Shakespeare's words are where the power lies. Your students' active connection with these words is the greatest gift you can give them.
–Peggy O’Brien, Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library
We teach Shakespeare so that students can experience Shakespeare’s Language. Everything the students do, therefore, should bring them INTO the text. Mashups are a technique to do just that.
Shakespeare wrote at the turn of the century. Not 1999, not even 1899. It was 1599. So his language sounds different. Our Students Can Deal with That, if we let them! Often, however, in a misguided and counterproductive effort to make the texts “accessible” to students, we ask students to “translate” the scenes into modern language — or we provide them with these translation. Doing so actually DISTANCES students from Shakespeare’s language. Notice how far out “in the suburbs” paraphrasing falls in the illustration above. Paraphrasing, if done as an end in itself, takes students away from the text and makes them worry. They’ll worry about getting the translation “right,” or they study someone else’s modern version so that they remember the “correct” interpretation. Rather than trying to “paraphrase” or “translate,” students have to bring themselves INTO the language.
So here’s an idea:
Rather than trying to drag Shakespeare forward, let’s bring ourselves to Shakespeare. By bringing our own thoughts to the text — or by bringing lyrics or literature from our own time into contact with the Bard’s words — we connect to the text. We see nuances of language that make Shakespeare Shakespeare, and we recognize multiple possibilities for performing the play.
Example 1 — Mashing Text with Subtext
No matter what people say, they’re often thinking something different. Lady Macbeth tells her husband to “look like th’ Innocent flower, but Be the serpent under’t. One way to bring students INTO the text, then, is to invite them to consider what the character is thinking but not saying.
In order to insert the character’s thoughts into the dialog, students have to know the context of the conversation, and they have to have a strong sense of its literal meaning. By sharing their ideas of what the characters are thinking (without the obstacle of trying to get a “right answer”) they have to come back INTO the text — in order to justify their ideas and ultimately act out the conversation. The comment feature of Google Docs works great for this exercise, because students can work simultaneously on the same excerpt, and their work can be public to the rest of the class and beyond.
Example 2 — The Modern Lyrics Mashup
Back when I was closer to my students’ ages, I viewed the English teacher’s job as “explainer in chief.” In this role, I tried to allude to pop culture to help students see relevance. Now I let the students find their own connections.
Here’s a link that includes some examples of why my students did with the assignment.
In the left column, the student has a conversation between Othello and Desdemona. It comes from the point in the play where Othello, convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, accuses her and strikes her. On the right side, he has the lyrics from “Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5. Just by putting the two texts together, the student is already explaining the passage through analogy.
It gets even better when he combines the two:
Shakespeare’s lines (in blue) stay intact. The lines from Maroon Five (in black) provide commentary. When students explain their choices (both of the selections from Shakespeare and their modern lyrics) they connect their own experiences with Shakespeare’s language.
In the process, they Forget that Shakespeare is hard to understand.
Both of these exercises invite students to bring themselves into Shakespeare’s world and experience the characters and language in a way that is natural and relevant to them. The natural connections that students discover are powerful ways to draw them closer to the texts.
And the ability to share these connections with others can transform the students into guides.