All That Glisters Is Not Gold It's a widely accepted truth: reading Shakespeare is good for you. But what should we do with all of the bigoted themes in his work? We talk to a group of high schoolers who put on the Merchant Of Venice as a way to interrogate anti-Semitism, and then we ask an expert if that's a good idea.
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All That Glisters Is Not Gold

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All That Glisters Is Not Gold

All That Glisters Is Not Gold

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: So, Shereen, I know you to be a pretty artsy, creative person.

MERAJI: This is true.

DEMBY: You samba. You salsa dance. You used to play Capoeira for a long time - like, a decade. You like musicals.

MERAJI: How did you know that I like musicals?

DEMBY: Because every week before we start rolling, you start singing "Yentl" (laughter).

MERAJI: Oh, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPA, CAN YOU HEAR ME?")

BARBRA STREISAND: (Singing) Papa, are you near me?

MERAJI: (Singing) Papa, can you hear me?

I do know all the words to all the songs in "Yentl."

DEMBY: You see? I mean...

MERAJI: (Laughter) I love "Yentl."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPA, CAN YOU HEAR ME?")

STREISAND: (Singing) At the skies, I seem to see a million eyes. Which ones are yours?

DEMBY: Did you perform in musicals?

MERAJI: No. I actually never did perform in a musical.

DEMBY: Did you ever do a play?

MERAJI: Yes, I did a play. I've done two - no, three plays. I did one in high school and then two in junior high school.

DEMBY: Like, did you do Shakespeare?

MERAJI: Of course. I was Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

DEMBY: Oh, where I was one of the lesser fairies (laughter) in that play.

MERAJI: Oh, were you?

DEMBY: Peaseblossom or Cobweb - one of them.

MERAJI: I was the star.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Of course. Of course.

MERAJI: And I was Shylock in "A Merchant Of Venice."

DEMBY: What?

MERAJI: In seventh grade.

DEMBY: What?

MERAJI: Yes, this is true. This was at St. Francis Elementary School. It had an elementary and a junior high school.

DEMBY: And you were playing Shylock, who is Jewish.

MERAJI: Correct. I don't think that that sunk in for me, and I don't remember a teacher ever breaking any of this down.

DEMBY: Wow.

MERAJI: Like, what is this play about? What does it mean to be Jewish? - any of that.

DEMBY: Shylock is actually the touchpoint for this episode. What do we do with Shakespeare - this omnipresent force in the literary and cultural canon who almost all of us had to read or perform, in Shereen's case, at some point, but whose work is filled with all of these racist tropes. Because the Bard gave us obviously many of the conventions we still use today in English writing, he also informed and shaped so many of our most enduring racial stereotypes.

AYANNA THOMPSON: And so if you're really interested in the ideology of racism, then you have to start a lot earlier than people assumed. Once you move backwards in time, and you land in, like, the 16th century, you have to deal with Shakespeare (laughter).

MERAJI: That's Ayanna Thompson. She studies Shakespeare and race and says Shakespeare's not going anywhere anytime soon. The West treats him like intellectual spinach - nutritious for everyone - but is he? Is he really?

DEMBY: We're going to get to my conversation with Ayanna in a bit.

MERAJI: First, though, our former CODE SWITCH intern Tiara Jenkins and former ed team intern Jessica Yarmosky are taking us back to high school.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, all the way to the front, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We went to see "The Merchant Of Venice" put on by a group of majority-white high schoolers in an educational theater troupe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: "The Merchant of Venice."

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So, as you know, when we're talking about the literary canon, there's nobody bigger than Shakespeare.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Nobody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Here's what "The Merchant Of Venice" is about. So there's a merchant and his best friend whose name is Bassanio. And Bassanio is in love with a girl. Her name is Portia, and he's trying to win her hand in marriage.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (As Bassanio) In Belmont lays a lady richly left, and she is fair and fairer than the word - of wondrous virtues

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: But Portia has a lot of different suitors, and some of them are super wealthy, so Bassanio needs cash. He goes with his friend, the merchant, to this guy named Shylock to ask for a loan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Shylock is the villain. He's a rich Jewish guy, and he embodies all these negative stereotypes about Jews. He's mean. He's tricky. He's greedy - like when his daughter runs away, he mourns his lost money more than he mourns her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (As Shylock) Why, there, there, there, there. A diamond gone in Frankfurt cost me 2,000 ducats.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And everybody hates him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (As Solanio) Oh, here comes another of the tribe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: "The Merchant Of Venice" is maybe the most famously anti-Semitic play in the theater world. It had a huge impact and created the archetype of the Jewish moneylender. And the word Shylock became a slur for Jews and a shorthand for people who are greedy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The stereotypes in "The Merchant Of Venice" have endured for centuries. During World War II, the Nazis used this play as part of their anti-Jewish propaganda. During showings, they would actually plant people in the audience to boo Shylock and heckle him with slurs.

