Revelling in Bad Romances; music video murders by poisonous catering and flame-throwing bras; elaborate (dis)guises involving raw meat, an egg and cross-dressing; parodies of foreign languages; and collaborations with established artists such as Beyoncé and Madonna, could Lady Gaga represent a Shakespeare for today? Or is she a throwback to early modern entertainment more generally? What connects the two artists and their audiences’ expectations of them? If not causality, is it universality or fantasy? This article considers reasons for and against pairing texts by and about these giants of popular entertainment from the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries to offer ways of reading Shakespeare. It concludes with reference to an exercise which I use in my teaching at the University of York.
Why you should
Pairing texts from these two artists engages students with Shakespeare through multimodal icons/texts, some of which they will be familiar with from everyday life. The importance of identifying a user-friendly, student-friendly medium through which to explore the plays has been identified by Rex Gibson (1998).
Is Lady Gaga's iconic brand "student-friendly" enough to use in teaching Shakespeare? [Image by Alfred Hermida under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]
Such couplings draw on and value a wide range of literacies: textual, musical, visual. These are literacies which students willingly engage with on a daily basis; which acknowledge ‘that pupils have existing media knowledge and skills which must be accessed and given expression within’ their formal schooling (Clarke 203). The juxtaposition ‘celebrates the pleasures that young people derive from the media consumption’, rather than seeking in a Leavisite manner to inoculate students against its assumed ill effects.
Finding continuities between Shakespeare and Gaga’s themes and craftsmanship decreases perceptions of Shakespeare’s remoteness, without resorting to trite statements of universality. Indeed, it also allows for an acknowledgement of the ways in which they are dissimilar: rooted in media and social conventions, as well as creative traditions, particular to their time e.g. changing taboos around female sexuality and behaviour. Gaga has been praised for the way in which she ‘examines female dysfunction, alienation and sexual neuroses’ (Moran 257), disrupting and disturbing sexual stereotypes and pressures upon young women concerning normative expectations and values.
Using popular culture through the ages to reconsider Shakespeare [Image by Mary Margret under a CC-BY license]
Students could consider whether this is also true of Shakespearean texts, exploring women playing with gender and sexuality in As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Such comparative readings enable students to think about the way in which traditions originating in the English literary canon continue to influence those writers, artists and cultural producers working in other countries and other times, as well as the ways in which these times and places write back to ‘dead white males’. It dilutes the canonicity of English syllabi by foregrounding an artist who has emerged from groups that have traditionally been marginalised within British literary and musical canons and education: Gaga is non-English, female, queer, Catholic.
Students using popular culture to analyse Shakespeare in one of Sarah's seminars [Photo taken by the author]
Putting these two artists together attempts to fulfil some of the objectives of inter-related theoretical and pedagogical perspectives which advocate bringing the study of popular culture into the English classroom. These include cultural studies, critical literacy, and, to some extent, reader-response theory. It recognises that the use of multimedia to teach Shakespeare remains focussed on the on close-study of scenes, comparison of different productions, or on students producing scenes that have been adapted to film i.e. established literary critical and performance approaches. Proof of this can be found in the volume Teaching Shakespeare: Passing it on. Ramona Wray, for instance, writes that ‘the Shakespeare film functions to return us to the text’, and it is significant that within this collection of essays, only Barbara Hodgdon uses multimedia to ask more expansive questions about Shakespeare’s place in contemporary culture. Activities pairing such icons therefore seek to redress the sidelining of popular culture within contemporary Shakespeare studies.
Why you shouldn’t
There are two practical reasons against pairing Shakespeare and Gaga. Firstly, there is plenty of existing research, if not teaching materials, from the 1990s analysing Madonna’s music videos which would not be immediately familiar to students now. The choice of Lady Gaga would require updating as new cultural icons emerge. Secondly, such comparative readings assume a certain level of knowledge: students need to have broad (albeit shallow) awareness of diverse cultural forms.
More challenging are the potential ideological limitations. The politically radical, left-wing aims of cultural materialism, critical literacy (subverting the dominant hegemony and its ideological institutions) may be unpalatable to departments for education, politicians and policymakers. This means that students may encounter such unorthodox ways of reading for the first time at university, leaving tutors with excessive ground to cover and skills to imbue.
What are the ideological implcations of studying Shakespeare and an icon of youth culture? [Image by Keoki Seu under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]
On the other hand, this exercise could be accused of not being radical enough, only pairing a gold standard figure of government and literary elite – Shakespeare – with an icon of youth culture. Made the only compulsory author in the National Curriculum for English under Thatcher’s Conservative government, he remained in that position under New Labour. The coalition Conservative/Liberal Democrat government’s revised National Curriculum is expected imminently. It could be argued that an activity juxtaposing Shakespeare and Lady Gaga plays into the hands of those who want to keep Shakespeare in a uniquely privileged place within the curriculum; that it exploits young people’s frames of reference; and sugars an otherwise often bitter pill – that of tackling an author whose language and frames of reference are to a large extent remote from our own.
Put your paws up!
Responding to these legitimate concerns, the achievements of such a lesson plan lie in finding a paired ‘reading’ that that demonstrates why Shakespeare might constitute an interesting area of study, without falling back on clichéd and presumptive notions of universality; by asking fundamental questions about the nature of art, originality, creativity, and iconicity. It is a juxtaposition that should allow students to feel empowered by appreciating and utilising their popular cultural literacy, but which simultaneously asks them to use this knowledge to develop critical skills on which they will be formally assessed. It is both provocative and productive, appealing to students’ own interests in taboos, boundaries, subversion and activism, in a way that is also socially responsible – given that Gaga has directly campaigned against bullying, sexism, homophobia, racial and religious intolerance. Finally, it uses Shakespeare’s uniquely high position on curricula as an aegis to include texts that at best will never be central to it, and at worst are studied exceptionally and perfunctorily.
Juxtaposing Lady Gaga with Shakespeare appeals to students’ own interests in taboos, boundaries, subversion and activism [Image by Jonathan McIntosh under a CC-BY-SA license]
How you might
If you feel inspired to use Lady Gaga to teach Shakespeare, follow this link to an exercise that I use with students on the B.A. English in Education at the University of York or click on the image below. I have used it on the first year module, ‘Introduction to Language and Literature’, as an introduction to work on creativity in literature and everyday culture with students who have not previously studied Shakespeare at university, but will be familiar with at least two plays from school. Additionally, I have deployed it with second year students, who have either studied Macbeth and Othello or the Tempest as part of their optional modules the previous term, to introduce study of All’s Well That Ends Well. The lesson involves students drawing connections, then identifying similarities and differences, between three sets of texts by Shakespeare and Lady Gaga as a springboard to the discussion of originality, linguistic creativity and revenge.
CITATION: Sarah Olive, "Shakespeare and Lady Gaga," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 June 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.1.04.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/sarah.olive_.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Dr Sarah Olive is Lecturer in English in Education at the University of York, where she is Programme Leader for the B.A. English in Education. She is editor of Teaching Shakespeare and a trustee of the British Shakespeare Association. [/author_info] [/author]
Clarke, Stephen, Paul Dickinson and Jo Westbrook. The Complete Guide to Becoming an English Teacher (London: Sage, 2009).
Gibson, Rex. Teaching Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Moran, Caitlin. How to be a Woman (London: Ebury, 2011).
Shand, G.B. Teaching Shakespeare: Passing it On (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
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