Exploring Shakespeare with Latinx and Spanish-speaking Learners

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April 24, 2024
Exploring Shakespeare with Latinx and Spanish-speaking Learners
Jamie Litton

myShakespeare is proud to provide modern Spanish translations of all six of our Shakespeare plays. These translations, alongside the original text, multimedia features, and modern English translations, offer multiple levels of support to Spanish-speaking English language learners (ELLs) as they navigate the already complex world of Shakespeare. In March of 2024, the myShakespeare team attended the inaugural Borderlands Shakespeare conference in San Antonio, TX. Hosted by the Borderlands Shakespeare Colectiva, the two-day event focused on Shakespeare adaptations, translations, and performances in the US–Mexico Borderlands.

While at the conference we enjoyed multilingual performances, met with scholars of Shakespeare and Latinx studies, discussed ways to make Shakespeare relevant to diverse learners, and learned about the fertile pedagogical ground available to educators who wish to teach Shakespeare through a Latinx lens. Here are three key takeaways from our research on teaching Shakespeare to Latinx students and Spanish-speaking ELLs that you can utilize in your classroom.

Use Shakespeare to Level the Playing Field for ELLs

It is not uncommon for educators to express discomfort or resistance when faced with the task of teaching Shakespeare to English language learners. Teaching Shakespeare can already feel daunting with a room full of students who have spoken English their entire lives, which can make a language barrier seem like an unrealistic challenge to overcome. The truth is that engaging with Shakespeare for the first time can feel foreign to nearly everyone. You may have even heard a fluent English speaker complain that reading Shakespeare is like trying to decipher a different language entirely.

The good news is that this distance between Shakespeare’s English and our modern tongue can put ELLs on the same playing field as native English speakers when it comes time to start your Shakespeare unit. Many methods and activities commonly used to support students in understanding the Bard achieve equal success among ELLs, with little to no differentiation. For example, in “Teaching Shakespeare to ELLs to Develop Fluency,” Mary Beth Pickett writes, “Students might pose as human sculptures to express words and phrases, create group ‘snapshots’ to capture the essence of a scene, or play a ball toss game to introduce new vocabulary. These types of activities and games prepare them for understanding the story and characters, and the meaning of the language.” 

She describes an activity called “Feeding-In,” which could fit into any holistic Shakespeare unit, and “requires actors to be given their lines by a feeder who stands behind them with the text.” Pickett points out that this activity “is particularly useful for ELLs because it allows practice of listening perception and speaking skills. It also gives them the opportunity to practice new vocabulary learned as they express with their body the meaning of words." Pickett describes the activity in more detail:

The feeders speak the line(s) of text clearly and without interpretive inflection to the ELLs who listened and then repeated the line(s) to the audience with their own interpretive inflections of meaning. The teacher reminds them that the exercise is not about “getting it right.” The point of the activity is to “bring the words alive” (Shakespeare & Company, 2005)...The ELLs find this especially attractive because they do not have to memorize their lines, and it allows them to use eye contact and full body movement without being encumbered by scripts. 

Using activities like these that utilize body language, peer support, and student creativity in combination with myShakespeare’s built-in multimedia supports and modern Spanish translations allow Spanish-speaking ELLs to have just as enriching an experience with the plays as native English speakers.

Seek out Modern Latinx Adaptations and Appropriations

In a 2021 interview, Shakespeare and Latinx scholar Ruben Espinosa said, "If we're going to do anything to make Shakespeare important for a Latinx audience, they have to see themselves in the work. They have to see the way the work reflects their experiences and their identities." One way to accomplish this representation is to include Latinx adaptations in your Shakespeare unit. The U.S.—Mexico Borderlands have a rich history of Shakespeare adaptations and appropriations, several of which are featured in the anthology book Bard in the Borderlands, edited by Borderlands Shakespeare Colectiva founders Katherine Gillen, Adrianna M. Santos, and Kathryn Vomero Santos. The introduction to this anthology begins, “For several decades, Chicanx and Indigenous theatermakers have been repurposing Shakespeare’s plays to reflect the histories and lived realities of the U.S.—Mexico Borderlands, creating space to tell stories of and for La Frontera.” 

