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Rights + Justice

Much Ado about Shakespeare

A UBC scholar on the bard’s place in 21st century classrooms. A Tyee Q&A.

Olamide Olaniyan 17 May

Olamide Olaniyan is associate editor at The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter @olapalooza.

English professor Dennis Britton feels like he gets Shakespeare now.

The academic, who teaches William Shakespeare and 16th and 17th century literature at the University of British Columbia, admits he once found the playwright and poet to be “pretty boring.”

But Britton fondly remembers the class that changed it all for him, when he was an English major at the University of Southern California and an “amazing” teacher helped him understand the language, and the social and historical context, of Shakespeare’s plays.

“She spent a lot of time talking about power dynamics, particularly political power,” he told The Tyee.

By graduate school, Britton was studying 16th and 17th century literature, focusing in on religion — Shakespeare and other authors were writing right in the thick of the Protestant Reformation, he told me — and issues of race.

Though Britton found Shakespeare the least interesting author from the period, he pragmatically followed wise advice from his advisor that “anybody who’s hiring is going to want to have someone who can and will teach Shakespeare.” And so he zeroed in on the bard.

Years of teaching Shakespeare have led him to a deep, sometimes begrudging, appreciation for Shakespeare. And Britton says he’s come to understand his prominent role in literature and the history of ideas, which reverberates till today.

It’s why he’s teaching a course called “Cancel Shakespeare.”

As English departments, Shakespeare scholars and the theatre industry grapple with the question of what to do with Shakespeare, and as articles arguing against “cancelling” Shakespeare continue to appear in the popular press, Britton thought this class could help students think not just about Shakespeare, but also the politics of education.

Like him or not, in order to know what to do with Shakespeare, you need to actually read him, Britton said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: When was that first moment when you got what Shakespeare is trying to say? Or have you gotten it at all yet?

Dennis Britton: I think I get him now. There’s a whole mystique around Shakespeare, that he is so, so “deep,” and hard and difficult, but also this carrier of all this profound knowledge and wisdom about the human condition. There’s always that factor that can be very intimidating for students, maybe more so for anybody who didn’t grow up going to the theatre, or going to see Shakespeare plays.

I’ve taught Shakespeare pretty much every semester since I started. When you have to teach something, you have to learn it. And the more you teach it, the better you understand it. So over years of teaching Shakespeare, I can’t proclaim to know everything about Shakespeare, but I feel like I get it now.

Not that I love everything about Shakespeare — I think there are definitely problems within his work and with the whole idea of Shakespeare — but in the repetition, and over the years, you do find moments that you think, “Okay, that’s really clever, Shakespeare, I’ve got to give you that.”

When did you start getting in touch with the more problematic aspects of the bard’s cultural history and the issues that needed a closer look?

I would say some of that happened more recently. There’s different ways that has played out in my career and my own thinking. When it came time to write a dissertation, I felt like as much as I was interested in Shakespeare and I was interested in questions of religion or 16th, 17th century literature, I also felt like I need to make this interest have some connection to who I am as a Black person, as a racialized person.

And I did come across the work of particularly scholars of colour who were interrogating the racist language in the plays, the history of English contact with non-white people and the ways in which those histories are being incorporated into the plays. There were scholars who were doing that type of work that I became interested in, and so I was trying to put my own interest in conversation with the work of those scholars.

In the last decade or so, and I think especially right after the summer of 2020 and in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, [I felt] a real need to interrogate the ways in which Shakespeare has been used and the ways he perpetuated white supremacy.

Some of it is no fault of Shakespeare. He is a man of his time and he is replicating and producing and shaping ideas about race in the late 16th and early 17th century. But there’s the long history of Shakespeare being mandatory reading, particularly in English colonies, so you think about the ways in which the British Empire used Shakespeare. And then what does it mean to uphold this one author as being the best of all authors. That’s not an innocent move. That was intimately tied to an imperial project.

In the last decade, it feels like there’s been more attention not just to what is happening within the plays, but about the larger use of Shakespeare. Since 2020, that has been accelerated.

Professor Dennis Britton, wearing a blue sweater and glasses, stands in front of what appears to be ruins composed of some kind of sandstone.
Professor Dennis Britton teaches a class at the University of British Columbia called ‘Cancel Shakespeare’: ‘Within education, there is a question of how we should continue to teach him. Should we be teaching that much of him, if we say that we want to have a curriculum that is inclusive of people from different identities?’

How do you view the criticisms against “critical race theory”? How does your work intersect with the current conversation about critical race theory?

