Far from a vehicle for American values, Shakespeare belongs to all citizens of the globe.
By Scott Newstok
In our current political climate, it’s sad but not surprising that a U.S. senator would accuse China’s “brightest minds” of studying in America only to return home “to compete for our jobs, to take our business, and ultimately to steal our property.”
But the junior senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton, didn’t stop there, adding in a recent interview with Fox News that they — the Chinese — should “come here and study Shakespeare … that’s what they need to learn from America.”
I love exploring myriad-minded Shakespeare with college students from across the globe — American, Botswanan, Cambodian, Chinese, French, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese and, yes, even students from the bard’s native England. Yet as I’ve never taught Shakespeare as some kind of a vehicle for American values, I feel “I am bound to speak” (Othello 5.2) about Sen. Cotton’s confused, and troubling, statement.
Perhaps unwittingly, the senator partakes in a long, regrettable history of American nativists striving to annex Shakespeare to their purposes. This impulse to “weaponize” Shakespeare in American life dates back to at least the 1800s. In 1932, Joseph Quincy Adams, the first director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, shamefully invoked Shakespeare as a bulwark against “the forces of immigration” from becoming “a menace to the preservation of our long-established English civilization.”
George Orwell once quipped, “If there really is such a thing as turning in one’s grave, Shakespeare must get a lot of exercise.”
While encouraging anyone to read Shakespeare is generally a good thing, Sen. Cotton seemed to suggest the Chinese are ignorant of his work, and they need Americans to serve as translator. Yet Chinese intellectuals were discussing Shakespeare as early as 1839, and Tian Han translated Hamlet a century ago. During the Cultural Revolution, President Xi Jinping sought out copies of Shakespeare to read alongside Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu, who, like Shakespeare, died in 1616. The Royal Shakespeare Company is commissioning new translations, while Chinese films such as The Banquet (a version of Hamlet) from 2006 have been box office hits. And Chinese scholars have taught us a thing or two about Shakespeare through the Fulbright program — which was started by another senator from Arkansas.
Like Homer, Sappho, Whitman and the timeless Chinese masters Li Bai (701–62) and Du Fu (712–70), Shakespeare belongs to all of us. As a roving, capacious thinker, he has always been “global,” both in his own use of multinational sources and in four centuries of multinational appropriations of his work. (Just a decade after his death, a touring company had already played King Lear in Germany.)
But most importantly, “Shakespeare” (and literature, and the humanities, more generally) must not be seen as somehow the “opposite” of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math.
Our modern divisions of knowledge emerged only in the last couple of centuries. Before then, everyone in college learned the classical liberal arts. That meant both geometry and grammar, both physics and philosophy. They’re not opposed to each other; they complement each other.
Chemistry Nobel Laureate Thomas Cech invokes the athletic “cross-training” analogy between body and mind: “Academic cross-training develops a student’s ability to collect and organize facts and opinions, to analyze them and weigh their value, and to articulate an argument, and it may develop these skills more effectively than writing yet another lab report.”
All of this wide-ranging education was designed with an eye toward becoming makers, preparing you for a vocation of making — whether a maker of objects or a maker of words. You learn from master teachers (intellectual craftspeople) how to hone past traditions to make them your own.
Martin Luther King knew better than anyone that we make new things out of old:
“Thinking critically means that the individual must think imaginatively, creatively, originally. Originality is a basic part of education. That does not mean that you think something altogether new; if that were the case Shakespeare wasn’t original, for Shakespeare depended on Plutarch and others for many of his plots. Originality does not mean thinking up something totally new in the universe, but it does mean giving new validity to old form.”
“Giving new validity to old form,” that’s the just kind of Shakespearean spirit we all need now. Education ought to exercise us — citizens and senators alike — in the crafts of freedom, helping us reach our fullest capacities to make by emulating aspirational models, stretching our thinking as well as our words.
The distinctive contribution of the United States to the history of liberal education has been to deploy it on behalf of the cardinal American principle: All persons have the right to pursue happiness. Sen. Fulbright knew the best way to promote democracy was through the free play of mind.
In Othello, when Brabantio tells Iago, “Thou art a Villain,” Iago retorts: “You are — a Senator.” Sen. Cotton, please act like one.
Scott Newstok is the founding director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College, and the author of “How to Think like Shakespeare,” released last week.