Teaching Shakespeare to Generation Geek

Chris Curtis

Chris Curtis has taught for over ten years. He is currently head of English and part of his school’s leadership team.  In his free time, he blogs at: http://learningfrommymistakesenglish.blogspot.co.uk. Chris likes practical approaches to teaching English and looking at new ways of teaching the curriculum.

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There seems to be, at the moment, a glut of superheroes on our TVs and in our films. If it isn’t Batman fighting Superman, it is a group of different heroes getting together to fight an evil alien. It might seem that the works of one playwright hundreds of years ago bares no relations to our current obsession with people wearing Lycra, swishing about with their capes and saving the world. Most, if not all children, can tell you who Iron Man, Superman or Spider-Man is. But, little do they know, that the comic book heroes owe Shakespeare a huge nod, if not a cape. So when exploring or teaching a Shakespeare play to students it is helpful to have these ideas in mind.

1. Flawed characters and dual lives

Look under the surface of any superhero and we see a person who is torn between their desires and their responsibilities. Superman has to write newspaper stories, save the world and yet make sure he gets the story written by deadline or he’ll get sacked. Our heroes struggle to control and survive in the world because of the numerous pressures they face daily.

They aren’t your normal shiny perfect heroes who save the world and cook up a perfect dinner for the perfect family. They fail. They make mistakes. They let people down. They get it wrong.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Juliet from Romeo and Juliet is an example of such complexity. A girl who is torn between her duty to her parents and her love for Romeo. She can’t do both. She has one life with her parents and she leads a different, married life with Romeo. The play watches this unfold. Can she keep her private life hidden from her public life? Take any superhero and their story is about watching them cope with what they have to do to keep those they love. Can they save the world and still keep a steady girlfriend? They often can’t have both. That also applies to kings, queens and many people in Shakespeare’s plays.

2. Epic proportions

We like to see epic CGI battles with our heroes fighting lots in films. If there aren’t any explosions or battles, then we want our money back from a superhero movie. Shakespeare loved spectacle in his plays. He had wars, battles, fights and lots of death included. However, like modern films, all of this is empty and pointless makes a bad film / story without a magic ingredient. Shakespeare, like the best directors today, knew that you need to ground all action with relationships and people, or your audience will not care.

Kate Fleetwood & Patrick Stewart in Macbeth (2010)

Macbeth is one play that does feature battles; one at the start and one at the end. But Shakespeare, like writers today, know that you need to care about people for an epic battle to be epic. Okay, Shakespeare cheats and has the battles take place off stage, but boy, if he had some CGI, they would be brilliant scenes. He does, however, the epic and personal really well. He will show us large public events and then juxtapose that with touching and poignant scenes of two characters demonstrating an aspect of their personality. High drama needs high levels of emotion, and not just spectacle.

3. Symbolism

Superheroes are rife with symbolism. They aren’t just people with special powers. They are symbols for aspects of human life. Spider-Man’s journey could be seen as a journey into adulthood. The radioactive spider bite is just a polite metaphor for puberty. Their dual lives can also be symbol of the repressed feelings we have.

Hamlet is another play that deals with symbolism, but without the spider bites. Hamlet is growing up and he is having to deal with some pretty modern things like having a new step-dad (Of course, William Shakespeare add extra drama by making new step-dad a murderer and uncle). He then acts, or goes mad, depending on your interpretation. Hamlet is a symbol of the turbulence of the teenage years. He is also a symbol of the loss of innocence; he finally sees the skull beneath the skin – the reality of the world. On top of this, he’s a symbol of our obsession with the past; it takes Fortinbras, a symbol of a new world order, to sweep away the self-destructive old order.

4. The Shakespeare Universe

Are you a Marvel person or a DC person? When we buy into a superhero, we buy into the world they inhabit. Daredevil and Spider-Man could meet or refer to each other, because they are all part of the same universe created by our comic book geniuses. Those people watching CW’s Arrow or Flash on TV know how closely linked things are. Characters occasionally appear in both shows. There are story arcs that feature in both shows and they occasionally work together to fight baddies. Like all big bangs, the universe keeps expanding and the shows expand by developing further links with shows like Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow.

Left to right: CW's Green Arrow, Supergirl & Flash

The stories can be experienced by a novice and still be enjoyed, but the show rewards long-term fans. There is a depth to the experience of knowing the universe and all the cultural references that are rewarded when the audience experiences more of the stories.

Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Simpsons, Shakespeare rewards clever and knowledgeable people. Yes, he tells good stories that deal with common human experiences, but alongside those stories he’ll make references to Greek myths, historical events, celebrities in Elizabethan times, popular stories, national stereotypes, religion and the odd, sly dig at a politician – who can blame him? On one level you have a story all can enjoy about a prince becoming a king or an everyman achieving his destiny. However, on another level you have a story about religion’s historical interference with politics. On a far deeper level you have a story about what society expects from its kings.

5. Foils, evil twins and mistaken identity

"Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Simpsons, Shakespeare rewards clever people."Every hero has a villain. That villain is either a complete opposite to the hero or they are an exact copy of the hero but with evil hair, costume and a name. Superhero writers know that you understand characters best when you place someone very similar next to them – a foil. We can see how better or worse our hero is in comparison. That’s why superheroes tend to meet each other so often. We see how clean, happy and shiny Superman is when he fights the dark, gritty and grim Batman. Doppelgangers are also used in the superhero world through parallel universes or past / future versions of our hero.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of foils and twins. Paris makes Romeo look better. Fortinbras shows us Hamlet’s potential. Jessica shows how Shylock could have interacted with Christians and avoid murdering them, in theory. We judge our lives, well some of us, anyway, when compared to others on Facebook. We don’t understand people as individual units. Instead, because we are sociable creatures, we understand people better when they are seen in relation to others.

6. Wonder Women

Superhero writers have always played with the gender stereotypes. Originally in the old comics we had a female damsel in distress, but over the years, we have had a male damsel in distress and female supervillains. There is quite a modern attitude towards gender (aside from costumes) as we see complex and well-rounded characterisations of women. They are flawed. They are complex. They have desires. They have responsibilities like all the male superheroes. Look at how Marvel treated many of the female X-Men characters. Storm is such an interesting character with clear and original motivations that it is a wonder she hasn’t had her own series or film. Another example is the recent Netflix version of Jessica Jones (or Jewel from the original comics). Some cite this version as the best interpretation of a superhero so far.

Krysten Ritter as Marvels Jessica Jones

Given how long ago the plays were written, it is surprising how modern some of the female characters are and it is no surprise why some of our best actresses return to the stage to play them. Take Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing or Lady Macbeth from Macbeth. These characters drive, lead and change the plot. Without them the stories would be weak, imperfect and lacklustre. These strong women are driven by desire and emotion and get things done. Yes, they are not perfect, but they don’t faint or spend endless time crying or being silent, which is often the role of a woman in a Victorian novel. They are real people. Well, they seem real.

I have an image in my head of William Shakespeare as a superhero in disguise. He has a mask, a ruffled collar, a red codpiece and big W across his chest – The Masked Writer! Right, I am off to put on my cape and dig out my red underpants and fly off to teach students about Shakespeare, but I might stop off and meet a few superheroes on the way.

Do you teach Shakespeare? Share your experiences below!

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