There Is No Such Thing as Universal Literature: A Shakespearean Fisk

We haven’t had a good fisk here at The Catholic Geeks in a while, so it was inevitable that we would find some juicy material for one sooner or later.  Well, the stupidity of this particular article approaches full plaid.

PlaidSo here we are, with another fisk for your entertainment.  This week’s contestant is some silly person named Mina Shah, a columnist for that bastion of intelligence, the Stanford Daily.  Her column is entitled, Enough of Shakespeare.  As usual, the original text is in italics, and my comments are in bold.

Contrary to what the title of this article might lead you to believe, this column isn’t going to be about Shakespeare.

Then why did you give it that title?  The title says very specifically that you’ve had enough of Shakespeare, and clearly want everyone else to have had enough of him, too.  But you’re not going to talk about him?  Interesting.  How many other contradictory statements will you make today?

Well, not exactly.

Then what, exactly?  Go on, do.

I was reading an introduction to a volume of Shakespeare last week for one of my classes, so he has become my scapegoat.

Yeah, because he wrote that introduction all by himself, and is therefore to blame for any content therein.  And scapegoat for what, exactly?

Also, there are apparently a bunch of novelists who are lately excited about going through and modernizing Shakespeare’s works. Again.

Uh, what?  You just switched horses midstream.  What does anything have to do with someone choosing to modernize Shakespeare’s works?  I don’t personally care for people trying to use the original Shakespearean dialogue in a modern setting, but telling one of his stories in a modern way?  How about West Side Story, one of the greatest renditions of Romeo and Juliet in movie history?  Nothing wrong with that.  But that’s irrelevant to the current discussion.  I believe you were trying to tell us that we should abandon Shakespeare entirely.  Why don’t you go back to that, hmm?

Why do we read Shakespeare?

Why not?

Because we’re told he’s great, sure.

That’s because he is great.  How many other authors’ works have survived five hundred years of history and are still great and relevant?

Because he speaks to universal themes,

See, you answered your own question!

whatever those are.

You mean you don’t know what a universal theme is?  And you’re an English Major?  God save us from the American University system.

DictionaryLet’s get a dictionary, shall we?

universal, adjective, uni·ver·sal \ˌyü-nə-ˈvər-səl\: done or experienced by everyone; existing or available for everyone; existing or true at all times or in all places.

theme, noun, \ˈthēm\: the main subject that is being discussed or described in a piece of writing, a movie, etc.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?  So a universal theme is a main subject of a work that is experienced by everyone who reads it.  Shakespeare qualifies, just because of the simple fact that everyone all over the world STILL READS HIS WORK!

But is he that great? Does he really speak to an all-encompassing audience? Can anyone?

Yep, he surely is that great.  Yep, he really does speak to an all-encompassing audience.  Yep, people can.  Anyone who has written a book that is read a hundred years after his death and is read in more than the original language of publication probably qualifies.  Come on, Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables in the late nineteenth century, and it’s a major pop-culture icon today.  I’d say that’s because of the universal themes it contains.  That story still speaks to us today.  But I guess that’s not good enough for you, is it?

I believe that no human experiences are unrecognizable,

What does that even mean?

which is just to say that if a person tries to understand someone else’s experiences, and truly listens to their stories, it is always possible to get (at least partially) into their shoes.

Let’s get the dictionary out again, shall we?

un-, prefix: not.

recognize, verb, rec·og·nize \ˈre-kig-ˌnīz, -kəg-\: to know and remember (someone or something) because of previous knowledge or experience.

So . . . no human experiences are not able to be known and remembered because of previous knowledge or human experience?

SimonYour choice of adjective has nothing to do with your statement that we can learn from other people’s experiences.  You don’t even have command of the English language, so why should I listen to your opinion on Shakespeare again?  It’s a wonder you can even spell his name correctly.

We can sympathize (not always empathize, but certainly sympathize) with any experiences that we make a true effort to understand.

Uh-huh.  Back to the dictionary we go!

sympathize, intransitive verb, sym·pa·thize \ˈsim-pə-ˌthīz\: to feel sorry for someone who is in a bad situation; to feel sympathy for someone because you understand that person’s problems.

sympathy, noun, sym·pa·thy \ˈsim-pə-thē\: the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.

empathize, verb, em·pa·thize \ˈem-pə-ˌthīz\: to have the same feelings as another person; to feel empathy for someone.

empathy, noun, em·pa·thy \ˈem-pə-thē\: the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings.

Understanding is part of sympathizing and empathizing, you idiot.  So, what were you talking about, again?

But there aren’t any universal themes of human experience.

