Trading up: Kim Kardashian for Shakespeare’s Cleopatra


Maggie Smith as Cleopatra in Stratford, Ontario.

Some news a few days ago from The Guardian about a school program in Wimbledon:

Girls are to be taught to see Shakespearean heroines such as Cleopatra as positive role models to supplant social media superstars such as Kim Kardashian, in a programme being launched at a London secondary school.

Jane Lunnon, headteacher of Wimbledon High School, said she devised the programme after discovering that many pupils at the £17,000-a-year independent school named Kardashian and singer Taylor Swift as their role models. …

“It’s well documented that there is a paucity of female role models who are speaking to girls at the moment, certainly in western society. It made me think, where else can we look for them?” Lunnon told the annual meeting of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) of leading independent schools, taking place in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The article touts the “glamorous” Rosalind of As You Like It. I guess I hadn’t thought of her that way. She’s a girl willing to go and piss in the woods rather than be separated from a beloved friend. Not sure I’d do it. I’m fairly certain Kim Kardashian wouldn’t.

I hope the class makes them memorize scores of lines from the soliloquies, till the iambic pentameter flows over them in times of fear or loneliness, echoing, as it does, the double rhythm of the heartbeat. I hope they explore the cadences of the English language at its most vigorous.

The article called to mind my own trips to Stratford, Ontario, where I spent season after season taking in Shakespeare. I saw Maggie Smith as an magnificent Cleopatra. I saw a less-touted Measure for Measure that changed my understanding of the play (and human nature) ever since.

Magnificent Maggie.

Magnificent Maggie.

I especially remember the last summer I went to Stratford – or perhaps it was the fall. My last chance for the season. I hadn’t planned beforehand or ordered tickets or made arrangements; I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive up in my trusty old black Dodge. I slept in it that night, after taking in the first day’s plays, with a coat over my head, parked way out in the woods. Yes, it was autumn, I remember mountains and mountains of golden and red leaves.

The article continues:

“Look at Rosalind, look at Beatrice, look at Viola. Their capacity, in their challenges and dilemmas, to laugh, to be vivacious, to be resourceful, to be resilient, they embody it so beautifully. And that is a really powerful message.

“It’s not that terrible things didn’t happen to them. It’s the way they respond. I think that is a really important message: to know what matters. Getting kids to laugh at themselves – it’s very important. And Shakespeare does that.”

Of course, I don’t think they go far enough. “What matters” is a lot more than getting kids to laugh at themselves. I think the program ought to be expanded to include Portia with all the moral quandaries of The Merchant of Venice, the ambiguous character (I find her ambiguous, anyway) Isabella of Measure for Measure, or the questionable Helena of All’s Well That Ends Well. 

They’ll have their work cut out for them for the rest of their lives. If they’re lucky.

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3 Responses to “Trading up: Kim Kardashian for Shakespeare’s Cleopatra”

  1. Jeff S. Says:

    Every morning I pack a lunch for an indefatigable high-school English teacher, and her work has made clear to me just how far downstream our education system is from the culture at large. (Clearly it’s the same in the UK, since the headmistress at a $20,000-a-year school finds this program necessary.) Cynthia, you’re right: this effort to find “role models” doesn’t go far enough, especially if it can’t actually supplant the Kardashians by shaking kids’ faith in the seeming proximity of the celebrity firmament. An hour a day of Shakespeare can’t eclipse 23 hours of junk culture when right there in the kids’ pockets and infinitely rechargeable.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Good hearing from you, Jeff. And yes, yes, yes. Joseph Brodsky made us memorize hundreds of lines of poetry – it’s still a good (and underrated) antidote. I still have W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby” and “Shield of Achilles” rolling about my head. Training for Shakespeare performance at 11, I still have all the lines from Comedy of Errors somewhere in my cells – wish it had been a better play, though!

  3. George Says:

    It has been almost thirty years since I read The Closing of the American Mind, but as I recall it troubled Allan Bloom that his students’s true hero was Mick Jagger. I could understand his distress: he, Allan Bloom, had among other things published carefully made translations of The Republic and Emile; what had Mick Jagger done but sing, not that well, songs that were not that great? On the other hand, I wondered at the end of the book, whether there wasn’t something to be said for the students. If nihilism is where you’re going, why shouldn’t you have a back beat to go with it?

    I wish the headmistress luck. My own favorite among the Shakespearean heroines is probably Beatrice, as having the best lines.