I participated in a discussion recently that began with the question, “Why Shakespeare?” For me the answer is easy, Shakespeare captures a wide range of humanity in big, epic, messy, imperfect worlds where anything is possible. Complex emotions, motivations, desires are there along with fairies and ghosts, and fictive time can span decades or days or hours. And all of that in language that is unparalleled in the English speaking world. For me, that is why Shakespeare. Now is he the only writer worthy of production? Not by any means. Generations of playwrights have crafted worlds as rich, characters as moving, and stories that NEED to be told.
But I wanna wrestle with Shakespeare. I still want to own it. This 34 year old Black woman wants to stake claim to Henry 4 and gift to the 15 year old Black girl in me who felt access was restricted. Of course I will champion the work of my peers and collaborate with them to advance the art, but we share an ideology, we are already on the same page. What about the classrooms full of students of color, or low income students, or students who have no access to theatre or don’t find it very culturally significant? We aren’t shoving the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks or Marcus Gardley down their throats, but we are telling them that if they can’t read and understand Shakespeare then they aren’t meeting an intellectual standard, they won’t get into college, they are uncultured, they have diminished worth.
So I know I have some colleagues whose model of advocacy is to remove it, take away its cultural primacy and elevate other global works to the Shakespeare standard. I respect that model. I’m advocating something different. Empower students, like the 15 year old girl I once was, to OWN this language. Let them put the words in their own mouths. Let young adults play kings and queens and ghosts and fairies. Remind them that half of their favorite movies are based on Shakespeare plays and that Shakespeare, like their favorite hip-hop artist, sampled beats. STOP perpetuating the myth that Shakespeare is elite, that only “smart” people, or rich people, or white people can have a piece. And for goodness sakes let them get up from those lousy uncomfortable desks and “speak the speech.”
My love affair with Shakespeare didn’t begin when I was a child or teen. I hated the stuff. It was boring, I didn’t understand it, it wasn’t about me, and it certainly wasn’t meant for my enjoyment. And I was a theatre kid. Now I am obsessed with Shakespeare. He’s my guy, my go to, my calm, and I’m dedicating a career to those 37-38 plays. All because a teacher, one Tommy Gomez, said I could have it, make it my own, and play.