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.</