Reconsidering Shakespeare's role in the world
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Reconsidering Shakespeare's role in the world

I Asked My Students to Take the Bard Off His Pedestal—It Let Us Reconsider His Place in Our World

'What do we do with Shakespeare?" "Who is Shakespeare for?" "What would it look like to reject Shakespeare?"

These were questions I put at the centre of the Pop Culture Shakespeare class I taught in the summer of 2020 and which I'll return to this fall. Some 460 years after the Bard's birth, people have answered these questions many times over. But working with my students taught me that one powerful way to understand Shakespeare today is as a transmedia narrative -- a story that plays out across many modes of expression, from historical documents, printed plays, and performances to graphic novels and games. We spent the semester framing Shakespeare as an idea we all participate in making.

The class was inspired by a 2019 episode of NPR's "Code Switch" podcast that discussed Shakespeare and his plays' racism, sexism, and antisemitism. "We have a narrative in the West that Shakespeare's like spinach, right? He's good for you. He's universally good for you," said ASU professor, theatre practitioner, and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies director Ayanna Thompson. "We have to make that a more complex narrative."

Ms Thompson and the advocacy of the RaceB4Race community, a conference series and scholarly network galvanising conversations about Shakespeare's digestibility, particularly around race, challenged my students and me to build a more nuanced relationship to the Bard. We read plays by Shakespeare alongside adaptations of his work, approaching the materials as more than plots or settings or characters and changes therein -- and instead as complex processes of belonging.

We spent part of our first meeting examining our own identities and interrogating the stories past classes and popular media had fed us about Shakespeare and his work. What were the sources -- play texts, narratives or rhetoric (from parents, teachers, friends, the news), and media (movie adaptations, performances, YouTube videos, etc) -- that shaped our relationship to Shakespeare? How did we feel about him?

To prime my students for questioning Shakespeare and their knowledge of him, our first unit didn't start with a play; instead, we focused on Shakespeare's biography and historical record. I sent them on a treasure hunt through the amazing resources of the Folger Shakespeare Library's collection of archival documents around the Bard's life.

My students got to build out the gaps in history, wrestling with what we don't know about the life of Shakespeare and his authorial connection to his plays. We then used movies to visualise these holes; we asked if two very different fictional biopics, 1998's Shakespeare in Love and 2011's Anonymous, would exist if the historical record had different documents in it.

Framing Shakespeare's history in part as a narrative that is created and interpreted allowed my students to think more expansively about his literary authorship and cultural power.

Then, throughout the course, we treated each play and adaptation like a helix, where both texts twist recursively back upon each other. But the texts also connect to other authors' lives and work. We know that Shakespeare relied on numerous source texts for his plays and that he influenced his contemporaries.

Oxford professor Emma Smith attributes our ongoing engagement with Shakespeare to "gappiness", which she defines as "all the things that we don't know, the space there is for our creativity." She says, "These plays are really incomplete, and the thing that they need to complete them is us and our sort of inventiveness, our world, our experience."

Romeo and Juliet elicited an interesting range of reactions. Despite initial grumbles about having to re-read a play, my students enjoyed exploring how their own maturation and life experiences shifted their relationship to the story. Juliet tended to rise higher in their estimation, while Romeo fared worse. The students, having now had the experience of choosing a college and leaving home, felt the stakes of Juliet's decision to defy her parents.

We next read Ronald Wimberly's 2012 graphic novel Prince of Cats, which focuses on the character of Tybalt and is set in what the author describes as an "alternate universe New York where duelling is part of the [street] culture" that led to the hip-hop of the 1970s and 1980s.

Wimberly speaks about how some audiences consume black artists' work through a tokenising gaze -- seeing it as valuable only because it makes them feel that they are being inclusive. In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the hot-tempered Tybalt sets off the violence that ultimately leads to the tragedy of the two lovers.

But by focusing on Tybalt and his relationships, Wimberly shifts how we understand death in the story. Where Shakespeare focuses on the "star-crossed lovers" and their tragedy, Wimberly attends to the bonds within families and among community members. He also suggests that Shakespeare himself tokenises his minor characters in this play -- stereotyping them as barriers for his main characters to rebel against but refusing to "get more into the price of violence for all involved".

Tybalt and Prince of Cats led us to one of our most powerful meta-explorations of how we should engage Shakespeare at the college level. We can treat adaptations as texts that are intricately intersected with Shakespeare, but refuse a hierarchy where their import only comes through that relationship.

Framing "Shakespeare" as a process of belonging means we all can choose whether we want to eat this particular literary spinach -- and in what ways Shakespeare belongs to each of us. ©2024 Zócalo Public Square.

Lee Emrich is a scholar of early modern literature who will join the faculty of Victoria College at the University of Toronto in autumn 2024. She is the author most recently of 'Transmedia Shakespeare: Critical Approaches and an Annotated Syllabus', from the collection Imagining Transmedia. This was written for Zócalo Public Square.

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