How We Got Here: A Theory

The United States is a mess right now. Beset by a corrupt president and his corporate cronies, plagued by a — um — plague, Americans are experiencing an attack on democracy from within. So just how did we get to this point in history?

I’ve given it a bit of thought, and I’ve come up with a theory. Like many theories, it’s built on a certain amount of critical observation and a large degree of personal experience. Marry those things to each other, and you can often explain even the most puzzling enigmas. Here, then, is my stab at explaining how American society became so divisive that agreement on any political topic has become virtually impossible, leaving a vaccuum so large and so empty that corruption and the will to power can ensure political victory.

I maintain that this ideological binarism in the United States is caused by two things: prejudice (racism has, in many ways, always determined our political reality), and lack of critical thinking skills (how else could so many people fail to see Trump for what he really is and what he really represents?) Both of these problems result from poor education. For example, prejudice certainly exists in all societies, but the job of a proper education in a free society is to eradicate, or at least to combat, prejudice and flawed beliefs. Similarly, critical thinking skills, while amorphous and hard to define, can be acquired through years of education, whether by conducting experiements in chemistry lab or by explicating Shakespeare’s sonnets. It follows, then, that something must be radically wrong with our educational system for close to half of the population of the United States to be fooled into thinking that Donald Trump can actually be good for this country, much less for the world at large.

In short, there has always been a possibility that a monster like Trump would appear on the political scene. Education should have saved us from having to watch him for the last four years, and the last month in particular, as he tried to dismantle our democracy. Yet it didn’t. So the question we have to ask is this: Where does the failure in education lie?

The trendy answer would be that this failure is a feature, not a bug, in American education, which was always designed to mis-educate the population in order to make it more pliable, more willing to follow demogogues such as Trump. But I’m not satisfied with this answer. It’s too easy, and more important, it doesn’t help us get back on track by addressing the failure (if that’s even possible at this point). So I kept searching for an explanation.

I’ve come up with the following premises. First, the divisions in the country are caused by a lack of shared values–this much is clear. For nearly half the American people, Trump is the apotheosis of greedy egotism, a malignant narcissist who is willing to betray, even to destroy, his country in order to get what he wants, so that he can “win” at the system. For the other half, Trump is a breath of fresh air, a non-politician who was willing to stride into the morass of Washington in order to clean it up and set American business back on its feet. These two factions will never be able to agree–not on the subject of Trump, and very likely, not on any other subject of importance to Americans.

It follows that these two views are irreconcilable precisely because they reflect a dichotomy in values. Values are the intrinsic beliefs that an individual holds about what’s right and wrong; when those beliefs are shared by a large enough group, they become an ethical system. Ethics, the shared sense of right and wrong, seems to be important in a society; as we watch ours disintegrate, we can see that without a sense of ethics, society splinters into factions. Other countries teach ethics as a required subject in high school classes; in the United States, however, only philosophy majors in universities ever take classes on ethics. Most Americans, we might once have said, don’t need such classes, since they experience their ethics every day. If that ever was true, it certainly isn’t so any more.

Yet I would argue that Americans used to have an ethical belief system. We certainly didn’t live up to it, and it was flawed in many ways, but it did exist, and that’s very different from having no ethical system at all. It makes sense to postulate that some time back around the turn of the 21st century, ethics began to disappear from society. I’m not saying that people became unethical, but rather that ethics ceased to matter, and as it faded away, it ceased to exist as a kind of social glue that could hold Americans together.

I think I know how this happened, but be warned: my view is pretty far-fetched. Here goes. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, literary theory poached upon the realm of philosophy, resulting in a collection of theories that insisted a literary text could be read in any number of ways, and that no single reading of a text was the authoritative one. This kind of reading and interpretation amounted to an attack on the authority of the writer and the dominant ideology that produced him or her, as it destabilized the way texts were written, read, and understood. I now see that just as the text became destabilized with this new way of reading, so did everything else. In other words, if an English professor could argue that Shakespeare didn’t belong in the literary canon any longer, that all texts are equally valid and valuable (I’ve argued this myself at times), the result is an attack not only on authority (which was the intention), but also on communality, by which I mean society’s shared sense of what it values, whether it’s Hamlet or Gilligan’s Island. This splintering of values was exacerbated by the advent of cable television and internet music sources; no one was watching or listening to the same things any more, and it became increasingly harder to find any shared ideological place to begin discussions. In other words, the flip side of diversity and multiplicity–noble goals in and of themselves–is a dark one, and now, forty years on, we are witnessing the social danger inherent in dismantling not only the canon, but any system of judgment to assess its contents as well.

