Looking back at my last post has made me think of a seminar I ran last week, in which I came to realise that it is quite difficult not to love, or at least highly appreciate, most pieces of literature, as long as they are of a quality to demand your appreciation. To say that I ‘ran’ the seminar is a very loose definition of what happened. In fact, a student who was going to give a presentation ended up running an entire hour-long seminar. She excited everyone’s imagination with her observations and made us all think anew about what we are seeing. It all began with Romeo and Juliet…
I have had quite a tortuous relationship with this play and I don’t think it is ever going to be in my top-ten all-time favourite list of Shakespeare plays. I read it as a teenager, I studied it at school, I ignored it as much as possible at university and yet still it catches me out. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is a favourite for outdoor performances and so I get caught up with watching it because I enjoy outdoor performances, and then my children studied it at school and I wanted to make the point that plays should be seen and not just read, so off we went to watch it yet again…you can see how this has happened to me.
It is not that I do not appreciate the play, it is just that I had read, studied and seen it so often that I sort of fell out of love with even the pieces of it which had originally appealed to me. Then, as if fate were determined to catch me out yet again, I found myself teaching it. This was not an entire accident. I convene the module on which it is being taught, so I could have chosen another text, but the module is called ‘Shakespeare on Film’ and I knew that Baz Luhrmann had done a brilliant version, and my students would benefit from seeing it, so there I was again with Romeo and Juliet, although this time it was Romeo + Juliet.
Thank goodness – I just love, love, love that film. I even cried at the end the first time I saw it. How could that happen? I knew the ending for goodness sake! I should have been annoyed that Lurhmann had taken a few liberties with the script so as to play up the drama, but instead there I was, popcorn in hand, willing a happy ending. How daft!
So I loved the film, but still I thought I might be in danger of getting too used to it. So great was my concern that I was tempted to take it off the module list of texts this year, worried that I might not teach it well if I had lost my enthusiasm (and aware that there are some great filmic versions of Shakespeare out there – this is not a module which will ever run short of texts).
Then came along the brilliant performance by my ‘Shakespeare on Film’ student. I had already seen two excellent presentations in our previous seminar, so my enthusiasm for talking about the film had been rising, and I was delighted when she showed us the clip she was going to analyse. It is the masked ball scene, where Romeo and Juliet see each other through the fish tank and fall in love at first sight. What was so invigorating about the presentation was not just that the student covered all of the aspects of both the text and the film-making process that one would expect, it was that she took us to realms of speculation that we do not always get the chance to explore.
Juliet is dressed as an angel, but could Mercutio, in his white cross-dressing outfit, also be seen as a sort of false angel as he descends the steps, dancing and flapping the ‘wings’ of his outfit? What might that say about the potential rivalry between Juliet and Mercutio for Romeo’s love? Tybalt is dressed as a devil, so could we link this back to the idea of angels and devils battling for the soul of a good man, with Juliet showing the path for god and Tybalt, the path towards evil? Or is Juliet another false angel, luring him to his death?
You can see how things developed, with interpretations being postulated, discussed, refuted and endorsed, and with our presenter plucking relevant quotations from the text as if she had lived and breathed it for several days.
By the end of the seminar there were some delightful results: we all (including me) knew more about Shakespeare, film and Luhrmann’s Shakespeare on film than we did when we walked into the room; we had learnt that film directors can simultaneously expand and restrict your interpretation of a text; we had also decided that few of us would object to being wooed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the years before The Wolf of Wall Street.
What was most surprising – and most delightful – for me, is that I have a renewed appreciation of Romeo and Juliet. Despite all of these years, I have not become too accustomed to the play after all. The gifts our students give us.