In Defense of Reading Dead Rich White Guys ... Like Shakespeare.
Finally, the students argue that the course does not prepare them "to take higher-level courses relating to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, ability, or even to engage with critical theory or secondary scholarship." This sounds even more like a cop-out. Each of those qualities feature in Shakespeare's works -- crossdressing in plays like "Twelfth Night," sexuality in "Romeo and Juliet," race in "Othello," and ability in "Hamlet."
Oh, and there are scores of other deep human struggles that cut across such boundaries which form the centerpiece of these works. Perhaps a better understanding of the desire for revenge (Hamlet), the struggle for redemption (also Hamlet, and King Lear), opposition to the cruel hand of fate (Romeo and Juliet), and the tragedies of hubris (Julius Caesar) and misrule (King Lear) will actually prepare students to delve into these themes as they apply to people of specific races, genders, and abilities. This is what literature is about.
Further, critical theory is a philosophical approach to literature that can be taught using any text, and only requires its own course in higher realms of study. There are reams and reams of secondary scholarship on each of these authors, and students should be required to research them for papers, as I was -- and I wasn't even an English major!
Yes, Shakespeare, Donne, Pope, Wordsworth, and T.S. Eliot were all white men. They had various kinds of privilege, and they overlooked the struggles of specific minority groups. But they faced struggles of their own, and they wrote about the human condition -- universal themes that cut across the artificial lines of identity politics.
Whether you're straight or gay, white or black, male or female, you can understand and appreciate the despair at the end of a civilization in T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," or feel the contradictions of a love both fulfilling and demanding in John Donne's "Batter My Heart, Three Personed God," or sense the agony of a man trying and failing to repent of his sin in Claudius' speech in "Hamlet."
Who has not felt the chilling allure of Satan's speech in Milton's Paradise Lost, where he declares, "it is better to rein in Hell than serve in Heav'n"? What sorry man or woman has not felt the triumph of the human spirit reading Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man"? Or the joys and struggles of a romantic relationship in Edmund Spenser's "Epithalamion"? These are universal experiences, available to all, which enrich human experience.
God forbid we entertain the thought that these grand themes and central human struggles are beyond the reach of women, racial minorities, or homosexuals! Every human soul is capable of such depth and emotion, and any attempt to shield someone from this type of literature is not charitable, but insulting.
Next Page: How identity politics sows division and hampers the study of English literature.