I wanted to address a question that isn’t Frequently Asked, but one that is often raised in more subtle ways: Why would a blog dedicated to the teaching of Shakespeare talk so much about politics? Why risk alienating Shakespeare fans that may not agree with my viewpoints? Wouldn’t it be better to build a community of Shakespeare teachers without venturing into the socially impolite topic of partisan politics?
First of all, allow me to clarify that this blog isn’t entirely dedicated to teaching Shakespeare, as you may have noticed. “Shakespeare Teacher” is simply meant to be my blogger handle. The blog has always been about whatever I happen to find interesting at the moment, which often includes education and Shakespeare, but it also will include politics from time to time. But the question does lead to a more interesting question about how contemporary politics and Shakespeare are related in the roles they play in our lives.
In The Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal tells us that “all theater is necessarily political, because all the activities of man are political and theater is one of them.” What’s the point of studying Shakespeare if we’re not going to learn from him? And what’s the point of learning from him if we’re not going to apply what we’ve learned to build a better world? People who study that other great work of literature never hesitate to cite passages from it to imply an endorsement of their political views. We should not be timid to bring Shakespeare into the discussion when his insights would add a vital perspective.
I sometimes try to do this with the anagram, and this example from King Lear is perhaps illustrative. Lear is looking at the helpless victims of a storm and recognizing that he is partly responsible for their plight. “O! I have ta’en/ Too little care of this.” And if we can be moved by his words, it’s only fair to ask: moved to what? If we can be moved to tears, we can be moved to action. Because what moves us in that line is our recognition of the things in the world that we ourselves have ta’en too little care of. Like, for example, the helpless victims of a storm, and our responsibility to them.
We venerate Shakespeare for his wisdom about the human condition. Some go so far as to say that he teaches us what it means to be human. But how does this understanding manifest itself in our society if not in the decisions we make as public policy? How do we define ourselves? How do we treat each other? How can we meet our most fundamental human needs? How do we deal with the unexpected? What are our priorities? What is our responsibility to one another? How we answer these questions for ourselves determines how we make the big decisions about the kind of society we want to be and the kind of world we want to live in. These decisions are swayed by policy, policy is swayed by elections, and elections are swayed by public opinion. Can Shakespeare be a voice in that discussion?
I talk about Shakespeare. I talk about politics. I welcome you to the conversation.