Decolonizing Shakespeare? Toward an Antiracist, Culturally Sustaining Praxis

ACMRS Arizona
Nov 26, 2019 · 7 min read

by Katherine Gillen and Lisa Jennings

Activists and students have called on us to decolonize our syllabi and the university more broadly. Students at Yale, for example, insisted that the English department decolonize rather than simply diversify its curriculum, denouncing professors for teaching students “how to analyze canonical literary works” but not “to question why it is canonical, or the implications of canonical works that actively oppress and marginalize non-white, non-male, trans and queer people.” Such demands ask us to take seriously legacies of settler colonialism and white supremacy and to interrogate how they infuse our institutions, our practices, and the texts we read, teach, and perform. This reflexivity allows us to use our teaching to remediate these historical injustices for our multiracial, multicultural students.

At Texas A&M University — San Antonio, where we teach, the colonial roots of the academy are readily apparent, as our campus sits on land historically belonging to the Coahuiltecan people and later occupied by the Mission Espada. An Anglocentric curriculum adds another layer to this colonial palimpsest, in a region where Latinxs have faced intertwined racial and linguistic oppression. As English faculty, we are working to craft a curriculum that can better serve our students, 82% of whom identify as Latinx. This imperative, we believe, applies to instructors throughout the United States and in other settler colonial nations, but it is all the more urgent for those of us serving students from colonized, marginalized, and otherwise oppressed groups.

But what should we do with Shakespeare, that centerpiece of the English curriculum (and our bread and butter as early modernists)? Shakespeare occupies a privileged place both in the white male canon and in the history of colonialism. His works were marshalled in the interests of empire, often celebrated as evidence of Anglo cultural supremacy, and used as part of “civilizing” colonial projects. Nonetheless, Shakespeare has repeatedly been mobilized for anti-colonial and anti-racist purposes, as in acclaimed works such as Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête and Toni Morrison’s Desdemona, which disrupt the colonial imaginaries that continue to inflict political and epistemological violence on colonized subjects. Is it then possible to decolonize the Shakespeare classroom? What would this look like? And how might we as Shakespeare professors contribute to this decolonial effort? Or, at the very least, not reinscribe colonial violence?

Below, we list pedagogical strategies we’ve developed for teaching Shakespeare in more inclusive, anti-racist, and decolonial ways. While our experience is rooted in our institutional context, these practices — many of them drawn from women of color feminisms, critical race and decolonial studies, and culturally sustaining pedagogy — may be productively adapted elsewhere. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang remind us, “Decolonization is not a metaphor” and must involve deep structural change. It is in this spirit, and in collaboration with anti-racist activists, students, artists, and scholars, that we share these moves toward decolonizing Shakespeare.

Attend to Particular Contexts

Colonial education presumes that it can be transported, without modification, to any context. By contrast, decolonial pedagogy must attend to specific geographies, cultures, epistemologies, and colonial/racial histories. In our case, we must consider in particular the racial and linguistic politics surrounding Shakespeare in the US/Mexico borderlands, which have contributed to the idea, as Ruben Espinosa writes, that “his works are less accessible to certain users, such as Latinxs.”

Address Shakespeare’s Colonial Legacies and Canonization

We must interrogate Shakespeare’s cultural role so that we do not contribute to the deification of Shakespeare as a representative of white cultural supremacy. In our courses, students discuss the political forces shaping Shakespeare’s canonization, and we read essays such as Marcos Gonsalez’s “Caliban Never Belonged to Shakespeare” to consider how Shakespeare continues to be used as an oppressive tool. Consequently, our students learn to analyze and dismantle the structures of power that contribute to colonial, white supremacist uses of Shakespeare.

Center Critical and Creative Responses by BIPOC Artists and Critics

To counter the whiteness of Shakespeare studies, we privilege responses to Shakespeare by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) scholars and artists. Counter-renditions such as Hip-Hop artist Akala’s performances, Djanet Sear’s Harlem Duet, and Caridad Svich’s Twelve Ophelias, offer students varied patterns of critical engagement, inviting them to contend with Shakespeare’s works in ways that are relevant to their lives. These texts spark conversations about intertextuality and appropriation and are treated as important works in their own right, not merely as Shakespeare derivatives.

