William Shakespeare. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.
William Shakespeare. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.

Nottoway County, like many other school systems in Virginia, is scouring its library shelves to see what books it has that might be deemed “sexually explicit.”

So far, it has identified 17, according to the Blackstone Courier-Record, some of them American classics.

Among those: “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansbury, “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde and “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. 

The 17 works in Nottoway deemed explicit

  1. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  2. Night by Elie Wiesel
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  4. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
  5. Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part- Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  8. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  9. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck;
  10. The Crucible by Arthur Miller;
  11. Native American Creation Myths by Iroquois;
  12. Beowulf by The Beowulf Poet
  13. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  14. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  15. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  16. The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare
  17. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

That list surprises me because many of those are ones I was assigned to read in high school – in Rockingham County, a conservative county, back in the much more conservative 1970s. Some of these either are plays or have been turned into plays and are staples of high school and community theater. 

Having grown up in a rural community, and still living in one, I’m well aware of how diverse the values of parents can be. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” a more recent book by Sherman Alexie, made the list. It also made the list of 21 books banned recently by Madison County. I also know parents who have given that book to their teenagers. I don’t have any wisdom to offer on how to navigate these cultural divides. 

I am surprised, though, at some of the other works that made the list. One was “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. There is no sex in the letter, although King does employ the N-word in a quote, so it’s potentially explicit in that regard. It’s also been called “one of the most important historical documents penned by a modern political prisoner.”

“Beowulf,” the epic poem about a sixth-century Scandinavian hero, makes the list, too. This isn’t the first time “Beowulf” has stirred controversy. Last year, a student at Auburn High School in Montgomery County reported his teacher on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s school tipline because “All my teacher wants to talk about is how the book is sexist because it portrays the warriors as men and not women. I believe my teacher is in violation of Governor Youngkin’s Executive Order, which prohibits the teaching of ‘divisive topics.’” (My cynical side thinks the student just thought Beowulf was boring.) 

Beowulf is mostly about killing monsters but some sex is implied in lines such as these:

“Then Hrothgar departed, his earl-throng attending him,

Folk-lord of Sycldings, forth from the building;

the war-chieftain wished then Wealtheow to look for,

the queen for a bedmate.

In more common language, Hrothgar, like Elvis, left the building and wanted to find his wife, Wealtheow, to … well you can figure out the rest. The 1999 movie version of “Beowulf” takes a lot of liberties with the plot and adds in more sex. That’s Hollywood for you. 

The 21 books banned by Madison County

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  4. Shatter Me series of 6 books by Tahereh Mafi (Defy Me, Ignite Me, Restore Me, Shatter Me, Imagine Me, Unravel Me)
  5. Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
  6. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  7. Sula by Toni Morrison
  8. Love by Toni Morrison
  9. The Tale of the Body Thief by Anne Rice
  10. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
  11. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
  12. Empire of Storms by Sarah Maas
  13. Bag of Bones by Stephen King
  14. 11/22/63: A Novel by Stephen King
  15. It by Stephen King
  16. Furyborn by Claire Legrand

Two other works on Nottoway’s troublesome list are both by a fellow named Shakespeare. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

When I saw that two of Shakespeare’s plays had made Nottoway’s list, my first thought was: Only two?

Allow me some time to get on my soapbox: Shakespeare over the years has been kidnapped by academics and turned into some kind of elitist cultural touchstone. In real life, Shakespeare was a mass market entertainer, appealing to both the nobility and the “groundlings,” the peasants who paid just enough to stand on the ground in front of the stage. He wasn’t some arthouse artiste; he was the Steven Spielberg of his day, turning out one hit after another. He also dealt in two things that were guaranteed box office draws then as they are now: sex and violence.

Granted, the sexual references then were more discreet but they’re there. Advisory for timid souls: I’m going to quote some of those lines. When the treacherous Iago says in “Othello” that “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is topping [sometimes written as ‘tupping’] your white ewe,” he’s not referring to sheep. Perhaps the most explicit line in all of Shakespeare comes when Iago tells Desdemona’s father: “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.”

I’m surprised that “Romeo and Juliet” isn’t on the naughty list. When Juliet sneaks Romeo into her room for the night, we can safely assume they’re not staying up late to work on algebra homework. Furthermore, Shakespeare says that Juliet is, um, 13. Lady Capulet tells the nurse: “She’s not fourteen.”

The list that Shakespeare makes in Nottoway comes from a conservative push to crack down on what some believe are inappropriate works for students, but in recent years Shakespeare has been more likely to be “canceled” by the left. “Shakespeare’s works are full of problematic, outdated ideas, with plenty of misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism and misogynoir,” one Minnesota librarian wrote in School Library Journal. Or, as the British newspaper the Daily Mail headlined a story: “How ‘woke’ English teachers have cancelled Shakespeare because of his ‘white supremacy, misogyny, racism and classism.”

So which is it? Should Shakespeare be banned by the right because of the naughty bits or banned by the left because he was a 16th-century white dude who wrote with all the biases of his time? Or was he a genius who may have invented up to 1,700 words that are still used in the English language and whose plays explore timeless themes that are still relevant today?

I’ll let you figure that out. Instead, let’s look at the two works by The Bard that made the Nottoway list: “Twelfth Night” and “Macbeth.”

For those who somehow slept through their English classes in high school, I’ll recap both. “Twelfth Night” is a romantic comedy – an Elizabethan rom-com that makes much sport of gender confusion. 

Two twins, Viola and Sebastian, are separated in a shipwreck. Viola disguises herself as a man, takes the name Cesario and enters the service of a local duke. The duke is in love with a wealthy countess named Olivia and sends Viola/Cesario as a messenger to profess his love but Olivia falls in love with Viola/Cesario, thinking her a man. Women dressed as men and men dressed as women is a frequent device in Shakespeare’s comedies; some apparently find that more problematic these days. The SparkNotes summary about the plot describes “Twelfth Night” this way: “While Shakespeare and his contemporaries did not talk about sex and gender using the words and categories we would today, ‘Twelfth Night’ self-consciously creates humor and enjoyment for the audience out of the possibility of same sex attraction. Ultimately, the play is perhaps best understood as a testament to the unpredictable power of erotic desire and love in general.” Shakespeare solves the plot problem by having Sebastian appear and Olivia marries him, thinking he is Viola who is pretending to be Cesario. Would “Twelfth Night” be troublesome if we weren’t having a debate over transgender rights?

“Macbeth” is more explicit in its sexual reference, but explicit is a relative term. Lady Macbeth is often portrayed as a seductress, persuading her husband to kill King Duncan while he’s spending the night at their castle, but that’s on directors, it’s not in the text. In the text, she certainly persuades Macbeth but the words do not say how. The one clear sexual reference comes in the play’s only comic scene. It’s morning – the morning after the king’s murder, although his death has yet to be discovered. Macduff and Lennox arrive at the castle to find the porter quite drunk.

Macduff questions the porter about his condition.

“’Faith sir, we were carousing till the second cock,” the porter replies, “and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things.”

“What three things does drink especially provoke,” Macduff asks.

“Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine,” the porter says. “Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.”

If you can figure out what the porter is saying, then I give you an A for reading comprehension. 

Should that be enough to make Macbeth problematic? I’ll confess that I am a fan of Shakespeare. I also know that generations of high school English teachers have struggled to teach his great works to disinterested students. There are two ways to overcome that. One would be to take those students on a field trip to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton to see Shakespeare performed in a lively, fast-paced way that conjures up the spirit of how Shakespeare intended his work to be done. The other way would be to ban his work entirely for anyone under the age of 18. I guarantee they’d find him and read him then.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...