Why Orlando and Rosalind wouldn't cut it on the Tube

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The Independent Culture
YOU have to be sharp when you're watching this stuff. You have to concentrate. Take your eyes off it for a moment and it slips out of focus. What's it about? What's it about? It's about a posh family, monstrously posh - a duke, his sons, his courtiers. And the duke's family are having some kind of row, but I can't quite make out the point of it, it's something between the duke's sons. The nasty one's the heir. So what will the nice one do? Kill him?

It's the dialogue. The dialogue is difficult to get, sometimes flowery, using complex constructions, sometimes veering right off the point. The scriptwriter's been given a lot of leeway here. For instance, one of the Duke's sons, he's called Orlando, falls in love, and he says: 'What passion lays these weights upon my tongue?' And that's about the clearest thing he says. It's like watching an arty foreign movie with incomplete subtitles.

But I know what this story is going to be about - like all stories, it's about a group of people who find out that, for whatever reason, their life has been changed, the equilibrium shattered, so I know the plot will be about these people trying to restore normality, and if it's a good story it will show us what they learn in the process. The story, a play, is called As You Like It by William Shakespeare, and I've read it before, years ago, seen it a couple of times. It's just that I haven't read Shakespeare for a while, so I'm a little rusty.

The lead, Orlando, is getting into his stride now, mooning about, saying things like: 'As true a lover as ever sigh'd upon a midnight pillow,' slightly embarrassing stuff, but I'm starting to pick it up. Something happens that I can't quite work out, although it's crucial to the plot, but Orlando leaves home and finds himself in a forest, and the girl he's after, Rosalind, has a row with her father and runs away from home, and she's in the forest too. And here's the twist. She's dressed up as a man. And Orlando doesn't recognise her. He just thinks she's a guy he's met on his travels, and they start knocking around together.

So it started off quite difficult, this Shakespeare, but I concentrated and, with a bit of work, a bit of graft, I managed it. The thing is, though, that 16th-century English Lit is really my kind of stuff. I must have read 15 Shakespeares at school, studied them in detail, poring through the text, learning quotes, writing little character sketches in the margins, long, quote-heavy essays every week. And then I studied literature at university for nearly seven years - by the end I'd read some of these plays 20 times, nearly all of them more than once, and all the major critical commentaries - Bradley, G Wilson Knight, Leslie Fiedler. I'd read books about Shakespeare from every perspective - Marxist, structuralist, feminist. Like the French and German I learned, Shakespeare is a language that comes back after a while.

Should all schoolchildren be forced to learn this? John Patten, the education secretary, thinks so. I remember sitting through it, at first utterly bemused, writing notes in the margin: 'dramatic irony - audience knows something not known by one of the characters', 'symbolism', 'metaphorical use of language'. But the text of the play might as well have been written in Cyrillic script, from right to left, for all the genuine understanding I had. The first time I really got stuff like dramatic irony was by watching movies, stories that made sense to me, and chatting about them afterwards. English literature was something I learned by rote, so I passed all my exams easily, without understanding the first thing about Shakespeare.

But think about how easy this must have been for my teachers. Imagine trying to teach, say, William Burroughs or the movies of Francis Ford Coppola to a room full of bright middle-class kids who all know the stuff really well. You'd be having rows about all the important questions - is war ever justified? Is it ever artistically viable to glamorise it to make your point? Should art always enact its moral valuations? And the kids would have different opinions, and nobody would be right, and it would be a nightmare.

But imagine what it must be like if you're from a family without many books, without parents who have university degrees, or if you're distracted from your schoolbooks by the fighting and shouting outside your house, or if your entire artistic culture is based on going into dark rooms drugged out of your mind and swaying around all night, and everybody else you know does exactly the same thing - or, worse, imagine what it must be like if you're a bit thick. If somebody came in and told you how Goodfellas worked as a story, or Fatal Attraction, or Basic Instinct, you might learn something about stories, you might have made a start. But Shakespeare - these complex, dramatic declarations: it's everything your world has taught you to hate.

Think of them, those little sods who push people out of the way on the Tube, wearing baseball caps the wrong way round and baggy trousers dragging along the ground. Now imagine them standing up in class and saying 'Sweet are the uses of adversity . . .' These people just don't use flowery language. They'd be desperate to get away from it. It would just force them to play truant.

So Orlando gets the girl, who sets up a chain reaction of dramatic irony, fooling everybody else by being dressed as a man, and there's a kind of light-comic ending with everybody declaring their love for each other and the bad brother turning over a new leaf. It's a bit like thirtysomething in difficult verse with singing and dancing at the end.

I rather liked it, although, storywise, I wouldn't use it as my main fix. It looks like perfect material to teach the more diligent of undergraduates, and I can see what a superb tool it could be for keeping classrooms of kids bored and ignorant, unable to think of difficult questions. But it won't make any difference at all to the kids in the back-to-front baseball caps who push people out of the way in the Tube. Because they won't be there.-