Teaching Inclusivity through Early Modern English Literature

british museum m dictating to daughters

(Milton seated with his arms folded, books on the floor at his feet, and his daughter writing at a pulpit, with a quill, to the left, another woman sitting sewing behind her; after Fuseli (Schiff 922). 1806 Stipple. Image taken from the online collection of the British Museum.)

This comes back because I keep thinking about this stuff.

Last spring, a few of us early modernists were engaged in putting together an academic panel on “Teaching Inclusivity through Early Modern English Literature.” We were putting this panel together as friends, colleagues, scholars, and teachers sharing an excitement in the power of centuries-old literature to open up and invigorate the present and the lived for our students. And we did so with a shared commitment to the scholarly practice of robust and constructive discussion, and a firm belief in:

-access and inclusion for our students (that is, making sure that our students, irrespective of class, gender, sexual orientation, dis/ability, nationality, etc. should not suffer barriers to their learning), and

as themselves real and consequential pedagogic goals for our students to take away from the classroom (that is, inculcating a sense of the importance of inclusivity and dynamic belonging in the world as means towards a richer life for each of them, as also means towards a better world for us to collectively inhabit).

As I contemplated this panel, I wanted to talk, in the few minutes allotted to me, about some of my most generative teaching moments of the last few years. For instance, I would talk about when I had a group of students read Milton’s sonnet “On his Blindness” followed by Book III of Paradise Lost, and saw them begin to ask questions about seventeenth-century realities of literacy, class, access to help and support, and practices of memory and composition. Or when my class read a selection of seventeenth-century newsbooks (mainly Mercurius Politicus and its Monday counterpart Publick Intelligencer), and wrote imagined letters home from London after having been witness to a public punishment or execution. My students debated at length the matter and manner of revolution, treason, justice, punishment, and pardon. Or when I brought photographs of some sixteenth- and seventeenth-century parish records to class,[1] and my students dabbled in a bit of early modern palaeography and deciphered together and aloud how one of the coffins mentioned in the records only needed one bearer, because it carried a child. The initial challenge of the handwriting, and the ownership that came from reading it together only accentuated this single detail’s triggering of an immediate historical empathy that opened into a discussion of grief, a consideration of the medical contingencies of premodern communities, and methods of support and consolation.

Apart from talking about these instances of what I had seen work well, I would also think aloud and learn about pedagogic methods I knew of from fellow teachers and scholars, and wanted to bring to my own classroom: such as asking students to learn their favourite Shakespearean monologue, but in another language (including American Sign Language). Or asking students to make casting decisions for their favourite early modern play. How would they cast their actors in terms of race, gender, nationality/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.? Or asking them to read, as evidence of a way of life, the still music we now encounter as broadside ballads. And I’d love to think more about this, for this is probably my favourite landing place for teaching inclusivity through early modern literature—I can imagine nothing better than these ubiquitous, rude, absurd, bawdy, mundane, and marvellous creations to talk both about a nameless and marginalized authorship, and about a universe of variety and difference that it today takes us a serious imaginative leap to countenance.

But something happened to overturn those plans and to compel me to ask myself with renewed emphasis what it was that we meant when we said inclusivity. What were our rights and duties to ourselves and the world in which we lived, and the world in which we wanted to live—and how did early modern literature contribute towards a pedagogic goal of inclusivity?

A week before the conference, I went to an opera production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the School of Theatre, Music and Dance in my university.[2] I had heard much about the talented musicians at the School, and I was excited at the thought of a production in which all the actors and musicians were students. But I am still talking about it because I can’t very well explain the sadness of what happened. As someone who enjoys theatre and film and Shakespeare, I have seen many kinds of performances/adaptations—in three countries, now, and put on by the most amazingly well-studied and well-funded people, and put on by people armed with nothing except their adaptation or improvisation of the text. But this one stands out.

This production brought on stage a statue of Nataraj (the cosmic dancer of Hindu mythology) for the changeling/Indian boy. I have tried hard over the last few days to figure out what they might have wanted out of such a choice, but I am now compelled to conclude that the decision came from a non- or immature understanding of at least three things: first, Elizabethan faerie; second, the “global” energies or conjectures of Shakespeare’s England or our own world; and third, all cultural valences, past or present, of Nataraj or those who emulate that dance. But I barely had time to whirl this around in my head before Helena came on stage: a Helena whose “humour” appeared, incredibly, to have been constructed around the actress’s plumpness. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on stage, and couldn’t believe the laughter around me in the audience. Helena’s beseechings of Demetrius (whose “spaniel” she is, as she says) and Demetrius’s spurning of her were made a farce to reinforce our society’s all too readily available ideas of female desire, beauty, agency, and desirability. This was when I left.

I realised then, that in my own enthusiasm to see in the early modern all kinds of wonderful subversions of power, and exciting voices raised against oppression and marginalisation, I have sometimes forgotten that any canon or archive or record only ever gives us what we either already have, or wish to have. I realised too the importance of what Peter Erickson and Kim Hall wrote in a recent Shakespeare Quarterly article on race: “Even if the arc of our moral universe bends towards justice,”—or hopefully it does, although in this moment we might wonder—“it may be that Shakespeare’s moral universe does not bend far enough to go the distance needed now.”[3] I couldn’t help feeling that this was not just about Shakespeare, but his world. I was made deeply aware too, as I watched these talented and dedicated young people on the stage and in the orchestra, that erasure and obliviousness succeed precisely because they proceed from what seems to be neutral, natural, even necessary.[4] It was similarly reinforced to me that exclusion always appears to be apolitical. It is the demand for inclusion that is seen to be narrow, self-interested, and political. Marginalisation of people, and marginalisation of their lives from domains of knowledge or consideration go hand in hand. And I realised, walking home, that if I sought to teach inclusivity as a goal and an ethic, I sought to teach it as both a capacity and an incapacity. That is, as much as I wanted to teach my students—my fellow citizens in the world I inhabit—to be capable of certain things—like empathy, critical thinking, compassion, and imagination—I also wanted to teach them to be incapable of other things—like a deep and hard critical obliviousness. I did not want to teach a “humanity” that is as broad as it is complacent about and complicit in the disappearance of those who fall through the cracks. I wanted to teach an incapacity for not taking measure of and responsibility for our part in a complex and interlocked world. And I wanted to teach a refusal of complacency and self-congratulation until the time when it makes no sense any more to talk about “inclusivity.”

I continue to believe that the early modern can and will facilitate this. But as I recently learnt while at a home-grown and meticulously produced Shakespeare adaptation in a large research university in this country, it will take vigilance, care, and even a kind of critical stubbornness to unpack the early modern in a way that is adequate to our moment.


[1] Parish records from 1571-1673; this is with many thanks to Bill Ingram and Alan Nelson, and their work on the token books of St Saviour in Southwark.

[2] Music by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976); libretto by Britten & Peter Pears; adapted from William Shakespeare; University Opera Theatre; University Philharmonia Orchestra; sung in English with projected surtitles. See http://www.music.umich.edu/performances_events/productions/2016-2017/midsummer.htm.

[3] Shakespeare Quarterly 67. 1 (2016), p. 10.

[4] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity (Harvard 1998); Tobin Siebers, conversation.