JEANNE HARRISON: "Merchant Of Venice" always felt dangerous to me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's Jeanne Harrison, the founder of the Traveling Players Ensemble and the director of this play.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The reason they did this play was because Jeanne had two Jewish students who felt it was really important to put it on. Incidents of blatant anti-Semitism were cropping up all over the U.S., from the chants of Jews will not replace us in Charlottesville to swastikas being spray-painted on school grounds across the country. And the seniors in the group thought that "The Merchant Of Venice" was a good way to highlight the anti-Semitism of the past and start a dialogue about it in the present. Jeanne told us that one of the seniors said that not putting on this play would be an admission that they preferred to avoid these issues rather than talk about them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Then, in Pittsburgh, a man walked into a synagogue and shot and killed 11 people.

HARRISON: I looked at Harry (ph), who plays our Shylock, right afterwards. And I said, do we have the strength to do this show now? And he said, I do if you do.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRISON: So here we are, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: But is the best way to fight anti-Semitism to put on a play that, at its core, is anti-Semitic? The group thought so. But in order to present this in a way that was going to bring attention to rising anti-Semitism, to contextualize it and to make it worth talking about, they decided the play had to be changed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. Instead of just being this cold-hearted villain who was hated for his Jewishness, they wanted to highlight Shylock's humanity - so Jeanne, the director, did just that. She made a lot of directorial decisions to show the cruelty and the ugliness of anti-Semitism. She and the cast wanted to make the play about anti-Semitism rather than just putting on an anti-Semitic play.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: When Jeanne was directing, she added what she calls these silent scenes in order to humanize Shylock. One of the scenes shows Jews and Catholics side by side as they mourn the dead.

HARRISON: And my goal was to show at the very beginning that there is more similar about them than there is different

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Reworking this play to humanize Shylock is not new. In 2017, a production at Australia's Sydney Opera House added lines to the last scene, where Shylock's daughter bursts into tears when she sees him in handcuffs. And in the film version in 2004 starring Al Pacino, there's a whole new scene at the end where Shylock gets forcefully baptized.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Adding these scenes wasn't the only thing the cast did. They also went to Shabbat services together. And Harry, who's Jewish and plays Shylock, spent a lot of time on set educating his castmates about Jewish history and culture.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Singing) Jewish history with Harry.

That was, like, a thing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And then, when they put up the play, they continued to facilitate conversations around anti-Semitism. For example, they performed at a Jewish retirement home. They had Facebook chat conversations with someone who dealt with anti-Semitism in their personal life and had talk-backs with the audience after shows.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah. After their final show, they invited Barbara Wien, a professor in ethics, peace and global affairs at American University to facilitate a talk with the audience.

BARBARA WIEN: Why did Jews become known as moneylenders? Why were they always in the shadow? Why were the othered? Why are any races or other tribes othered, dehumanized, made to be enemies? The...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The students were asking the audience to interrogate their own biases and relationships to power. And they engaged with them about what the play represented and what emotions it evoked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And even with all this context, all this work, it was still hard for them at times to grapple with the play.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah. There was one girl who spent a lot of time in the play throwing anti-Jewish slurs at Shylock. And at the beginning of the rehearsal process, she struggled.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I would, like, say it, like, soft. Like, I would try and avoid it and try and get around it. But you can't because then you're not being true to the text.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: We had a very specific program where if we were uncomfortable about something, it was a safe space to talk about it. We had a kind of a funny thing where we would go red banana...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: ...If we needed to stop.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: If it was getting overwhelming, then we would just do that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So they put in a lot of effort to contextualize anti-Semitism. But when it came to discrimination against people of color in the play, it was a different story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: All this work that they'd done to dig into the anti-Semitism, to contextualize it, to help the audience understand it - it wasn't there for the race.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. Let's start with the casting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There was only one black student in the troupe, and she was cast as Portia's waiting gentlewoman.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Who is a maid - she's also a noblewoman but of lower class than Portia, which is why she waits on her. By the way, the black girl who played Portia's waiting woman didn't want to talk to us for this story. Remember - Portia complains about the prince of Morocco's dark complexion, and she's complaining about this to her waiting gentlewoman who is played by a black girl.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: This obviously created some weird optics on stage, and there was definitely some discomfort among the cast about this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: We cut out a lot of the Portia being super racist stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: That's right. They changed the script to avoid the blatant racism.

