Gloria Castrillon on Teaching “Romeo and Juliet”
I had enjoyed Shakespeare at school, but no more nor less than, for example, The Great Gatsby. I had enjoyed some Shakespeare at university (notably Macbeth taught by Professor Martin Orkin), and had not enjoyed others (King Lear, taught tragically boringly by another professor who shall remain nameless). I only enjoyed Lear after I saw the movie Ran and re-read Lear alone. By 1989, I had decided to abandon the English Literature department (into which I had been accepted for Honours) and move to the African Literature department – a move I was never to regret. I completed my Honours and Masters in African Literature, and there developed a love for Shakespeare that was fed, ironically, by the greats of African literature, whose works spoke back to the English literature they had studied, and forward to the authors they in turn would inspire.
Then, in 1990 and 1991, I was a full-time teacher at a school in the Johannesburg CBD. I was tasked with teaching Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet to matriculants from townships all over the greater Johannesburg area. I was a little mollified by the fact that Romeo and Juliet is as simple a Shakespearean text as Wuthering Heights is a difficult Gothic text. I was determined to make Shakespeare not scary for the students (they told me they were terrified). I was determined they would enjoy it. What I did not expect was how much I would enjoy teaching it to them. The innuendos, the ribaldry, the puns were perfect for a teenage audience. The love story was ideal. The fact that there was a Romeo in Grade 11 and a Juliet in Grade 12 (although they did not love one another) was a synchronicity I could not have asked for.
And so we read every single line of the play together; we laughed at the Nurse, railed at the Friar, and spoke loudly to Romeo and to Juliet. We finished reading the play and then I played the 1968 Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet for the classes. When Romeo walks on, the gasps were audible. The girls were smitten. I soon picked up on the giggling, though, and enjoyed explaining what a codpiece is. The boys were greatly relieved. We all laughed. Then Juliet came on. The boys were entranced, and thus began a wonderful experience. We watched it as much and as often as we could; we re-read bits from the play; we debated why they had left out Juliet’s soliloquy; we wondered who we would have cast in their places. What I will never forget is the tears at the end of the movie. I could not understand why the students were reacting so emotionally; after all, they knew that Romeo and Juliet both die, having read the play end to end. “But Ma’am,” they exclaimed, “this is a movie! People don’t just die like this in movies!”
There is no question that Shakespeare spoke to those students; there is no question that he spoke again to me. Equally, that play brought us together. We laughed and giggled, and smirked, and cried, and ranted and raved together. But the day that I really knew that Shakespeare had found a place in the hearts of the students was the day one of the really tough kids in my classes (often hungover on a Monday from a weekend at the shebeen) leaned over the balcony and cried:
“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, far sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!”
When I exclaimed, “Emmanuel, I thought you hated Shakespeare!” he replied, “I memorised it for you, Ma’am, because I love him now!”