Is Shakespeare Necessary?

By Aja Storm Kennedy

As the most read, performed, and celebrated playwright in the world, Shakespeare’s status as the greatest writer in the history of the English language is contested by few. However, a recent study conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), entitled The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile 2015, revealed that The Bard’s influence is waning in academia. The study, which surveyed the English departments of 52 of the nation’s leading universities, including top liberal arts colleges, found that only four of these schools require their English majors to take a class dedicated to Shakespeare. 

The marginalization of Shakespeare in university English classrooms is the result of many universities’ attempt to, as English department faculty from Haverford College put it in the ACTA study, “maintain a working balance between an enduring commitment to the traditional canon of British and American literature and an expanding horizon of fresh concerns.” These “fresh concerns” refer to courses that depart from the Western literary canon and incorporate more contemporary and racially and ethnically diverse works. And while exposing students to works written by and about someone other than white men is an immensely beneficial and hopefully permanent trend, there is certainly something problematic about having English majors forego critical analysis of works by the world’s most revered English playwright because some institutions fear he is no longer relatable. Even if it were true that a younger, more diverse generation of college students can no longer relate to tales of romance, betrayal, and tragedy, that is certainly not reason enough to avoid critical engagement with such a work, especially for an English major. The work of an English major is to uncover the broader social and cultural implications of literature and relate these ideas across culture, gender, race, time, and space. Finding a work unrelatable is not the end of an English major’s work, but the beginning. 

In an article expressing disappointment over Shakespeare’s displacement in English curriculums, Ryan Cole writes: “For over four centuries [Shakespeare’s] work has resonated with people from vastly diverse backgrounds and stations of life.” He cites Maya Angelou’s famous line – that “Shakespeare must be a black girl” – as an example of Shakespeare’s ability to transcend cultural barriers. The way Angelou related the sentiments expressed in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 to her own feelings of isolation and despondency is an example of the connections English students can and should be making in classes devoted to Shakespeare’s literature. Discovering how and why Shakespeare’s literature speaks to so many people irrespective of race, gender, and generation is the type of literary scholarship English departments should be encouraging in their students. Matt Amaral, a high school English teacher in a working class neighborhood, practiced this scholarship when he discovered that hip-hop has allowed his black male students to thrive during Shakespeare lessons. He cites that “students who are into hip-hop have a highly developed ear for language, poetry, and meaning, and it always shows when we read Shakespeare.” And while more traditional English scholars may feel outrage over hip-hop being associated with literary art, the boys in Amaral’s class are perfect examples of how studying Shakespeare allows different worlds to collide. Students bring their own unique perspectives into their scholarship, and it is up to them to discover how the work speaks to them and others culturally and socially. 

So, in the debate surrounding whether or not English majors should take a course dedicated entirely to Shakespeare, claims that students can no longer relate to Shakespeare are inapplicable. An English major’s education is not contingent upon which literary works they can immediately relate to, but whether or not they can uncover how one work articulates multiple and varied ideas and perspectives. Aside from the obvious benefits of evaluating Shakespeare’s style and use of language, literary scholarship demands that English majors find the relevance of a work for themselves and, if necessary, create it. Examining how literary expression is performed across social, cultural, and national lines is something that can and should be done outside of Shakespearean works, but it is definitely something that can still be accomplished by analyzing the works of The Bard. 

Aja Storm Kennedy is a junior at Howard University majoring in English and minoring in sociology. Howard University is home to the Gamma of The District of Columbia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.