Like these scholars, we believe in the power of Shakespeare to tell stories from vastly different periods and locations while staying true to the deeply human themes and ideas that so often earn the Bard the reputation of timelessness. Borderlands Shakespeare accomplishes this, while also interrogating themes associated with the unique history of the Borderlands, such as the nuances of navigating multilingual spaces and the persistence of Indigenous knowledge in the face of colonization.

Reading an appropriation like The Language of Flowers (available for free at this link), inspired by Romeo and Juliet and taking place in 1990s Los Angeles, can help students connect Shakespeare’s themes to their own experiences in the modern world. Written by Edit Villarreal, this beautiful play depicts star-crossed lovers separated not by an ancient grudge, but by immigration status and the pressure of assimilation, touching on themes that continue to affect the Latinx community even thirty years after the play was written. While Latinx playwrights may choose many different approaches to exploring linguistic identity, The Language of Flowers employs modern English, Spanish, Spanglish, and Nahuatl, an Indigenous language of Mexico. Encountering multilingual narratives that reflect some or all of the languages students speak with their friends and family, not only empowers their sense of identity but also invites them to step into the world of linguistic creativity where Shakespeare lives and thrives. 

In addition to seeking out and reading modern Latinx adaptations, look for Shakespeare productions in your community that incorporate Latinx culture and language. Midsummer Sueño, featured at the San Pedro Playhouse in San Antonio in the Spring 2024 season, tells the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the added dimension of Latinx influence, visible in every aspect of the production from its multilingual script to the folklórico dancers. This production invites the people of San Antonio to see their local culture reflected in a retelling of a centuries-old play. You can use your Shakespeare unit as an oppoortunity to practice place-based education by looking for community theater projects in your area that merge Shakespeare and Latinx culture. 

Discover Culturally Sustaining Shakespeare

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP), a term coined by Dr. Django Paris, refers to classroom practices that sustain rather than stifle the diverse cultures of our students. You can check out our blog post for more ideas for incorporating CSP into your Shakespeare curriculum. One key aspect of CSP is valuing the knowledge and experiences that your students bring into the classroom. When it comes to teaching Shakespeare, this means taking the Bard off of his pedestal and allowing students to interpret, play with, change, and criticize these canonical works. 

If you have Spanish-speaking and Latinx students in your classroom, consider activities that tap into linguistic creativity and familial wisdom. You can read more on the power of activating the linguistic creativity of all students learning Shakespeare in our blog post on the topic, but for Spanish and Spanglish-speaking students, this practice can be especially valuable. According to the editors of Bard in the Borderlands, “Language carries fraught class-based and racial valences, and border Spanish and Spanglish are often disparaged as improper or impure.” As an educator, you can begin to dismantle this harmful association by empowering your students to use the languages they are most comfortable with to engage with Shakespeare’s plays. 

One way to facilitate this with Spanish-speaking learners is to encourage them to translate Shakespeare into either Spanish or Spanglish, depending on what they speak most frequently at home and with friends. You may choose to allow them to use myShakespeare’s modern Spanish and English as references, but prompt them to change the language to say things in the way they would naturally say them. Remind them that translation is subjective, and they are free to interpret and change Shakespeare’s words how they see fit. This level of intimacy with Shakespeare’s language not only supports students’ understanding of the plays, but also empowers them to innovate with language the way Shakespeare did, creating wordplay, metaphors, and colloquialisms to express the characters' perspectives and experiences.

The scholars behind Bard in the Borderlands and the Borderlands Shakespeare Colectiva seek to create community and connections around Shakespeare where there historically were none. “Because Shakespeare’s work has been used as a tool of assimilation and gatekeeping in education for centuries,” they argue, “it often carries fraught associations for Latinx students.” We hope that through robust multimedia support and the continued exploration of culturally sustaining approaches to Shakespeare, myShakespeare can cultivate a community of educators who foster that same sense of community and connection in their diverse classrooms.