Saturday, 3 August 2013

Oh my God. They killed Romeo!

I hope you haven’t played that party game of ‘I have never’. The rules are pretty simple: People take it in turns to complete the phrase ‘I have never…’ and if you have, you have a drink, or you have to complete a forfeit. I will go first: I have never taught ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to students. This is where you take a drink now, because I bet the majority of people reading this have, at some time, taught the play. I bet there are schools across the land that only teach ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at GCSE. I have certainly worked in schools where 90% of English teachers teach ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the rest do something else by William Shakespeare.  

I am one of those 10% of teachers that teaches anything but ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Over the years, I have taught ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Henry V’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to a variety of students. Even my university days included more of the Bard’s work such as ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘As You Like It’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘King John’, ‘Henry IV Part 1’, and ‘Henry IV Part 2’. You can see I like variety.  In fact, this week I have been studying another play to teach: Othello. I tend to rotate plays every two years to: keep me on my toes; and keep things fresh and new.

Looking at the recent changes in the curriculum, you can see an attempt to remedy this. We now have to study more Shakespeare plays and more than one at GCSE. Why? Possibly because the same one is done time and time again. There exists a problem that has been highlighted before: We tend to teach the same texts again and again at GCSE. Let’s call them the ‘trinity’ of English departments. An Inspector Calls. Of Mice and Men. Romeo and Juliet. I bet there are people that teach these plays year on year and never change them. The beauty of these texts is that they are so bloody good. However, teaching them year on year breeds over familiarity with them. Funnily, a Year 7 brought a copy ‘Of Mice and Men’ to a reading lesson and said that they were told to read it by an older sibling. Also, I have heard of some schools teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ in Year 8 and repeating it in Years 9, 10 and 11 so, hopefully, something sticks.

Am I a better teacher for teaching the same text several years in a row? Or, is it a safer approach to teaching? I know it works, so I will stick to doing it. Why change it if it works well already? We talk about students focusing on content rather than the skills, when we do it already. We see teaching the play / novel as being content driven rather than skills driven. I have these resources and I must use them. Texts are so good because you can squeeze years of teaching out of a single novel or play.  But, does this over reliance on one text mean that we neglect the skills of a new reader to a text? Or, does it mean that we can hone some skills better?  

Personally, my teaching several Shakespeare plays has helped me considerably in my teaching. I understand his style and techniques better, because I can spot patterns between plays. I understand the mechanics of his plotting better, because I see similar devices used in different ways in his other plays. I understand his themes better, because I have seen them repeated and echoed in other plays. I am better, in my opinion, because I have read, acted and studied a range of his texts. Therefore, I now tend to have a ‘give-it-a-go approach’ to things now. I have never taught ‘Othello’, but I am enjoying preparing and planning for it. Already, I can see connections between ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Othello’. Firstly, there’s the plotting of Don John and Iago. Then, there’s the use of imagery relating to ‘Heaven and Hell’. Finally, there is the use of Hero and Desdemona: A character presented through other people’s opinions of her. They both don’t save a single kitten, yet they are presented as pure as snow. I am starting to see that ‘Othello’ is a grown-up version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and a less comedic version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. Yes, I know Shakespeare didn’t come up with the story, but they have a lot of similarities in the ways that they are written.

My insistence of doing different texts has helped me considerably. I feel that I can comfortably handle a new Shakespeare play without fear and worry. Yes, it does take time, but I feel more comfortable with talking about Shakespeare and his writing and his style as I have a breadth of knowledge to work from, rather than the same play. There are so many resources for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that you don’t need to create anything really. Pick another play and you can be more inventive and creative.

