Personally speaking

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Indy Lifestyle Online
My daughter Emma went to see William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet this week, and I didn't. What makes this unusual is that she is a "scientist" and does not like reading or classical literature, whereas I am head of English in a secondary school.

My reasons for not going to see the film as soon as it came out are perfectly uncontroversial. I have no pompous opinions masquerading as "taste" which make me sniff at populist versions of sacred Shakespeare; on the contrary, I am an unqualified supporter of any production that opens up an audience to any aspect of his work. I am simply blase about the prospect of seeing the film. I have taught the play for the key stage 3 tests, and I figure I will see the film many times in the future.

What has caught my imagination is the reaction of so many young people to the film. Who would believe that there were people who did not know the story? According to my daughter, the audience left the cinema profoundly moved by their experience. She said that they sat in their seats in total silence until the credits stopped rolling. Catharsis? It is precisely Shakespeare's power to move audiences that I had begun to underestimate.

I used to hate teaching Shakespeare except to committed A-level students. The systematic annihilation by analysis of Henry IV for 0-level was one of the most depressing experiences of my life: to watch the eyes of intelligent, enthusiastic 15-year-olds glaze over was frustration and punishment for me because I could not understand why they did not share my love for the play. When we lost the battle over the tests, 1 faced the prospect of "doing" Romeo and Juliet with all 14-year-olds. My heart sank, and I prepared my defences.

I used the "don't blame me; you have to study this, so stop complaining and watch the film" approach. They did; open-mouthed and mesmerised by Zeffirelli's version. The story had worked its magic. Girls gasped in disbelief at Romeo's suicide. Boys cheered during the fight scene. Everybody cried at the end. It was wonderful. The rest was easy.

Getting pupils to discuss the issues raised in a play where the girl is not yet 14 but is prepared to defy her parents and marry in secret is not a problem. Talking about Romeo's casual irresponsibility, Mercutio's wasteful death or Tybalt's anger, is real. They know what it is to have the whole world against them, telling them they are too young to know what is best for them; they know what it is to be enticed by the dark fascination of suicide, to be excited by danger, to be spoiled by parents one moment and bullied the next.

All these have been given identity and life, albeit two-dimensional and celluloid, by the film. Who cares? The answer is that the children do, because they have passion.

Have many parents and teachers lost theirs, or merely forgotten its effects? For years I had been so arrogant that I had deprived my pupils of the opportunity to decide for themselves. The director listened to his young star, Leonardo di Caprio, who told him what was seriously cool as opposed to what some middle-aged know-all thought was cool. That was sensible, and he deserves the success he has achieved. For years I had not listened. Like most adults, especially parents and teachers, I always knew best. In fact, I was behaving exactly as Lord Capulet did towards his daughter - and look what happened to themn

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