HARRISON: We did take out a single line. It is the most racist line in the play in regards to race as opposed to anti-Semitism. It's essentially something like, no one of that color will ever win my heart - is a paraphrase.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The line is, a gentle riddance. Draw the curtains - go. Let all of his complexion choose me so. Basically she's saying, I hope everyone who looks like him leaves me alone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It was obvious that talking about race was way more difficult for this group than talking about anti-Semitism.

MARIA SIMPKINS: It was, like, we all live with this. We have to deal with it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: That's Maria Simpkins, the assistant director of the show. Maria's black, and she describes herself as an activist.

SIMPKINS: This is serious. This has weight. This has pertinence. If somebody is an oppressed person and you are performing a show as an oppressor, you must be accurate in the representation of oppression. Anytime it did come to, like, race, like, it would get, like, oh, no. I don't want to touch it. I'm scared to touch it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She says they did try to talk about race, but it didn't seem like they did in the same way and with the same context that they talked about anti-Semitism. And so our big question was, why not? Why not delve into the racism like they delved into the anti-Semitism? Why rewrite certain issues and avoid them if the whole point of putting on this play is to undermine stereotypes and show how they hurt people?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: I think that TPE was very well-equipped to address the anti-Semitism of "The Merchant Of Venice," and I think that this is true of a lot of places. But I don't think that we were equipped to deal with the racism of Portia and of Shakespeare as a whole. And so I don't think that we have the same base and the same tools to address that the way that we have to address anti-Semitism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: And I think it would have been, in some ways, disrespectful to take that on considering we're a very white and privileged acting company.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There were a lot of contradictions in this play, and the students had to reckon with that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Outside of all of the badness and stuff that's hard to perform, there's comedy, and there's beautiful moments. And there's good in the show outside of that. It's still partially a beautiful piece of literature to perform.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: There are also, like, beautiful pieces of poetry by, like, Jewish authors or black authors...

UNIDENTIEFIER PERSON #13: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: ...That should also be performed with equal frequency.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Do you think they are?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No, not enough.

MERAJI: Those were the voices of high school students who performed Shakespeare's "Merchant Of Venice" with the Traveling Players Ensemble. That story was brought to us by Tiara Jenkins, a former CODE SWITCH intern, and Jessica Yarmosky, who was an intern for NPR's ed team. Coming up, a Shakespeare expert tells us that the racial hierarchy that persists today - well, William Shakespeare most definitely played a role.

THOMPSON: You get to see in Shakespeare how - it wasn't crystallized then. It was forming. And he was one of the people that helped form it.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: We just heard from some high schoolers trying their best to use an incredibly bigoted Shakespeare play, "The Merchant Of Venice," to make a larger point about racism and anti-Semitism. And, Gene, you spoke with an expert who told you, yeah, it's good to know your Shakespeare in order to truly understand the burly, old roots of racism. But she says when it comes to "The Merchant Of Venice" and a couple of other Shakespeare plays, it's complicated. I really wish I knew how to say that in Old English.

THOMPSON: My name is Ayanna Thompson, and I'm a professor of English at Arizona State University, and I specialize in Shakespeare and race.

DEMBY: You're also the director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, right?

THOMPSON: Yes, I am.

DEMBY: OK. Yeah. You don't got to be humble.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

DEMBY: So before we get into this, I guess, what is your favorite Shakespeare play?

THOMPSON: "Titus Andronicus."

DEMBY: OK, so I'm going to be a philistine here. I don't know "Titus Andronicus."

THOMPSON: No one knows "Titus Andronicus."

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Oh, so you're, like, oh. This is a deep cut. You're not up on this.

THOMPSON: No. The reason it's my favorite is because it's the play that students have no prior knowledge of. And so I always start my classes with that play. And the play is crazy-pants.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: And it actually has (laughter) - it has a character named Aaron the Moor, who is a black man, who basically wreaks havoc on all the Romans and the Goths and has an affair with a woman, and they have a biracial baby (laughter).

