A creative writing course at a British university has withdrawn graduation requirement that students should attempt a sonnet, not on the reasonable grounds that it is futile to try to turn people with cloth ears for language into sonneteers, but because the sonnet is a literary form that is white and Western.
Indeed so: One has only to read a sonnet of Shakespeare to appreciate just how parochial and ethnocentric, but at the same time offensive to most of the world’s population, any sonnet by the “greatest” sonneteer in English is. I need take only one of the most famous as an example, Sonnet XVIII, which begins:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Does Shakespeare (the ignoramus) not realize that there are equatorial and tropical parts of the world in which there is no summer, at most a wet and a dry season, and where the day and night are invariably more or less twelve hours long? Millions of people live in such regions, for whom the term “summer” can mean nothing. Of course, the people who live in such regions are predominantly those of color, to whom Shakespeare, with his typical Eurocentrism, was indifferent if not actually hostile. He simply didn’t care whether or not they understood him.
Things only get worse with the next line of the sonnet:
Thou art more lovely and more temperate….
Could any word be more blatantly lookist than “lovely”? Physical loveliness is a matter both of chance and economics, insofar as people vary by genetic endowment and economic situation, neither of which is under their control. Some people are born ugly and others are born rich, and it is obvious that the rich, because of superior nutrition, more opportunities for exercise, and so forth, are—statistically—better-looking than the poor.
The solution to all this injustice is obviously a reduction of the importance ascribed to physical good looks in people’s scale of values, such that people cease to be more attracted to or by those who are good-looking. Beauty, in any case, is socially constructed; what is considered beautiful in one time and place is considered ugly in another, and vice versa. When one considers the way people have bound feet, stretched earlobes and necks, molded skulls, tattooed, pierced, overfed, and starved themselves, all in the name of beauty, it is obvious that there is no such quality as human beauty in itself; it is a mirage, a purely subjective means of domination of some people (the so-called good-looking) by others (the so-called ill-favored).
Shakespeare’s use of the word “lovely,” then, reinforces the structures of class and physical domination of our present society. What is needed is a change in mentality to eradicate prejudice in favor of so-called beauty, a change to which would be severely hampered by continuing to teach Shakespeare’s sonnets.