Shakespeare, History and ‘Cancel Culture’

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By Sabine Schülting (English Philology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany)

Sabine Schülting. Photo by Judith Affolter.

In an article published in September 2020, Peter-André Alt, Professor of German Literature at Freie Universität Berlin and President of the German University Rectors’ Conference (HRK), complains that contemporary culture seems to have lost any interest in history. Schoolbooks adapt the literary languages of the past to our present-day idiom, he notes, and the classical heroes and heroines – “Medea and Hamlet, Faustus and Cleopatra” – are contemporized, on both stage and screen. He concludes: “Today, we are living in the age of the posthistoire. We want the past to resemble us, and when it doesn’t, we won’t have any of it. This is particularly true of ‘Cancel Culture’, which wants to delete the testimonies of the past from the collective memory if they hurt our current sensibilities.”[1] Rejecting such presentist approaches, he insists on the alterity of the past: “To begin with, historical understanding has to address the differences that separate the life of the past from today.”

My contribution to the debate about “The Place of the Humanities in the 21st Century” will take this short statement as its point of departure. In particular, I want to explore the somewhat surprising link between a critique of presentism, on the one hand, and a rejection of ‘Cancel Culture,’ on the other. Writing from the perspective of a scholar in English Literature and Culture, with a particular interest in Shakespeare, Cultural History, Gender Studies and Transculturalism, I will explore the implications of Alt’s statement for current debates in the Humanities and suggest an alternative approach that moves beyond his binary opposition between presentism and historicism.

* * *

‘Cancelling’ refers to the withdrawal of support, especially in social media, for people whose public statements or actions are considered to advocate racism, sexism or homophobia, openly or implicitly.[2] The heated debate on this phenomenon has spilled over from the US to Europe and Germany in the last year or two. If we are to believe its critics, ‘Cancel Culture’ represents a major threat to the freedom of speech, academic freedom, and ‘our’ literary and cultural heritage. In addition to the massive media coverage of individual cases (such as the controversy around the Dutch translation of Amada Gorman’s poem recited at the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States[3]), there are initiatives and measures targeted specifically at or emerging from Higher Education institutions. This includes, for instance, the planned appointment of Free Speech Champions at British universities and the foundation of the German Network for Academic Freedom. In these debates, the charge ‘Cancel Culture’ is frequently used as an expedient argument to denigrate critics. Admittedly, not every accusation distributed via social media may be justified, and individual instances of ‘cancelling’ may have been unnecessarily cruel, but in the majority of cases, the criticism that is voiced deserves to be considered. Societal changes are always accompanied by passionate cultural debates, which, in turn, function as catalysts of transformation, as the Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements show vividly. The statement ‘Cancel Culture’ is, however, a sledgehammer argument which dismisses any critical intervention as purely ideological, hence, unfounded and irrational. As Eve Fairbanks contends in an article for the Washington Post: “Such a statement positions the speaker as the rational one and burdens the other party to hedge himself so as not to sound hysterical. It also deflects the argument from its true subject to a dispute over its form – the other person’s way of presenting their complaint.”[4]

The debate becomes grotesque when the claim is that canonical writers, such as Shakespeare, have been cancelled. In mid-February 2021, Amanda MacGregor published an article for the American School Library Journal. Under the heading “How to teach Shakespeare? That is the question”, MacGregor discusses Shakespeare’s relevance for contemporary students and reports that many teachers have come “to the conclusion that it’s time for Shakespeare to be set aside or deemphasized to make room for modern, diverse, and inclusive voices.”[5] The publication provoked an outcry from conservative media: Among others, Lee Brown on Fox News feared that William Shakespeare would be “ditched by woke teachers over ‘misogyny, racism’”; and Harriet Alexander, writing for the Daily Mail, revealed “How ‘woke’ English teachers have cancelled Shakespeare because of his ‘white supremacy, misogyny, racism and classism’ – and are instead using his plays to lecture in ‘toxic masculinity and Marxism’.”[6] If Shakespeare has been ‘cancelled,’ does this imply an infringement of free speech? Has the epitome of English literary history been sadly silenced and replaced by second-rate contemporary novels? And is this the posthistoire deletion of “the testimonies of the past” that Peter-André Alt complains about? In fact, MacGregor does not even call for a removal of Shakespeare from school syllabi but rather recommends the inclusion of authors that have not traditionally been read, including the literature of Black and People of Colour as well as texts from the Global South. The frenzied reports use the adjective ‘woke’ and its association with left-wing political correctness as a polemic battle cry against scholars and teachers who challenge Shakespeare’s canonical status, highlight the embeddedness of his plays in racist or patriarchal discourses and explore the instrumentalization of ‘the Bard’ in British colonialism. The angry responses seem to be driven by an aversion against any changes to an age-old status quo and the traditional distribution of cultural capital. Old age is believed to guarantee quality – but alas, literature is not red wine.

How do the Humanities come in? In fact, they are not distant observers but form an integral part of these controversies. Linguists, literary scholars, scholars in pedagogy and cultural historians – among them Black and People of Colour – have a lot to say about what is currently at stake: the role of High Culture and the canon; the form and content of cultural memory and tradition; the legacy of a history of social inequalities and violence; the question of who is entitled to speak and in what arenas; the power of language and literature as well as their potential to interrogate long-established power relations. By engaging in these debates, the Humanities do not ‘ditch’ history at all but explore the ways in which the past and the present are inextricably interrelated.

