UNDOING NATIONALIST LEANINGS IN TEACHING Shakespeare

Shakespeare is universal

 

Answers to a questionnaire given to first year students majoring in English:

¨ Shakespeare is universal and hence our contemporary.

¨ Eminescu is Romania/ Romania is Eminescu.

¨ Shakespeare is similar to Eminescu; they both embody the national spirit of their respective countries. The major difference between the two derives from the small circulation of the Romanian language.

¨ We are more interested in Shakespeare's poetry and in his characters than in historical information on his age. We strongly dislike history as it deals with politics and conflicts.

These are the statements with the highest recurrence in the answers to the questionnaires I have given my students these past two years. Interestingly the second statement on our national poet Mihai Eminescu is a quotation from an essay that has been reprinted over and over again in schoolbooks as a definitive judgment on whatever poem by Eminescu is taught. One can easily infer that Eminescu is held up as an icon of our national culture, an embodiment of the Romanian spirit, and that the readings forged by our educational policies are largely nationalistic.[1] The feeble attempt at a revisionary approach that was launched a few years rethinking of our national history, when included in a textbook for high school students, has caused fierce debates in parliament, where the proposal was advanced to publicly burn the respective textbook.)

What has been highly intriguing to me is the fact that nationalist views and beliefs have increasingly insinuated themselves in the students' understanding of Shakespeare. This is all the more shocking as Shakespeare was long thought to enjoy a "privileged" position in a quite cosmopolitan cultural area that prided itself on preserving a safe distance from the aggressive invasion of nationalist discourses.

Teaching Shakespeare to first year students has often meant undertaking a painstaking process of contesting nationalist attitudes, of deconstructing deeply set beliefs and visions, of undoing familiar practices employed in understanding high culture. This paper will investigate the causes behind many of the resistances I have encountered in promoting an alternative, radical approach to Shakespeare and it will also discuss some of the negotiations that could be considered when teaching revisionary Anglo-American approaches at university level.

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