Teachers Shake Up Shakespeare with Digital Media

Rap and film bring the Bard’s characters to life for high school students.

January 19, 2010
Credit: Quickhoney

"My name is Macbeth / I'm the Thane of Glamis. / I might not be the king / but I'm still hella famous."

Terry, a student at Toronto's York Mills Collegiate Institute, wrote that rap for his tenth-grade English class as part of a music video depicting William Shakespeare's famous play Macbeth. "We got 100 percent on it!" Terry recalls.

More important, adapting the play into a modern rap helped Terry understand the Bard's old English prose. "I'd never had a chance to interpret one of Shakespeare's stories in a contemporary way before," he says. "Shakespeare's stories are timeless."

That kind of genuine enthusiasm from a millennial generation student is music to a teacher's ears. "Terry's video was fantastic," says his teacher, Meredith Szewchuk, who taught the tenth grader last year at York, a public high school. Szewchuk is part of a new wave of Shakespeare teachers who want their teenage students to reimagine the Bard using the younger generation's language and media.

Raps, podcasts, and short films are perfect vehicles for teaching Hamlet and Macbeth, says Peggy O'Brien, the former director of education at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, DC. "Kids have been handed these plays like they're sacrosanct, holy things, when actually they're gritty and alive."

As many scholars point out, Shakespeare was the 16th-century equivalent of a remix artist. Most of his plots were borrowed from other authors, and several of his plays were written on the fly in collaboration with others. He would have probably approved of today's participatory culture, in which students simultaneously create and consume art.

Teachers are finding that allowing students to emulate the playwright and make the text their own gets them more excited to learn the plays. "You have to get those words in your mouth and get your body moving," says Robert Young, who holds O'Brien's former position at the library. "Once you perform a scene, you really understand it." Having students perform is the key to learning Shakespeare effectively, and video and audio tools enhance that performance for today's learners.

Shakespeare, Meet YouTube

Joshua Cabat's students film Shakespeare scenes as short videos. "It forces them to envision their own through-line, or interpretation, of the play," says Cabat, who teaches English and film studies at Roslyn High School, in Roslyn Heights, New York. "They have to work with the words and the subtext, getting to the emotional core of the scene."

Some of Cabat's students produce faux trailers for Shakespeare movies or reedit scenes from existing films. One group recut the murder of King Duncan in Roman Polanski's The Tragedy of Macbeth to make it more nightmarish. "They felt it needed some improvement," Cabat says with a laugh. After finishing their movies, students write about the experience. "I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater," he says. "It's still them wrestling with the text. But they're using different tools."

Posting their short films online allows students to experience a level of relevance that only a public medium like YouTube can offer. Suddenly, homework assignments become works of art that anyone might download, watch, and maybe even enjoy.

Type "Shakespeare English project" into YouTube's search box, and you'll find links to a long list of school assignments. Terry's Macbeth rap is there. So is a short video retelling of Romeo and Juliet with animated characters from a video game, The Sims 2. Another high school student posted Hamlet: The Silent Film, a Keystone Kops-like version of the Prince of Denmark's climactic swordfight with Laertes.

And there's the decidedly low tech The New Othello Rap, by Katie Kovacs and Danny Wittels. This video isn't complicated -- just two students in front of a blackboard, rapping lyrics out of a spiral notebook. But the kids do a spot-on summary of the play, and with a good beat: "Iago's lying, Iago's cheating. / Iago needs a good beatin'. / Iago's lying, Iago's cheating. / He's got to stop all this deceivin'." You can also find a mashup of clips from Polanski's Macbeth to a song by the Geto Boys, a hip-hop group from Texas.

Some of these YouTube English-project videos have received as many as 20,000 hits, in part because teachers at other high schools use them to engage their students. "That's the magic of Internet culture," says Christy Desmet, a professor of English at the University of Georgia. "Kids put their work out into the world, and other people see it and care about it. It's very empowering."

Fast Forward

Shakespeare can easily be adapted to multiple media platforms. Christopher Shamburg, an associate professor of education at New Jersey City University, has worked with inner-city high school students on podcasts of Macbeth -- audio plays with sound effects and music. "These kids are bringing their own interpretations to bear," Shamburg says. "And what's a better, more authentic experience of Shakespeare? That, or taking a quiz?"

There's even a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre in the virtual world called Second Life. In May 2009, these actors and their avatars -- with names like Caliban Jigsaw and Prospero Frobozz -- performed a live-action virtual Twelfth Night in their version of the Globe.

Meanwhile, teachers are brainstorming more ways to bring students to Shakespeare through modern media. John Golden, a language arts curriculum and instruction specialist in Portland, Oregon, has his students analyze the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet by looking at how actors performed the famous monologue in seven movies.

In 1948, Sir Laurence Olivier delivered the soliloquy atop a cliff. In 1996, Sir Kenneth Branagh performed it in an ornate room with a chessboard floor, and in 1990, Mel Gibson delivered the lines from inside a crypt. In the 2000 version, the soliloquy is done as an interior monologue in Ethan Hawke's head as he wanders through the action section of his local Blockbuster video store. "Looking at these multiple versions and interpretations, students see that Shakespeare is still a living document," says Golden.

As Golden's students spend hours thinking about those 33 lines of text, they come to realize the power of Shakespeare's legacy. "I've had kids stop me in the grocery store years later," Golden says. "They'll launch into it: 'To be, or not to be. That is the question.' They still remember it. When we help students realize that Shakespeare is alive today, we're giving them a gift that lasts a lifetime."

Russell Scott Smith teaches high school English in Connecticut.

Go to "Teach Shakespeare However You Want -- Just Keep His Language Alive."

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