Using Shakespeare to Celebrate Linguistic Creativity

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December 8, 2023
Using Shakespeare to Celebrate Linguistic Creativity
Jamie Litton

During recent interviews myShakespeare conducted with teachers who use our site, we asked educators all over the country: What is the biggest challenge you face when teaching Shakespeare? Overwhelmingly, the answer was “the language.” 

Shakespeare’s language is archaic, dense, nuanced, and at times, downright difficult to understand. This can make Shakespeare feel intimidating and unapproachable for students and teachers alike. However, Shakespeare was also a rule-breaker and an inventor of words and phrases that may have seemed odd and foreign to his audience but have now become commonplace in modern English. 

This sort of linguistic inventiveness is likely familiar to your students. They might have already created their own words and phrases or used terms recently crafted by their peers. They have probably even been corrected by the adults in their lives when they exercised linguistic creativity. Now, with Shakespeare, they get to celebrate it. 

Taking this approach to Shakespeare’s language tends to resonate with all students, but it can be especially valuable among Black students who speak a version of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) with their peers or at home, as well as students who frequently play with the mixing and meshing of English and their first language, such as speakers of Spanglish. These students often face strict policing of their engagement with each other and the world around them through blatant or subtextual messages that their form of communication is not legitimate or valuable in an academic setting. As activist and essayist Gloria Anzaldúa writes, 
Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, TexMex, and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself.2

Shakespeare pushes back against this claim of illegitimacy, empowering young creative linguists to think about the ways in which they experiment with language, taking mundane words and phrases and giving them depth and power. As students start to examine some common phrases they use that might be considered slang to outside ears, they will likely discover complex metaphors, alliteration, and other rhetorical devices that Shakespeare also employs. 

Tapping into the linguistic knowledge students already have to help them connect to Shakespeare is what anti-racist educational scholar Andratesha Fritzgerald refers to as an “on-ramp”. In Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning, she writes,

Where there are barriers to learning, we get to build onramps that eliminate or overtake the barriers by providing options that awaken the background knowledge, connect to current information, and propel them forward to explore with an informed sense of confidence and curiosity. 

These on-ramps can bridge the gap between the language that feels comfortable in your students’ mouths and the Shakespearean lines you want them to engage with. This begins with an intentional recognition of the linguistic power and creativity your students already possess. 

One example of a lesson that takes this approach is profiled in the article “Culturally Sustaining Practices for Shakespeare Sonnets: An Entry Point to the Language and the Plays,” by Jonathan Burton. Burton observed a mostly Black South Los Angeles classroom dive into Shakespeare’s language using Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”). After a class-wide close-reading, students were asked to paraphrase the sonnet in their own language, using as much slang, colloquialisms, and linguistic creativity as possible. Next, they shared their versions for discussion. Burton writes, “In less than half an hour, the students have decoded Shakespeare’s language, debated interpretations, called for historical etymology, paraphrased the poem, and drafted a sophisticated thesis.” In the next lesson, the students practice “Code-switching with Shakespeare” — translating sentences from “colloquial language” to “mainstream language” to “Shakespearean language”. 

Burton goes on to recall a moment when a student helped him understand a colloquialism, writing, “‘Subbin’,’ one of the students explains to me, ‘it’s like subliminal. I’m talking about you, but I’m not using your name directly.’ In this moment, a student is teaching the visiting Shakespeare professor about language innovation.” 

And therein lies the power of this approach. So many students have spent their lives being told that their form of expression is inferior or illegitimate. With this introduction to Shakespeare, we remind students that language is always changing, rules are somewhat arbitrary, and Shakespeare was interested in adding some fun and flavor to his language — just like teenagers. 

Focusing on linguistic creativity when introducing Shakespeare to your students can also help them understand how tone works to create meaning. If your students listen to hip hop, they are likely already familiar with the process of hearing new words and deciphering their meaning based on tone and context. 

Speaking about growing up during the golden age of hip hop, theater director Carl Colfield says “Much like Shakespeare, you could make up your own words, and if you say them with enough conviction, your audience will intuit what you are saying.” Describing the moment he was empowered by an educator to engage meaningfully with Shakespeare, he adds, “Once I was given permission, and I was able to connect the dots…that changed the trajectory of my career and my life.”1 With the right resources, an open-minded approach, and a little creativity, any teacher can create this kind of impact. 


BONUS: Check out this video from Harvard educator Sunn m’Cheaux, showcasing linguistic creativity by asking “What if Shakespeare was Gullah/Geechee?” 



1. Missouri Historical Society: Shakespeare, race, and who gets to tell the story

2. Borderlands/La Frontera