There are moments when I want to weep for America. They often come, now that I think of it, when I read the Washington Post. Last week, that newspaper ran an article by a long-serving English teacher in Sacramento called Dana Dusbiber, who dislikes Shakespeare so much that she has decided to ignore the curriculum and stop teaching his works:
"If we only teach students of color, as I have been fortunate to do my entire career, then it is far past the time for us to dispense with our Eurocentric presentation of the literary world. Conversely, if we only teach white students, it is our imperative duty to open them up to a world of diversity through literature that they may never encounter anywhere else in their lives."
You know what's disappointing here? It's not that an English teacher uses such shoddy syntax (you mean "teach only students of color," Ms. Dusbiber, not "only teach"). Nor is it the flaky logic. (Black kids? Don't teach them white authors! White kids? Don't teach them white authors!) No, the really depressing thing is that someone who is supposed to be opening the minds of young Americans can miss the universality of the greatest writer produced by our species.
The magic of Shakespeare is precisely that he is always apt to our circumstances. The same passage can speak to us in contradictory ways at different moments in our life. Keats called it his "negative capability."
Maya Angelou was lucky enough not to have a teacher with Ms. Dusbiber's prejudices. Coming across Shakespeare as a child, she was "convinced that he was a little black girl." As she grew up, that conviction deepened. She was beguiled, for example, by Sonnet 29:
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope…
"Of course he wrote it for me," she later explained. "Of course he was a black woman. I understand that. Nobody else understands it, but I know that William Shakespeare was a black woman."
In much the same way, Goethe felt sure that Shakespeare was a spiritual German, who had accidentally been born in the wrong place. G.K. Chesterton had no doubt that he was a devout Catholic. And, in a sense, they're all right. Or rather, as T.S. Eliot put it, "the most anyone can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way." Still, I'm not sure anyone has been as wrong as Ms. Dusbiber.
Nelson Mandela put it at its simplest: "Somehow Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us." He spoke with feeling. I recently saw the "Robben Island Bible" on exhibition at the British Museum: a copy of Shakespeare's complete works, disguised to look like a Hindu devotional aid. The anti-apartheid prisoners used to pass it around clandestinely, marking their favorite lines. Mandela chose a passage from Julius Caesar:
Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once…
As often happens, those words spoke to him in a way that bore almost no relation to their context in the play. Shakespeare's Caesar is pompous and vainglorious, and never more so than at that moment, addressing his wife as if she were a public meeting. But, like so many people before and since, Mandela found a passage about something else magically appropriate to his situation.
It's this property that makes us reach for the canon at times of high emotion. Daniel Patrick Moynihan reacted to the news of the Kennedy assassination with the words, "Our revels now are ended". The British Labor politician Roy Hattersley remembers, as a young schoolboy, hearing that France had fallen, and that the Nazis were massing across the English Channel. He and his classmates chanted: "Come the three corners of the world in arms, and we will shock them!"
Immediately after Margaret Thatcher's funeral two years ago, I spoke in a nearby pub filled with her most ardent supporters. On the spur of the moment, I found myself discarding my planned peroration and snatching at lines from Henry IV Part One:
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough…
Shakespeare contains a whole world, a whole universe, brighter and truer than our own. How he was possible, I shall never understand. But I do know that we are blessed, we who speak his language. No English-speaking child should be denied that part of our patrimony.Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.