DEMBY: What?

THOMPSON: That's right. This is the play you've never read that is amazing.

DEMBY: Is it?

THOMPSON: And he gives what I will argue is the first black power speech in English.

DEMBY: Wait. I'm sorry.

THOMPSON: Yes. Yes. Written by a white man to be performed by a white man in blackface in 1594 - first black power speech.

DEMBY: Do you remember any of it? Could you...

THOMPSON: (Laughter) So he's talking to two young men whose mother he just had the affair with, and they've had the biracial baby. And they want him to kill the baby because, of course, it will - the black baby will reveal that she's been unfaithful...

DEMBY: Right.

THOMPSON: ...To the emperor of Rome.

DEMBY: Scandalous.

THOMPSON: And he launches into this whole diatribe about why white people are not as good as black people and why blackness is so much better. And he says what, what? You white-limed walls. You alehouse-painted signs. Black is better than another hue and that it scorns to bear another hue (laughter). And it goes on and on. It's amazing.

DEMBY: Wow. OK. So you are obviously a Shakespeare connoisseur and a fan. How did you get into Shakespeare?

THOMPSON: So what's interesting is that I'm not sure I'm a fan (laughter).

DEMBY: Oh. OK.

THOMPSON: Like, I started off when I knew that I was going to become an academic - because I did have a life before that when I was a banker.

DEMBY: Oh...

THOMPSON: But when...

DEMBY: ...Hard pivot.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) You know, working-class black girl - all I wanted to do was make money, so I had to go into banking for a while - but then realized that, you know, something about me likes to think about texts. And I was always interested in racial formation and how we come to where we are now.

And when I started out, I thought I would be doing work on kind of the modern British novel and thinking about the second British Empire as a moment when - at least the argument was that, like, kind of the scientific racism came into play, and that's how these racial formations began.

But actually, the more I read, the more I realized that it was much earlier. And it started in these kind of first encounters in the medieval and Renaissance periods. And so if you're really interested in the ideology of racism, then you have to start a lot earlier than people assumed. And then once you move backwards in time, and you land in, like, the 16th century, you have to deal with Shakespeare (laughter).

DEMBY: Right, of course. So you mentioned "Titus Andronicus" and all of the complicated racial dynamics in that play. We have been talking in this episode about, I guess, one of his better-known plays, "The Merchant Of Venice." So there was a teenage theater troupe - they're mostly white - who decided that they were going to stage "The Merchant Of Venice" as a way to open up this larger dialogue about anti-Semitism. And they made a lot of concessions and tweaks to the play in order for the teenagers in the play to feel comfortable even saying some of the dialogue. So, like, why do we keep making this play? Why does "The Merchant Of Venice" still have all this purchase?

THOMPSON: So I think there are three toxic plays that resist rehabilitation and appropriation that are written by Shakespeare.

DEMBY: OK.

THOMPSON: And they are "Merchant Of Venice," "Othello" and "Taming Of The Shrew." And for each of them, there is a desire to recuperate them and make them progressive texts. And, as you've described, you can tweak, you can change, you can - but ultimately, those three end up kind of circling us back to a really regressive and uncomfortable standpoint. And with "Merchant," it is kind of some deep anti-Semitism. With "Othello," it is deep racism. And with "Taming Of The Shrew," it's deep misogyny.

DEMBY: Yep.

THOMPSON: And I think those three are really, really hard.

DEMBY: And yet they remain really popular.

THOMPSON: Yes, they do (laughter) because there's this - well, we have a narrative in the West that Shakespeare's like spinach, right? He's good for you. He's universally good for you. When, in fact, he's, you know, writing from the vantage point of the 16th and 17th century. And I hope that we have moved on in the 21st century from some of those ideas.

But once we keep recirculating those texts with this idea that they're good for you, people always want to - they're, like, I'm going to finally do the one that reveals Shylock's humanity. Or I'm finally going to do the one that reveals the full complexity of Othello's character. Or I'm finally going to do the one where Katherine has power and agency over Petruchio and the patriarchal system. But they don't end up working (laughter).

DEMBY: Right.