LiarI can’t believe I just read that.  If we’re all human beings, then any experience one human being can have, the rest of us can sympathize with, even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves.  That’s part of literature.  We are moved by stories not because we have experienced the same kind of grief as, say, Fantine, or the same adventures as Thor and Iron Man, but because we can understand their struggles, because they represent real human struggles.  Happiness, grief, anger, struggle, heartbreak, and on and on and on.  Pick an emotion.  If we can experience it, we can read and understand about someone else experiencing it.  We don’t have to have to be the Prince of Denmark to understand his anger and grief.  We can learn from him without having to go through what he went through.  That is the POINT.

Thus, it’s impossible for Shakespeare (or any other “classical, great” white writer) to write masterfully and comprehensively about the human experience.

And THERE it is.  You’ve finally shown your true colors!  Yes, pun intended.  You don’t think we should throw Shakespeare in the bin because his work is irrelevant; you think we should throw him in the bin because he’s WHITE, and therefore irrelevant.  You’re not judging his work; for all we know, you’ve never actually READ any of his work!  You’re just judging his portrait!

So this WHITE writer — no wait, a STUDENT at a foaming-at-the-mouth liberal institution — is trying to tell us to ignore Shakespeare because he’s white.  Can we ignore her because she’s white?  Nooooo, that’s racism. I think.  Who knows, these days.

Those writers simply don’t exist.

You think so, do you?

WillyWonkaI’ve already written about this white privilege nonsense, so I’m not going to get into it again, but why don’t you stop worrying about the writer and worry about the content of the story?  Who cares what color the author was?  If you didn’t know that Shakespeare was a white guy from Elizabethan England, you’d probably read his stuff and praise it to the skies, especially Othello, because it’s about racism and prejudice.

Why is this?

Do, tell.

Oppression. Oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and any other demographic categorization.

Facepalm ElrondI have to relocate my vocabulary for a moment.  The stupid is so very plaid, it short-circuited my brain.

. . . so, basically, there are no universal human themes because the stories in question were written by an oppressor, and are therefore irrelevant to the oppressed?

Yeah.  My brain hurts.

Oppression fundamentally changes all social institutions to eliminate all prospects for a “universal human experience.”

You’ve got to be kidding.  How about the fact that we’re ALL HUMAN BEINGS, is THAT UNIVERSAL ENOUGH FOR YOU?

I suppose not.  Because we have to MAINTAIN those boundaries between the so-called oppressors and the so-called oppressed.  Rather than quit thinking and ranting and acting on that pretend line, we’re going to keep bringing it up, so that it stays up.  YOU are the ones CREATING an artificial difference between people, not any “oppressor.”

It is fundamentally impossible for two people to interact without histories of oppression being a factor, unless those two people are affluent, white, heterosexual and male-identifying individuals.

That’s it.  You are a fool for buying into that lie, and I pity you.  If what you say is true, then because of a “history of oppression,” I can’t be friends with Traci anymore, because she’s German and I’m Polish.  The Nazis conquered Poland in 1939, and started probably the worst oppression in history — also known as the Holocaust.  Yeah, I’ll bet you’re a Holocaust denier, too.  Those Germans managed to oppress everyone from the Jews, to the Poles, to the Christians, to the Russians.  So, any of you readers with German ancestry, you can’t be friends with anyone remotely Polish, Russian, Jewish, or Christian.  Sorry.  You’re an oppressor.  And by the way, all of the parties involved — the oppressors AND the oppressed — were all WHITE.

SpartaHow about the Ottoman Empire, that conquered half of Europe, and tried to eliminate every Christian they could get their hands on?  But we can’t talk about THAT oppression, because the oppressors were Muslim and very brown, and the victims were white.  That never happened, because white male heterosexuals weren’t the oppressors.  Forget I mentioned it.

In which case, they don’t have to deal with any oppression because they have the privilege to ignore that it exists. They are not forced to look at and grapple with the implications of its expression.

You know, white people have been oppressed before (see above).  White people are sometimes poor (go look around at a homeless shelter).  Poverty — there’s another one of those universal human themes, because it transcends all cultural barriers.  So once again, you’re running off at the mouth and nothing but nonsense is coming out.

There is no oppression being expressed in Shakespeare, just because he was a white guy who wrote it.  He wrote about Romans, the French, fairies, and even a very famous BLACK MAN named OTHELLO who was being PERSECUTED because he loved a WHITE WOMAN.

Nobody is forced to “look at and grapple with the implications of” expressing oppression, because there IS NO OPPRESSION!

The politics of oppression, and social forces in general, always impact individually mediated interactions, including when these interactions are solitarily conducted with instruments of culture, such as works of literature.

I have no idea what you just said.

InigoI think you’re trying to insist that oppression in politics and society influence all human interactions, including individual ones and works of literature.

