Is it Time for Shakespeare to Exit Stage Left?

by Amanda Edge ‘22

For centuries, Shakespeare’s plays have been considered must-reads, and have been revered as literary excellence. However, many of his plays perpetuate racist, misogynistic, and antisemitic beliefs. So why, today, are Shakespeare’s works still considered the golden standard of literature? 


Shakespearean plays play a large role in the St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes Middle and Upper School English curriculums. In ninth grade, we’re introduced to a particularly controversial play, The Merchant of Venice. The plot of the play centers around a Jewish character, Shylock, who is presented as a stereotypical Jewish ‘villain’, a greedy moneylender looked down upon by his Christain enemies. The play also presents themes of racism and misogyny through the characters The Prince of Morocco and the play’s heroine, Portia. The Prince of Morocco introduces himself as a suitor for Portia, and in a particularly troubling passage, Portia states that she could never be prevailed upon to marry someone of his skin tone. Despite its overt racism and antisemitism, this is a core text for freshmen at our school. The question remains, why? Why do we continue to read texts whose authors present racist or antisemitic beliefs when society continues to try and progress past those ideologies?


In speaking with four members of the English department, they each expressed concern that, as teachers, they need to carefully evaluate whether or not texts perpetuate harmful stereotypes or give us an opportunity to debunk them. I spoke with Upper School English teacher Ms. Nadler, who stated that “ you can’t just teach it thoughtlessly because then we’re just extending its importance… I think the only way to teach is to advertise that it’s racist and anti-Semitic, you have to teach it in a slanted way, where you’re saying Shakespeare was absolutely depicting Shylock as part of a tradition of depicting a Jewish person as a villain.” Nadler also stated how the English Department continues to grapple with whether or not the benefits of reading Merchant outweigh its flaws, and noted that “ I think Shakespeare is incredibly powerful as a writer, both culturally and literally. There’s an argument to be made for learning how to read Shakespeare and to doing so with our eyes wide open to the problems with Shakespeare.” 


Ms. Cranford, Upper School English department chair, stated that “I think we have ended up feeling that it is valuable to teach that particular play because it allows us to engage with that criticism and those historical ideas that are passed down.” They both also touched on the cultural importance of understanding Shakespeare, as the fact remains it is still very popular in broader society. 


In contrast, Upper School English teacher Mr. Yee, when asked whether or not he believed we should continue to have The Merchant of Venice as a core text, stated, “I don’t think so, no. To be honest, I think as far as The Merchant of Venice is concerned, it’s as much about the difficulty of the text as it is about the content. I think that one reason is that we’re trying to ask the question of what level of representation is good enough? From whose perspective is it good enough?”


The American educational system is far from uniform, and it’s important to remember that while most Americans are learning Shakespeare, we’re all being taught it very differently. Teachers hold so much power over how we view a particular text, and they have the opportunity to shape how we think as a result. Ms. Nadler interestingly noted that “because the students know that I’m Jewish, I feel like they’re coming from a place of connection and openness around those discussions. So, I have more authority to be like ‘hey some of these stereotypes continue today’. Here’s how Shylock as a character has impacted perceptions of Jewish people and those stereotypes.” However on the flip side she added, “ Now, of course, I’m not black, so teaching about the Prince of Morocco and Portia, who’s clearly racist, sometimes I wonder if I glide over that a little too much so I do think the identity of the teacher matters for how it’s presented.” The identity of a teacher directly affects the voices and perspectives that are pulled out of the texts we read, which is why it’s certainly important to have diversity in faculty, or at least diversity in thought in faculty, in order to ensure that conversations about different aspects of our social identities are had successfully. 


In the same way, Ms. Nadler also noted that “Any thoughtful depiction of a Shakespeare play is going to deal with these issues in its actors.” When reading or performing Shakespearean plays, we get to choose how we portray and give his words life. Perhaps his plays are able to maintain relevance because the issues are still prevalent in our current society. But that doesn’t mean we can’t choose to humanize what he wrote as a villain. He may have written his plays with the intention of the viewer hating Shylock, but he also wrote in Shylock’s love for his daughter. He may have intended for Portia to be viewed as beautiful and innocent, but her hurtful words about the Prince of Morocco put that in perspective for us. As Ms. Nadler noted, “because Shakespeare is such a beautiful writer, he has the ability to make even his stock villains into complex characters.'' 

It’s also interesting to note how the discussions of these texts have evolved over time. I spoke with Upper School English teacher Dr. Sidle, who graduated from St. Stephen’s in 1978. In recalling his experience with the English curriculum during his high school years, he stated that “we read Little Big Man, which is about Native Americans, but I don’t remember us really getting into discussions of genocide. We didn’t talk about that, we just didn’t.” He added that now, “We think about windows and mirrors; the students need to have mirrors where they see themselves and windows where they see something other than themselves. When I was here nobody thought about that and it does affect our curriculum. But now, we are deliberately thinking about mirrors when it comes to our students of color, and that does affect our curriculum.”