As it happens, I am one of those boring old traditionalists who believe that no school education is complete without some experience of the genius that was William Shakespeare. After all, if the purpose of formal education includes preparing young people for a rich and fulfilling life, helping them understand their place in the world, showing them that they are not the first person ever to agonise over the complexities of human relationships, then who better to turn to for guidance?
However, Shakespeare is a bit like maths at school. Badly taught, it can have a more profound effect than when it is taught well. ‘I hated Shakespeare at school’ is almost as common a refrain as ‘I was never any good at maths…….’.
Imagine the scene. As an English teacher you find yourself in the position of trying to convince a group of young people, many of whom wouldn’t know the difference between a sonetto and a cornetto – even if they did know that the latter was not originally an ice-cream cone – of the beauty and relevance of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You will teach them, of course, about the Italian origins of the sonnet, its traditional structure of two quatrains and a sestet (14 lines in all), the regular musical rhythm that they will come to know and understand as ‘iambic pentameter’, and you will demonstrate along the way how Shakespeare was dealing with the grand themes of love and loss, of jealousy and revenge, of lust, hatred, fear and hurt. You may give them some very useful notes, or you may even ask them to make their own. God job done.
Well, sometimes, and for some kids, yes. But, consider the potential difference it could make if you were to ask them to ‘be Shakespeare’ for a while. Write a sonnet as if your life depended on it, which his almost certainly did.
‘Too hard!’ they cry.
Well, OK. The language is challenging, 400 years down the line, the themes a bit adult. But how about if you started by actually giving them the content, and asking them to ‘translate it’ into a sonnet? Which is exactly what Erik Didriksen has done in ‘Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favourite Songs’ from publishers Fourth Estate. Starting with songs from modern-day pop artists like Beyonce´and Taylor Swift, Didreksen has re-written them as Shakespeare might have done. And here’s the real payback, one of the things we struggle to impress upon modern-day students of the great man – the themes don’t really change!
This technique, which is sometimes referred to in film education as ‘generic translation’ (see previous post here), can be a very useful strategy when trying to develop a better understanding of any text, as it allows the reader to think about what it would look like from the inside, in a different context and for a different audience, while demanding that they look more closely at the conventions of the genre.
Footnote:- While writing this blogpost I just happened to discover this excellent collection of resources from TES for teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.
See also Shakespeare’s Words