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Reviewed by:
  • Teaching Social Justice Through Shakespeare: Why Renaissance Literature Matters Now ed. by Hillary Eklund and Wendy Beth Hyman
  • James Kuzner (bio)
Review of Hillary Eklund and Wendy Beth Hyman, ed. Teaching Social Justice Through Shakespeare: Why Renaissance Literature Matters Now. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019. xv + 271 pages. $110 (hardcover).

Teaching Social Justice Through Shakespeare felt urgently needed in 2019. Writing this review in the summer of 2020—on the eve of an election and in the midst of not only an inequality-exacerbating pandemic but also the most recent season of racist violence in the United States—the urgency feels so much the greater. Eklund and Hyman have assembled an extraordinary array of essays, ones that draw Shakespeare into discussions of (among other things) race, gender and gender identity, disability, incarceration, and environmental devastation. Taking a cue, in a sense, from Ayanna Thompson and Laura Turchi’s Teaching Shakespeare with a Purpose: A Student-Centered Approach (2016), Eklund and Hyman contend that although teachers do and should engage in “helping our students evaluate evidence, parse rhetoric, and engage in a thoughtful contest of ideas”—and although this, in itself, may have political value—we “must also use our expertise to promote justice in more direct ways” (2). Most of the collection’s essays, accordingly, focus on doing just this. The book is full of insights about successes, failures, and sheer possibilities for furthering social justice in postsecondary classrooms, and [End Page 115] should be read by anyone in position to continue this critical work by way of Shakespeare.

The collection includes an introduction, twenty-one essays organized into five sections, and an afterword. The first section, “Defamiliarizing Shakespeare,” features essays that show how authors work to unsettle a sense of Shakespeare as “something students may suppose they already know” (11). Because students sometimes approach Shakespeare as a familiar—and unchallengeable—authority, Adhaar Noor Desai decenters both Shakespeare and himself as classroom authorities, encouraging students to “riff” on a given word or phrase in a play, to trust their interpretive instincts, and, in that way, to “claim Shakespeare for themselves” (28). Sawyer Kemp, exposing limits to upholding Shakespeare as a familiar authority on transgender issues in particular, highlights how Shakespearean moments of passing (Rosalind as Ganymede or Portia as Balthazar, for instance) in fact trade in a “magical transvestism” (38) that is “incoherent with the experience of anyone attempting to transition today” (37). Rather than look to Shakespeare as modeling the experience of transition, Kemp rightly argues, we need to think of better ways “to visit the past to serve the present” (43), ways that could involve tracing striking parallels between, say, Hamlet’s travails and the current transgender struggle.

Allison Hobgood, a third example from this section, works to defamiliarize Shakespeare by practicing what she calls a “pedagogy of disorientation,” one that “encourages everyone, including teachers, away from fear, stoic ‘empiricism,’ and the need for mastery toward immersive, deeply affective, real-time experiential learning” (49). One way such pedagogy manifests, for Hobgood, is by involving a wide range of recent Shakespearean adaptations. In the case of Macbeth, Hobgood includes not only Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, but also Manga Shakespeare and Courtney Carbone’s Macbeth #killing it from the OMG Shakespeare series, and in so doing Hobgood found herself better equipped to discuss mental illness with students. They could better explore “not only whether or why Macbeth ‘loses his mind’ over the course of the play, but also how we are encouraged, through stigmatizing cultural narratives and biases, to understand atypical mental functioning and behavior as ‘abnormal’ ” (51). Decentering Macbeth itself makes for the productive sort of disorientation that helps students question their sense of what “normal” is and means.

The collection’s second section, “Decolonizing Shakespeare,” is foremost concerned with issues of race and, particularly, of whether and how Shakespeare might be de-linked from white supremacist aims. Jason M. Demeter, [End Page 116] for example, describes how he designed a class aimed at challenging Shakespeare’s status as “the exclusive property of a white majority culture” (67). To do so, Demeter paired Shakespeare’s plays with works by (among others) James Baldwin, August Wilson, Carlyle...


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pp. 115-120
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