Yep, you’re full of it.  You’re just using Shakespeare as an excuse to make politically divisive statements about white privilege and other crap that doesn’t actually exist.  You’re correct: this was never about Shakespeare, and whether or not he’s worth reading.  It’s about you and your latest left-wing, foaming-at-the-mouth agenda.

So when we say, “Shakespeare writes to universal themes,” what we really mean is that “Shakespeare writes to themes that reflect the experiences of white people of Anglophone descent who are either comparatively well off socioeconomically or have opportunities to gain such a status through upwards social mobility.”

Have you even READ any Shakespeare?  Do you know how many times he wrote about people OTHER than those “white people of Anglophone descent”?  Like the Romans (Julius Caesar; Titus Andronicus; Coriolanus; Antony and Cleopatra), or the Italians (Romeo and Juliet; The Merchant of Venice; Much Ado About Nothing), or . . . oh, yeah . . . THE MOOR OF VENICE?!

Oh, I used a naughty racist word.

BadLlamaAnd another thing: not everyone in Shakespeare’s tales were “well off socioeconomically:” Othello had to EARN his title and honors and prove himself in war; all of Prince Henry’s friends in Henry IV were poor, normal people, including the famous Jack Falstaff, the wayward knight that spends most of his time drinking in a tavern and keeping less-than-reputable company!  How about Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, and all his friends?  His main problem is that he’s just a normal guy in love with a rich woman.

That’s not universal. It’s not even neutral.

Seriously?  Last time I checked, nobody is a Norse deity, or a billionaire inventor, or a World War II super-soldier, or a former Russian spy, or a scientist who turned green when he got mad.  And yet, everyone likes The Avengers.  The money it made opening weekend alone pretty much proves its ability to portray universal themes.

AvengersThe universality of the story is NOT in the characters being princes or noblemen or Roman generals or whatever.  It’s in the UNIVERSAL emotions they have.  Like revenge (Hamlet), or love (Othello; Romeo and Juliet; and ALL the freaking romances), or greed (Macbeth; The Merchant of Venice), or envy (King Lear), and on and on and on.

Don’t confuse whiteness and socioeconomic privilege with neutrality or universality. They’re not the same thing.

How about human emotion?  Is that universal enough for you?  Stop putting up these boundaries.  You’re the one guilty of dividing people into their own little sections of race or creed or status; Shakespeare isn’t.

The incorrect equation of the two contributes to reinforcing terrifyingly omnipresent white supremacy, both in our own country and internationally.

You try talk like smart person; you fail.

BuzzLightyearThere is no omnipresent white supremacy.  You’re making that up.  You’re creating these demons so that you have something to pretend to oppose, to make yourself feel better.  Why don’t you give up on the imaginary problems and go spend some time being useful and addressing real problems, like . . . oh, how about how a white cop can get gunned down by a black man while putting gas into his car in Houston, and nobody bats an eye?

The eventual breakdown of white supremacy depends on our rejection of equating whiteness and socioeconomic privilege with “universality” and “neutrality.”

We don’t need to break down white supremacy, because it doesn’t exist!  Nobody said that we should read Shakespeare because he’s white! We read his works because he speaks to everyone, no matter what color they are!  You are too absurd to be believed.

TitansThe destruction of white supremacy depends on ordinary people refusing to take on ideas of “universality” in experiences.

You’re making crap up again.  Nobody said that the experience itself was universal; no, not everyone can be the Prince of Denmark.  But, the emotions that the Prince of Denmark feels — betrayal by his uncle and his mother; pain at the loss of his father; the desire for revenge — those things can be felt by EVERYONE.  All of us can LEARN from that WITHOUT ACTUALLY EXPERIENCING IT.  If everyone wrote only about things that everyone could do, there would be no books.  They’d all be limited to: “I woke up.  I ate food.  I slept. The end.”  So what’s the point?

It depends on parents discussing the subject at home. It depends on social studies teachers saying, “Fuck McGraw Hill and fuck textbooks. We’re going to work with a diverse array of primary sources, a collection of which will actually reflect history from the perspectives of all the people who lived it.”

CaptainAmericaWhat does Shakespeare have to do with a public school textbook being a piece of crap?  We’re all well aware of the indoctrination going on in public schools, so why are you so surprised?  You’re not talking about Shakespeare; you’re talking about another straw man — that white supremacy thing again.

Just for the record, if you want “a collection” that will “actually reflect history from the perspectives of all the people who lived it,” nixing Shakespeare actually does the opposite.  He lived it.  He wrote about lots of English stuff (how about all the histories?).  Why throw him out just because he isn’t a “person of color”?  Oh, right.  Because he isn’t a person of color.  Well, on those grounds, I’ll throw you out, too.

The destruction of white supremacy depends on math and science teachers demanding more diversity in their own classrooms and more equity across analogous classrooms all across the nation.