Here’s a personal illustration. A couple of years ago, I taught a college Shakespeare class, and on a whim I asked my students to help me define characters from Coriolanus using Dungeons and Dragons character alignment patterns. It was the kind of exercise that would have been a smashing success in my earlier teaching career, the very thing that garnered me three teaching awards within five years. But this time it didn’t work. No one was watching the same television shows, reading the same books, or remembering the same historical events, and so there was no way to come up with good examples that worked for the entire class to illustrate character types. I began to see then that a splintered society might be freeing, but at what cost if we had ceased to be able to communicate effectively?

It’s not a huge leap to get from that Shakespeare class to the fragmentation of a political ideology that leaves, in the wreckage it’s produced, the door wide open to oligarchy, kleptocracy, and fascism. There are doubtless many things to blame, but surely one of them is the kind of socially irresponsible literary theory that we played around with back in the 1980s. I distinctly remember one theorist saying something to the effect that no one has ever been shot for being a deconstructionist, and while that may be true, it is not to say that deconstructionist theory, or any kind of theory that regards its work as mere play, is safe for the society it inhabits. Indeed, we may well be witnessing how very dangerous unprincipled theoretical play can turn out to be, even decades after it has held sway.

Everything You’ve Been Taught to Think about Shakespeare Is Probably Wrong


After teaching an intensive Shakespeare class week, I have to admit it: Shakespeare is difficult. It’s hard to understand the plays and poems he wrote, but apparently, it’s of the utmost importance that we all do—after all, knowledge of Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar is what separates the educated from the uneducated in the United States. That’s why we make our high school students spend so much time on these plays: we want them to be educated and knowledgeable about their culture, and Shakespeare is about as cultured as you can get in high school.

There’s only one thing wrong with this picture, which is just about everything.

I’m not going to get into the argument that plagued higher education a generation ago, when scholars argued about whether it really was important for students to know and understand the plays of a dead white male that were written about a time long past. You can read about that debate here, if you’re interested in it. Today, I’m not concerned about whether we study Shakespeare at all, but rather about the ways in which Shakespeare is distorted to fit into the high school curriculum.

There are several reasons for this distortion. First of all, the study of Shakespeare in American high schools is fraught with shame, and this shame has nothing to do with the content of the plays (although we will talk more about that in a moment). Think back to your high school days–if you’re a high school teacher, think back to the last time you had to teach Shakespeare. In all likelihood, there were parts of the play you did not understand. Whether it was the difficult language or the confusing character names (really Shakespeare? Grumio and Gremio in the same play?), or the convoluted plot, there was something you just didn’t get. When this happens, as it does all the time, even with college professors and scholars, we tend to cover it up, ignore it, pray that no one asks questions about it. As far as Shakespeare goes, we are taught early on to play the emperor’s-new-clothes game. If we don’t advertise the fact that we don’t get the play, don’t understand the language, and don’t see why Shakespeare is so important, then maybe we can pass for a truly educated person. The problem with this is that while high school students aren’t incredibly quick to understand Shakespeare, they are very quick to identify our discomfort, and it distances them from the pleasure of reading and understanding Shakespeare.

Secondly, high school is apparently not a suitable place to study Shakespeare–hence the censorship that Shakespeare must undergo in order to make the plays fit for consumption. All of Shakespeare’s plays deal with sexuality in one form or another–every single one of them. We are hypocrites when we say that teenagers should understand Shakespeare all the better for this but refuse to identify the truly raunchy parts of the plays for them, passages which go unnoticed because of the archaic language and difficult references. A poem like Venus and Adonis is, after all, intensely erotic, pretty much soft-core porn, and would engender numerous complaints if it were placed on a high school syllabus. Until we can deal effectively with the problem of censorship in our high schools, Shakespeare will continue to be despised by our students. High school will continue to be, in the words of a wise student of mine, where Shakespeare goes to die. (Thanks, Jordan!)

