The Relevance of Shakespeare

It was deeply fascinating to watch how strikingly contemporary American audiences from coast to coast found Shakespeare’s Othello — painfully immediate in its unfolding of evil, innocence, passion, dignity and nobility, and contemporary in its overtones of a clash of cultures, of the partial acceptance of and consequent effect upon one of a minority group. Against this background, the jealousy of the protagonist becomes more credible, the blows to his pride more understandable, the final collapse of his personal, individual world more inevitable. But beyond the personal tragedy, the terrible agony of Othello, the irretrievability of his world, the complete destruction of all his trusted and sacred values — all these suggest the shattering of a universe.

I was reminded of these words after reading Dana Dusbiber’s post on why Shakespeare should not be taught. In a nutshell, he is difficult, white, and long dead. How could someone like that be relevant in today’s diverse classroom? The words at the top of the page were written not by any white academic in an ivory tower, but by Paul Robeson, the singer, athlete, actor, and black activist. Growing up, Paul Robeson was a hero to me. I always felt a little out of place, and though Robeson died before I was born, his story was inspiring. He had talent, courage, and conviction, speaking always with a profound dignity. Electrifying. The man was like a king. His lifelong struggle was to create a society in which all people were treated equally because he knew how awful the alternative was. Robeson was the first black actor in the twentieth century to play Othello, using the role to break down barriers against integration both on stage and off it. In the play, Othello is at the top of his profession. He is a key man in Venice, is wealthy, and has married into Venetian society. Despite all that, Othello feels insecure because he is an outsider, and his rivals use that insecurity to destroy him. Why wouldn’t such a play be relevant to “very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students?” Even if you share the majority’s skin pigmentation, why would Othello not have anything to say to the kid that never feels that he fits in, no matter his accomplishments? I was that kid. Let’s not hurry to dismiss Shakespeare just because he happens to be white and dead.