Reports of Shakespeare's demise on campus are greatly exaggerated
First things first: Shakespeare isn't dead.
You might think he is because that's what the media have been saying.
According to some reports, Shakespeare has either been dropped as a requirement or banned from college curricula altogether by a bunch of postmodernists bent on turning the English department into a haven of political correctness.
The rumors begin in 1987 with the publication of Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," which argued that Shakespeare was about as relevant on campus as basket weaving. The latest report comes from "Washington Times" columnist Suzanne Fields, who wrote recently that, whereas literature was once respected as a repository of timeless wisdom, at some point "critical interpretation driven by ideology became more important than understanding with an open mind." Exit Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Tolstoy, says Fields, and enter a bunch of jargon-spouting hotheads who teach arcane theoretical writings instead of all those "great books that addressed the universal spirit."
Of course there's no denying that literary studies have changed radically over the past quarter century. Students of my generation grew up on the New Criticism, in which the text was everything. If you believe the op-ed pundits, context has replaced text: instead of Shakespeare, students now read sociological studies on race, class, and gender in Elizabethan England.
Not so, most literature professors will tell you today. From their viewpoint, yes, context has been added to text, but doesn't replace it.
A quick glance at a typical course suggests how older texts are supplemented by theoretical studies rather than replaced by them. My colleague W. T. Lhamon, Jr. is teaching a class with the daunting title of "Case Studies in Cultural Transmission." His class looks at the traffic flow between so-called high and low cultures, and while the texts include Lawrence Levine's book "Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America" and Peter Stallybrass's essay on "Marx and Heterogeneity: Thinking the Lumpenproletariat," the students also read John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" and works that emerged from it, including Bertolt Brecht's "Three-Penny Opera"and "Porgy and Bess."
And then they will tackle "Othello" and a number of related works, including Hawthorne's "The House of Seven Gables" and plays by living playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Sure, my colleague is using theoretical and newer work to "interrogate" Shakespeare and Hawthorne. But does anybody seriously think that those two old warhorses can't stand up to the questions?
And the Anglo-American tradition is just the beginning for young writers: novelist Les Standiford, who teaches at Florida International University, says that an informed student today needs to know about writings as old as the Babylonian epic "Gilgamesh" and as new as the work of avant-garde French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. After all, the only thing that weighs more than the burden of the past is one's ignorance of it.
By the way, at my university, there are 138 students this term in the four sections of the Critical Issues class, a required course in which English majors study theory. In contrast, there are 370 students in the nine Shakespeare classes, all of which are optional. So the students still want their Shakespeare, and the professors are happy to give it to them.
On campus, Shakespeare isn't dead; he's just got more company.
• David Kirby teaches writing and literature at Florida State University. His new poetry collection is titled,"The Ha-Ha."