This week's minor furore over whether Shakespeare should appear in the NCEA curriculum (http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominionpost/4761440a23918.html) took me right back to studying first year university English literature. One of the papers I did was a survey of English literature across the centuries, from Chaucer through to Samuel Becket. The bard featured; but so, too, did Aphra Behn, Jane Austen and Virginia Wolff. Both the latter were taught by a feminist lecturer. Her approach to these texts, and the choice of the texts themselves, were greeted with a level of hostility from students which I found surprising. Students grumbled about the inclusion of female authors 'for the sake of it', as if they were being cheated out of 'real' literature by some sort of affirmative action policy.
I quite enjoyed studying Shakespeare, but as I progressed through my English degree, my eyes were opened to a wonderful world of 'non-traditional' literature. New Zealand writing, post-colonial writing, indigenous writing - stuff of tremendous quality, by whatever 'objective' measure you might like to compare it with Shakespeare, but stuff which is also worth reading because it reveals those 'other' voices historically marginalised by the traditional literary canon.
I think the issue is not about whether Shakespeare is a good writer. He is. Rather, the question to ask is what makes him better, or perhaps more relevant to NZ school pupils, than the hundreds of other fine authors throughout history and across the world? Could pupils develop the same analytical skills, glean the same insights into human nature, by reading something which they enjoy and perceive as more relevant?
Shakespeare's proponents call his possible loss from the curriculum a form of 'dumbing down'. By implication, studying Shakespeare is more intelligent than studying an author from another time, place or culture. It seems to me that some people who hold this view may be harbouring a lingering elitism which views (male) European heritage as superior to other sorts. It's this very elitism which has kept 'other' voices out of the canon for so long.