When Shakespeare won’t do

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Students at Penn removed the dominating portrait of Shakespeare from the wall of the Heyer Staircase in Fisher-Bennett Hall and replaced it with that of self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde. The Weekly Standard’s Scrapbook tentatively describes Lord’s poetry as “agitprop,” which is about as good a one-word description as any. “Unreadable” is probably too generic.

After removing Shakespeare’s portrait, the students deposited it in the office of English Department chairman Jed Esty. The photo below depicts the Heyer Staircase after the students did their thing. The Heyer Staircase isn’t looking too good, but one would have to have a certain kind of temerity to render this particular aesthetic judgment on the Penn campus.

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Sounding like a comic character out of Shakespeare himself, Professor Esty explained:

The English Department voted to relocate and replace the portrait a few years ago in order to represent a more diverse range of writers, according to an emailed statement from Esty, who declined to be interviewed.

However, despite the vote, the portrait was left in the entranceway until recent events.

“Students removed the Shakespeare portrait and delivered it to my office as a way of affirming their commitment to a more inclusive mission for the English department,” Esty wrote in the email. He added that the image of Lorde will remain until the department reaches a decision about what to do with the space.

Esty isn’t the only player to have clammed up: “Undergraduate Chair of the English Department Zachary Lesser declined to be interviewed, deferring to Esty’s email. Students involved in removing the portrait were unavailable for comment.” Aren’t they proud of what they have done? Or to borrow from a poet of somewhat lesser rank than Shakespeare (though greater than Lorde), are they “cow’rin, tim’rous beastie[s]”?

The Weekly Standard’s Scrapbook comments:

No doubt, Chairman Esty would have described the destruction of statuary and stained glass in Shakespeare’s England as “a way of affirming the vandals’ commitment to a more inclusive mission for the church”—or some such nonsense. These are exactly the kind of politicized weasel words that pass for academic discourse these days. No wonder Jed Esty has risen to such heights in an otherwise undistinguished English department.

The other point, which troubles The Scrapbook beyond this episode at Penn, is the rise of fascism on America’s campuses. One of Chairman Esty’s English majors, Mike Benz, was quoted in another account as exulting in the plunder of the Shakespeare portrait: “It is a cool example of culture jamming,” he said. It may well be that. It is also a specimen of the violence, verbal and physical, that is now being wielded by undergraduates—with the tacit blessings of the Jed Estys alongside them—against perceived villains, or worse, scholars and students who don’t happen to share their authoritarian views.

All too true and exactly what needs to be said. I also wonder whether any of the student vandals at Penn have read, say, Othello. I doubt it, but who knows? They might have been inspired by Iago. For their “sport and profit” they act out their animus against the best that has been thought and said as well as the very concept of “the best.”

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