Sunday, May 21, 2017

King Charles III (and some thoughts on cultural references)

I recently saw the movie King Charles III. The premise is that, after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles ascends to the throne and causes a constitutional crisis by refusing to sign a bill into law.

The plot I could take or leave, but what made this movie particularly interesting is that it's written in a Shakespearean style, using blank verse, iambic pentameter, asides to the audience, etc. So watching it was akin to being one of Shakespeare's contemporaries watching a Shakespearean history play.  In fact, as I was watching it, I kept finding myself noticing references that would need to be footnoted if this were taught in schools centuries in the future.  But for me, they were just common knowledge with a soup├žon of tabloid gossip.

It might be interesting to show this movie to students learning Shakespeare, just to give them that experience.  Anyone who can name or extrapolate from context the names of most of the people in this photo already has the necessary cultural references.

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When I studied Shakespeare in school, the plays came in these books with extensive footnotes explaining the wordplay or cultural references that weren't part of our vernacular. The teachers said that in Shakespeare's time, everyone understood these references, with tone, delivery and connotations suggesting that if Kids Today would just be more diligent, we'd understand it too just like in the Good Old Days.

But as I watched King Charles III, I realized that those were just their modern cultural references at the time - contemporary slang, basic current events, current social media use patterns, the sort of celebrity gossip you pick up from seeing tabloid covers while waiting in line at the grocery store, etc.

Similarly, when we did an extensive unit on Greek and Roman mythology in Grade 8, the teacher said that people used to know all these references, again with tone and delivery suggesting that our lack of knowledge of these references that are apparently so crucial and vital and baseline to our culture made us somehow subpar.

But the 90s Jane Austen movies, and some subsequent reading on the concept of neo-classicism, made me realize that this whole Greco-Roman thing was basically a trend too. It was that era's equivalent of Simpsons references and/or dank memes. The flowery, wordy reference-laden Romantic-era writing style was that era's equivalent of today's dense, reference-laden hip-hop lyrics. And people were familiar with them simply because they had consumed the era's popular culture, just like how people who have seen the Marvel Thor movies starring Chris Hemsworth might pick up a thing or two about Norse mythology.


I think if our teachers had presented these aspects of the curriculum as a glimpse into the popular culture of the olden days, we would have found it much more approachable and much more interesting.

1 comment:

laura k said...

The teachers said that in Shakespeare's time, everyone understood these references, with tone, delivery and connotations suggesting that if Kids Today would just be more diligent, we'd understand it too just like in the Good Old Days.

I've never heard anyone suggest that. I thought the "everyone understood these references" to mean exactly as you say here.