Yeah, because math and science have SO much to do with what COLOR the teacher is.  Last time I checked, 2+2 still equaled freaking 4, no matter what color you are.

It depends on English teachers getting tired of Shakespeare and Austen and Bronte and Joyce, and electing to teach authors who write books with themes that are “less universal,” like Chimamanda Adichie, Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Kofi Awoonor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ama Ata Aidoo, Aimé Cesaire and countless other brilliantly talented authors of color. (If you’re curious what I plan to teach in my classroom in several years when I get there, well, I’ve left a couple of clues…).

RightSo . . . just because these people have hard-to-pronounce names, their literature is obviously superior to that of Jane Austen and Shakespeare?  Who’s the racist again?  Why not do something really remarkable and teach literature that can stand on its own merits?

And you’re planning to TEACH?  God help us.

If we want a better world, one in which a dream for equal opportunity can be realized, white supremacy must be destroyed.

Well, that should be easy, because IT DOESN’T EXIST IN THE FIRST PLACE.

That link is to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.  In which he says that he wants his children to “one day live in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

HypocritesBecause you’re judging these authors by the color of their skin, not by the content of their works.

And it must be destroyed actively by us, by ordinary individuals who desire a better world. It’s a big project, but one that can begin in small ways that include realizing the fallacy of the term “universal art,” and teaching and learning specific cultures outside of an idea of “universal” that doesn’t really exist.

If you’re teaching things because of their specific culture, you’ve just shot “universal” in the foot.  “Universal” does exist, no matter how many times you try to tell us that it doesn’t.  You’re the one creating the boundaries, those segregated little boxes that we all have to stay in, lest we offend you.

If you can be angry, you can read Shakespeare.  If you can feel love, then you can read Jane Austen.  If you can be confused, you can read the Bronte sisters.  If you want to see the good guys win over the bad guys, you can read Tolkien.  To leave them out of a repertoire of literature is to BE A RACIST.  If you exclude them because they are white, then YOU ARE THE PROBLEM.  YOU are the one who does not (or refuses) to understand the human condition.

It’s not about anybody’s color, or time period, or economic status.  It’s about universal truths, and we can start with the human condition.  We’re all fallible.  We all experience emotions.  We can learn from characters who have those same emotions.  I am not a British lady with an estate in Hertfordshire, but I can learn to be kind to others after reading Pride and Prejudice.  I am not a Danish Prince, but I can be cautioned against revenge by reading what happened to him.  I can enjoy the beauty of the words on the page, and it doesn’t matter what color the author’s skin is.

You can take your manufactured outrage and follow the doctor’s orders:


lsbFollow the squirrel minion to get to Lori’s website, Little Squirrel Books.

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6 Responses to There Is No Such Thing as Universal Literature: A Shakespearean Fisk

  1. shamrock31girl says:

    Lori, THANK YOU! I hope you don’t mind, but in order to not bang my head against the wall and cry, I laughed the entire time I read this…the sad thing is, I can fully believe that Shah wrote her column with full sincerity, as much as I want to pretend that it’s satirical. It is so sad that there are people out there who go “Oh, I’ll just talk about white supremacy and victimize myself and win everyone’s sympathy and oh, down with those old white men.” ARGH! We can incorporate other authors who have the “different experiences” Shah probably wants to cover without suddenly throwing all the great classic authors like Bronte and Shakespeare under the bus to be smashed! And it’s super lame that she’s trying to give more credibility and linguistic authority to people just because they are minorities. (though the poor woman probably doesn’t realize that she’s doing this-she must have been brought up with this understanding! After all, years ago, I spent hours looking for college scholarships, but found that because I’m white, it’s much harder to get free money than if I was a minority). Again, thank you for systematically going through her column with a nice, healthy rant & enlightened view of things! ~AnneMarie


  2. BTW, the Ottomans were white. One of the issues SJWs don’t face is that if we are to follow racial classifications, there are only three: Caucasian, Afroid, and Asian. Arabs, Persians, and others from the Middle East along with European Hispanics, are Caucasians. Many of those ethnicities that are considered non-white are actually white. But then, Mina Shah is woefully confused and ignorant so ignorance on this issue is to be expected.

    And too, Shakespeare’s work offers more than the universality of emotion. Sin is a universal theme. Virtue is another. Being temptation is yet a third. Shakespeare presents us to ourselves as Balzac does in “La Comedie Humane.” As great authors do in many times and cultures. Shah’s education has not taught her to see the human and the world. It has taught her to comment but not to learn.


  3. Pingback: The Battle of Agincourt | The Catholic Geeks

  4. Pingback: Links to Lori’s Other Geeky Works – Little Squirrel Books

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