Another Great Year Learning Teen Shakespeare

Natalie Loper on the sideline in Bryant Denny Stadium
Dr. Natalie Loper

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the UA Department of English’s Dr. Natalie Loper. She earned her PhD. at UA in Renaissance Studies and teaches a class called, “Teen Shakespeare,” where students study contemporary takes on Shakespeare plays in current movies. She came to UA to pursue her MA and PhD through the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies. Loper explains, “I loved my Shakespeare classes in high school and college, and I was really excited to be a part of a program that offered specialized courses in Renaissance literature.” The Strode Program and the Department of English also bring an impressive array of top scholars to Tuscaloosa, which has been another highlight Loper appreciates: “I also love to teach and have come to consider Tuscaloosa home, so I was thrilled when they offered me a full time teaching job in the Department of English….I’ve always wanted to teach this course, which is based partly on my dissertation.” Loper is most interested in how Shakespeare has been adapted for different audiences throughout the ages and has taught some honors 100-level composition classes that examined adaptations of single plays. None of those classes, however, focused on the teen film aspect. Loper recalls: “I proposed the course as a special-topics interim class because I wanted to focus on three plays: Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and Othello.” In addition to reading the plays and some theory and criticism, Loper and her students also watched clips of classic films and the full versions of 10 Things I Hate About You, O, and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.

For someone who has never heard the term “Teen Shakespeare” how would you explain it?

Teen Shakespeare could probably refer to any adaptation or appropriation of Shakespeare featuring teens or directed toward them. My focus is on films, so in my view, Shakespearean teen films are adaptations of his plays that share common traits with other teen films. Some of these characteristics include young characters, settings such as high schools, and conflicts between young characters and their parents or other figures of authority.

What are the most important skills students gain when they study Shakespeare?

 I think students are always surprised by how much they can relate to Shakespeare’s themes and characters, but they also learn from the things they can’t relate to: some of the extreme situations and emotions Shakespeare presents allow students to think outside of their comfort zones. I also stress close reading, requiring students to break down just twenty lines in order to really understand how the poetry works. They explain what exactly is being said and discuss a figure of speech, allusions, the verse form, and the importance of that particular speech. They also look up a word in the Oxford English Dictionary and often learn either a new word or a new use for a word they already knew. It’s a great way of learning to read slowly and carefully and to think about how each line matters.

Why is it important that college students study Shakespeare?

Because Shakespeare is the best! For one, he’s a cultural touchstone, and knowing Shakespeare opens up all sorts of allusions and references in other works of literature and also popular culture. Studying Shakespeare’s language also helps students become more careful readers because, I’m finding more and more each year, it’s not always easy. Really knowing how to read Shakespeare can help students become better thinkers, critics, and writers. There’s so much going on in each play that it would take an entire essay for me to say why he’s so important.

What is your favorite project that you have taught in a class?

For their final exam in this class, students proposed a Shakespearean teen film of their own. They used what they had learned about teen films and came up with some fascinating ideas for new movies. Some of these included teen versions of Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and even King Lear. In addition to the plot (which ranged from gangster films to high school comedies), the students included cast lists, soundtrack ideas, and locations. I’ve found that students really put a lot of work into creative projects, which allow them to have fun while showcasing what they’ve learned. If I knew anyone in Hollywood, I would have sent my students their way! I’ve done similar projects in other classes, and it’s always gone well.

Has anyone inspired you while you’ve been teaching at UA?

Professor Sharon O’Dair has been a wonderful mentor, and she has done so much for our department. My writing would not be the same without her tough love and guidance. I’m also incredibly fortunate to work with Dr. Karen Gardiner in the First-Year Writing Program; much of what I know about teaching has come from her. Some of my favorite classes as a student were with Gary Taylor, who’s no longer here, Dr. Barbara Godorecci in the Italian department, Bill Ulmer, and Fred Whiting. I’ve also been inspired by my students through the years. I think in many ways, I’ve learned just as much from them as they have learned from me (if not more); that’s one of the great joys of teaching.

What has been your most memorable experience teaching at UA?

This class was one of them; I never imagined that I could be paid to talk about Shakespeare for almost three hours straight every single day for three weeks! My students were also phenomenal. I’ve had a lot of great classes, but other highlights include some honors sections of British literature, my EN 103 Adaptation course, and working with Living Learning Communities.

Taking a moment to consider her favorite Shakespeare quotation, Dr. Loper wonders: “Is it really possible to pick just one?” Instead of her favorite, she chose the first that truly inspired her. “Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die, take him and cut him out into little stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.” These lines are from the scene in which Juliet is waiting for Romeo to come to her on their wedding night, just before she learns he’s been banished. Loper explains that “Watching Claire Danes say those lines in Luhrmann’s film showed me that Shakespeare is so much more than what I was learning in my high school English class.” Shakespeare is timeless and is important for everyone to study. His words are more than just words and his influence has spread throughout the world. It is our job to learn and discover the meaning behind these words because within these literary works are truths that define the beauty of tragedy and what it means to experience love and loss, and in the process, learn what it means to be human.