To be banned or not to be banned? That is the question

Anthony Matury, Staff Writer

Shakespeare is known for his variety of plays — such as Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and several others, his 100+ sonnets, and many other forms of literature, making him one of the most famous writers in history.

With many great things comes controversy. In the School Library Journal January 2021 issue, Amanda MacGregor, librarian, bookseller, and journalist, questioned why Shakespeare was still being taught in schools. 

“Shakespeare’s works are full of problematic, outdated ideas, with plenty of misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism and misogynoir,” writes MacGregor.

Shakespeare was born and raised in the 16th Century, a time when everything MacGregor mentioned was deemed normal. Hatred towards blacks, women, homosexuals, poor and rich, Jews, and black women was accepted in the 1500’s. With all of the conversation and controversy floating around, choices have to be made, and it boils down to one of Hamlet’s most famous lines, “To be, or not to be.” Get rid of all of it or don’t get rid of anything. 

Lorena German, National Council of Teachers of English Anti-Racism Committee chair, argues for the complete removal of Shakespeare from schools. German is also a co-founder for the Disrupt Texts forum, which advocates for a wide range of literature to study, which is ironic considering she’s pushing to remove a popular and influential author from this “wide range.” She made a series of tweets in 2018 about if Shakespeare should still be taught. One of those tweets reads: 

“Everything about the fact that he was a man of his time is problematic about his plays. We cannot teach Shakespeare responsibly and not disrupt the ways people are characterized and developed.”

Many teachers in the United States already made the choice to either remove or replace Shakespeare in their curriculum. Claire Bruncke, a teacher at Ilwaco High School in Washington state replaced Shakespeare with “’anthologies and novels not typically found in the canon.” 

She said that she got a positive response from her students with this decision. Liz Matthews, an English teacher at Hartford Public High School in Connecticut, replaced Romeo and Juliet with The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.  Honorable mentions include Twelfth Night being banned in Merrimack, N.H., for “encouraging homosexuality” and The Merchant of Venice being banned in Buffalo and Manchester, N.Y., for anti-semitism in 1931. 

Additionally, in the case of Rosenberg v. Board of Education of the City of New York in 1949, two Jewish parents filed a lawsuit because they claimed that assigningThe Merchant of Venice, “violated the rights of [their] children to receive an education free of religious bias.” The ban on Shakespeare has reached as far as to Tucson, Ariz., where schools banned a set list of books, one of them being Shakespeare’s The Tempest for violating Arizona Revised Statutes § 15-112 A, which says:

A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:


1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.


2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.


3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.


4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.


One teacher in particular agreed to remove Shakespeare from the classroom, but not for any of MacGregor’s reasons. Mark Powell, an associate director at Salisbury Playhouse in Salisbury, UK, wrote that, “Shakespeare’s language isn’t intended to be desk-bound; it’s crafted for stage.” He also argues that dramatic literature is, “a playground of opinions”, meaning that the answers that teachers are supposed to have aren’t the definite answers, and that they should be explored by the actors and audiences instead. 

Some teachers have made the choice not to remove Shakespeare from their teachings, but instead have taught his work in a way that works with real-world problems. Adriana Adame, a teacher in Texas, used Hamlet to discuss coping mechanisms and grief. Elizabeth Neilson, a teacher in Twin Cities Academy in Minnesota, said she used Coriolanus to discuss Marxist theory. 

Rachel Burgess, a writer for the Odyssey, writes about how Shakespeare’s works focus on modern day issues, crafted a large portion of the English language, and delves into human nature. She explains how Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra deal with suicide, a sensitive topic, but a prevalent one nonetheless. Burgess mentions how Shakespeare created words, such as uncomfortable, swagger, bedazzled, addiction, and arch-enemy. Burgess uses Shakespeare’s Macbeth to explain “the dark side of a human wanting more.”

However, someone long ago decided on a third option. Thomas Bowdler, an English physician, decided to make The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, “family friendly.”

In 1818, Bowdler published ”Family Shakespeare”, which removed 90 percent of the stories and, “made a mockery of some of the greatest prose in the English language,” R. Wolf Baldassarro said.

The debate on banning Shakespeare is still going on today, though it’s a lesser known and talked about topic. Is banning Shakespeare’s works from being taught the right thing to do? Is banning an author a violation of our First Amendment freedom of press? These are some of the questions that are being asked as I write this.