Teenagers and the Bard

Naina Joseph

Many arguments have been made by teachers, students, and parents to suggest that the works of William Shakespeare are not relevant to the lives of young people today. It is often said that the compulsory study of Shakespeare in schools risks alienating students who come from varying ethnic backgrounds. In India, the CISCE (Council for the Indian School Certificate Examination) Board prescribes Shakespeare at both the class 10 and class 12 level.

Some post-colonial theorists believe that Shakespeare was introduced in education to both civilize brown and black peoples in the colonial world and to devalue indigenous literature. Thus, making Shakespeare a tool to prove the cultural superiority of the British Empire. Others, including some school teachers believe that by making Shakespeare compulsory we unknowingly promote the notion that other cultural perspectives are less important. More pedantic observations suggest that Shakespeare’s language is confusing, old and obsolete, too difficult for the modern teenager to absorb and articulate.

These are arguments that hold merit, but it cannot be overlooked that the themes and ideas that run through Shakespeare’s works are universal, surpassing barriers of race and class. In this sense his plays are as relevant today as on the day they were written. The themes that run through his works are those of jealousy, anger, despair, love, hate, fear, contempt, courage – common to all regardless of race and ethnicity. Falling madly in love, feeling isolated and alienated from loved ones, agonizing about the future, are feelings many adolescents and adults are likely to experience several times over in their lives.

Jessica’s elopement with the Christian Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice speaks not only of the deep love she feels for Lorenzo but also of her desire to be an ‘accepted’ Christian rather than an ‘outcast’ Jew, a reminder to most young people in our country of the complexity of inter-faith and inter-caste marriages. She desires also to rebelliously break away from a difficult father, a thought not alien perhaps to many a teenager today as well as in Shakespeare’s time.

Macbeth’s greed for power and his faith in the evil sorcery of the witches is a story of the fall of a good man who forgets his goodness once his greed for power is stoked. The hubris of Caesar can be easily connected to rulers who might lose touch with reality and govern with the belief of impregnable power only to be overthrown.

Arguing about the reasons why Antonio might be ready to sacrifice his life for Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice has led to much discussion on the sexuality of the two men. Portia’s speech on the dazzling light of the sun overpowering the tiny flame of the candle reminds many teenagers of how the strength of a woman can go unrecognized in what is regrettably a man’s world. Portia’s role may have been that of the eloquent lawyer who wins in court but she must now surrender herself to Bassanio her so-called ‘lord, governor and king’. Rosalind of As You Like It and Portia of The Merchant appear like early feminists to the young and they are admired by most young people for their intellect, wit, and ability to protect themselves and their loved ones. They also conduct their romances on their own terms, which is endearing to most young people. Adolescents are quick to point out that Bassanio seems to be a greedy and corrupt Lothario who marries Portia only for her money. Portia’s betrothal ring is used intelligently by her to become the bargaining chip that prevents her from losing out in this relationship. The themes that Shakespeare writes about have helped many a teenager mull over their own feminism learning from the charming and intelligent Portia or Rosalind. The fact that most of the heroines were men in women’s attire gives room for the exploration of diverse gender roles.

None of these themes are outdated or obsolete. They are relevant and help form a young person’s opinions and give words to their opinions. The world has changed immensely from Shakespeare’s time, but the nature of the human experience remains more or less unchanged, linking the themes of his time to the themes of today. Talking about characters, discussing their motives and even performing the parts leads to critical thinking, creativity, and honing of acting skills.

Shakespeare’s was the language of the Elizabethan street as much as it was of the nobles and it is up to us, the teachers, to make his language commonplace.

It was Greek to me – Julius Caesar Act 1, Sc 2
Jealousy is the green-eyed monster – Othello Act 3, Sc 3
Melted into thin air – The Tempest Act 4, Sc 1

Photo courtesy: www.clipart.com

Users of the English language quote him every day when they use common phrases such as those mentioned above. As students quote and read aloud, memorize and familiarize themselves with the Shakespearean text, they take pleasure in the meter, the rhyme, and the rhythm. The iambic pentameter becomes a part of their consciousness as it is meant to, like the beating of the heart – ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum….

In sooth I know not why I am so sad
It wearies me you say it wearies you. – The Merchant of Venice
Hence Home you idle creatures get you home – Julius Caesar

The lyricism of this simple yet glorious poetry can wash over them as they listen and try out these rhythmic lines tapping out the beat on their desks, rapping, or beat-boxing. Truly, what words could ever be used to replace Lady Macbeth’s anguish when she washes her hands obsessively and cries out that ‘all the perfumes of Arabia cannot sweeten’ her ‘little hand’ that has abetted a heinous and unforgivable crime.

The amount of popular cinema and drama Shakespeare has inspired is testament to his versatility and relevance in the modern day. The series of Star Wars written in Shakespearean blank verse is hugely popular and widely read. The Weird Sisters in Harry Potter, The Lion King loosely based on Hamlet, and closer home, Omkara on Othello, Angoor on The Comedy of Errors and Maqbool on Macbeth are all witness to the fact that Shakespeare can be adapted and owned.

If one agrees with the view that Shakespeare was introduced in curricula among the colonies to civilize black and brown people, it then becomes necessary to supplement the reading of Shakespeare with other indigenous writings on race and culture. Perhaps Othello can be approached from the lens of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and other similar writers. In his essay Stranger in the Village, Baldwin writes about how as an African American in an isolated Swiss village, he experienced racism both blatant and unintentional, much like Othello who is called a Moor and driven to insanity by his peers because he loves a white woman. Morrison’s Desdemona is a feminist take on the heroine of Othello addressing Desdemona’s courage, struggles, loves, tragedies, and disappointments.

The Tempest is often seen as a play about colonization, however the colonized Caliban is anything but silent throughout the play; when taunted by Prospero and Miranda, Caliban taunts back: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language.” Caliban the symbol of the colonized people or the oppressed everywhere shows his grit and desire to rebel in the face of grave danger. “No more dams I’ll make for fish / Nor fetch in firing at requiring / Nor scrape trenchering, nor wash dish / Ban’ ban’ Ca-Caliban has a new master, get a new man. Freedom, high-day, high-day, freedom, freedom high-day; freedom.”

Rather than Shakespeare being irrelevant, it is outdated teaching practices that limit the benefits of Shakespeare. There are a range of creative approaches to the teaching and learning of Shakespeare which possess the potential to significantly increase student engagement. Pedagogical methods must give room for more innovative, diverse, and nuanced ideas. A scene could be performed with different interpretations instead of merely looking for the meaning of words which can limit the experience greatly.

For e.g., Kate’s lines in The Taming of the Shrew V, Sc ii, 152 ….

Thy husband is thy Lord, thy life, thy keeper
Thy head, thy sovereign
One that cares for thee
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land…

These lines may be recited in a mocking manner that indicates a woman’s sense of self-worth and her refusal to submit to her husband’s authority. On the other hand, ‘a dutiful wife’ may recite the lines in a subdued tone. Narrated one after the other the two recitals can highlight two different interpretations of the same text. Such experiments with the lines in Shakespeare help students form their own interpretations and reach the understanding that life can never be black or white, it is mostly grey. Shakespeare asks the questions but provides no answers. It is for us to find our own answers.

Shakespeare deals with what it is to be human and with the lives of ordinary people. His characters still resonate among the young and the old, his language still startles and moves. Each play holds a chain of myths, parables, history which link us from present to remote past. The Bard’s magic remains irresistible.

The author is a teacher of English language and literature at Vidyaranya High School, Hyderabad. She has been a teacher for 25 years. She can be reached at Ninoo@gmail.com.

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