As we continue to showcase contemporary perspectives on Shakespeare and his world, this week, in the final piece of her series on Shakespeare appropriation and education, Calyx Clifford, explores the role of Shakespeare in the American classroom.
The United States, like England, has its own long and deep-rooted history with Shakespeare. For the U.S., Shakespeare has become an important figure in building a cultural legacy, as his plays are a central part of the curriculum in both secondary and university education. From the East coast to the West, and all throughout, Shakespeare has been appropriated to serve political and ideological movements.
Throughout America’s history, Shakespeare and his words were used to inspire and comfort, especially during such times as the Civil War. An example from perhaps one of the most famous figures of the time, Frederick Douglass, who when describing his removal from his plantation in Talbot Country, Maryland adapted Shakespeare’s words to best describe his plight, saying, “Divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough hew them as we will”. This quote from Hamlet: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will,” demonstrates how Douglass, a famous former slave who went on to become a leader in the abolitionist movement, knew well the lines of Shakespeare and understood his works and the meaning the audience would interpret from them.
The Common Core State Standards saw education federalized and adopted statewide.
In recent years, scholarly debates consider the value of Shakespeare and the ‘correct’ pedagogical approaches to teaching his plays. One popular debate is between those who view Shakespeare’s plays with set values, fearing to stray from the optimistic meaning they have for American culture, while on the other hand we encounter those who are unafraid of asking the controversial questions about a text’s past and the themes, values and motives that can be found in them.
The debate became heightened with the introduction of Common Core State Standards in 2012. Until this time each state was responsible for its own education curriculum and standards, but the Common Core State Standards saw education federalized and adopted statewide. While a national curriculum may sound like a beneficial and uniform idea, many conservatives across America are in strong disagreement with the change. There exists, yet again, a battle between left and right with schools becoming the battleground.
However, the California Common Core State Standards prove that, at least for now, Shakespeare remains part of the curriculum. For example, grades 9-10 require students to ‘Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare)’. The Common Core aims to provide students with a well-rounded education while at the same time trying to appease both liberal and conservative education enthusiasts.
Shakespeare is now being used in the classroom in a more active and collaborative way where students become directors.
While the above are included in standards for public schools, private high schools in California follow similar standards and, as of yet, maintain the same desire for a Shakespearean curriculum. For example, at St. Bonaventure, a private high school in Ventura, California, teacher Ms. Van Hoven confirms that Shakespearean plays are taught in freshman, sophomore and senior year (grades 9, 10 and 12). Romeo and Juliet is studied during freshman year, Julius Caesar during sophomore year and senior year contains a large Shakespeare unit with multiple plays and sonnets. Ms. Van Hoven clarifies the difference in curriculum: “We tend to stick to the California state standards, but we don’t focus on them as much as public schools. They set a guideline for our curriculum but we don’t necessarily include them in our lesson plans all the time.”
Shakespeare is now being used in the classroom in a more active and collaborative way through student acting, or a video project where students have free range to choose characters, location, interpretation, music, mood, and essentially every aspect of directing a scene. Such assignments are popular in today’s schools to engage students’ creativity, imaginative freedom and literary comprehension, as the curriculum is moving towards further technical knowledge.
In the world outside of the classroom, Shakespeare is still appropriated in a variety of ways. In New York Shakespeare was recently used to support political philosopher and Harvard professor, Michael J. Sandel’s, connection between monetary issues and Shakespeare in a performance and lecture titled, “What Are We Worth? Shakespeare, Money and Morals”. The event was a sell-out and took place as part of a Public Forum series with actors Matt Damon, a former student of Sandel’s, participating in the scene with the gold, silver and lead chests from The Merchant of Venice.
Shakespeare has recently been adapted to reflect gay and lesbian equality in the recently released film, Private Romeo.
Interestingly, Shakespeare has also been recently adapted to reflect another social movement of gay and lesbian equality in the recently released film, Private Romeo. This 98-minute film is based on Romeo and Juliet in which film critic, Rex Reed, argues ‘writer-director Alan Brown embellishes old-world romance with modern concepts like YouTube videos and indie-rock tunes to broaden a young audience’s exposure to Shakespeare and provide fans of all ages with a fresh new way of looking at an old classic’. In the age of same-sex marriage this gay adaptation of the classic love story is performed with great taste, according to reviewers, as Mercutio and Romeo deal with their love for each other.
It is adaptations and appropriations such as these that get not only schools but also the general public to look at Shakespeare in new ways—ways that reflect current political issues surrounding America. While it still may be too soon for schools to study such adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays for fear of angering traditionalists, the tools remain for teachers to encourage students to think about his plays in ways that reflect their own lives, in keeping with the Common Core State Standards, of course.
Calyx Clifford graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with an MA in English Literature. Her dissertation investigated the appropriation of Shakespeare in English and American Secondary Schools. She has recently returned to the US to complete her Masters in Education.