As an English teacher, I have to make The Bard resonate with today's youth. I get the same questions every year: "Shakespeare? What does this dead white guy have to do with me? He doesn't know where I come from, what I'm all about. He's not from the streets."
Well, what's totally fresh about Shakespeare is that he wrote for ordinary people. His homies. My students say, "Then why did he write in this snooty poetry that no one can understand?" Well, that's just it. His poetry was the best street rhyming of his time. And Shakespeare was the best "player" of them all! Even today, 400 years later, Shakespeare is the world's ultimate rapper!
Shakespeare had the tightest flow in the history of the English language. His iambic pentameter couldn't be touched by the other MCs, although player-haters think he sampled heavily from Ben Jonson. In fact, were he alive today, I'm convinced he would be a rapper. Well, I guess he could be a playwright, too.
You see, Shakespeare never intended for his works to be read in some dusty old study! They were performed before a rowdy audience of ne'er-do-wells, servants, and charboys who interacted with the players and even threw things on stage. Sounds a lot like a rap show, doesn't it? The Globe truly was the Apollo Theater of the day.
Rap resonates because it talks about our lives, and tells stories of love, violence, sex—the things that get our blood racing. Well, word to your mother: Shakespeare may have worn tights and big lace collars, but he addressed the same questions as 50 Cent or Tupac Shakur. Are you feeling me? Try this: I'll list a plot point, and you try to guess if I'm describing an R. Kelly song or a Shakespeare play.
A daddy asks three homegirls to tell him why he's so fly.
A black gentleman suspects the white girl he's dating is playing him.
A crew of noblemen gets together and murders their homeboy.
Ready for a surprise? Those are all plot points from Shakespeare's tragedies! Compared to Shakespeare, R. Kelly is a choirboy. Why, Romeo And Juliet begins with bawdy jokes that would make 2 Live Crew blush! Shakespeare definitely knew a thing or two about "groping for trout in a peculiar river!" That's from Measure For Measure. We won't be reading that, though.
Big Willie Shakes rapped in his Big Willie style about everyday life, too. He rapped about friendship: consider Prince Hal and Falstaff, Hamlet and Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He rapped about race issues: Othello, anyone? He even rapped about slammin' phat beats!
Back when Papa Tony's Pizza had those rapping TV commercials 10 years ago, I would recite a soliloquy from Hamlet in the exact same cadence, and it never failed to crack up the class! One year, there was even a student who accompanied me with the mouth-drumming noises, and we actually sounded very impressive together. I haven't done it in a while, so I'm a bit rusty, but I'll give it a shot anyhow:
'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business…
Well, uh, it goes on a bit more, but you get the idea, right? Yeah, I guess I'm a little rusty on the rapping. I'll practice tonight and try again tomorrow.
I've been teaching English for nearly 18 years, and even today, I'm still amazed at how fresh and current Shakespeare remains. Back when I was in college, I found so many parallels between Shakespeare and James Taylor. Then when I started teaching, I was struck at how Shakespeare explored the same themes as R.E.M. And boy, how my students from the '90s perked up when I played Kurt Cobain during the Hamlet unit!
Well, I hope that I've demystified the Bard Of Avon a little. I mean, trust me, I'm not some old fuddy dud who sits around watching PBS! I was down with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet as much as you were! In fact, it happens to be in my personal DVD library, right in between Boyz N The Hood and Colors. How do you like those apples?