Shakespeare and Urban Slang
- December 20, 2016
- Posted by: admin
- Category: Uncategorized
Over the years, teaching Shakespeare to high school students, I envied driver’s ed. instructors. I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to teach students something they actually wanted to learn? Now, there’s no reason to envy driver’s ed. teachers. In today’s digital world, we all teach students something they desperately want to learn. Students want to get behind the wheel of a keyboard and take off. Teachers today use online platforms for everything, and therefore, we have a great opportunity to tap into a student’s innate interest every time we log on. Can this inherent fascination with things digital help students want to read a 500-year-old writer who wrote on parchment with a quill?
Today’s student has something in common with William Shakespeare: they both share the experience of living in the midst of a language revolution. When Shakespeare went to London from Stratford-upon-Avon, he was at the vortex of many streams of language coming at him from all directions. Readers today remain in awe of Shakespeare’s large vocabulary. Some scholars say half the words in the English language can be traced to Shakespeare’s works, and claim that he added 30,00 words to the English language.
It wasn’t only Shakespeare who was awash in words. An entire generation of playwrights knew and used at least as many words as Shakespeare did. A generation of playwrights was bursting at the seams with the inventive use of language. One of the reasons for this flourishing lexicon was the development of mass printing. The new technology put writing into the hands of more people. Literary works bloomed; vocabulary had new showcases to become part of the vernacular; new expressions were used, written, read, coined, shared and adopted.
Sound familiar? Today’s version of the printing press, the internet, is sending language around the world at speeds undreamt of in the past. New words and expressions fly off our devices and become part of the way we speak and write. Innovative, creative use of language is all around us. It permeates every minute of our days in tweets and blogs and texts and conversations. Newly-coined phrases, that used to come into fashion at wagon-train speed, now ricochet around the world instantaneously. Every student today is an heir to an explosion of language that rivals the profusion of words in Elizabethan England.
The results of this revolution can be seen in the students. They love words. Not “SAT words” necessarily, but slang. They revel in acronyms, codes, initials, allusions. They use them with pride, and they take satisfaction in their finesse and being in the know. 21st century students participate in a celebration of verbal and written bravado. Students go with pleasure and excitement to Urban Dictionary to hone their skills. What would the teachers of the past have given if their students would rush to a dictionary because it was cool?
Today’s students are living in a revolution of technology, and this technology engenders its own ways of saying things. Slang that comes from a global world of hip hop, ethnic cultures and sub-cultures, celebrities and from the internet itself embeds itself in the culture with near immediacy. There is hardly a time lag from the time a newly-coined phrase is first uttered to the time it become part of the everyday lingo. This verbal energy and creativity is an English teacher’s dream. But how does a teacher channel this excitement and use it to unlock the words of Shakespeare?
One way might be to translate Shakespeare into urban slang. There is an Urban Slang version of Romeo and Juliet online written by Tonia Lee; it comes with complementary material about the play to be used in schools. Approaching Shakespeare with slang makes sense because Shakespeare was a master of it. He had had an ear and an affinity for the vernacular and raised it to sublime levels. Shakespeare wrote for every stratum of society, and his plays had to be appreciated by the folks on the street. To reach everyone, Shakespeare’s language had to ring and resound with the colloquial speech of his day.
In Tonia Lee’s Urban slang version of Romeo and Juliet, some lines fare better than others. In her version, Mercutio says to Benvolio, “Stop frontin’. You know you want to see a fight.”
And Benvolio responds, “Nah, man, it’s not like that.”
The slang makes sense and because, in the original, Mercutio and Benvolio are on the street kidding around, insulting each other and using the put-downs of Shakespeare’s day and imagination.
Sometimes, Tonia Lee’s slang version comes off as lame. Romeo, beneath Juliet’s balcony, says, “She speaks. Please speak again my precious Boo.”
This replaces the lines “She speaks! O Speak again, bright angel! For thou art as glorious to this night, being o’er my head, as a winged messenger of heaven.”
The Urban slang version of these lines does not match the power and nuance and force and poetry of Shakespeare’s words. But slang, even poorly-applied slang, is still an effective way to unlock Shakespeare’s words, to decode them, and to show students that they and Shakespeare are involved in the same endeavor: keeping words fresh, taking risks with language, knowing that words and expressions are coined from what is around us and readily available, and letting the verbal quirks, sparks and pop culture references flow with freedom and fun.
There’s another benefit to slang in the classroom: it allows the students to teach the teacher. I particularly enjoy online live teaching that is designed to provide “genuine” learning experiences through active learning. What learning experience could be more active and genuine than if the students are doing the teaching? I learn as much slang as I can from my students. When students are teaching the teachers, students come alive. Their confidence soars. It’s a great team-builder and bonding experience, and all this bodes very well for an atmosphere of genuine, active learning.
When two students explained to me their love of K-Pop and had to start from scratch explaining to me what it is, and how it differs from J-pop, one of them remarked, “You need so much educating, Mr. Litwack.”
It’s so true. I need so much educating, and when they are educating me, I can be pretty sure I am educating them. If the students are teaching the teachers, then the barriers to learning come crashing down. They know the slang; I’m trying to keep up. But I know something they don’t know. I know how lucky they are to live in a generation that rivals the Tower of Babel in terms of new modes of speaking. I know how their slang is born of the same desires and impulses as Shakespeare’s slang: the desire to keep communication fresh, to keep it current, to keep it relevant and real.
Viewing Shakespeare through a lens of urban slang, we have an opportunity to teach students that great writing is not something that just happens over there in England. It’s not just something they used to do 500 years ago with all those thee’s and thou’s. Brilliant use of language is not something that just happens in some other place, in some other age, to some other “smarter” people who know bigger words and know how to write. It’s something that happens when students open their mouths to speak or when they send a text. The writer is alive today who will use urban, internet and ethnic slang to create a work that will last as long as Shakespeare’s. A live online classroom interfaces with students using the online platforms that form this century’s Globe Theater. It’s an exciting time to be an English teacher and an English student. It’s an exciting time to be learning online. When Shakespeare wrote, “My mistresses eyes are nothing like the sun . . .” he was giving a clarion call to all the sonnet writers of his age. “Attention: we are no longer going to write sappy love poems comparing eyes to sunshine. We are taking it to the next level. From now on we are going to do it my way, and if you fail to follow, you are going to sound passé.” Traveling troops of players used to go from town to town, and one of the results was that old expressions became stale and obsolete. Our troops of players stream to us today on our devices. Online educators and students have a front row seat to the language innovations that will shape the masterpieces of our age.