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  • Teaching Shakespeare Literacy through the Sonnets in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Arturo’s Flight”
  • Carol N. Moe (bio)

The fictional teachers, Mrs. Roody from Zadie Smith’s 2000 novel White Teeth and Miss Rathbone from Ortiz Cofer’s 1996 short story “Arturo’s Flight,” know that they must instill an appreciation for Shakespeare in their students. After all, Shakespeare is, arguably, the greatest English writer of all time. Furthermore, the fictional teachers know that appreciation of Shakespeare’s works serves as a key, the secret handshake of the literate, a litmus test for the educated. They know that being able to read and understand Shakespeare demonstrates academic ability while not being able to read and understand Shakespeare is perceived as not being intellectual.1 These fictional teachers show us, however, that appreciating Shakespeare does not mean the same thing to all teachers. For Mrs. Roody, appreciation needs to be based on traditional interpretations. Knowing Shakespeare means having a type of objective knowledge like grammar and punctuation. To be Shakespeare literate in Mrs. Roody’s classroom, students must memorize what published critics and historical experts have said about the works. On the other hand, for Miss Rathbone, appreciation is based on making Shakespeare’s works relevant to her students’ lives. Knowing Shakespeare means having worked through and analyzed the text. To be Shakespeare literate in Miss Rathbone’s classroom, students must discover their own interpretations.

Analyzing in further detail the two examples of Mrs. Roody’s and Miss Rathbone’s teaching of the sonnets reveals how we as teachers can greatly affect the Shakespeare literacy that students develop, particularly in classrooms with academically and economically marginalized students. Because studying Shakespeare carries such academic and cultural capital, teachers can mistakenly believe that just giving students the “right” interpretations of the work is sufficient for the students’ development and educational enrichment. However, the Mrs. Roody example shows that expecting that students merely internalize the “right” interpretations of Shakespeare can be an alienating and disempowering experience for students whereas the Ortiz Cofer example of Miss Rathbone demonstrates that encouraging students to read and interpret Shakespeare in a way that is relevant to their lives empowers students. While literacy and education supposedly provide access or upward mobility to all students, but [End Page 256] critically in the case of the marginalized, such access becomes possible only when students believe they have been given the right to use that literacy and education. If students cannot see Shakespeare as anything other than old ideas they must memorize, then there is no impetus for them to learn to appreciate Shakespeare. If those students that do not or cannot or will not learn to read and understand Shakespeare are then seen as not taking advantage of the academic opportunities open to them, they are denied the social access and personal enrichment that education such as Shakespeare literacy is supposed to provide. Furthermore, they can be marked as unintelligent or as ignorant by choice and as such as contributing to their own marginalization.

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

In Smith’s novel, the teacher, Mrs. Roody, plays only a small, but important, part in one section of the novel. Prior to the scene where her British high-school class discusses the sonnets, the protagonists of the book have been two middle-aged men, one British, one Bangladeshi, living in England. For Mrs. Roody’s scene, the protagonist switches to the British man’s daughter, Irie Jones, while she is studying the sonnets in her high school English class, which is composed of mostly white students but also some of color (Mrs. Roody is white and Scottish). In the scene at issue, Irie, who already feels physically alienated because she is overweight and half Jamaican, is further alienated intellectually by her teacher, who insists on a strict interpretation of the sonnets—that is, what she herself studied when a student. Smith’s framing of the scene, however, highlights the solipsism in the way that Shakespeare has been taught—as an objective lesson, rather than as literature that could be used to develop interpretive and analytical skills, and as a history lesson, rather than as a...


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pp. 256-267
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