So, what’s my beef with ‘Romeo and Juliet’? When I tell students that we are not going to study the play, I get a few groans and the jealousy starts about how the other groups are watching the dead good film by Baz Luhrmann. There is one reason I don’t go for it: They want to watch it.  This is my same reasoning with books like ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Hunger Games’. Why introduce these to students when they are likely to read them independently? Surely, it is better to introduce them to something new and different. I have saved somewhere a letter from a parent explaining how amazed she was that her son knew a lot about ‘Julius Caesar’. I’d rather be the key that opens doors to literature, than the ticket tout for the latest film.

Another reason: My childhood. Yes, you may call Freud. I had a fabulous English teacher at school, Mr Bic, and he taught me the play. However, even he couldn’t make me connect with the play. In fact, all I can recall is some video with some naked bums in it and me slowly ploughing through the text, wandering what we will do next. I never really connected with it, because I wasn’t part of a warring family; and, I just felt that Romeo and Juliet’s suicides were misguided. Maybe, I am heartless, but I just don’t buy the fact that these characters quickly go from 'stranger' to 'lover' and then to not wanting to exist without the other one. Furthermore, the potion. A potion that mimics death. I am sorry, but I would use everything at hand to see if my loved one was really dead. A mirror. Check her pulse. Pinch her. Bucket of cold water. Plus, what about rigor mortis?

But, the main reason is that I never felt it was a teen play. It does feature some teenagers in it, but I feel that it is an adult’s view of teenagers and how teenagers behave strangely. They fight. They argue. They disobey. They even do the deed. Then, they do a stupid thing like kill themselves. ‘Hamlet’ for me has always been the play for teenagers. A person that questions the world as it is. A person that searches for their position in the world. A person that isn’t happy. A person that has mood swings. A person that doesn’t like what his parents are telling him. I suppose I was more Hamlet than Romeo.  

In September, I will be selling (teaching) ‘Othello’ to my class. First, I will start with the plot of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Then, I will ask them: How would you make a sequel of the story? How could you improve on the story? How could you reimagine the story? Then I will tell them that ‘Othello’ is like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but with more sex, more violence, more realism, more plot twists and a darker tone.

Why the title? It is a reference to ‘South Park. In every episode, the character Kenny is killed. This is repeated every episode.
Oh my God. They killed Romeo!
Oh my God. They killed Juliet!

Oh my God. They killed Curley’s wife!

Oh my God. They killed Lennie!

Oh my God. They killed Eva Smith!

Oh my God. They killed Daisy Renton!

Go on pick another play by William Shakespeare. I dare you to.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. I will learn to love ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as I will be helping to direct it next year.


  1. I enjoyed reading this - thanks for sharing!

    Over the years I taught English and English Lit I always tried to get a balance of teaching texts I already knew quite well (initially because I'd studied them myself; later because I'd taught them before) AND texts that were new to me, and so over the summer I'd have to do some reading and research. I really enjoyed this as it kept me thinking and learning, and I felt I was stretching myself in my own understanding and appreciation of the subject. And even with texts I'd taught before I tried to find new angles if I could. I'd repeat things that had worked before, e.g. a press conference where the whole class interviews George at the end of OMAM - all the journalists know is that this is a man who shot his best friend, and they have to devise appropriate questions to probe what happened and why. But I'd also try new activities and tasks to keep me feeling fresh and energised.

    You've reminded me that I was teaching R & J to a Year 9 class when the Luhrmann film came out in the late 1990s. It was interesting to see the difference it made to their appreciation of it.

  2. Thanks for that. Some people think I am attacking those teachers that teach RJ - I am not. Far from it. I just want people to think of other texts when teaching texts. I think it is better if we pick less obvious texts. Just because I don't enjoy RJ, it doesn't mean I think the rest of the world shouldn't enjoy it. I just think we need to spice things up every so often.



  3. It's quite an interesting challenge to teach something you DON'T like with some degree of enthusiasm and not revealing your antipathy! I taught 'Persuasion' to a nightschool class of adults (A level. The texts had been chosen before I was asked to teach the course). I quite like some Austen but really don't like this one. I managed to conceal that until after they'd all taken the exam, when I came clean!