THOMPSON: They resist it. And there's been this amazing study by Willmar Sauter, who does work on audiences in theaters. And he did a study of productions of "Merchant Of Venice" where he went around Europe for a year. And he had nothing to do with the productions. And they were in different countries. They were in Sweden and Germany and Denmark and all over. And they were different types of productions. Some were in modern dress. Some were in, you know, the Elizabethan pumpkin pants. And he gave...

DEMBY: Is that the actual...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...Was pumpkin pants?

THOMPSON: It's the official term...

DEMBY: Oh, wow.

THOMPSON: ...Pumpkin pants (laughter). No. But he gave the audience a survey before they saw whatever production of "Merchant Of Venice" they were seeing that asked them kind of how they feel about anti-Semitism. And then he gave them the exact same survey after they saw whatever production that they saw of "Merchant Of Venice."

DEMBY: Uh-oh.

THOMPSON: And don't you know that audience members felt more secure in their anti-Semitic beliefs after seeing "Merchant Of Venice"? You feel more secure in your anti-Semitism after seeing this play, regardless of what the director or actors were trying to do. That's some hard stuff to grapple with. And for playwrights, directors, theater companies and my students - my undergraduates - when I reveal this to them, they are in shock and disbelief. And I'm, like, this is what - this why I have a career.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Do this - yes.

THOMPSON: Like, right? You know, like, it's not dying, right? (Laughter).

DEMBY: I mean, I guess the question is, why don't we just jettison them?

THOMPSON: Well, I think there are a couple of things that we'd have to fight against, right? One is this idea that Shakespeare is spinach and universally good for you. We have to make that a more complex narrative. Two, we have to allow ourselves to inhabit the full complexity of these plays and to not try and make everything have a happy Disney uplift narrative.

And I think if we get to a place where, you know, Shakespeare's not universally good for you and maybe these plays aren't always necessarily good for us, then we will be in a position where we can maybe rewrite the endings, change the plays, have other plays enter into the major canon and some of them fall out. But Shakespeare's a huge industry. There's a lot of money residing on Shakespeare.

DEMBY: Right.

THOMPSON: And theater companies, which most of them - and I work with a lot of theater companies - most of them are on a, like, razor-thin wire of profitability if at all. And so they're not willing to do things that will risk anyone not putting money towards a seat. And Shakespeare still remains the most-produced playwright in the West.

DEMBY: Five hundred years after his...

THOMPSON: Five hundred years later.

DEMBY: So when people are putting on these three plays - right? - these three, like, radioactive plays in your opinion, right? - like, what are the arguments they're making for putting them on, right? I mean, obviously, not saying, look, we're putting them out because they're misogynistic or anti-Semitic or racist, right? They're making some sort of affirmative argument about their artistic value.

THOMPSON: Usually they are making an affirmative - taking an affirmative stance on their artistic value. So I would say most of the time, when "Taming Of The Shrew" is put on now, the theater companies try and say, well, we're going to give you a Katherine who is a fully-realized woman who is, in fact, empowered to fight the patriarchy. It's not like, oh, we're putting this on because we think that women should submit.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: And same for "Othello." And I - so for a while, I was like the - what's (laughter) - my unofficial title was the "Othello" whisperer...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: ...Because theater companies - big theater companies - I'm not going to name any of them, but big theater...

DEMBY: Oh, put them on blast.

THOMPSON: No, I'm not putting (laughter) - would put on productions of "Othello." And the actor of color who was playing Othello who's been trained his whole life to strive for this role was having, you know, mental breakdown.

DEMBY: Oh, wow.

THOMPSON: And I got called in. They're, like, we've heard that you worked with so-and-so, and he was able to complete the run. So can we have you come in? (Laughter) And I've done this...

DEMBY: Are you serious? Like...

THOMPSON: I've done this over and over and over again. And what I say to the actors each time - I'm, like, what you're experiencing is not unique (laughter).

DEMBY: Wow.

THOMPSON: There's something about this play because it was written for a white man in blackface that is, of course, feeling like it's damaging your soul (laughter).

DEMBY: Yeah. Wow.

THOMPSON: So...

DEMBY: That is...

THOMPSON: So - but the argument for all those theater companies putting it on was, like, this is a great role for a black actor, and they don't often get to, you know, show their classical chops and blah, blah. And I'm like, nope. And I'm going to tell you, three months from now, you're going to call me (laughter). So anyway, I don't think they should be put on.

DEMBY: What is the value of, like, black and brown kids learning about Shakespeare today?

