Digital and online Shakespeare resources should enable our students to understand and unpack Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, but often the intricacies of early modern language are intimidating and incomprehensible to beginning Shakespeare readers. This interactive project enables students to “translate” a Shakespearean sonnet into their own words, beyond simple paraphrasing, through collaboration. Students will use tools such as the Oxford English Dictionary and the online Shakespeare Concordance in a practical application of close reading, but it will feel as though they are playing a game.
A Shakespearean Sonnet works best for this activity, as each Sonnet is a finite 14 lines and follows set compositional rules. Beginning with a word document on a screen at the front of the class, students will look up every single word of the Sonnet in the OED— even if they think they know its definition already— and write down every relevant synonym or parallel phrase for each word in the sonnet. Allusions and odd vocabulary will be checked against the Shakespeare Concordance. Every group of students will come up with something different.
For example, Shakespeare’s first line of Sonnet 29 reads: “when in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…” One class “translated” this line: “at the time, at the moment when, in shame, when I’m feeling the disfavor of someone in a powerful position, when my honor has been withdrawn, when I am unlucky by chance, when I am on the bottom of Fortune’s wheel…” Another class wrote, “at the moment that I am publicly ashamed, I am all out of luck, and other people are looking down on me…” Eventually, 14 lines may become two pages; 114 words may become 1114 words. The payoff comes at the end of the exercise when you read the “translation” aloud from beginning to end. The project rewards students by not only elucidating the content/ message of the Sonnet in their own words, but also demonstrating the multiple meanings of each individual word and line.
This creative process trains students to apply digital technology to humanities research. My presentation at the HASTAC conference would entail a demonstration of this “translation” process and discussion of how to situate this activity within an academic framework that emphasizes close reading, information literacy, and demystifying literature through interactive scholarship.