We live in an age of hatred: hatred toward our cultural inheritance, Western civilization, and Christianity most especially. Shakespeare, the “principal poet of Western civilization,” is also guillotined regularly for his ties to all that is passé.
Postmodern critics condemn Shakespeare as guilty of the sins of the West, especially sexism, racism, and imperialism. R.V. Young, however, offers a spirited defense of Shakespeare from his anti-Western and anti-Christian critics in his new book, “Shakespeare and the Idea of Western Civilization.”
Anyone who has traversed the halls of Western academic institutions knows the rot that permeates them. Take, for example, my own alma mater, Yale. One can now obtain a BA in English without ever having studied a single sentence of Shakespeare. Yale says it offers Shakespeare as an elective. But it is a gross offense to pass through four years of English literature without studying the great Bard.
This abuse in our education system is not new. Young reminds us, “During the past half century, however, Western civilization has been challenged as never before from within, by academics and intellectuals of an ideological bent.” And Young is far from some right-wing provocateur; he is a professor emeritus of English literature at North Carolina State University.
Shakespeare’s Modern Critics
There are two dominant strands of Shakespeare abuse that have occurred in the past half-century. The first is hard to detect. Harold Bloom is the shining representative of romantic Shakespeare abuse. Bloom, who is also deeply anti-Christian in his criticism, removes the religious significance of Shakespeare as well as the rich cultural well from which the greatest dramatist of the West drank. Bloom’s Shakespeare is a radical “genius,” a man who broke so thoroughly from the classical and Christian past he invented the modern human individual.
Bloom is challenging to critique because he was a soft defender of the Western canon. In the canonical battles over the future of the Western humanities, Bloom was a lonely voice articulating why Shakespeare should be required reading. However, Bloom’s defense of Shakespeare rested on his personal need to strip Shakespeare of his Christian heart and soul and create a secular romantic individualist. Young doesn’t let Bloom off the hook.
The other dominant strand of Shakespeare abuse is best represented by Stephen Greenblatt and Karen Newman, the celebrated literary critics and Shakespeare scholars who both embody the worst of postmodern ideological enslavement. Postmodernism’s Shakespeare is guilty of all the sins the contemporary woke zeitgeist identifies with every stratum of Western civilization. The postmodern Shakespeare, so seductively and cruelly peddled by Greenblatt and others, transforms from eminent dramatist and poet into a mouthpiece of sexism, racism, and colonial imperialism.
Shakespeare on Love
The postmodern critics claim that Shakespeare promoted sexism and enslavement through his idealization of femininity and chastity. Far from their interpretation or the Shakespeare of Bloom, Young reads Shakespeare as he is: someone who critiqued “self-absorbed [romantic] individualism” and reminded us that love in its fullest and freest sense entailed sociality and bonds of duties to others and not to our mere sentiments.
Shakespeare’s luminous writings on love cover the totality of the human condition: jealousy, anger, lust, gentleness, and wisdom. Love is difficult, but also transformative. The highest expression and triumph of love is in marriage, friendship, and community. In other words, Shakespeare’s sexual freedom—understood in the classical and Christian sense of human flourishing and not mere choice—is found in the exact opposite of modern sexual ethics: duty, perseverance, and chastity. Shakespeare is excoriated for these views, though they are informed by two millennia of philosophy and theology.
Consider how many of the great comedies end: in marriage. How and why is marriage the happy ending? Marriages in Shakespeare’s dramas bring healing to the protagonists’ often broken and conspiring world. We also see their human side, as King Henry V transformed from a bloodthirsty conqueror when he marries Katherine.
Moreover, Young reminds us, “forgiveness is a necessary element of any conjugal relationship.” Shakespeare’s triumph of love and marriage is thoroughly Christian, even if set in ancient Athens or with non-Christian characters. This is true freedom and human flourishing, not the enslavement to lust which ends in death — as it did for Romeo and Juliet (which is a warning against hyper-individualist love and not a celebration of its adolescent futility.)
Shakespeare on Race and Politics
The charges against Shakespeare of racism and anti-Semitism are also unfounded. Young painstakingly shows what any non-indoctrinated reader of Shakespeare should see. Othello is a paragon of Western and Christian ideals despite being a black African and implicitly a Muslim because of his Moorish heritage. Shylock, while guilty of his own various abuses and crimes, is able to claim his common humanity and expose the self-righteousness of fake Christians in Venice, which leads to Portia’s great speech outlining the need of all for God’s grace and forgiveness in life.
Postmodern critics who charge Shakespeare with paving the way for modern anti-Semitism cruelly misread “The Merchant of Venice.” These same critics who turn Iago into the hero and Othello into the villain turn Shakespeare on his head to advance their preconceived ideological agenda.
Young rebuts this abuse by noting that Shakespeare’s plays are often “an affirmation of the principles of the Western world and a daring challenge to that civilization to embody its principles with more constancy.”
“‘The Merchant of Venice’ sets a concept of justice tempered with mercy over against unbending legalism and self-righteousness,” Young continues. “‘Othello’ exemplifies the highest virtues of Western Christendom—fortitude, courtesy, devotion to duty, and sexual delicacy—in a character who seems, to some observers, their antithesis: a black African.”
Concerning totalitarianism and imperialism, Shakespeare offers warnings against the descent into tyranny by highlighting how the collapse of personal virtue, social order, and the loss of love and friendship precipitate the growing evil of tyranny and the politics of conspiracy and murder (seen in “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” and “Macbeth”).
Young writes, “Shakespeare thus reminds us that the essence of Western civilization is a matter of the mind and the heart.” The mind and heart of Shakespeare are Christian and include the best wisdom of the classics and Western inheritance.
“Shakespeare and the Idea of Western Civilization” is the Shakespeare book we need in this age of abuse and hatred. We find love and wisdom through its marvelous pilgrimage. And we find the true Shakespeare who has been buried by “the scholars” because of their ideological prejudices.