Living in Stratford it's hardly surprising Shakespeare is on my mind - from street names to the Romeo and Juliet themed glockenspiel, there are reminders of Shakespeare all over this Taranaki town. This time next year the Stratford Shakespeare Trust has plans afoot to celebrate his works and life in the form of a festival planned for April, the month of both his birth and death.
But why celebrate the work of a man who lived, and died, some 18,541km (I googled) away from here? Over the years, more and more people argue we shouldn't. We shouldn't teach Shakespeare in schools, we shouldn't hold Shakespeare up above so many other great writers and we shouldn't celebrate writings and works that, unquestionably, contain plenty of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, and probably any other 'isms you can think of.
Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Jonson, said Shakespeare was "not of an age but for all time", but his work was very much of his time. The aforementioned racism, anti-Semitism and other outdated ideas and beliefs his work contain very clearly set his work in a specific time and place, and that does make his work problematic in today's world.
So does that mean we should throw his works in the bin? Rename the streets, rip down the glockenspiel and pretend he never existed?
I don't think so.
Rather than simply choose between "to cancel or not to cancel" when it comes to Shakespeare in schools and in our lives, we should instead take the opportunity to find new lessons in these old works.
Instead of cancelling The Merchant of Venice because of the way the Jewish protagonist Shylock is depicted, we should use the play as a window into history, discussing how Venetian Jews at the time of Shakespeare had been forced into what was called the "Geto del rame del nostro Comun" or public copper foundry. Yes, that word geto does sound rather like ghetto doesn't it? While the word ghetto wasn't used until some 400 years later, Jewish people were facing segregation and laws designed to disadvantage them many centuries before that.
The play can provide a perfect literary launchpad for an informed classroom conversation around anti-Semitism and prejudice in the same way Othello can help students begin to unpack institutional or systemic racism. We can use Shakespeare as an opportunity to analyse global perspectives, have culturally responsive discussions and to learn from the mistakes of the past.
To cancel Shakespeare, to remove his works from our classrooms and theatres, libraries and conversations is akin to pulling down the shutters on a vital window into a moment in our cultural history. It's teaching our children to ignore problems rather than confront them and denies them the opportunity to take steps in recognising and repairing the centuries of historic inequities his plays represent and portray.
Long gone, thankfully, are the days of students learning by rote. Nowadays we teach our tamariki to think critically, to challenge, to question and to debate. So they are perfectly capable of reading Shakespeare with their eyes and minds wide open. They are not going to accidentally soak in the hidden -and not so hidden (I'm looking at you, King Lear, and your revulsion at all things female) misogyny but rather they will see it and call it out.
The danger was never in Shakespeare's words, but in us not reading them critically or through the lens of our own experience. Cancelling Shylock doesn't change the anti-Semitism of the past, but it cancels an opportunity for future generations to learn from those mistakes of the past.
After all, as Hamlet says, "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so".