College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

15 August 2019

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Keeping Shakespeare relevant in the 21st Century

Boring. Indecipherable. Irrelevant. Three words that secondary and tertiary educators the world over battle as soon as they set their stage in fair Verona and get halfway through the name of the world’s most famous playwright and poet.

William Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon.

Students’ disdain for Shakespeare is matched only by their love of the works he has directly, or indirectly, inspired. From The Lion King and House of Cards to Sons of Anarchy, retellings of Shakespeare’s work are abundant, and his influence is almost omnipotent in the English language.

Of course, knowing all the words to Hakuna Matata doesn’t mean the same student will be able to recite Hamlet’s famous soliloquy past the opening words, “To be, or not to be”.

JCU English and Writing Lecturer Claire Hansen faces issues like this head-on and has found plenty of reasons why Shakespeare is still relevant in an age of smartphones, superheroes and video games.

“A Shakespeare play isn’t relevant in a book, sitting there on your shelf; it doesn’t just become relevant all on its own,” she says.

“It’s about how Shakespeare’s work engages with us, as individuals, as a society, as cultures. What’s really special about that is that we are able to continue to see resonances in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry that help us to better understand ourselves, our emotions, our histories and our politics. It helps us to better understand violence and families, all that kind of stuff.”

Lion King performance sign
Such Tweet Sorrow twitter page
Shakespearean plays have been the basis of popular films and musicals such as The Lion King, or adapted to new technology such as a Twitter performance of Romeo and Juliet.

Adapting Shakespeare to the digital space

The endurance of Shakespeare’s works is shown in the way they continue to persist even as new cultural phenomena rise and the digital age spreads.

Even something as world-changing as the smartphone has little impact on Shakespeare’s continuing relevance.

“That’s something that continually happens,” Claire says. “We’ve adapted Shakespeare into TV, into film, into games and absolutely into the digital space.

“There was a Twitter production of Romeo and Juliet called ‘Such Tweet Sorrow,’ which basically tweeted the play. All the characters had their own handles and you could get a much different sense of audience interaction in a digital space. It’s just another technology, another avenue.

“There are other ways in which the digital age is important for Shakespeare,” she says. “From a research perspective you can use software to work out authorship attributions of his plays. The new Oxford Shakespeare editions have identified different authors that work in some of his plays and expanded the canon that way because they’re able to use more advanced technology.

“Technology also provides a lot more accessibility in terms of accessing his texts, you can get really great free online editions of his texts, performances and resources. It helps with accessibility for audiences and readers and it helps researchers as well, and performers; it expands the way you can perform Shakespeare.”

Even access to a smartphone, Claire reasons, wouldn’t make a difference to the fates of Romeo and Juliet - perhaps there would simply be too much sweet sorrow between the houses of Apple and Android to uncross their users’ stars.

“Anytime you make a modern adaptation you’ve got to deal with things like new technology. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet is a great example of how modernisation doesn’t hamper, necessarily; it can actually bring out really beautiful facets of the play," she says.

“I think something like the smartphone, I don’t think that really changes things because it’s not about those kinds of details. Shakespeare wasn’t trying to be realistic, he wasn’t trying to make things that really operate in the real world in a mundane way as he understood it. He was trying to say much bigger things about human behaviours.

“It’s about that fallibility, that we tend to stuff things up, we’re not always good at communicating. Whether you have a smartphone or whether you don’t, we still have relationship troubles. We still miscommunicate and misunderstand each other, even though we have so many ways to communicate. Whether it’s Facebook, WhatsApp, text or call, seeing each other in person, or Skype, but I don’t think that always helps us in our personal relationships, so I don’t think it necessarily would have helped Romeo and Juliet.”

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