I think most people who are critics of critical race theory have never read any critical race theory. That probably goes without saying. The term “critical race theory” has been broadened in many ways, but it really is, in its truest sense, about the law. The scholars who invented critical race theory were legal scholars. Some of those theories have had an impact beyond the law, but when you see the criticisms, it’s usually this very flattened and over-simplified and mischaracterized representation of what it is.

For example, I think about the the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson for Supreme Court Justice in the United States. I watched some of it, Ted Cruz asking her what her opinion is of this children’s book. He asks like, “Do you believe that babies are racist?” And it was just a ridiculous question, because it’s also a mischaracterization of the book itself, but that’s basically what it comes down to.

There’s a resistance to the very idea that white people are racist or that we are still living in a society and a culture in which whiteness and white supremacy still reign and loom large. A lot of that is independent of any individual white person. The resistance to “critical race theory” is basically that, a lot of white people don’t want to feel bad about the past, but also the way in which the past continues to shape the social and material realities of people of colour today.

I think part of it is me learning from and following the work of a generation of scholars that preceded me — again mostly Black scholars, and even more particularly, mostly women of colour — who were thinking about, or were actually bringing black feminist theory [to literature]. Some of the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, being very famous for her theory of intersectionality. Saying, “No, there’s ways in which these theories are actually helpful for us and to understand what we see going on in the 16th century.”

It’s not that we’re denying that there’s a historical difference between what these scholars are talking about in the 20th century or the 21st century, but some of the ways in which they’re asking us to think about race and the way it really does shape the real world, people’s real lives, we can take those questions back to literature and into earlier periods of history.

How have you come to experience that backlash towards this kind of critical analysis towards anything held in traditional regard? And how do you deal with that in your work today?

I now have the privilege of being a tenured professor, so I think it’s much easier now. And I think the culture around Shakespeare studies is much different than it was even 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. When I was starting out, I think there was always a concern, for the most part, that the field is very white. There are scholars of colour in it and there are white scholars you could definitely call allies. But, in general, the field of Shakespeare studies felt like we can definitely critique Shakespeare but at the same time, [there was also] a sense that we still sort of revere him.

You can lob all your shots at Shakespeare, but you can’t knock him off his throne.

Exactly. As a younger scholar, there was a feeling that there were politics I had to navigate and so sometimes you hold some of your punches.

I joke that Shakespeare was a feminist before feminism, he was queer before queerness, he was a Marxist before Marx and he was anti-racist before we even had a concept of anti-racism. There’s been a desire to make Shakespeare align with our politics, whatever politics that we might espouse, even among people who would consider themselves progressive. This need to revere Shakespeare could skew readings of the plays to make Shakespeare align with those politics. I feel like that is breaking down. I think that scholars are much more able and willing now to tell what we would say is maybe the truth about Shakespeare, which is that he, like any of us, cannot help but be the products of the cultures in which we are born and raised.

That does not necessarily mean that we ourselves don’t resist and question and are contradictory in ourselves. Some of those critiques are interesting because I do think there are moments in Shakespeare’s plays in which there are some interesting critiques questioning predominant views about race and Blackness, even as the plays still seem to be ultimately anti-Black. It’s not like the plays were pro-Black, but at the same time, they do seem to be interrogating, in some interesting ways, some of the prevailing views about Blackness. So it’s not that Shakespeare is completely uncritical about issues of gender, race, or sexuality or class, but at the same time, why should we expect that the views in the plays somehow fully align with ours today? And that they’re not in some ways holders and perpetuators of ideas that we no longer see as acceptable in our contemporary moment.

In the 16th century, they might have been doing some interesting political, subversive work. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. There are some instances in Shakespeare that seem to be incredibly conservative of the status quo of the day and there are moments in Shakespeare that seem to be rather radical in terms of the status quo of the day. But any author from the past is likely going to have views that are different from our own.

You have a course titled “Cancel Shakespeare.” Can you tell me what it’s about and why you settled on that name?

Part of it is related to the fact that UBC has a class that falls under the umbrella of a course called “Shakespeare Now.” There’s flexibility in terms of how you teach the course, but the whole idea is that you’re not necessarily thinking about Shakespeare in the 16th and 17th century, but thinking about what it means to engage or see or watch Shakespeare now, right in the 21st century. Under that umbrella, I thought this question of cancelling Shakespeare would be interesting because I think there is genuine debate about what we do with Shakespeare now.

Within education, there is a question of how we should continue to teach him. Should we be teaching that much of him, if we say that we want to have a curriculum that is inclusive of people from different identities? It’s not like literature stopped being written in the 16th, 17th, 19th or early 20th century. People are still continuing to write and new “classics” emerge. You can’t make room for new things without getting rid of some of the old things.

