Finding Shakespeare in ‘Serial’

In November, I read a blog post by Mike Godsey, a California teacher who became so frustrated by teaching Shakespeare to his students that he decided to ditch the world’s most prolific playwright, structuring his English class instead around Serial, the recent hit podcast spinoff of NPR’s This American Life.

Serial is a 12-part podcast in which listeners hear part of a single story told week by week – in a serial format. The first season featured a journalistic investigation of a 1999 Baltimore murder case. Hae Min Lee, a popular student at Woodlawn High School, disappeared after school one day. Police found her body in a park several weeks later. The cause of her death was manual strangulation. A jury found her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, guilty of her murder. As the podcast reveals, however, the evidence against Adnan was scant. Along with the podcast, the Serial website provides digital copies of various pieces of evidence, timelines, maps, and call logs.

I came across Mr. Godsey’s post while I and the rest of our ASC Education team were attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Washington, DC. We were surrounded by thousands of English teachers, hundreds of whom were clambering for resources and professional training in how to revitalize their love of teaching Shakespeare, while also finding methods for reaching their students on a different level – a level that would engage them as much as Serial intrigued millions of attentive weekly listeners.

My reaction to the post was one of both delight and disappointment. My husband and I dedicated our Thursday evenings to Serial, turning our living room into a classic radio-listening den à la the days of FDR’s fireside chats. I was delighted that another teacher had found in Serial the same qualities that I admired in the podcast and had taken steps to introduce his students to the riveting journalism of Sarah Koenig and her producers. I didn’t go one day without wondering whether Adnan was innocent, if we would hear more about Jay’s testimony during the next episode, or if an entirely new twist would surface from the legal team’s research at the University of Virginia, just 40 minutes from our own Blackfriars Playhouse.

What disappointed me, however, was that this teacher did not seem to make the connection that we love Serial because we also love Shakespeare. Shakespeare may not have been a journalist trying to solve a twisted murder case, but he knew how to keep an audience’s attention through the swelling drama of his tragedies and the laugh-‘til-you-burst scenarios of his comedies, and the true-to-life circumstances when tragedy and comedy collide. Ira Glass might not be a fan, but we certainly owe all due credit to the playwright from Stratford for the drama craze that is so ingrained in our culture and modern media.

Mr. Godsey outlined 8 reasons behind his syllabus overhaul:

  1. The teacher (me) doesn’t know how the story ends
    Whenever I teach a novel for the first time, the students believe they might be answering my questions and solving problems in original ways. No matter how much I fake it, however, they can tell when I’m teaching Hamletfor the eighth straight year. TeachingSerial is even better than teaching a book for the first time – the story is literally not finished yet, so they know I don’t know the answers.
  2. The non-fiction “murder mystery” genre makes it more conducive to problem-solving
    We want our students to be critically thinking problem solvers, and Reading Standard 7 of the Common Core State Standards specifically asks students to combine multiple sources to solve a problem or question. “How much should we believe Jay’s story?” is an interesting, real-life question that could literally be solved; student engagement with this question is much higher than, say, “Should Hamlet listen to his father’s ghost?”

Any well-prepared teacher will know the ending of the story they are teaching, but knowing the end of the story is not the same as knowing the answers to questions about the story. Students may respond positively to questions about Serial that they can explore on their own by listening to the podcast: “How does Serial expose the flaws of our justice system?” or “What possible motives does Sarah propose to explain the inconsistencies of Jay’s testimonies?” Teaching students to mine the text for clues, like actively listening to the podcast, will empower them with the tools they need to decipher questions about the play without the teacher having all the answers.

When students encounter Shakespeare for the first time, they have just as many opportunities to make new discoveries and to propose original solutions to the play’s problems as their teacher does. Teaching Shakespeare using his original Staging Conditions allows students and teachers to examine the text in ways that demand innovative solutions and problem-solving strategies. Your students will surprise you every time they start to reevaluate characters based on subtle shifts in Shakespeare’s verse, or when they propose five different ways to stage the first scene of Hamlet after they learn to recognize embedded stage directions. Our co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen has been teaching Shakespeare using these methods for over 40 years and still makes new discoveries about the plays he teaches.

  1. Serial is hip and fresh
    My students really, really don’t care about what a dead critic thinks about Hamlet’s sexual feelings for his own mother, but they definitely take notice when women are tweeting about how they’re looking for men who have an opinion on Adnan.
  2. My students’ opinions might actually matter on social networking sites. Or in my class. Or in real life
    Nobody on the internet really cares about their thoughts on Hamlet’s suicidal tendencies, and after eight years, I frankly don’t either (I’ve pretty much heard them all). But in this case, there’s a good chance they can blow my mind by uncovering a clue, and even a (very small) chance that their research could help bring justice to an imprisoned man.

If you think Shakespeare isn’t hip and fresh, think again. The teens that come to the ASC Theatre Camp would certainly convince you otherwise. “The Hollow Crown” BBC series is still drawing attention even three years later, with over 11.3k followers on Twitter. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are two heartthrobs getting international acclaim for their Shakespeare performances, and even Johnny Depp is developing a new TV series based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Students’ opinions about Shakespeare absolutely matter, and encouraging students to share their opinions with others is key to developing their critical discussion skills and self-confidence. Pair up with a class at another school that is covering the same play and use Tumblr or Google Communities to inspire student discussion and interaction; have your students send Shakespearean actors and scholars questions about their work through Twitter; create a Pinterest board for your next production and let your students post and share their design inspirations and dramaturgical research. Your students will be delighted to see when others start reposting their Tweets or sharing their Pins.

