College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

5 August 2019

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A fresh take on the classics

Hip-hop and Shakespeare. The comparisons have been made before, but the connection goes deeper than you might realise.

“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.”  - Lose Yourself by Eminem.

“Now is the winter of our discontent.” – Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1 written by William Shakespeare.

These two lines, written about 400 years apart, share the same rhythm: iambic pentameter. Five pairs of syllables, one in each pair stressed, the other unstressed.

“His PALMS are SWEATy, KNEES weak, ARMS are HEAVy”

“NOW is the WINter OF our DISconTENT”

It can seem simple in a single line, but Richard III has over 3800 lines. That’s one of the main reasons Shakespeare’s works can be so challenging to learn and teach.

To counter this, Charlie Thompson, a JCU Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student, is taking Shakespeare and breaking it down.

“When we’re looking at Shakespeare and we’re dealing with poetry and rhythm and rhyme, I like to connect that language to hip-hop music and contemporary music,” says Charlie, who is also the Head of English at All Souls Saint Gabriels in Charters Towers.

“In Shakespeare a lot of language has an iambic pentameter rhythm and a lot of hip-hop has a rhythm to it, so I try and make those links with the students and encourage them to identify that and analyse it.”

Charlie strives to take a holistic approach to Shakespeare’s works by viewing them as the plays they are.

“Another big focus is looking at poetic devices and how Shakespeare used those and how contemporary hip-hop artists also incorporated those into their songs,” he says.

Poetic devices include everything from rhythm and rhyme to alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia.

“Then you look at the performance side of Shakespeare, where you’re performing a soliloquy or a scene as part of the play, and when you’re performing a rap a lot of those skills are the same and apply,” Charlie says.

That hip-hop and Shakespeare have so much overlap is no accident, as these seemingly different cultures have a lot in common, according to Charlie.

“We also look at the four elements of hip hop culture and how they link to Shakespeare: the dance or performance side, the visual art side with the costumes or sets and which make up the visual component of plays, and obviously the MC-ing with the language and DJ-ing and music.”

While the average adult might pale at the thought of having to write in iambic pentameter, it’s a staple exercise in Charlie’s classroom.

“The other way I’ve used is encouraging students to write their own poetry, their own raps in response to certain things within the plays,” he says.

“More often than not it’s a really positive reaction and I think students really enjoy when a classical text and a dated text has a contemporary spin on it.”

Actors perform a swordfight in a Shakespeare play
DJ performing in front of a crowd

Combining his passions

Charlie’s unique take on the Bard of Avalon comes from his mixed background, which has combined music, education and now research at JCU.

“I wanted to combine my passion for music with what I was doing as a career and make those links,” he says.

“I’ve just started my honours research second semester last year. I’m investigating and researching the links between hip-hop and Shakespeare and I’m currently working on a creative thesis where I’m writing hip-hop songs based on the themes of Hamlet.”

Charlie knows the value Shakespeare’s work holds within the English language, which is why he’s taken on the challenge to create a new way to deliver the subject.

“I think it’s really important that students understand the universal themes within Shakespearian plays and how they apply to contemporary society,” Charlie said.

“Educators need to be willing to try new things and experiment in the classroom with new approaches to classical texts.”

Charlie has displayed his commitment to these ideas by creating his own set of resources called The Shakespeare Sessions.

“They are hip-hop songs that address key questions and issues in Shakespeare plays, so I use those in the classroom,” he sys.

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