesting the death of her close friend who was murdered by the police.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon - A teenage boy with autism discovers his neighbor’s poodle has been killed, and sets out to find it’s murderer.
Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli - Closeted teenager Simon Spier begins to email anonoumously with another gay student, until one of his emails falls into the wrong hands and he risks being outed.
These changes in learning materials are the cause of teachers in schools who recognize the lack of representation in classics from the 20th century and the issue they cause. The power of the curriculum lies with the teacher. I think it is universally known that courses will change depending on the individual teaching it since they are bound to make executive decisions on how they wish to teach. What we don’t realize, though, is just how much power they wield in teaching the English Curriculum.
When looking at the Ontario English Curriculum, it states that:
“The purpose for reading will be determined by the teacher in some cases and by the student in others. The reading program should include a wide variety of literary, informational, and graphic texts that engage students’ interest and imagination – for example, novels; poetry; myths, fables, and folk tales; short stories; textbooks and books on topics in science, history, mathematics, geography, and other subjects; biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and journals; plays and radio, film, or television scripts; encyclopaedia entries; graphs, charts, and diagrams in textbooks or magazine articles; instructions and manuals; graphic novels, comic books, and cartoons; newspaper articles and editorials; databases and websites; and essays and reports.”
This is basically telling teachers, “Hey, teach whatever you want, just make sure they’re learning things that challenge their oral and written communication.” In no context, though, does this say it is compulsory to teach classic literature or (Shakespeare!). I think teachers see classic literature as being the most challenging for students because it appears intimidating to them, although, when it comes down to it, these stories were once modern too and just discuss the issues society faced in that time period. Don’t you think students would be more engaged learning about today’s social issues? Wouldn’t learning about what’s wrong with their society help them develop for the future? Good or difficult writing doesn’t have to come from novels with an English vernacular from centuries ago, it can come in any form, from any time.
I’d also like to point out that the curriculum also states, “Teachers routinely provide materials that reflect the diversity of Canadian and world cultures, including the cultures of Aboriginal peoples.” (http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/). During my time in secondary school, I have yet to read any pieces of literature written by Aboriginal peoples, and have barely had the chance to learn of their culture, or any others at that. So there’s another problem to add to the to-do list in dismantling the public education system as we know it.
In conclusion, Shakespeare is dead, contrary to classic lit. — white men do not have it the worst, and let’s read a graphic novel from time to time.