Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

The Big “R” Question: Relevance

In the teaching world, there’s a lot of talk about making texts relevant for today’s students. With Shakespeare, who asks the big, human questions, I have had success letting my students make their own connections to Shakespeare’s words, find and construct their own relevance.

The Folger offers tons of active, performance-based approaches to connecting students directly with Shakespeare’s words, characters, and ideas. Once students are inside this language and it becomes theirs, the “R” question answers, or begins to answer, itself. But working with Shakespeare is a journey, and I want my students to make connections between the literature we read in class and the art and media they consume outside. In this post, I’m going to share one way in which my students build on these “on your feet” close reading exercises with contemporary texts and situations. That way is pairing texts.

Pairing Shakespeare with a contemporary text shouldn’t be a gimmick, and it does not mean a complete revamping of the yearly curriculum. It simply means finding continuities between Shakespeare and today—and tweaking the unit already in place. Take, for example, one of Shakespeare’s non-canonical poems, Venus and Adonis. My students have grappled with excerpts of this poem, which encourages discussion among adolescents about the misconceptions they face in their peer group of what it means to be a “real” man or woman.  They examine the cultural stereotypes typically associated with women—“dependent,” “emotional,” “weak,”—and recognize the limitations of these stereotypes. What contemporary works does it remind students of? A few years ago, my students would have jumped at the most popular movie making waves throughout the school: Frozen. Students see parallels between Anna, who frivolously falls in love with the first man who shows her any interest, and the flirtatious Venus. Students also want to discuss where Frozen’s Elsa fits into this discussion of gender since she recognizes a more important need than searching for a prince, which is her need to define her own identity after years of concealing herself in her “kingdom of isolation.”

And why not pair this poem with a musical text? Songs like Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” and Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself” offer familiar frames for unrequited love, and from two different perspectives. Students can certainly identify with feeling unwanted, perhaps by a significant other, and can empathize with both Venus’ feelings of inferiority and the need to keep emotions in check.

Students often deepen their understanding not just of Shakespeare’s language but also of their own lives—their everyday hopes and problems, the tough questions that define adolescence, the recurring characters—when they have the chance to place, say, Romeo and Juliet, in the same conversation as High School Musical and Beauty and the Beast. Or, put another way, what can be gained when students discover similarities between The Hunger Games and Julius Caesar that go beyond the contemporary novel’s use of names like Caesar and Cinna? What kinds of readers and writers might they become?