WAS Shakespeare a feminist? That was how my taster lesson for English Literature A-level began. It was so un-ironic, I actually laughed. In a class of five boys and otherwise all girls, a literature lesson was to be taught entirely on gender, and entirely on an ideology that didn’t exist until centuries after Shakespeare’s death.
What came next was mesmerising. Each pair of us were handed a picture from some film adaptation of a Shakespeare play. They included Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, and mine, a still of Romeo and Juliet at the ball from the 1996 DiCaprio adaptation. Each pair went forward and told the class about the misogyny perpetrated in their pictures. We had hieroglyphics in the picture of Cleopatra highlighting the reduced literacy rates amongst women, and therefore sexism. The red garment worn by one woman showed the anger men had towards women, often culminating in blood. On and on it went. Might I say that the teacher did not once bat an eyelid to this, the only exception being a correction about Shakespeare living in Victorian times.
I thought it was in the best interests of the class to play a curveball when I went to the front with a friend. To begin, it was only right to set out the historical context of the matter. ‘At this time, let’s not forget, we had a woman for Queen, Elizabeth, and another just before her, Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary killed a lot of male priests.’ And there was the historical context, completely against the cultural zeitgeist, and also against my nerves which were running pretty high at this point. ‘In the picture, we see Romeo dressed in knight’s armour, typical of the time, and emphasising how he was trapped as a male and couldn’t get out. Juliet, however, dressed as an angel was clearly free and could go wherever she liked.’ This did not meet with the approval of the teacher, who began a snide argument with us and the logical interpretations we had made.
In the past week English teachers have spoken out about the decline of students choosing their subject for A-level, claiming ‘new, rigorous English GCSEs’ were to blame. The reality of the situation is this: English has become feminised and therefore fails to interest boys. There was a 13 per cent drop in takers in the past year alone.
A friend of mine still fell into the trap and chose English as one of his A-level subjects. Fortunately, in his first week, he was given a poem with these lines of literary genius:
The bigger the better, he’d say, I like
big girls, soft girls, girls I can burrow inside
with multiple chins, masses of cellulite.
I was his Jacuzzi. But he was my cook,
my only pleasure the rush of fast food,
his pleasure, to watch me swell like forbidden fruit.
His breadfruit. His desert island after shipwreck.
Or a beached whale on a king-size bed
craving a wave. I was a tidal wave of flesh
too fat to leave, too fat to buy a pint of full-fat milk,
too fat to use fat as an emotional shield,
too fat to be called chubby, cuddly, big-built.
The day I hit thirty-nine, I allowed him to stroke
my globe of a cheek. His flesh, my flesh flowed.
He said, Open wide, poured olive oil down my throat.
[Eat Me by Patience Agbabi]
It goes on and the husband sadly dies within her body fat.
If that didn’t want to make you throw up, either you have a very strong stomach or the mind of an English teacher. My friend quickly switched to politics.
Poetry shouldn’t be this way. Learning the lines of Adlestrop by Edward Thomas or The Land of Lost Content by A E Housman has the capability to ‘furnish your mind for the remainder of your life’, as Peter Hitchens so wonderfully put it. Instead, English teachers idealise modern day nihilistic political thinking, and statistics show they’ve reaped what they have sown.