THOMPSON: I think it's incredibly important because if you don't know how our current racialized epistemology started, it's really hard to dismantle it. You get to see in Shakespeare how it wasn't crystallized then; it was forming. And he was one of the people that helped form it.

And if you can reveal that to black and brown students - and, you know, I teach it at a predominantly minority school, so they - in fact, I have - often, I have students who when they're talking to themselves in class speak in Spanish, they're reading the plays in early modern English, and then they're speaking to the whole class in contemporary English. So they're, like, you know, trilingual in the class...

DEMBY: Right.

THOMPSON: ...Which is amazing. But they get it. They get, like, oh, I see what he's doing to black and brown and women and Jews. And, you know, I see how class is working. Sexuality is really complicated. I see how he's working through all these ideas. And once I figure out how the man constructed this all together, I have a lot of tools then to dismantle how he constructed us in this false way.

DEMBY: But when so many of us are encountering Shakespeare for the first time, it's in high school or - you know? And we're not getting all of this context, right? It's, like, "Romeo And Juliet" is this tragedy about these two lovers who are close to your age - 13 and 14-year-olds. We're not getting all of this other sort of, like, context around the ideas and the sort of contemporary social mores of his time and what he was helping to, I guess, introduce into the world.

THOMPSON: I totally agree, and that is the new frontier. So I co-authored a book on how to teach Shakespeare with an education specialist precisely because we realized if you're not hitting both the teachers and the students in high school, then you're missing the boat, or you're missing an opportunity because not everyone gets to go to college and take my class, right (laughter)?

DEMBY: So on the most basic level, do you think high school students should be reading this play, "Merchant Of Venice"?

THOMPSON: No.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: But I say this - so I talked to a master teaching class a couple of years ago, and I mounted a whole argument about why they shouldn't be doing "Othello" for the same reasons that I would say no to doing "Merchant Of Venice." Like, you know, are you really prepared to open all of this up? How comfortable are you dealing with this long history with anti-Semitism or racism, misogyny - whatever? But this is a group of master teachers. They resisted, and they were like, no, you're wrong; we are exactly the right people to teach these texts.

DEMBY: OK.

THOMPSON: And on the one hand, I left there saying, right. I actually think if we could get teachers to do "Merchant" and "Shrew" and "Othello" in a really responsible way, first of all, Shakespeare ends up being an author that you get to wrestle with as opposed to submitting to, right? And the other thing is it's probably better to have it taught that way than to see a really bad production that is attempting to recuperate them and kind of just redefining all of the nastiness.

DEMBY: OK. So in our episode, one of the things that the troupe in question did was to have discussions with the audience. They had experts come in to sort of talk about anti-Semitism. Do you think that works?

THOMPSON: Well, I think it's a great start. I mean, I think if this group of students realize that a production itself is not enough for the dialogue and what - in educational terms, it's, like, you need a lot of scaffolding around it; in the theater world, they'll call it, like, paratheatrical events. But I imagine that that kind of lifting is a lot heavier for high school students than it is, you know, in a professional theater. So it sounds like they were trying to do the best they could.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That's Ayanna Thompson. She's an English professor at Arizona State who specializes in Shakespeare and race.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARCY ME")

JAY-Z: Yeah.

MERAJI: It's been a minute since we've gone out on a song giving us life, so we're going to end on a suggestion from Ayanna, Jay-Z's "Marcy Me" from his "4:44" album.

THOMPSON: Interestingly enough, there are a lot of Shakespeare references in hip-hop.

DEMBY: Oh, of course.

THOMPSON: And you could probably do a whole other show on that. There's a lot of moments in hip-hop where I'm like, yep (laughter). And a lot of times, it comes in the, like, kind of bragging moments - like, I'm the new Shakespeare, or, I'm better than Shakespeare. That kind of trope I hear a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARCY ME")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Or better yet, here's a verse from "Hamlet." Lord, we know who we are, yet we know not what we may be, so maybe I'm the one, or maybe I'm crazy. I'm from Marcy Houses, where the boys die by the thousand.

DEMBY: That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You should sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Leah Donnella, Tiara Jenkins, Jessica Yarmosky and Jess Kung. It was edited by Steve Drummond, Leah Donnella and Sami Yenigun.

DEMBY: And, of course, as always, shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Kat Chow, Kumari Devarajan, LA Johnson and Maria Paz Gutierrez. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: To thine own self, be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

You're a dork.

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