If You’re Teaching Shakespeare, You Might Want to Start with Duke Ellington

A thunderous composition indeed.

In 1957, jazz legend Duke Ellington released his album Such Sweet Thunder, which is a collection of songs written in direct response to different plays and characters by Shakespeare. Using the album with students, for which the Folger Shakespeare Library has some excellent resources, can take the kinds of conversations one has about tone, plot, characterization, intertextuality, and multimodality to a new level. In addition the music, you can also use the album’s liner notes, which offers some creative context and insight. Here’s an example:

In paying tribute to William Shakespeare (1564-1616), unquestionably the greatest writer in the English language, Ellington and Strayhorn painted a series of finely drawn portraits of some of the Bard’s most memorable tragic, comic, and heroic figures. And as John Edward Haase notes in his essential study of The Maestro, Beyond Category – The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington: “As did Shakespeare, Ellington deployed his players like great actors on a stage. For nineteen years, Shakespeare was part owner of a repertory company, and wrote ONLY for that company. Likewise, Ellington had HIS own repertory company – for fifty years – and wrote almost exclusively for its players. Shakespeare’s plays have outlived the actors for whom they were conceived. Ellington’s music may, as the centuries pass, attain the same achievement.

Give the album a listen on your favorite music app or over on YouTube.

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