New Media in the Shakespeare Classroom: Complementing Performance-based Pedagogy

Rebecca Chapman, Holy Names University

Many of the students comprising our Shakespeare classrooms today belong to genM–that is, Generation Media—who are approximately 10–22 years of age and who were born into a digitally saturated, internet-heavy media landscape. All new media experience a lag between their development and the formulation of critical approaches to those developments; thus it is unsurprising that many college teachers remain unsure about using new media when we teach (Munster 164). Moreover, the Shakespeare classroom can present a particularly potent site of resistance; the bottom line for those who push for a division of labor between academic work (understood as serious and intellectual) and mass culture (understood as trivial and fleeting) often concerns anxieties over the preservation and integrity of the traditional academic canon, within which Shakespeare plays a staring role (Rowe’s “Medium Specificity” and “Crowd-Sourcing”). Yet the stakes of not acknowledging the presence of digital humanities are high: “To refuse to reflect critically on, reformulate, and reaffirm the value of our discipline in an electronically networked world is to court irrelevance” (Rowe’s “From the editor,” “Shakespeare and New Media” Special Issue, Shakespeare Quarterly, iii–vii). The “newness” of “new media” obscures the degree to which digital literacy has become a familiar, naturalized discourse in the daily lives of our students, and around the globe more generally (Flew). To exclude digital interpretations from classrooms can be to send the message that students’ intuitive means of navigating the world have no place in intellectual engagements, reinforcing the cultural myth of the ivory tower. Joining new media and Shakespeare, however, can offer rich comparative studies on the relationships among identity, performance, and language—conversations already in play in the Shakespeare classroom.

Both Shakespearean works and new media interrogate the logic of meta-media, or the relationship between form and content, in ways that call attention to fictions of agency conspicuously confronted in each (McLuhan 7). Paying close attention to these logics can enrich our critical understandings of the cultural systems in which we encounter Shakespeare. For instance, Shakespearean characters compulsively raise questions of what it means to willfully perform prescribed social roles. Helena from Measure for Measure embodies the actions of the dutiful wife so aggressively that she disrupts class hierarchies in marrying the man of her choice; The Taming of the Shrew’s Katherine echoes misogynistic culture so completely that the efficacy of her taming remains unclear; Aaron’s resolve to “have his soul black like his face” (3.1.205–06) catalyzes a series of events that ultimately redraw the operations of royal lineage in Titus Andronicus. These meta-theatrical moments reflect cultural anxieties in early modern anti-theatrical pamphlets, which link play-going with transgressive role-playing off-stage. Like these characters, new media theory explores how the (cyber)spaces we occupy inform our identities.

Lev Manovich characterizes new media as always already meta-media, in that they create archives to access and reuse existing texts, rather than creating new texts. Familiar examples of meta-media include YouTube, Facebook, Google, and library catalogue systems; Shakespearean-specific examples include Bardbox, Shakespeare’s Staging, Shakespeare Quarto Archive, Shakespeare Performance in Asia, and the “Shakespeare and New Media” special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly. Archives reflect paradigms of value. As Manovich notes, the emergence of new media reflects “other key aesthetic paradigms of today” such as the remixing of “national cultural traditions now submerged into the medium of globalization.” However, archives also serve a disciplining function by transforming cultural ideologies into information. In the age of information literacies, navigating the topography of information becomes as vital a process as reading and writing, because if one does not create his or her own critical archive, someone else will.

Given its contested representations of ocular “proof,” it should come as little surprise that Othello offers exciting encounters with new ways of knowing Shakespeare within digital platforms. Of particular pedagogical value are the artifacts collected on Bardbox, to supplement discussions of Othello’s mercurial nature, especially evinced in the third scene of Act Three, in which Othello says of Desdemona “when I love thee not,/ Chaos is come again” (3.3.91–92) and then shifts to “I’ll tear her all to pieces” (3.3.431) in approximately 300 lines. John McCarthy’s “Othello,” for example, visually links circumscription in the play with the destruction of the home space. Opening images transpose the theme of epistemological crisis into a meditation on domesticated forms of panopticism, equating Othello’s emotional state to that of a house wrecked by strong winds (which recall the force behind Iago’s manipulative speech). The digital scene brings the spectator from an external to an internal view as the front door transforms into a barred prison door. We watch as the shattering of the suburban ideal creates ever-increasing and self-conscious anger within Othello (“Arise black vengeance!”), which culminates in an audible flat-line, signaling the deaths of Othello and Desdemona. The video also questions the ways in which religious discourses can also be mobilized toward the effacement of various home spaces, as broken window panels fall to the ground to form crosses (evoking the play’s dialectic of the divine and the diabolic). Ultimately, McCarthy raises the question of the efficacy and consequence of trying to “fit in” a new or global context, questions which concern Shakespeare’s works more generally: too much time spent in Egypt prompts Antony to fear, “Authority melts from me” (3.13.90), for instance.

McCarthy’s video conceptualizes self-construction today as ostensibly liberating but actually limited. In cyberspace, on social media, and in the classroom, we may be able to “create opportunities to challenge unitary and fixed notions of identity,” but this does not necessarily hold true for “everyone at every moment equally” (Thompson 342). Interactivity informs the self, thus we would do well to remember the dialogue at play in McCarthy’s video represents the cultural discourses of otherness familiar to our students. The video addresses possible implications of asking a student, especially a student from a marginalized social position, to play a character like Othello, so emblematic of otherness, in the classroom. Taking new media interpretations seriously as intellectual performances demonstrate that in the present moment performances of self involve equal volatile consequences as those in early modern England. Confronting rather than avoiding this social dynamic can help us instructors to refine the ethics of our pedagogy and allow students to form deeper understandings of Shakespeare’s purchase today.

Suggested Reading

Flew, Terry. New Media: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Howard, Jean E. The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Manovich, Lev. “The Anti-Sublime Ideal in Data Art” (2002)

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. NY: (McGraw Hill, 1964).

Munster, Anna. Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics. Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth University Press, 2006.

Rowe, Katherine. “Crowd-Sourcing Shakespeare: Screen Work and Screen Play in Second Life.” Shakespeare Studies 38 (2010): 55–67.

Rowe, Katherine. “Medium-specificity and Other Critical Scripts for Screen Shakespeare.” In Alternative Shakespeare 3. Edited by Diana Henderson, 3453. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Schwarz, Kathryn. What you Will: Gender, Contract, and Shakespearean Social Spaces. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Thompson, Ayanna. “Unmooring the Moor: Researching and Teaching on YouTube.” Shakespeare Quarterly 61.3 (2010): 337–356.