A Semester of Shakespeare

If you’re in the honors program, you may or may not have heard about interdisciplinary honors seminars (if it doesn’t come across clearly, that is meant to be sarcastic). They’re really good for exploring different topics, interacting with interesting professors, and/or meeting honors requirements.

For a combination of the first and last reasons, I signed up to take ‘Shakespeare in the Now‘ this semester (though Professor Bartels is really awesome too!).

In regard to the first reason, I’ve always been really into Literary Inspired Web Series (LIWS), series on youtube that adapt works of classic literature. The trend started in 2012 with the Lizzie Bennet Diaries and since then, many groups, almost all small clusters of passionate book nerds with cameras, have given it a try, adapting everything from Peter Pan to Jane Eyre to The Importance of Being Earnest, with mixed results (see a full list here). One of my favorite of these groups is The Candle Wasters, a group out of New Zealand. So far they’ve adapted Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour Lost, and Midsummer Night’s Dream, using the plays as a framework to explore many issues including sexism, gender identity, sexuality, dependency on technology, and climate change, all while still being incredibly entertaining and remaining surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare’s works. Because of this group, the idea of discussing the way Shakespeare can still be relevant today seems even more fascinating to me than it normally would.

As for the second reason: I need 3 more honors credits to stay in the program.

Anyway, the class is really interesting since we get to go and talk about reading and adapting Shakespeare for three hours every week and, even if LIWSes haven’t entered the conversation, it’s still an interesting way to frame discussions about modern issues.

Part of this is seeing different productions of Shakespeare’s works. In addition to assigned readings, we’re also supposed to watch different adaptations that are available from Rutgers’ Libraries, like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. In addition to this, we got to go see a live performance of Hamlet at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, tickets and transportation paid for by the Honors Program.

And it was brilliant, fantastic, molto bene!

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The performance was by a group from NYC called the Bedlam Theater Troupe. In the production, 4 actors play all the roles in Hamlet. If you’re unaware, that’s 20+ roles, one of which has the largest number of lines for a role out there, bouncing between 4 people. Still, they managed to make it work with minimal sets and some audience participation. All the actors were amazing and their interpretation managed to make a tragedy seem comedic for a large majority of the time. It provided us with a lot of things to discuss in class the next day.

Beyond the performances, the class also gained a new dimension last week when we discussed King Richard III and fake news. This week we’re going to discuss Measure for Measure, which will definitely be an interesting discussion about power, surveillance, and forgiveness.

Towards the end of the semester, we’re supposed to do a group project where we use Shakespeare to explore a social issue that interests us. I’m hoping my group will find the idea of something like a LIWS as interesting as I do, because, while this class is great so far, making one of those series would be a dream come true.

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