Why Shakespeare Is a Hard Sell in English Departments

By Pinsker, Sanford | The World and I, May 1997 | Go to article overview
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Why Shakespeare Is a Hard Sell in English Departments

Pinsker, Sanford, The World and I

"The Shakespeare File: What English Majors Are Really Studying," a recent study conducted by the National Alumni Forum, confirms what those of us who teach in English departments already knew--namely, that far too many colleges and universities are turning out English majors who may not have so much as a nodding acquaintance with the Bard. Indeed, what the study reveals is that of the seventy institutions surveyed, only twenty-three require a course on Shakespeare, and many do not even require a survey course that might include a sonnet or two.

How can this be, one wonders, especially if the professor in question happens to have gone through the paces of a higher education during the years between Benny Goodman and the Beatles. In those benighted days liberally educated folks were expected to read a good deal of Shakespeare; and English majors were presumed to know, well, more--not only the sonnets but also "The Phoenix and the Turtle," along with a healthy chunk of the histories, tragedies, and comedies. After all, it was a truth (then) universally acknowledged that Shakespeare was English literature's defining genius, the figure whose influence shaped--whether by imitation or opposition--the work of subsequent writers worth paying attention to.

No longer. Indeed, many who number themselves as Shakespeareans are more than a little embarrassed by such old-fashioned gushing, especially when lay readers continue to delude themselves into thinking that Shakespeare might, just might, have something to say about honor and cowardice, ambition and pride, or a laundry list of other values that could be attached to the conduct of contemporary life. Hero worship of this stripe simply won't do, partly because nobody-including Shakespeare--should be accorded such reverence (Karl Marx is a notable exception to this sturdy rule, but his case is, as the saying goes, "different") and partly because the effort to turn Shakespeare into a cultural marker raises professorial eyebrows. Do we really want, many English teachers ask, to be seen as late capitalist lackeys, elitist snobs who divide the world into those who catch the allusion to the "sound and fury" and those who cannot? And what about the larger, more vexing matter of propping up a Western civilization at the very moment it is crumbling under the collective weight of indictments filed by women, persons of color, and those with alternative (sexual) lifestyles?

Small wonder, then, that uttering a kind word about Shakespeare--much less proposing that studying his work again become a requirement for English majors--turns out to be a very hard sell. It is far easier to convince one's colleagues to get behind a required course that will do some real political good--something like "Literature of the Third World" or "Neglected (fill in the blank) Writers." In such cases, a vote against diversity makes it painfully, publicly clear who sits on the sidelines while others reside just a smidgen lower than the angels; and to nobody's surprise, few negative votes are, in fact, ever cast.

This chilling effect is often chalked up to "political correctness," and for all the solemn denials of those who would argue that PC is a media invention rather than a stubborn fact of contemporary academic life, the confidence required to be as self-righteous about everything as many English professors are did not, like Botticelli's Venus, spring full-blown from a seashell. Rather, it crept in slowly, beginning with the late 1960s--perhaps at the moment when many English professors became attracted, and then infected, by the nihilism of Continental theory, perhaps when those of the New Left discovered that venerable institutions such as the Modern Language Association (MLA) were ripe for the picking.


If it once was true that the MLA thought of itself as the steward of literary study, it was also true that most of its members didn't give a fig about who was nominated for its committees, much less who would deliver next year's presidential address.

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