But also, at the same time, you really can’t have an informed opinion about what to do with Shakespeare if you actually haven’t read Shakespeare. So we began the class looking at some of the debates, the pros and cons, the pro-Shakespeare debates and the anti-Shakespeare opinions, about what do we do with him, and then trying to keep track of some of those arguments as we were then reading the plays.

I intentionally chose some of the plays that are arguably the most controversial. Not all of them, I didn’t want to have only the very controversial plays. But we did focus on plays like Othello, for example, because it’s definitely a play that has a long and vexed history, both in terms of the way in which the play represents a Black man, but also in terms of the way the play has been read and the long history of blackface performance, and Black actors for so long hearing, “Oh, no, sorry, this is not a role for you.” And then now, Black actors saying, “Can I play anybody other than Othello? How come I can’t play Henry V?”

And then The Taming of the Shrew, because of the way in which an outspoken woman is aggressively and violently tamed in the play, and to what extent is that supposed to be funny, either in the 16th century or today. And then looking at The Merchant of Venice, particularly with ways in which it really has so much anti-Semitic rhetoric circulating in the play.

Then we read plays like The Tempest and Measure for Measure and The Comedy of Errors. It’s also interesting to get a play that lots of writers of colour, particularly writers from colonized countries, have engaged and identified with and critiqued but also found the play useful for talking about issues of what it means to be a colonized people. So that’s sort of how the course came into being and what it was hoping to do.

If Shakespeare is to be deprioritized in literature, what should fill that gap?

Given my expertise, the question of what he should be replaced with feels out of my lane. I think that’s for scholars who are working in contemporary periods, maybe.

I do think it can be useful to, if you read a Shakespeare play, to then read a Shakespeare adaptation from a person who occupies a marginalized identity. Because there are plenty of Black writers and Indigenous writers and so on who have written works that engage Shakespeare in some way. I think it becomes a way for not letting Shakespeare have the last word on Shakespeare.

If we’re going to read Othello, let’s follow our reading of Othello with Toni Morrison’s Desdemona. Not only is it a brilliant work on its own, I also think it illuminates the play. I think reading Morrison’s play actually allows us to see things in the original text that we would not have seen without it, without her revision.

What do you think of this idea of Shakespeare being for everyone?

A lot of people would critique that very idea that somehow anything can presume to speak to the experience and the lives of everyone on this planet. That’s hardly an opinion that seems to make sense. But of course, that has long been the argument about Shakespeare. We read Shakespeare or Shakespeare is useful to read because he is universal. That has been the argument for why we keep reading it.

What might be more interesting to think about is what view of the “universal” Shakespeare puts forward. Most of Shakespeare’s plays centre white, aristocratic, wealthy men. So that becomes the universal experience against which I guess all of us deviate.

And I think there’s a way in which, if Shakespeare’s works appeared to us as a universal, it’s because for the most part, they appear to people who have also been brought up in a particular educational cultural context. I can see the way in which Shakespeare’s treatment of love seems to be universal, but that is because I’ve read and seen many stories depicting love in the way that Shakespeare depicted love and it is likely because Shakespeare has been so forced upon everybody, for good or for bad, that Shakespeare actually became a very popular conduit or perpetuator of what love looks like, so then now it looks universal to us.

What lessons can the reader today take from Shakespeare?

I think [Shakespeare is for] anyone who’s interested in the history of ideas. Anything that we think or feel today has a history, and that history is often much longer than we think, not just for Shakespeare. You can go back to older periods of history and literature and philosophy, and begin to say, I can see the connection between this predominant view now and the way in which that view was put forward in an earlier period.

What’s interesting about Shakespeare is because Shakespeare occupies this really interesting place that’s both educational but also entertainment, and things that people do in their leisure, that he holds a unique place in that regard. Arguably, there’s no writer from that far back, who occupies that particular position. He’s interesting to still think about because what he wrote is still very present today.

There are other writers who are canonical, who you will only read if you’re an English major in college. Their ideas remain with us because they’ve been super influential in shaping the thinking of their own time period, and maybe the time period that was immediately after them. But Shakespeare remains with us in a more present way than some of these other writers.

One of the best scholars on Shakespeare and race, Ayanna Thompson, argues that one of the reasons why we continue to study Shakespeare, particularly with regard to race, is that the 16th century was a period in which ideas about race were beginning to crystallize. It’s not that there weren’t earlier formations of race in the medieval period or before, but it really does seem to be in the 16th and 17th century — and also at the point of the emergence of the slave trade — that writers and thinkers are doing quite a bit of explicit thinking about race.

And because that is true it can be useful to look at the point in which ideas of race are really beginning to form and that can be useful for thinking about how race works today.  [Tyee]

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