My first instinct for a piece on the relevance of Shakespeare in the 21st-century literature class was to go tongue-in-cheek. I might point out, for example, that Shakespeare practically invented Facebook. Re-read Lady Capulet’s description of Paris to Juliet if you don’t believe me. If that’s too big a stretch, at least check out the Hamlet (Facebook News Feed Edition) from McSweeney’s.
But that approach wasn't terribly productive. Instead, I turned to the NCTE 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment Framework and imagined an assignment as I reviewed the list of what 21st-century readers and writers need to be able to do:
As part of their study of a play by Shakespeare, student groups choose a scene to prepare and perform for their peers. After researching available criticism on the play and reviews of its various performances, they view and critique available video adaptations of their scene. Students then collaborate on interpretation, blocking, props/costumes, and so on. Groups also film each others' scenes, edit the footage, and post their work on YouTube with guiding questions to elicit responses from viewers. As part of the process, students discuss the ethics of performing and posting dramatic texts in a digital online environment.
While this is a solid assignment, it’s not terribly original. I know a number of educators who do all or parts of this assignment and have done so for years.
Taken as a whole, though, this set of tasks authentically addresses all six elements of the framework and provides a rich point of engagement for almost all of the questions that stem from them. I encourage you to read the framework in more detail, but with even a quick look at the elements below, you'll see just how relevant teaching, learning, and performing Shakespeare can be to a 21st-century conception of education:
- Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
- Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
- Design and share information for global communities that have a variety of purposes
- Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneously presented information
- Create, critique, and evaluate multimedia texts
- Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by complex environments
I attended a talk once by Richard Olivier, son of Shakespearean interpreter Sir Laurence Olivier. His central message to a international group of English teachers was this: Stop spending your time and money on buying and reading plays in class. Instead, take students out to see them, as they were intended, performed by actors.
While I can’t agree completely with his statement, it does strike a certain chord of truth, especially considering the centrality of performance in the assignment I outlined earlier. And when I look back on some of my most rewarding theater experiences, top-notch productions of Shakespeare stand out.
Whether it was Mark Rylance as Olivia in an original practices production of Twelfth Night at the Globe, Patrick Stewart in a Stalin-era resetting of Macbeth, or a group of versatile actors in an adaptation of The Comedy Errors at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (portraying a group of actors producing a film of the play), being part of an attentive and appreciative audience savoring the creativity, collaboration, and craft of a richly historical—or strikingly new—interpretation of Shakespeare is connectivity that transcends time.
And, I must admit, I’ll take that over Facebook any day.