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Students removed a portrait of Shakespeare and replaced it with that of author Audre Lorde to send a message to the Penn English Department.

Credit: Morgan Rees

Penn English professor and Department Chair Jed Esty was surprised to find a large portrait of William Shakespeare waiting in his office.

A group of students removed the iconic portrait from the walls of Fisher- Bennett Hall and delivered it to Esty’s office after an English Department town hall meeting discussing the election, which took place on Thursday December 1. They replaced it with a photo of Audre Lorde, a black female writer.

The portrait has resided over the main staircase of Fisher-Bennett — home to Penn’s English Department — for years. The English Department voted to relocate and replace the portrait a few years ago in order to represent a more diverse range of writers, according to an emailed statement from Esty, who declined to be interviewed.

However, despite the vote, the portrait was left in the entranceway until recent events.

“Students removed the Shakespeare portrait and delivered it to my office as a way of affirming their commitment to a more inclusive mission for the English department,” Esty wrote in the email. He added that the image of Lorde will remain until the department reaches a decision about what to do with the space.

Undergraduate Chair of the English Department Zachary Lesser declined to be interviewed, deferring to Esty’s email. Students involved in removing the portrait were unavailable for comment.

College sophomore and English major Katherine Kvellestad commended the students’ action. She said the choice of replacing the original portrait with one of Audre Lorde sends a positive message.

“You don’t necessarily need to have a portrait of Shakespeare up,” Kvellestad said. “He’s pretty iconic.”

College junior Mike Benz, also an English major, agreed. He said that he thought the students’ action was bold and admirable, adding that the students acted in a positive way by taking matters into their own hands.

“It is a cool example of culture jamming,” Benz said.

Benz added that college curriculums typically focus on European and Western ideals, and outside texts can sometimes be ignored or set aside.

Both Benz and Kvellestad said they were pleased that the English department voted to remove the portrait, despite the fact that it was ultimately the students who took it down.

“I think it’s cool that Penn students stepped up and decided to get the ball rolling,” Kvellestad said, adding that students have more license to take bold actions and “get the job done.”

Esty emailed English majors and minors on Dec. 8 with the statement he released to the DP. He expressed the department’s dedication to exploring a diverse range of works, both old and new.

“We invite everyone to join us in the task of critical thinking about the changing nature of authorship, the history of language, and the political life of symbols,” Esty wrote.

Kvellestad said the change reflects the values of the department and its students.

“It’s always more symbolic with English majors,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article suggested that the English department town hall took place on Thursday December 8.  In fact, it took place on Thursday, December 1. The DP regrets the error.