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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Shakespeare's smut: 'Out, out, gosh-darned spot'

There's no need to edit the dirty jokes out of Shakespeare's plays to comply with Florida's new law, according to the state Education Department, reports Douglas Soule in the Tallahassee Democrat. Readings with sexual references are fine if they're age appropriate.


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth Credit: John Singer Sargent

But it's not clear schools will comply.


Hillsborough County teachers plan to excerpt Shakespeare to avoid sexual content, the Tampa Bay Times reported last week. The next day, state education officials emailed to say the department "in no way believes Shakespeare should be removed from Florida classrooms." The state's Standards for English Language Arts recommend eight Shakespeare works including Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet.


"But some Florida school districts, such as in Duval County and Brevard County, have decided they're still not going to offer it, citing uncertainty and legal risk for teachers," reports Soule.


Teachers don't like the law, so they're trying to make it look more draconian than it is. English teachers always have to make judgments about what's appropriate for the students they teach. You don't teach Hamlet in kindergarten or The Story of O in high school. This isn't rocket science, which also isn't taught in kindergarten.


When I took English in high school, we found most of the clowning tedious: You had to read the footnotes to figure out the jokes. But when we did get a sexual reference, it gave us joy. (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales have sex and fart jokes!) How to get students to master close reading: Tell them to skip page 32 because it's dirty.


One of my fondest memories is watching a class of Mexican-American students act out a scene from Macbeth. A large boy named Jose (most of the boys were named Jose) said he wanted to play Lady Macbeth, even though there was a girl in the group. I think he'd read ahead to Lady M's line: "I have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me." Jose said "suck" very succinctly, and smiled gleefully. He'd said "suck" in class! Such were the joys of simpler days.


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