Shakespeare’s enigmatic smile will no longer greet students each time they enter the English-department building at the University of Pennsylvania. His image, I always believed, was meant to remind us young and naïve students that we were participating in a literary tradition older and wiser than ourselves. But concerned students saw fit to remove his allegedly offensive portrait on the basis of his skin color rather than on the quality of his writing. At first, I was indignant and upset at this draconian act. Why not leave his portrait in place and simply place pictures of other writers on other walls in the building? Why would honoring other writers by hanging portraits of them require the removal of Shakespeare?
When I observed how others were responding to the students’ protest-by-portrait-removal, I grew less angry and more worried at the implications of this act. Some critics are outraged that an image of Shakespeare was removed from its rightful place in the halls of an English department. But others are siding with the students because, in their view, the taking down of an icon of the Western canon is an act of defiance and bravery that outweighs Shakespeare’s literary value.
In our discussions on the matter, some students explain that the onerous image of Shakespeare in the halls of our English department served to remind multicultural students of their “outsiderness.” It is an interesting point that I cannot attest. Colombian by birth and upbringing, I have never once felt intimidated, insulted, or demeaned by the act of studying Shakespeare. On the contrary, I consider it an honor to be able to study, at one of the country’s best universities, some of the most beautiful verse that anyone has ever written in the English language. It’s rewarding and a joy to connect with his writings on a personal level that transcends the cultural and generational differences between me and the Bard, to find that I have more in common with his words and his sentiments than I ever would have imagined. Most important, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to open my heart and mind enough to understand Shakespeare in at least some of his complexity.
Understand: Aye, there’s the rub. It dawned on me that the removal of Shakespeare’s image was perhaps not as much of a political act as I first believed. No, the act was actually far more tragic: It was a statement of surrender. Students who cloak their rejection of Shakespeare under the argument that it reminds them of their “outsiderness” are demonstrating that they haven’t read Shakespeare closely enough to understand him, and that they are no longer willing to try. Shakespeare’s verse is archaic, his plays antiquated, his language outdated, his allusions classical or European — all of which makes for a difficult read. Out of frustration, many students dismiss Shakespeare as too foreign to understand. Those of us who come from cultural backgrounds far removed from Shakespeare’s, the theory goes, will never understand Shakespeare (let alone enjoy him), because he doesn’t share our personal experience. But nothing could be further from the truth.
#related#Well, the deed is done: Shakespeare’s image is gone from the halls of our university. Shakespeare, at least at Penn, will become a hidden jewel that one must actively seek out. Rather than sulk, I’ll bask in the joy and honor I’ve felt while reading Shakespeare and learning from his wisdom during my undergraduate years. Shakespeare described Brutus’s stabbing of Caesar as the “unkindest cut” — and now the Bard himself has been symbolically stabbed in the back. But we might do well to use this unjust act as reason to read and reread his works. It is no longer good enough to defend Shakespeare simply because, well, he is Shakespeare; this would add nothing to the argument for preserving his works in our day and age. When students have the opportunity to study Shakespeare but arrogantly deny the offer, rather than scold them for their immaturity, we might remind them that they are refusing the opportunity to learn about themselves in a way that transcends all sorts of earthly boundaries and physical characteristics.
The removal of Shakespeare’s portrait raises serious questions about the future of higher education in the humanities, especially in literature. What notion of humanity has been instilled in students such that they would feel attacked by Shakespeare? The removal of Shakespeare’s image (mere paint and canvas) is only a small harm compared with the real damage: surrender to what they do not understand, not because they cannot understand Shakespeare, but because they will not open their hearts and their minds to his words. The removal of Shakespeare’s image from our halls was just the physical manifestation of this growing close-mindedness and resentment.