Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Can the Bard Survive Being Hashtagged?

One of my favorite email newsletters comes to me via an indie bookstore in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Shelf Awareness is a fun mix of commentary, links, and reviews.

Today’s issue included three new books for young adults that either draw from Shakespeare plays or, as with Macbeth #killingit, update the bard for contemporary readers. The latter book is part of a series called OMG Shakespeare. As someone who has defended teaching Shakespeare and spent four years helping high school students grapple with “Romeo and Juliet” and “Julius Caesar”, I had to buy one. I went with Macbeth. It immediately declares itself to be fun! Directly after the copyright pages, there is a note to the “slackers being quizzed tomorrow”: good luck.

The rest of the book is a crazy mix of emojis, hashtags and images. I’ve got it open in the Kindle Cloud Reader in Chrome so I’m wondering if the formatting is messed up as it doesn’t always seem to sync the way it should. And a warning to those who might be intrigued: if you don’t have a sense of humor when it comes to great literature, this book is not for you. Let’s just say that the poop emoji makes an appearance.

While I don’t really subscribe to the digital native/digital immigrant divide, I do feel a bit out of my element. Texting is my newest technology , and I’m wondering if it’s time for an instagram account so I think this book is really written in a second language for me. It is a bit like the 21st century version of rebuses so I can apply that but I don’t know what all the abbreviations and images mean.

Plus, it’s just a little boring. I’ve made it to Act I, Scene 6, and it’s starting to get old. Part of the reason Shakespeare has survived for 500 years is because of language like this:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Emojis and hashtags just can’t do this justice.

Should We Kick Shakespeare Out of the High School Curriculum?

As a former English teacher who taught Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar to 9th and 10th graders and who, in my master’s thesis, made an argument against making everyone read Shakespeare, I found this week’s dialog around reading Shakespeare to be fascinating. It was kicked off by Lauren, a high school senior who is blogging about her reading of 18 Shakespeare plays over the course of the school year as part of an independent study.

Lauren responded vehemently to Dana Dusbiber, an English teacher who argued against continuing to include Shakespeare as part of the common core. Dusbiber suggested that it was time to open students to more diverse and relevant literature rather than forcing them to struggle with an archaic language written by a long dead white guy. She concludes:

Let’s let Shakespeare rest in peace, and start a new discussion about middle and high school right-of-passage reading and literature study.

It was basically the same argument I made nearly 25 years ago. Like Dusbiber, I was working in a pretty tough inner city school, and no matter what I tried, I felt like a foreign language teacher when we came to the Shakespeare unit. I was more interested in getting my students personally engaged in the act of reading rather than forcing the canon upon them.

But, Lauren’s argument is convincing in its intensity. Shakespeare has stuck around because he speaks of eternal truths in very human ways. The themes are universal and new interpretations are demonstrating how they can be recreated in diverse and contemporary ways even while preserving the beauty of the language. Lauren includes wonderfully wide ranging examples in her post.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for me gets at the heart of public education: this is the one place where we all assemble and the one opportunity we have to introduce students to a wide variety of literature.  Washington Post commentator Valerie Strauss, who published Dusbiber’s post, followed up with one of the many rebuttals she received. High school English teacher Matthew Truesdale gets at the universalism of Shakespeare but goes on to suggest powerfully that rejecting any literature that doesn’t speak to the student’s exact experience eliminates lots of literature from the high school syllabus. He wants to help students look through the window of human experience rather than always gazing in a mirror. He also has good ideas for how to integrate Shakespeare with more diverse and contemporary literature.

When I taught high school English, it seemed as though the curriculum was designed for future English majors, and we followed a timeline of literature that didn’t get much past the early 20th century. Truesdale’s idea of a more expansive reading list would help put Shakespeare in context for contemporary readers.

Shakespeare, History, and Wikipedia

Once an English major, always an English major. During a recent trip to Denver, I bought Charles Beauclerk‘s book about the authorship of the Shakespeare plays. Then, browsing in the Tattered Cover Bookstore along the 16th Street Mall, I found Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro in which the author makes the argument for the man from Stratford as the author.

While questions about who really wrote Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar have been debated since the mid-19th century, the Internet is playing a role in the 21st century version. Shapiro suggests that the Oxfordians have made better use of the web. He may be right: take a minute to compare their Wikipedia pages. The Baconians are clearly lacking in detail compared to the Oxfordians. If you want a behind-the-scenes view of Wikipedia, check out the page devoted to the authorship question in general. It’s undergoing an overhaul and clicking on the Discussion tab will give you an idea of how Wikipedia works.

Since the historical evidence is pretty slim, being able to sway public opinion is an important piece of this debate. After some 500 years, opinion is probably more important than facts. Jasper Fforde imagines a world where Baconians go door to door to lobby for their theory. I imagine a world where most people simply don’t care. Hate to end on such a cynical note but the few people to whom I mentioned my current reading–even my old English teaching buddies–seemed to be stifling yawns and finding excuses to get away.

Shakespeare Would Have Approved

I’m in the midst of an amazing trip to England that included a visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the hometown of William Shakespeare.  On the flight over, I read an excellent biography of the bard by Stephen Greenblatt.  As I read the book and visited the various Shakespeare sites in Stratford, I was reminded how heavily Shakespeare borrowed from the existing literature of his day.  In fact, most of his plays are based on well-known stories or historical books.  Shakespeare Online has a good listing of the various sources.  It shows how well read he was despite being without an Oxford education.

But, it also underscores the importance of artists being able to draw on exisiting works.  The genius of Shakespeare was his ability to take existing stories and add both new twists and poetical language to make those stories his own.  If he were alive today, I think he would approve heartily of the notion of a creative commons where people contribute their creative works to the greater good.

Here’s some good news:  all of Shakespeare’s writings are in the public domain and available at Gutenberg so you and your students are free to draw on them for your own work.  When I was still teaching English, I had my students write their own stories and poems based on Shakespearean themes.  Now, I would open that assignment to include audio and video productions as well.

And for your reading pleasure, here’s one of my favorite sonnets, mostly because of its ironic tone:


My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,–
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.