Making a Point by Moving Shakespeare's Portrait

Students at Penn set off debate by replacing image of the Bard in English department building with a photo of Audre Lorde, the black feminist poet.

December 14, 2016
 
William Shakespeare and Audre Lorde

Officials at the University of Pennsylvania want you to know that Shakespeare is "alive and well" at their institution. It's just his portrait that may be less central.

But moving a portrait of Shakespeare can set off a debate.

And that's what happened when some students removed a large Shakespeare portrait from a staircase that students and faculty members in the English department walk by every day. The students moved the portrait to the English department chair's office and left it there. In place of the Bard, the students put up a photograph of Audre Lorde, the black feminist poet who died in 1992. The move followed a discussion of the election, so some view the action as a comment on the results, but many disagree.

Word spread on social media, with Penn receiving criticism for insulting Shakespeare or not teaching Shakespeare or declaring Lorde's work to be as significant as that of Shakespeare. (Penn didn't say or do any of those things, in fact, although there are students and professors with a range of views on both writers.) Students have said the action reflects their interest in reading a more diverse range of voices than has been the case in the past, and sending a message that study of literature isn't just about the traditionally revered authors.

As word spread Tuesday about the portrait replacement, many started writing to Penn (especially in the comments on The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper that first reported the move) to say they were offended by what had happened and to say they hadn't heard of Lorde, which set off its own debate. (For those unfamiliar with the work of Lorde, who also taught at Tougaloo College and at Hunter College of the City University of New York, here is a summary from the Academy of American Poets.)

One man from Kentucky wrote in to say that the portrait's relocation was "just one more reason why my daughter, who scored perfect on the English portion of her ACT, will not be going to U Penn. She has been accepted to Hillsdale (average ACT acceptance: 29), and is also looking at Grove City. If you're considering college for you or your child, and want to spare them having to put up with wading through this kind of twaddle while pursuing their studies, check them out."

On the other side of the debate was this comment in response to particularly vehement criticism of the students: "Clueless white people are telling us what we are saying. I am not making the assertion that Audre Lorde is 'equally important as Shakespeare' (though she, no doubt, is to some people). I am pointing out the cluelessness of ignoramuses proud of the fact that they don't know who she is. Nobody is telling you not to read Shakespeare. Nobody is coming to burn your copies of his books … "

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Steven J. Fluharty, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Penn and Thomas S. Gates Jr. Professor of Psychology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience, said that there was a lot of misinformation about what had happened.

"Contrary to recent rumor, Shakespeare is alive and well at Penn," he said. "Several years ago a decision was made to move a portrait of Shakespeare to a different location within the English department building, and to find a visual display for the building entryway that more fully represents the range of global media that are now studied in English departments at Penn and nationwide." But despite that decision by English professors, the portrait was never moved.

"Recently some students, impatient for a new image to be created and installed, moved the Shakespeare portrait and replaced it with a temporary portrait of their own, the celebrated poet and activist Audre Lorde," Fluharty wrote. "It was not meant to be permanent, and no harm came to William’s visage. Let us be clear: Shakespeare remains a major figure to be studied and appreciated in the Penn English department. He is not leaving; he is merely relocating. A meeting is scheduled for January to determine a new location in the building for the Shakespeare portrait and to decide on an appropriate set of images for the main entryway of the building."

For those wondering, the Penn English department's course listings for this semester include three undergraduate courses entirely about Shakespeare (Acting Shakespeare, Intro to Shakespeare and the Shakespeare Variations), as well as many broader courses that from their titles and periods covered likely include Shakespeare.

UPDATE: Jed Esty, English department chair at Penn, said via email this morning, "The English faculty here has planned to move that portrait for at least four years, so it's really not a story about student radicals tearing down icons. Shakespeare’s place as a valued writer is under no threat here, and the widening of the mission of English departments to include not just classic but contemporary writers is, by now, old news. No serious English department doesn’t teach and celebrate Shakespeare -- we certainly do at Penn, but neither do any serious English departments in 2016 take their mission as exclusively oriented to a single writer or even a few classic writers. Our students know the classics and so much more."

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