Featured English Course: Shakespeare in Popular Culture

In their outrageous costumes, Emily Clark and Emily Hohman laugh as they perform their creative modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure.

Imagine the movie trailer for Gnomeo and Juliet, which features a dignified Shakespeare talking to a little blue gnome. Shakespeare is describing the tragedy, the violence, and the terror of Romeo and Juliet dying in the tomb, but the disgruntled Gnome responds, “They both die! What kind of an ending is that?”

That’s a good question. Should we allow popular culture--or some little gnome, no matter how cute--to question Shakespeare’s canonical works?

In Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture, scholar Douglas Lanier writes, “The question--and it is a contentious one--becomes how far are we willing to extend the name ‘Shakespeare’ and the answers often hinge on the assumptions about what constitutes the essential or authentic Shakespeare.” Our Shakespeare course in the English Department at Eastern is designed to explore the provocative dimensions of Shakespeare in contemporary popular culture, especially in television shows, films, music, and graphic novels.

But it is so much more as well: It is an introduction to five of Shakespeare plays from a number of critical and cultural perspectives in order to offer students, of various academic interests and backgrounds, a comprehensive understanding of Shakespeare. Informed by the scholarship of the past and present, this course exposes students to both traditional and contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare; in this way, students become acquainted with Shakespeare as an individual and a playwright, one who operated within the conventions of theater and within the context of early modernity.

Above all, this course seeks to engage all students in the complexity, the challenge, and the fascination of reading Shakespeare from the past to the present.

Every kind of student learns and laughs: Education majors profit from downloading the newest technology onto their iphones, ipads, or laptops, a technology that uses a multimedia approach to teach middle-school students Shakespeare. Theater minors read about Renaissance playhouses, theatrical costumes, and the theater’s opponents. In addition, they create a performance to dazzle their audience with modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s controversial play, Measure for Measure. Some skits in the past have included Whose Line Is It Anyway, Twilight, Jersey Shore, and even Dr. Suess. Political Science, History, and Sociology Majors learn about the historical life of Shakespeare, the early modern monarchy, family life, marriage and money, primogeniture, and the ideology of order. Christian Studies Majors discuss Protestant and Catholic beliefs, issues of grace, witchcraft, and more.

What do English majors learn? Well, they go as mad as Macbeth! They learn the historical and cultural context of Shakespeare, and they read deeply and closely in order to interpret, with insight and complexity, the meaning of Shakespeare and the meaning of our culture.

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