Students at the University of Pennsylvania have removed a portrait of William Shakespeare from the English department’s main building, replacing it with a computer print-out picture of black, lesbian writer Audre Lorde.
That act was “a way of affirming [students’] commitment to a more inclusive mission for the English department,” its chairman, Jed Esty, wrote in a Dec. 8 email to all English majors and minors.
The Shakespeare portrait will remain down from its former place of prominence, and the English department will consider which other writers should instead be displayed there, Esty wrote to his department. This week, Esty was out of office and could not be reached for further comment.
The University of Pennsylvania’s spokesman sent Heat Street a statement saying that, “contrary to recent rumor, Shakespeare is alive and well at Penn.”
English students at Penn are not required to take a Shakespeare course, although several are offered. A professor currently teaching a Shakespeare class did not respond to Heat Street‘s phone and email inquiries.
In a statement, Penn said the decision to remove Shakespeare was actually made years ago, adding, “He is not leaving; he is merely relocating.”
But a spokesman would not answer questions about when that decision was made, why it was just now being implemented, and whether this could be considered a demotion of the Bard.
Katherine Kvellestad, a sophomore who’s majoring in English at Penn, says she supports the decision to remove Shakespeare.
“I think you can have someone be central to the English canon and not have them be in the center of your stairwell,” Kvellestad told Heat Street. “It’s not out of a lack of respect for Shakespeare’s works, but we can respect the works of others as well.”
Kvellestad said she thinks featuring diverse writers may help spark interest in them. For example, she said, she had never read Audre Lorde, but now that her picture is featured in the English department, she’s more likely to check out her writing.
“I think, in a way, the whole PC culture idea can almost promote free speech because there are a lot of people who have been marginalized in the past,” Kvellestad said. “So it’s kind of free speech in a different sense, that we’re giving credence and voices to voices that we were not hearing.”
But Nayeli Riano, a Colombian-born senior majoring in English, said she wanted the Shakespeare to stay.
“He writes about topics that transcend very base notions of race and ethnicity and background,” Riano said. “That’s why it’s so shocking that things were taken out on him.”
Riano says faculty led the push to take down the Shakespeare portrait, but they found widespread support among English students.
“Other students who echo my views — I can honestly name you none,” Riano says. “If there are students who share my sentiments, I think we are all slightly hesitant to vocalize them because Penn is no stranger to political bias.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.