-by Gabrielle Friesen, student staff
Over the course of high school I had to read Romeo and Juliet three times. We watched two different movies, and from elementary school to freshman year of college, I interacted with at least ten of Shakespeare’s works during school. The Tempest once, Hamlet twice, Othello twice, as a book and a film. My general opinion on this trend falls basically between, fuck Shakespeare, or fuck the school system that decides what we should be taught.
I know, I know: Shakespeare is one of the greats, pivotal for modern literature, he made Great Art, etc. etc. etc. And this is not to knock people who like Shakespeare, love him with your entire heart if you want. I just personally have never gotten over the hurt of high school, part of which stemmed from what we read or didn’t read in class.
History classes coincided with the Shakespeare we were reading. We went over the Globe Theater, Shakespeare’s family history, his sonnets, the controversy over authorship of his work, and Queen Elizabeth’s rule. Our history classes happened to be structured so we would understand Shakespeare, and in English classes we again went over the history behind his work. This was not true for other books. When we read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart I did not really understand the gravity of that book, and I think many of my classmates also didn’t. It was tragic, and we got that, and colonialism was bad, and we got that, but that was just sort of surface-level, if anything. Out history classes had touched on imperialism and colonialism, but when we had gone over Africa it was either in broad-strokes Africa as a megalith, or the “cram every country in Africa into a few weeks because we don’t have time to go any more in-depth,” type of history. We had talked about Hamlet, and the Danes, the tension over paganism and Christianity, and the play made sense. With books like Things Fall Apart, other classes had left large gaps in my understanding. The English teachers tried to cram history lessons into our classes, but it was never enough, half-classes and then rushing on to the next part of the mandated curriculum. It wasn’t until I class in college on British colonialism that I remembered Things Fall Apart and the gaps were at least more filled in. I acknowledge that this is in many ways my own failing, that I didn’t know these things, insulated by my own privilege, but the school system was working to uphold that insulation in not just the books it taught us, but in how it taught us different books.
However, even as we did multiple projects on the Globe Theater, the extensive historical background we got for Shakespeare was still incomplete. We never talked about how Shakespeare was largely deemed garbage, that the real literary merit had been Plato and Aristotle until British colonialism happened. Suddenly, Britain needed British literature and authors to teach in the English schools in India and Africa, books that they could point to as proof of England’s artistic superiority. Shakespeare became a tool of colonization, taught in place of indigenous authors, displacing local modes of storytelling in an effort to homogenous groups, and forge in them a British identity and loyalty, rather than any sense of indigenous identity. When we read Othello, the English teacher tried to discuss the implications of Othello’s race, why that was an important, if not the most important theme in the play, why Iago could not stand for a Moor to out-rank him, but it was crammed into an already over-packed schedule. There was not enough time to talk about the historical constructions and legacies of racism, because we always had to move on.
I was in IB classes, which purports a global curriculum. We read books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, and Michael Dorris’ A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. So I’m not saying that we were only reading books by dead white dudes. But we still read Romeo and Juliet three times, when a single story form Ficciones could also be read three times, and still have knowledge or interpretations to give to the reader. No one has yet adequately explained to me what about Romeo and Juliet could warrant three readings in the course of four years of classes, while Pedro Páramo, a pivotal book to the genre of magical realism, a book that deals with issues like classism and land rights, and the complicacy of religious elite with corrupt landowners, does not.
When we read Beloved, a group of boys had the gall to do a presentation on why Denver was a “bitch,” using that exact word. That was both the hypothesis and conclusion of their presentation. The professor stated that that he disagreed with what he said, but that he thought that I had some words I wanted to share as well. I did my best to tell them off, but I still frequently think about that event and the ways I failed to tell them off. I never had to defend Romeo or Hamlet against my peers, from anything, let alone anything as insidious as the intersection of racism and sexism that was thrown at Denver.
When we had essay assignments, it was generally in the form of four to five pre-generated prompts. We picked one. If there was a question about the role of woman, or focusing on the one main woman character, I would always do it. I felt guilty about it for the majority of high school, like I was too focused on one thing, or too focused on myself. But then I realized that the other three of four prompts were always, at their core “talk about this man,” but were phrased differently than the questions about women, phrased in a way that if a student only did those, they would never have to feel guilty about it. Hamlet’s motives were questioned, but the class ultimately decided he deserved to be a main character. Ophelia was also just a bitch.
We did not read a single book with a LGBTQ-identified main character. I don’t even think a LGBTQ character featured in the background of any of the books we read. I remember desperately trying to argue that an element of homoeroticism could be read in Desdemona and Emilia’s relationship in Othello, in a hopeless bid to read anything remotely about someone like myself. Looking back on this, I realize that my desperation for a discussion of anything resembling my lived experience meant that I displaced and pushed away important narratives about race in order to benefit my own white sexuality. I want to also somehow blame this on Shakespeare, but know that this was my own failing.
In high school I was depressed to the point of openly crying for days in a row in classes. I thought I was legitimately the only one. When I finally found Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, that book legitimately kept me alive. I am not being hyperbolic. And sure, Shakespeare is probably life-affirming or life-saving for some people out there, and I don’t want to diminish that for anyone else, but the way I was taught Shakespeare was so painfully limiting. Stories are important, and I desperately needed a story to cling to, and I know that is an experience I share with others. I barely found a story that fit me in time, a story that I could see a reflection of myself in.
Instead, I sure did read Romeo and Juliet three times.