How Hip-Hop Can Bring Shakespeare to Life

Artistic director Michael Kelly had been bringing Shakespeare to schools in the greater Toronto area since 1987 with his company Shakespeare in Action, creating presentations and workshops for ages kindergarten through high school. Though the programs had changed and morphed over the years, the students remained enthusiastic and receptive to their style, which was first teaching kids about Shakespeare’s life and the times in which he lived and wrote, followed by getting kids up on their feet and speaking Shakespeare.
“The axiom I go by is, you learn Shakespeare by doing Shakespeare,” he said. “And the idea [of the workshops] was to get kids up on their feet and speak Shakespeare aloud.”
Then two years ago, at the suggestion of a fellow actor, Kelly decided to take a different tack: Incorporate music, specifically hip-hop, into a typical workshop. He pulled apart one of his traditional presentations featuring Shakespearean speeches from different plays, and revamped it with hip-hop beats and music. They focused on the rhythm and poetry of both art forms, and even designed a rap version of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, comparing it with the themes of some present-day hip-hop songs. “We will say [to the students], ‘Oh, isn’t that interesting? 400 years ago this guy was talking about this [suicide, indecision], so really, nothing has changed, has it?”
When they brought it to high schools, “Shakespeare Meets Hip-Hop” was …