  1. The multimedia aspect encourages (requires) the students to synthesise information from a variety of sources
    Yes, I know we can watch Shakespeare on YouTube and make models of the Globe Theatre, but this does not compare to Serial‘s collection of documents and photos. Not only does this multimedia aspect really help with the state standards and 21st-century skills, it’s just a good time. Maps, call logs, Google Maps, handwritten letters…it’s fantastically fun and totally engaging. Today we put the Google Maps street view on the big screen and “drove” the exact route that Adnan allegedly took from his school to Best Buy. Creepy, but engaging. Speaking of which…
  2. They actually listen to the story
    Sorry, but the kids these days are not doing the homework like we imagine we did when we were in high school. Their SparkNotes (on their phones) are in their pockets at all times. Even at university, my friend (an English professor) says that students are watching the movie on their iPads while he lectures on Much Ado About NothingIn this case, the students say “Wait, Mr Godsey. Can you play back that last 10 seconds?” about every 10 minutes.

Shakespeare’s plays are inherently multimedia-based. Shakespeare’s actors used cue scripts, containing only their character’s lines and the few words before them. This technology required that actors had to synthesize information about their own characters and the action of the play by listening to other actors. When your students have to listen to their fellow classmates for plot information, character development, and staging clues, suddenly, class is much better than a movie or podcast. Show your students that Shakespeare’s plays were meant for performance, and you have a cacophony of sources from which they can create the story themselves – cue scripts, doubling charts, props, costumes, and musical instruments; Each element is a piece of the puzzle that your students must decipher together, and they must listen to each other during the process.

  1. It’s easier to teach the state standards with Serial
    Not only can I justify the use of Serial as a primary text, but the podcast actually helps the students learn these fundamental skills more efficiently than most traditional texts, especially longer novels.
  1. The state doesn’t really care if the students read Shakespeare
    I don’t know if this is hyperbole or understatement, but it’s how I feel right now. Serial does not teach anything about iambic pentameter, English history or the Renaissance, but none of these things are tested on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam, the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), the SAT or any other test they might take outside my class. Generally speaking, we’re being asked to teach the skills rather than the content (said to be easily accessible in 2014). More specifically, there is no school-wide, district-wide or state-mandated test that has a single question about a particular piece of literature. “To be or not to be?” is not a multiple-choice question that has any place on a state-mandated test, and nobody seems to care; I’m not even sure I do. As long as I teach students to read well and think critically, they can read Shakespeare on their own time.

I agree that Serial can provide a fresh approach to teaching the critical analysis and close reading skills required by some standardized tests; however, Shakespeare stands the test of time, and his inclusion in the Common Core Standards is a testament to the influence of his works across all areas of modern literature and drama. Even Sarah Koenig recognizes the significance of her podcast’s parallels to Shakespeare:

I read a few newspaper clips about the case, looked up a few trial records. And on paper, the case was like a Shakespearean mashup — young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched, the villain not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same, and a final act of murderous revenge. And the main stage? A regular old high school across the street from a 7-Eleven.

-Sarah Koenig, Serial, Episode 1 Transcript

If you are inspired by Serial and want a way to tie it to your class, I propose a hybrid unit that integrates Serial with Shakespeare. The story of Hae Min Lee’s tragic death invokes the story of Othello more than any other. Hae Min, like Desdemona, was a well-liked young woman who found herself in a controversial relationship with a man whom society deemed to be an outsider. Adnan and Othello are the exotic “other,” accomplished and admired by their communities, yet doomed to suffer through their own tragic endings.

Questions for your class to consider as they listen to Serial and read Othello might include:

  • How do characters in Othello refer to Othello’s otherness? What sets Othello apart from the Venetians? Do the same descriptions apply to Adnan? In what ways are Othello and Adnan similar to and different from one another?
  • If you were a juror on a case in which Othello was being tried for Desdemona’s death, what sentence would you give him? What would Iago’s charge be? Would you be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Iago was involved in Desdemona’s murder? Who would be your witnesses?
  • Review the Timeline and People Map on the Serial website. Make a timeline for the events in Othello and a People Map to show the characters’ relationships. Compose a brief explanation for your group’s choices based on information available in the play. Insert quotes from the text in your timeline and People Map.
  • Read Shakespeare’s source for Othello, Cinthio’s “Un Capitano Moro.” What evidence surrounding Desdemona’s death changes in Shakespeare’s play from this story? How would the difference between these endings change your verdicts for Othello or Iago? Discuss these changes in relation to the evidence presented in Adnan’s case.

–Kim Newton
Director of College Prep Programs

About ASC Theatre Camp

At the ASC Theatre Camp students master critical and creative skills through the performance and exploration of Shakespeare's text and technology.

2 thoughts on “Finding Shakespeare in ‘Serial’

  1. Hi, Kim. I am a high school English teacher interested in teaching “Serial” as a company text to “Othello.” However, I do not want to have my students listen to every podcast. Do you have ideas for a specific podcast that would help students make comparisons? I love the questions you have for students to think about but I am wondering if they will be able to make connections without listening to the whole series. I would love to hear your input.

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    • Hello! I recommend starting with Episode 1 and, if you have time, at least the first half of Episode 2. These episodes set out the details of the case and trial that will help your students draw the strongest connections between Othello and Serial. Sarah’s deep perspective into Hae’s diary and her narrative of Hae and Adnan’s relationship is, I think, part of the podcast that teens will be able to relate to the most. This could also inspire other classroom activities, such as a creative writing assignment where the students write a diary entry from the perspective of Desdemona, Othello, Iago, or Emilia. Some of the later podcasts, such as Episodes 10 and 11 get deeper into the legal issues surrounding the story, with expert testimonies. These episodes would help your students create connections with their other classes, like government and social studies. Please share how your class goes. I look forwarding to hearing about your students’ responses to this Serial-Shakespeare mashup!

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