In my other life as a tutor, I spend a lot of time working with students who are struggling with their first encounters with the Bard. I often find myself infuriated when I see their homework assignments for the unit, most of which are some equivalent of “Rewrite the text from Act 2, Scene 1 in your own words.” Or even better (if “better” means “more likely to send me into pedagogical paroxysms”) is when they just say “Translate the text into contemporary English.”
This tends to be the deepest level of engagement that I encounter in most high school curricula, with a final assessment usually in the form of a quotation test so the students can regurgitate whatever translations were drilled into them in class.
If one wanted to be cynical, one could propose that maybe the teacher never really fell in love with Shakespeare himself and depends entirely upon the industry of side-by-side Shakespeare (“real” text on the left and “translated” text on the right) to prepare his curriculum, so he simply passes this process on to his students. To be more generous, one might counter and say that the teacher deeply believes that if she can get her students over the hurdle of the “alienating” language, they can be amused, moved, or inspired enough by the plots and characters that they’ll have the foundation for a deeper encounter later on.
If I squint really hard I can almost see the logic.
Either way, this presupposes an assumption I find troubling: Shakespeare’s fantastic stories are his claim on timelessness and universality. Don’t get me wrong, I love, love, love many of the Bard’s yarns, but most of them are quite easily parodied as the simple melodramas, penny dreadfuls, and political dramas they are. The greatest playwrights and screenwriters of the last hundred years did far more inventive things with story and structure than good ol’ Billy did.
I was thinking quite a bit about all of this as I was collaborating yesterday with Sonnet Man, a Brooklyn-based rapper who raps Shakespeare’s sonnets and soliloquies alongside his contemporary reflections on them. He delighted our young people at the CUNY/CAT NYC Student Shakespeare Festival (SSF) this year, and I’ve begun directing the solo show he’s touring to a Shakespeare Festival in Ontario this year. What I love about his work is what I love about the SSF: rather than treating Shakespeare’s language as an annoying hurdle in the comprehension of plot, the Bard’s sumptuous and powerful poetry is front and center. Students in the SSF can devise a piece using or modernizing Shakespeare’s original narratives, compile their own thematic exploration of multiple Shakespearean stories, or collage Shakespeare’s text into wholly original narratives that reflect their contemporary experience. Our participating students may not be able to pass one of the aforementioned quotation tests, but they leave with ownership over Shakespeare’s language, a comfort that will hopefully inspire them to continue to pursue Shakespeare’s work undaunted.