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  • Palpable Hits: Popular Music Forms and Teaching Early Modern Poetry
  • Stephen M. Buhler (bio)

Recent pedagogical scholarship has engaged strenuously with the use of YouTube and other online platforms in the literature classroom. Stephen O’Neill, for one, champions video-sharing and similar media “in the interests of fostering various experiential, collaborative and peer-learning scenarios,” especially in tandem with the “array of Shakespeare content, which can potentially illuminate and deepen [learners’] understanding of the text and its diverse contexts” (190). In this essay, I discuss the advantages of sharing for this purpose online materials that have been developed by artists, instructors, students, and others—specifically, materials with a musical orientation. Along the way, I shall explain my own strategies in developing particular types of “Shakespeare content” that students have found useful in coming to terms with aspects of Shakespeare’s literary craft and that students have used as springboards for their own creative responses to his work. In describing this educational exchange, I make no claim about being “the only begetter” of student projects; as O’Neill notes, most of our students today are “digital natives,” quite at home with such widespread online practices as video remix and mashup (190). However, I have observed that setting 16th- and 17th-century texts (including, of course, Shakespeare’s) to popular music forms can elicit specifically musical responses from students and that an instructor’s willingness to share materials online can encourage students to bring video-sharing and other digital practices more richly into an educational setting that might initially have seemed unfriendly to such interventions.

Popular Culture and Shakespeare

Some educators have understandably urged caution when adopting pop-cultural approaches to earlier literatures. Charles Conaway has argued for the value of actively resisting recent re-readings of Romeo and Juliet, especially in music: “If we teach Shakespeare’s play against its reception in modern popular culture, then we might show our students that at the same time that the play has been received and interpreted in ways that attempt to make it relevant to their lives, it has also been turned against them.” Conaway takes particular issue with versions that shift “responsibility for the behaviors that lead to the play’s tragic conclusion—that is Romeo and Juliet’s courtship and marriage as well as the feud—from the [End Page 229] patriarchal culture that serves them up as rites of passage into adulthood in Shakespeare’s play.” Unfortunately, he goes further and attributes such a reading to a monolithic “modern popular culture” that leaves no room for tacit or explicit societal critique in pop music lyrics or sensibility. That judgment constitutes a recent variation on old “High Culture” attitudes (art is complex; pop culture is simplistic) that persist. In arguing for the use of popular culture “as a bridge to complex texts,” educators Kristine Gritter, Kathryn Schoon-Tannis, and Matthew Althoff have somewhat internalized such attitudes, even as they challenge and resist them, reminding instructors that the effective use of pop culture materials depends much on their attitudes toward those materials (49–52). “No-Fear Shakespeare” editions can reinforce rather than assuage anxieties about reading the plays; “simply trust the text” in performance and in the classroom can be, in the memorable analogy offered by Holger Syme, the “acting equivalent of English people speaking English really slowly and loudly to non-English speakers. Because if you really speak the words, they suddenly acquire meaning.” Such cautionary examples remind us that the use of popular music materials to explore Early Modern works requires awareness of difference/s as well as resonances.

To be sure, an important part of awareness is self-awareness: in my own case, several of my popular music examples are aging rapidly. Regardless, used both judiciously and fearlessly, any popular music examples and appropriations can also connect powerfully with the benefits of performance-based strategies in the classroom and can inspire students to continue their engagements on their own—and some of my students have continued them long after a given semester and extended them beyond literary studies proper. Performance strategies in teaching, in the words of Michael LoMonico, engage “students with [Shakespeare’s] words in such a...


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pp. 229-241
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