Privilege Students’ Cultural Knowledge and Provide Opportunities to Connect It to Course Content

Whereas colonialism devalues Black, Indigenous, and Latinx cultures, decolonial pedagogies, such as Django Paris’s culturally sustaining pedagogy, recognize them as vital funds of knowledge. Creative assignments such as performances, remixes, and fan fiction allow students to harness their cultural repositories to speak back to Shakespeare and to appropriate his works for their own purposes. For example, Katherine’s students created a bilingual appropriation of a scene from The Merchant of Venice that tackles questions of linguistic diversity and prejudice against undocumented Mexican immigrants.

Center Intersectional Understandings of Identity

As Laura Turchi and Ayanna Thompson argue, effective pedagogy must center questions of identity. To do this, we teach Kimberlé Crenshaw’s framework of intersectionality; ask students to consider intersectionality in the works we read; and design assignments that encourage students to explore their own identities. We also attend to our identities as a White and a Black woman teaching Shakespeare and to the negotiation of power in our classrooms.

Encourage Linguistic Diversity and Decenter Standard American English (SAE)

We must decouple Shakespeare from the linguistic violence of white supremacy. Decolonial pedagogy invites students to draw on their own linguistic traditions to understand, respond to, and revise Shakespeare. Lisa, for example, asks students to translate a passage from Shakespeare into both SAE and their home language, which encourages them to value their own linguistic resources and to think broadly about questions of language, power, and textual circulation.

Attend to the Racist, Misogynist, and Colonial Violence of Canonical Texts

Decolonial pedagogy must attend to the trauma experienced by students and to the ways in which the gendered, racial, and colonial violence dramatized in canonical texts may be triggering. A trauma-informed approach responsibly addresses the graphic racial and sexual violence in, for example, Titus Andronicus, as well as the more mundane but ubiquitous racism and misogyny throughout the plays. Students might reflect on their own embodied reactions to such moments, and could use these responses as a basis for critique or to evaluate whether and how such works should in fact be taught and performed.

Decenter Western Academic Epistemologies and Practices

The academy traditionally privileges individualistic and detached modes of critique that ask students, particularly BIPOC students, to disavow their embodied identities. A decolonial pedagogy, by contrast, works with students to combine critique with other ways of knowing, including the corporeal, the affective, and the spiritual. In remix projects, for example, our students have created songs, paintings, photo essays, sculptures, dances, and altars relating to themes in the plays. Moreover, performance projects can accomplish this work, given the embodied, collaborative model of the theater, both in the early modern period and today. In addition, we have incorporated a greater emphasis on reflective writing, a student-centered practice that helps students integrate their ideas and embodied responses.

Employ Anti-Racist Assessment

Given the role of grades in evaluating and determing student success, it is crucial to consider their role in perpetuating racist colonial hierarchies. We suggest consulting Asao B. Inoue’s work on anti-racist assessment and labor-based grading, as he encourages us to resist the idealization of colonial standards of expression and to seek other ways of measuring students’ contributions.

Implementing these principles and practices has energized our classrooms. Students have expressed excitement about the idea of creating knowledge alongside — and sometimes in resistance to — Shakespeare, and have felt empowered to draw on their own cultures, histories, and languages. We believe, moreover, that such efforts will help attract BIPOC students to early modern studies, which, as Kimberly Anne Coles, Kim F. Hall, and Ayanna Thompson argue in their recent call to action, is necessary for our field’s continued relevance. More broadly, a culturally sustaining approach resists reinscribing the linguistic and cultural violence that so easily and subtly inheres in many Shakespearean classrooms, and it helps BIPOC students displace internalized forms of oppression that are fostered by traditional pedagogical environments. This work is fraught and necessarily incomplete within the confines of the neoliberal university, but it is essential if we hope to disrupt the colonial and white supremacist forces that have molded Shakespeare reception and the academy more broadly.


Katherine Gillen is Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University–San Antonio. Her work focuses on constructions of race and gender in early modern drama and on Shakespeare adaptation and appropriation, particularly Latinx Shakespeare. Her book Chaste Value: Economic Crisis, Female Chastity, and the Production of Social Difference on Shakespeare’s Stage (2017) was published on Edinburgh University Press, and she is currently working on a monograph titled Race, Rome, and Early Modern Drama: The Whitening of England and the Classical World.

Lisa Gay Jennings was born in Kingston, Jamaica and immigrated to the United States during her teens. She earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from Florida State University. Her research interests include early modern English poetry, Shakespeare, critical race studies and gender and sexuality studies. Her scholarship centers on forms of dissent in early modern English poetry as well as Caribbean poetry. Currently, she is examining alchemic and medieval manuscripts of the English Renaissance in order to ascertain how Spenser appropriates alchemic emblems for the The Faerie Queene as a means of establishing discourses on sexuality and race.

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