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Shakespeare: Bypassing the Barriers

It was common practice in schools a few years ago, and may still be, that, in order to ‘do’ Shakespeare, the teacher would play Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo + Juliet to a class of students and then take one scene from the original play and examine it in close detail. An essay was then set on that scene. This constituted ‘doing’ Shakespeare, after which the teacher and the curriculum moved on.

It’s understandable why this approach was taken: as discussed earlier on this blog, teachers of Shakespeare know that certain things occur when the ’S’ word is mentioned in front of a class of teenagers - some students will remain neutral, but a significant proportion of them will groan, as though they are about to endure some kind of torment, even when the individual students involved have had no prior experience of Shakespeare at all. Teenagers may well wish they were doing something else; however, most of them seem to recognise that there is some kind of value to be had in Shakespeare. In a better world, the purpose of the teacher would be to get the student thinking with the texts presented to him or her, able to make connections, to better understand and appreciate what the experience of Shakespeare, and therefore literature as a whole, is about. Using a work of contemporary culture, (Luhrmann’s film) teachers hope to interest and involve the modern student and to show the relevance of Shakespeare today, but more must be done so that students are able to see further meaning and power in the written and spoken English. This would ideally lead to a much greater grasp of the language and to a wider scope for the enjoyment of the culture as a whole.

Romeo + Juliet was received with acclaim by the critics and by the general public when it was released in 1996. The music, some of the settings, many of the scenes and images in the film evoked America in the present day; replacing swords with guns marked with the brand-name ‘Sword’, though clumsy, was one of the more obvious attempts to bring the play up to date. The difficulty is that attempting to update the play can often merely highlight the unusual and almost archaic syntax and styles of speaking which clearly belong to a different era.

This is the biggest fence to climb in teaching Shakespeare: without tackling the language - the words used, the order in which they are used, and the images they are supposed to evoke - it seems that one might as well try to teach a play written in a foreign tongue. Lurhmann’s film offered some hope of bypassing some of this by presenting teenagers with images which they might at least recognise: gang violence, guns and street fighting, while thankfully not a part of every teenager’s life, were less remote than Renaissance family wars, swords and duels. To overworked teachers, dragging the body of imagery of the play into the modern day seemed preferable to hauling an entire class backwards through time. One is at least left only with the strange, out-of-context words and styles of speech.

It’s a partial solution. We see something of the same kind occurring when the BBC or someone else makes a historical series like Robin Hood or The Tudors and, instead of attempting to recreate the era authentically, tries to import modern cultural and linguistic norms into the setting, resulting in something which communicates better but lacks worthwhile substance.

Both attempting to ‘short-circuit’ imagery by contemporising it, and trying to feed modernisms into history, end up ‘grating’ with audiences in one way or another: we are being short-changed either way.

There is another way, for teachers of Shakespeare at least.

The first thing to recognise is that what Shakespeare has to say is universal: though the language and imagery may be foreign, the meaning and power are not. They are simply temporarily inaccessible. Discussing fundamental issues in a non-Shakespearean context, prior to any mention of the ’S’ word, can therefore lay the groundwork for much greater success. If the topics of love, group hostilities, violence or personal loyalties are opened up and suggestions throw around - but no absolute solutions found or presented - the way is laid bare for answers, from wherever they may come.

Then, the traditional means of ‘introducing Shakespeare’, like, for example, researching the background of the play in a library, or locating the spot where Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre stood, or looking at how the play was promoted to its public in Shakespeare’s time, should be avoided. It’s not that they don’t have value, but the hill to climb before every student in the class arrives at a perspective on Shakespeare and his time is probably impossibly high, especially in the time allowed in schools. Once a basic theme has been established - like, for example, ‘Love versus Hate’, or family loyalty or the real nature of romantic love (usually a powerful hook for any teenage audience) - the trick is to present a Shakespearean play as one possible exploration of solutions to these universal human problems.

