Is Shakespeare an 'engine of inequity'?

In May 2017, James Wermers was leading a presentation on microaggressions and structural racism in a room of over a hundred people. 

He began the discussion with a brief exercise:

First, he asked the group to identify plays by Shakespeare, to which they responded enthusiastically, naming 26 different works.

Then, he asked a second question: Can you name works by Indigenous authors, female authors or authors of color?

Suddenly, the initial excitement shifted to uncomfortable silence. After a few hesitant responses, the question was called out: 

“Are you calling us racist?”

It was in the silence between that question and his admittedly inadequate answer that something changed for Wermers. 

From that moment on, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he needed to explore the relationship between Shakespeare and white supremacy. 

Wermers is a clinical assistant professor of humanities in the languages and cultures unit at Arizona State University’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, and a faculty fellow at the ASU Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. During the 2020–21 academic year, he was a fellow in the ASU Institute for Humanities Research Fellows program, where he continued research for his book project “Teaching Shakespeare: White Supremacy and Dehumanization in U.S. American Education.

The project examines the ways that teaching Shakespeare in U.S. American schools is often rooted in a logic of white supremacy and has therefore been used, even if accidentally, as a tool of structural racism and oppression. Specifically, Wermers’ research tracks why and how Shakespeare has been taught during tumultuous periods in U.S. American history. 

Wermers argues that educators and scholars must play a more active role in interrogating educational practices and ensuring equitable treatment of students. 

“It’s tempting, for example, to critique the horrors unleashed on BIPOC persons via coercive and often abusive educational policies and practices throughout U.S. American history — something which has been in the news recently as bodies of Indigenous children have been exhumed from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, whose relationship to Shakespeare I examine in the project — without recognizing that many of our own educational practices rely on the same logics that propped up what happened in the past,” he said.

Wermers' research encompasses several topics, including the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the Jim Crow era, the civil rights movement and the desegregation of schools following the Brown v. Board of Education verdict. 

His work has caused him to reflect on the paradox between well-intentioned, caring educators and the oppressive systems that they inadvertently perpetuate.

“My work on Shakespeare in this project has forced me to rethink how and why we do the work of education in U.S. America,” Wermers said.

“This has, in turn, led me to two important realizations: One, educators are generally amazing individuals who care passionately about their students and about the content they teach. Two, educators, myself included, are deeply reliant on narratives and logics that we have not fully interrogated.”

He identifies several reasons for teaching Shakespeare that have existed for over a century:

“Some argue that Shakespeare engages universal concerns — that his poetry and drama are uniquely capable of revealing and touching something at the very heart of our human nature. Others have argued that Shakespeare’s use of language is so creative and original that reading and discussing his works inevitably pushes us to expand our own use of language and, with it, our understanding of the world around us. Still others have argued that to study Shakespeare is to study our linguistic and cultural heritage — to forge some connection between the present and the past.”

While these reasons are common and may seem sincere, Wermers advises that educators exercise caution. 

“The notion that Shakespeare engages something ‘universal’ or something having to do with ‘human nature’ dangerously contracts the worlds we live into worlds that meet a singular, white and colonial history. … Education enacted with such a rationale serves not as a path towards expanded potential but rather an engine of inequity,” he said. 

Wermers hopes his book, when complete, will help others look critically at educational practices, recognize their roles in perpetuating white supremacy and become actively engaged in creating more equitable learning environments.

“My aims here are small but, I think, important. It has taken a long time to build a nation so profoundly and uncritically steeped in inequity, and it will take a long time to undo what has been done,” he said. 

“I just want to be a part of that process.”

Lauren Whitby
lawhitby@asu.edu