But maybe you are one of the lucky ones. Maybe you made it through high school and even college without conceiving a distaste for Shakespeare. Congratulations! But even so, you may still face a serious problem with Shakespeare, and that’s that most of his plays are completely misunderstood today. Here are just a few examples: Julius Caesar, which we all suffered through in 10th or 11th grade, is not about Julius Caesar, a throw-away character who dies before the play is even half over. And Mark Anthony is not the hero of the play, as he is so often made out to be: he is a wretched opportunist who capitalizes on his patron’s murder. The play is really about Brutus; it’s about how difficult it is to respond to tyranny in a truly humane and civilized way. Likewise, Romeo and Juliet is not just a play about love; rather, it’s really about rebellion. I don’t think we are meant to feel heartsick about the ending of the play, as we do about its modern counterpart, West Side Story. The ending of the play should, if done correctly, make us feel angry at the insipid young lovers and the utter waste of life they leave scattered in their reckless–and rebellious–wake.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Shakespeare has been taught all wrong for too many years. Whether it’s worthwhile to study works from a period and a culture so distant from ours is up for debate, but surely  it cannot be right to study them in a way that distorts their true meaning, fostering disdain, shame, and disinterest among so many of us. As for me, I look forward to a time when we can openly admit our confusion about Shakespeare, when we can be honest about the raucous and delightfully filthy language in his plays, and when we can challenge the stale interpretations that have been handed down to us, replacing them with our own outrageously creative readings.



My Life as Queen Margaret

Brian Bedford as Richard III; Maggie Smith as Queen Margaret,
Stratford Shakespeare 1977, from Guilded Butterflies

A couple of weeks ago, my Shakespeare class read Richard III. Since the last Plantagenet monarch’s remains were found just about a year ago, it seemed only fitting to delve into the play that has since become known as a Tudor spin job. The play is just as I remembered it, only perhaps a little worse–definitely not Shakespeare’s best. There’s no deep insight into human nature, no acute depictions of suffering (although the scene in which Queen Elizabeth speaks to the walls of the Tower, begging them to protect her sons, is pretty good). True, the Duke of Clarence is quite a cool guy, but he gets drowned, famously, in a butt of Malmsey wine, which makes for an interesting demise but unfortunately occurs offstage.


To be blunt, Richard III is an uninteresting story of unmotivated evil versus unwitting–indeed, absolutely clueless–good, which only wins out in the end because it has to in order to be historically accurate. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that it’s a dog of a play. Still, I do have a favorite character in Richard III, although it’s occurred to me that I may be the only person who actually likes Queen Margaret.

Queen Margaret is a character who really has no business being in the play at all: she is the wife of the previous king, a ruler who, before the action of the play starts, had already been deposed and killed, along with their son. By all rights, this woman–the remnant of the previous regime– should be under lock and key, if not in a tomb herself. So why is she  free to wander around the court, cursing people at will, popping on stage at various moments to call forth doom and destruction on pretty much everyone? There’s really not a good explanation for her presence in the play, and that intrigues me, although you can read a very good undergraduate analysis of her function here.

Actually, I like Queen M out of sheer perversity: I  love the fact that she’s a cranky old anachronism. In fact, I’ve noticed that my 20-year-old cat is very much like Queen Margaret. Most of the  time, Blackie is quiet, sleeping in the warmest spot she can find. But every so often, she slinks around the house, howling at the top of her feline lungs, just as Margaret stomps across the stage, hurling curses. Perhaps in creating Queen Margaret, Shakespeare was making a comment about the impunity of old age. After all, survival against the odds, whether calculated in terms of regime change or just in extensive years of a cat’s life, endows one with a certain freedom of speech that exists solely to make other people uncomfortable.

Blackie, aka Queen Margaret

Sometimes, I feel like Queen Margaret myself. There are days that I wander around, making outrageously pessimistic comments that few people listen to. “Climate change is going to destroy civilization as we know it,” I announce, and no one bats an eye. Or, on a more personal note, “Don’t worry about your student loans–global economic meltdown will occur in the next ten years. You’ll never have to pay them back!” People just stare at me, then make the obvious choice to ignore me, and life goes on.

So, let me pay tribute here to the Queen Margarets out there, those of us who go about cursing, muttering, hollering, and generally making pests of ourselves. The world needs our nasty, incisive comments from time to time, even if it takes no note of them. After all, without Queen Margaret, Richard III would be just another play about a dead king–and heaven knows we have enough of those.

The skeleton of Richard III, from