The theme of love and hate is part of the story of Romeo and Juliet. Examining closely some very brief scenes in the original play which illustrate this best focuses students’ attention without drowning them in what appear to be colourful but relatively meaningless irrelevancies. If you have opened up a discussion about Fate and the fickle nature of the universe (another guaranteed ‘hook’ for teenage students), then you can ask how Shakespeare makes a powerful use of Fate in Romeo and Juliet by looking closely at events in the play which are ‘coincidental’ but which are very important to development of the story.

Taking the main themes of Romeo and Juliet and finding similarities with the themes of other films, poems, plays or novels that you have studied is another way of breaking down the barriers between the student and the Bard.

Look at the use of images of drugs and potions in the play. How are they portrayed? How could this relate to the modern positioning of drugs and medicines in human relations?

There is a great deal of death in Romeo and Juliet. What does the class think are Shakespeare’s attitudes toward human life? Are there any characters in Romeo and Juliet who have similar attitudes to the ones that we might suppose the playwright himself had? How does the class think these views relate to what happens in the end of the play?

The two families in Romeo and Juliet seem to have few qualms about what they do to each other. Can students think of any situations in the modern world where two families or peoples or countries continue to fight each other no matter how irrational it seems?

This kind of approach skips around the minefield of language to some degree. Of course, some translation is needed; of course, some images are obscure and need explanation. But the key difference is that the class’s attention should be better engaged because all of this already means something to them. In effect, the study of Shakespeare becomes an exercise in code-breaking: what does this man, writing over 400 years ago, have to offer in the ongoing discourse about universal human issues?

And there is more that can be done. If an examination of the structure or nature of fiction has been undertaken as part of the literature course, then the play can be broken down according to universal templates of story-telling: who would the class say is the real ‘hero’ of Romeo and Juliet and why? Is Romeo a genuine protagonist in the classic sense? What qualities does he have that could be called heroic, and why does our attention fixate upon him or upon Juliet? What happens to Romeo’s self-respect during the course of the play?

Lesser characters also leap into a more meaningful life when examined in this way. What is it that drives Romeo to kill Tybalt? Why does Romeo feel so passionate about Mercutio’s death?

We can also look at further archetypes in the story: Friar Laurence gets very angry about Romeo’s threat to kill himself - why does the class think this is?

More conventional exercises might try to get students to write, for example, Lady Capulet’s diary of events, from the time she first speaks to Juliet to her daughter’s eventual suicide, including her observations of changes in her husband’s character. This has merits as an attempt to get students ‘into’ the play, but is usually perceived as a tedious chore by those asked to do it: they have no interest in Lady Capulet as a character. Their only genuine interest is in human relationships today, now, in their own lives. It would probably prove more valuable in terms of student engagement to have examined contemporary diaries prior to even mentioning Romeo and Juliet; only then might the context of the diary of a suicide’s parent carry any force or power for the student.

Only once students are engaged, once they have collectively or individually made some kind of emotional commitment to the play, can details of language be safely addressed; only when students appreciate what is involved emotionally can they hope to isolate which speech in the play they feel most powerfully shows what Romeo and Juliet are going through. Quotes which show how Shakespeare uses language to reveal emotion only mean anything once the fact that he does so has sunk in.

Similarly, exercises such as ‘Write an article in newspaper style describing the events of Romeo and Juliet in modern language as though from a reporter at the scene’ are doomed to generate little but boredom (and very little else in terms of actual work) unless the true nature and power of the events in the play are first appreciated. Attempts like this are more of the ‘dragging’ kind: trying to pull the Elizabethan play forward into a new timeframe so as to be better understood, or, as in the case of the ‘Write a diary’ example above, pushing the class back in time in a vain hope of getting a close enough connection.

Any film version can still be of use. Facets such as the different approaches of the cinematographer in making a film of the play and how that relates to stagecraft, examining key elements in the on-screen treatment of the relationship between Romeo and Juliet in terms of timing, camera angles and so on in the film, whether or not a class thinks these things work, the actor’s portrayal of the character of Romeo and the actress’ portrayal of Juliet, and so on, are interesting technicalities which a student already engaged with the play may find worth exploring.

But the real connection is one of meaning and theme; that is real and electric and potent, but, for the greatest success, must first be breached in the present time world of the teenager.

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