Teaching Shakespeare Using Film: Romeo and Juliet from PBS Great Performances
Updated: Aug 24, 2021
“The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite” (2.2.142)
Juliet in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
There is no challenge quite like teaching Shakespeare. Early modern English always poses challenges for teenage readers, and on top of that, Shakespeare loads his language with metaphors and allusions. When else is it required to have an entire page of the text next to the original that explains old definitions and allusions? Students also struggle with the layout of the text – it looks and sounds like a poem, but most of the time, the speaker doesn’t pause at the end of the line, similar to what happens with enjambment. So when students hear the play performed in a film for the first time, you can see the lightbulbs going on around the room. But those lightbulbs only go off because they’ve read the entire text, know the plot and characters, and understand the context of the scene. They already combed through the personifications and metonymies. So when they understand what’s happening, the emotion of the speaker suddenly becomes clear because they already thought about their emotion.
In PBS’s recent version of Romeo and Juliet, we really feel, not just comprehend, this crucial moment between them, when everything seems suddenly right and wrong at the same time. They’re battling their fear and their excitement at the same time. Let’s not forget that Juliet’s father tells her to “never after look me in the face” (3.5.168) if she disobeys him and marries Romeo. He also threatens to beat her by telling Lady Capulet that “[his] fingers itch”(3.5.170) and that he “will drag [Juliet] on a hurdle hither”(3.5.160) to marry Paris. She knows her father will react that way which accounts for her internal conflict.
In text, we hear only the words of Juliet as she speaks on the balcony. But in the film, we get to see Romeo ecstatic when she calls him perfect, like a “rose”(2.2.46). We also don’t think about the physical space between them since Shakespeare provides little to no stage directions. While we might imagine the moon at night when we read, it is wonderfully gigantic in the dark sky in the film. In fact, the white and black that defines the space outside Juliet’s room contrasts the warm, yellow light that comes from inside her room. The yellow light symbolizes domesticity and the confinement of her family’s demands, not the warm glow of comfort and ease it might normally represent. It almost feels like a fire coming from the window. The moon also connects to Romeo’s celestial, cosmic imagery. It’s a beautiful omen.
When Juliet shouts “O be some other name”(2.2.44) into the darkness, we are not just reading about the bounds of family, we are feeling her anguish. After Juliet watches Romeo throw up his hands and declare “neither dear maid, if either thee dislike”(2.2.66) with a smile on his face, we see her clutching the balcony railing as if it were the bars of a prison cell. Romeo then climbs on a ladder to be closer to her, an ascending, free, independent, bold, courageous man. Juliet’s quick and frantic tone shifts from trembling out of fear of the future to smiling and laughing with her love. It will help students understand the back and forth happening within the mind of the character – it is not always easy to see in the words alone.
When students interpret literature, they’re interpreting the meaning of the words and how they’re arranged. When they interpret film, they’re doing all that, and doing what they do in real life: watching to see if the words they hear mirror the body language they see. Critical thinkers need to decipher both if they want the truth.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers