“Shakespeare’s works,” the School Library Journal tells us, “are full of problematic, outdated ideas, with plenty of misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism, and misogynoir.” There follows a litany of complaints from school teachers who have dropped the world’s greatest writer because, being white, he supposedly has nothing to say to black students.
It is in the nature of Shakespeare that we each bring our own experiences to him. If you take a certain satisfaction in finding misogyny and racism everywhere, you will find them in Shakespeare.
To be honest, I struggled a bit with “misogynoir,” or a dislike of black women. As far as I can make out, there are no black women in Shakespeare’s plays. There is a Dark Lady in his sonnets (her skin is said to be dun and her hair black), but she gets pretty good press. I can think of three black men in his plays, of whom one, Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, the gruesome pastiche written at the start of Shakespeare’s career, is portrayed negatively and two, the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice and, of course, poor Othello, broadly positively.
I struggled, too, with the allegation of homophobia. Insofar as we can infer anything from his corpus, Shakespeare seems to have lusted after both men and women. But, in an age when homosexuality could not directly be acknowledged on the page, literary homophobia wasn’t really a thing. Perhaps “misogynoir” and homophobia simply have to be included automatically whenever racism and sexism are mentioned, forming a kind of leftist compound noun that means “a thing I don’t like.”
The classism is undeniable as, alas, is the anti-Semitism. …
… But if Shakespeare offers prejudice, he also offers tolerance, decency, diversity, and respect. The reason he towers above every other writer is that his humanity is fathomless.