4 Contemporary Texts to Teach with Shakespeare

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June 24, 2024
4 Contemporary Texts to Teach with Shakespeare

One of the greatest challenges teachers face when introducing Shakespeare is convincing students that these classic stories are still relevant to their lives. One sure way to support this argument is to put the plays in conversation with contemporary works. Shakespeare has been inspiring reimaginings, responses, critiques and spin-offs for four centuries now, the most recent of which can be especially relevant to modern students with complex lives and identities. Here are four pairings we recommend:

The Hate U Give and Romeo and Juliet

The 2017 young adult novel The Hate U Give, written by Angie Thomas, takes its name from Tupac Shakur’s acronym “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E”, which stands for “The hate you give little infants f***s everybody.” Tupac’s claim speaks to the ways in which hatred and prejudice are passed down through generations, ultimately harming both the oppressor and the oppressed. 

We see this legacy of hatred in the feud between the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet, which leads to tragedy and loss for all involved. The protagonist in the The Hate U Give, a Black teenager named Starr, grapples with her own legacy of hate after she witnesses the murder of her best friend at the hands of a white police officer. Like Juliet, Starr is thrust into a situation over which she has little control, but she must learn to use her voice to navigate the anger and hatred of those around her while challenging parental and governmental authority. 

The parallels between these two stories don’t end there. There are rich layers of thematic elements to explore by putting these two works in conversation with each other, prompting students to discuss love, violence, discrimination, and what it feels like to be a teenager searching for agency in an oppressive world. As a bonus, check out this animated PBS interview featuring Tupac describing himself as “a tragic hero in a Shakespeare play,” and discuss why Angie Thomas may have used Tupac's ideas to communicate themes of intergenerational hatred and violence. 

Long Way Down and Macbeth

Long Way Down is a 2017 young adult novel written by Jason Reynolds that explores themes of violence and revenge through the eyes of a Black American teenage boy who just lost his brother to gang violence. Delivered in captivating verse, this story touches on many of the same motifs and complex relationship dynamics presented in Macbeth

The podcast Brave New Teaching covers this pairing in detail in Episode 121, explaining how it supports students in deepening their literary analysis skills along the way. A teacher interviewed on this episode even credits this pairing with laying the groundwork for “some of the best character development conversations” she’s ever had with her students!

“Gertrude Talks Back” and Hamlet

In “Gertrude Talks Back,” Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, offers a feminist critique of Hamlet, giving a voice to the often-voiceless character of Gertrude, who we find has much to say about her son’s behavior and accusatory tone. Use this imagined dialogue to spark discussions about the role of women in the play and the power dynamics that influence the characters. For a fun and challenging assignment, ask students to pick another character in the play who they feel is owed more of a voice, and write some lines for them.

Take Her Down and Julius Caesar

While Julius Caesar may not have as robust a selection of modern adaptations as, say, Romeo and Juliet, the play’s historical reality contributes to its persistent relevance. With themes of power, loyalty, and vengeance, the high school version of Caesar nearly writes itself. However, writer Lauren Emily Whalen adds even more complexity to this timeless tale with her 2022 young adult novel Take Her Down, a queer retelling that explores the biphobia that can exist in queer friend groups. 

Laid out as a series of interviews, Take Her Down follows Bronwyn St. James as she navigates an elite school full of mostly queer teenagers from affluent families. Following the intensity of the 2016 election, students at Bronwyn’s new school have become unusually invested in the race for student body president, setting the stage for power struggles, backstabbing, and layered identity politics. This ultra-modern adaptation looks at Julius Caesar through a queer lens while never losing sight of the powerful themes that resonate throughout the political realm–from the American presidency all the way down to the student body.