Aug 18 2023
07:50 am

Guest Column for KnoxViews

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, or rather, Florida. The latest from the Land of Fearing Messages is that Hillsborough County (Tampa area) schools – afraid of the state’s broad divisive concepts and restrictive sex talk laws – have stopped required reading of entire Shakespeare plays.


A spokesman for the district, Tanya Arja, noted revised state teaching standards and exams, but also admitted, “It was also inconsideration of the law.” By that, she was referencing Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, better known as the Don’t Say Gay law.

Marlene Sokol in the Tampa Bay Times noted, “But teachers are advised, during class lessons, to stay with the approved guidelines, which call for excerpts. If not, in extreme circumstances, they might have to defend themselves against a parent complaint or a disciplinary case at their school.”

Excerpts are okay, but apparently Macbeth and Hamlet are too dark and sexual, while Romeo and Juliet is too racy to be assigned. Romeo and Juliet too racy for some prudish Floridians? Get thee to a nunnery!

Oh, what fools these Floridians be, but truth be told Tennessee is not too far behind as the school year begins with our own divisive concept laws, now covering pre-school to college commencement.

Methinks state legislators doth protest too much. It’s astounding how little they trust young people to have the capacity to evaluate messages – pondering ideas, modifying concepts, and even rejecting conclusions or themes. How little faith they have in their own ideas that those ideas must be shielded against everything from modern critiques to established literature.

The alternative assignments to Shakespeare plays appear fine and may have some value, but that really misses the point. The plays the thing to catch the conscience of the king. Some high-initiative students on their own might read the entire words of the greatest playwright in the English language, but others who might benefit will miss the full range and scope.

Yes, Macbeth and Hamlet are dark; Richard III and Othello weren’t particularly jovial fellows, either, and don’t read too much into the donkey love spell in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Even if it is a bit uncomfortable by today’s standards, can’t we learn from the anti-Semitism retort in Merchant of Venice, or the misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew?

If Florida really wants just bits and pieces of Shakespeare, let me suggest my idea for a Netflix or Apple TV series about a struggling London playwright in 1600 who starts selling absinthe to keep his theater open. I call it Breaking Bard.
medium_Breaking Bard 2.jpg

AI graphic created by Mark Harmon

Ah, there’s the rub. “Blanded-down” versions of great works simply do not carry the same punch as the originals. Now is the winter of our syllabus discontent. Let it be made glorious summer by rejecting this prudish fearfulness.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is the origin point of all this nonsense, as he careens about the country in his non-presidential primping of his Florida record, his candidacy flailing from his own abuse of schools to try to score cheap political points. Let us remember these are the same Florida schools that are still scrambling because they no longer can offer the full College Board’s Advanced Placement Psychology course. The College Board refused to bend to the DeSantis state Department of Education insistence on deleting material about sexual orientation and gender identity. The same DeSantis-oriented state board also approved new history standards that included language about how “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

DeSantis is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. His is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. So says Macbeth. So say I. Borrowing a line from the Shakespeare-derived Kiss Me Kate, politically we should kick DeSantis right in the Coriolanus.

Mark Harmon is a professor of journalism and media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

bizgrrl's picture

I just don't get Florida,

I just don't get Florida, except it's probably the people moving in from out of state bringing the idiocy. We lived there for about 18 years and for all but four years there was a Democrat as Governor. During that time they had some great Democrats as U.S. Senators.

Good grief. Shakespeare taboo??? When i was in high school you didn't even read Shakespeare unless you selected the special class that covered Shakespeare.

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