Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

"The Adventures of Batlet Hamman" and Other Wild Ideas: Shakespeare and Pop Culture

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By Sara Lehn

Last year an unforgettable group of my twelfth grade students became fascinated with the connections they saw between Batman and Hamlet.  At first I was skeptical, but the more they defended their beliefs, the more I came around to their way of thinking.

Consider: an angry, morose member of the wealthy elite who has lost his parents and has very few people to whom he can turn, disgusted with the disgraceful state of his beloved city and obsessed with a need to seek justice for his lost loved ones.

It does sound kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

My students used this parallel as the basis for their final video project on Hamlet, performing the famous “closet scene” between Gertrude and Hamlet in full Batman regalia, drawing parallels to the interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker in the film The Dark Knight.  They called it The Adventures of Batlet Hamman and played it to an enthusiastic response at our school’s Shakespeare Festival in April.

Since then, I have been intrigued by connections between Shakespeare’s classic works and current pop culture.  Teachers frequently use modern updates of the plays in class, but many of us don’t consider the films and television shows out there that share similar themes and characters but may not have been intentionally conceived with Shakespeare in mind.

Recently, I stumbled upon this YouTube video overlapping David Tennant’s performance of the “To be or not to be” speech with images from his run on Doctor Who, and, I admit, my geeky-Bardophile-Whovian-Tennantfangirl brain pretty much exploded.

As with Batlet, the more I thought about it, the more parallels I saw: two intense, emotional, and lonely men, both seeking meaning and purpose in life, and both in search of justice and morality in the world.  There are obviously also immense differences between the two, but a comparison provides intriguing insight into both.

These parallels can become a valuable teaching tool in a myriad of ways.  When helping students build reading comprehension strategies, the use of schema, or previously existing knowledge, is a vital strategy to develop a clearer understanding of a piece of text.

In both of my previous examples, all of the language belongs to Shakespeare, but the images come from easily recognized modern references, allowing students to apply their previous knowledge of these contemporary characters to the complex texts they read in class.

As students use what they know already to help them grasp what they struggle to comprehend, they will develop a sense of connection between the two that enhances understanding of both.  This can easily translate into a higher-level evidence-based argument grounded in the requirements of the Common Core.

Students will use their newfound understanding of both texts to defend their choice of modern media with specific textual evidence that supports a reasoned, well-organized, and evidence-based argument.

As a result, students address the Common Core Standards for reading literature that call for close textual analysis, as well as the writing standards that require students to craft arguments “using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence” (W.11-12.1.A), all while creating their own associations between the Shakespeare plays that can feel so inaccessible to them and the pop culture media they already enjoy.

Perhaps the most exciting opportunity here is a chance for a trade of information.  Not only are you teaching Shakespeare to your students, but they are able to teach you about the stories and characters they love.

On my own I never would have linked together Batman and Hamlet, but now that the connection is made I feel that I have a better understanding of both characters, as well as of my students and their cognitive process.

I can barely conceive what unexpected parallels future students will draw for me, and it has sent my mind flying.  What popular film or television show best links with Romeo and Juliet or Othello?  What about Macbeth, The Tempest, King Lear, Richard III or Twelfth Night?

I have a few ideas of my own, but I’m sure my students will have a whole array of brand new suggestions.

Sara Lehn teaches at Roslyn High School in Roslyn, New York, where she has worked with all grades from 6 through 12.  She is an alumnus of the 2012 Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Sara can be reached at slehn@roslynschools.org.