FOX’s Empire is basically Shakespearean Hip-Hop Theatre

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Are Shakespeare’s plays universal?

In the poem “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare,” Ben Jonson wrote that Shakespeare was “not of an age but for all time!” His argument was that Shakespeare’s works were universal, and that any audience could relate to the themes within them. His theory is evidenced by the countless retellings and reinterpretations of the Bard’s plays. FOX’s hit Empire about a hip hop dynasty seems to agree with Jonson.

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The Bard’s Empire

In the pilot of Empire, one of Lucious Lyon’s sons, Jamal, says, “We King Lear now?” Lyon has announced that he has been diagnosed with ALS and will have to decide to which of his three sons he will leave control of his music business empire. Fans of Shakespeare may immediately think of Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan, but some of the fun of Empire is that the series offers many more parallels to Shakespeare’s plays than solely King Lear. Throughout the first season, we see connections to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Othello and Iago, and Romeo and Juliet, among others. Each episode, in fact, is named after a line from a Shakespearean play, which can prompt us into an even deeper investigation into parallels between the series and Elizabethan drama.

 

From the Stage to the Small Screen

One of the most interesting elements of Empire is the way the series maintains its own story while drawing on themes from Shakespeare. Shakespearean tragedies often begin in a state of disorder, either within the home, city, or kingdom. Over the course of the two hours of a play, the initial disorder is addressed, ultimately leading to a more orderly society. Things are not perfect, but the initial disorder is settled. Take Romeo and Juliet, for example. At the start of the play, we learn that the Prince is infuriated with the civic quarrels between the Montagues and Capulets. By the end of the play, everything is not resolved: two young lovers have died, along with many others. As a result, however, the Montagues and Capulets decide to put aside their hatred for one another, thus creating more order in Verona. Is it perfect? No. But, through the conflicts in the play, the initial conflict is resolved. At this point, the audience applauds and leaves the theater. What’s interesting about Empire is that the series can expand on this disorder-order model. Since the series airs weekly, and is much longer than two hours, there is more time to develop several themes and conflicts, and to create new ones. Just when the initial disorder is resolved, another conflict incites more disorder. In this way, the show can continue to draw on universal themes that make Shakespeare’s plays so beloved.

Media

Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Lesson Plan

LEARNING OBJECTIVE: Students will learn the Visual Thinking Strategies [VTS] method for analysis. The goal of this exercise is to train students to use specific details to support their analysis. Students will discuss the comparisons between Empire and Shakespearean plays to gauge their understanding of characterization, conflict, and their relationships to theme.

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Lesson tags: Books, Eleventh, Empire, English, Featured, Hip-hop, Literature, Music, Ninth, Shakespeare, Television, Tenth, TV, Twelfth

Maeve Gavagan

Maeve Gavagan Maeve is a high school English teacher in New York City. She has a Master's degree in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in English from the University of Notre Dame.