There may indeed be alternatives to the binary between presentism and historicism that Peter-André Alt sets up, and I would like to suggest “cross-historicism” as one such approach. I have borrowed the term from Shakespeare scholar Peter Erickson, who uses it to methodologically reflect on his reading of Othello, Shakespeare’s play about the Black general in the service of Venice who tragically kills his Venetian wife Desdemona because he wrongly believes her to be unfaithful. In his analysis of the play, Erickson establishes a dynamic dialogue “that allows the past to engage and interact with the contemporary and that enables us to keep crisscrossing back and forth between these two distinct worlds.”[7] Such a reading does not proceed from the ahistorical uniformity of a posthistoire, but neither does it assume an unbridgeable chasm that separates “these two distinct worlds.” This latter approach is prone to inadvertently condoning racist violence in the past (or misogyny, as it were) when it insists on the alterity of premodern mentalities. Erickson instead argues for a perspective that is interested in historical differences and continuities. This is particularly pertinent, he insists, when it comes to analyzing the complex history of ‘race,’ because Shakespeare’s Othello “does not contain within the play itself an internal critical framework fully adequate to the racial issues it raises. Such a framework has to be brought to bear by us from outside.”[8] An explicitly present-day focus – sharpened through Critical Race Theory and our current knowledge about the history of European racism – allows Erickson to tease out the subliminal con-texts of the Shakespearean play: the early modern Mediterranean as a contact zone between Northern Africa and Southern Europe; the European slave trade across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic; Black presence in early modern Europe and the silencing of Black voices. In the course of this, Shakespeare is not transformed into “our contemporary” (Jan Kott),[9] but such a reading similarly refrains from locating early modern concepts of Blackness in a safe historical distance which we can study with intellectual detachment. Instead, it insists on the relevance of these readings for societies in the 21st century, which are not as ‘post-racial’ as some tend to believe. A “crisscrossing” between the past and the present discloses contradictory historical relations, without positing any linear or teleological continuity. Both moments in time are understood as “histories in motion,”[10] incessantly impacting and modifying each other.

Erickson focuses on what he calls “race words” in Othello (e.g. “fair” and “black,” “slavery,” “Barbary coast”) as the nodal points of his cross-historical approach. However, his aim is not to sanitize the text from any racist terms that may “hurt our current sensibilities.” And like MacGregor, Erickson, nevertheless, contends that some kind of decentering of Shakespeare is necessary in order for Literary Studies to gain critical force in today’s academic and cultural debates: “Shakespeare remains part of the conversation but as another voice, not automatically as the definitive authority or the go-to resource for cultural sustenance.”[11] As new conference series and networks such as RaceB4Race (Arizona State University) or the Globe’s “Shakespeare and Race” project (#ShakeRace) show, intellectual and aesthetic encounters between the early modern and our contemporary age can be highly productive and foster change – not only in academia. This is not ‘Cancel Culture.’

[1] Peter-André Alt, “Die Geschichte ist das Andere”, Berliner Zeitung, September 24, 2020, [accessed: 06.04.2021]. Translations are by the author.

[2] Eve Ng, “No Grand Pronouncements Here…: Reflections on Cancel Culture and Digital Media Participation“, Television and Media 21.6, 2020, 621-627, 623.

[3] The controversy was triggered by a comment written by Janice Deul, published in the Dutch daily Volkskrant on February 25, 2021. The article argued that the publisher’s decision to have the poem translated by the successful (White, non-binary) Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was a “lost chance.” Janice Deul suggested that someone like Gorman – “a spoken word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black” – might have been a better choice. When Rijneveld withdrew from the project, the discussion went viral, with many statements simplifying Deul’s intervention and reading it as an example of misdirected identity politics.

[4] Eve Fairbanks, “The ‘cancel culture’ debate gets the fight for free speech entirely wrong”, The Washington Post, July 28, 2020, [accessed: 06.04.2021].

[5] Amanda MacGregor, “How To Teach the Bard”, School Library Journal, 67.1 (January 2021), 29-32, 29.

[6] Lee Brown, “William Shakespeare ditched by woke teachers over ‘misogyny, racism’”, Fox News, February 17, 2021, [accessed: 06.04.2021]. Harriet Alexander, “REVEALED: How ‘woke’ English teachers have cancelled Shakespeare”, Daily Mail (online), February 16, 2021, [accessed: 06.04.2021].

[7] Peter Erickson, “Race Words in Othello”, in Ruben Espinosa and David Ruiter (eds.), Shakespeare and Immigration, Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2014, 159-176, 159.

[8] Erickson, “Race Words in Othello,” 173.

[9] Jan Kott, Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, trans. by Boleslaw Taborski, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.

[10] Erickson, “Race Words in Othello,” 172.

[11] Erickson, “Race Words in Othello,” 173.

Sabine Schülting is Professor of English at Freie Universität Berlin (Germany). Her research focuses on early modern and 19th-century literatures and cultures, Shakespeare, Gender Studies and transcultural encounters. She is the editor of Shakespeare Jahrbuch, and her book publications include the co-edited collection Early Modern Encounters with the Islamic East: Performing Cultures (Ashgate, 2012), and two monographs: Dirt in Victorian Literature and Culture: Writing Materiality (Routledge, 2016) and, co-authored with Zeno Ackermann, Precarious Figurations: Shylock on the German Stage, 1920–2010 (De Gruyter, 2019).

This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021

Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021

Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021

Citation: Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History and ‘Cancel Culture’, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research,, 03.06.2021

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2021, 3. Juni). Shakespeare, History and ‘Cancel Culture’. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 17. Juni 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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