Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Discovering Shakespeare

I guess just about everyone knows the story of "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's tale of star–crossed lovers from feuding families.

I don't know how many movies have been made of that play over the years — four or five, perhaps? And there was a period of time there, spanning about five or six years, when public TV aired about half a dozen of Shakespeare's plays per year. I don't remember specifically, but I'm certain that "Romeo and Juliet" must have been one of them.

My point is that there have been lots of versions of that play available — in fact, I think a new one is slated to premiere later this week — so if you're a fan of the Bard and you want to see "Romeo and Juliet," there is no shortage of productions from which to choose.

I've seen a few of the productions that have been preserved on film and/or video tape, and I think I would recommend director Franco Zeffirelli's movie, which made its debut on this date in 1968.

That probably was the first version I ever saw, and I saw it in school. My sixth–grade English teacher showed it to us, but she only had us for about an hour each day and the movie was nearly two hours and 20 minutes long so my memory is that she showed it to us over a period of three days, and on the third day, we discussed the movie after its conclusion.

One of the things I appreciated — although I probably didn't realize it at the time — was the fact that Zeffirelli cast actors to play Romeo and Juliet who really were teenagers — just as Shakespeare intended. They were believable.

I didn't understand everything in the play (I think it was the first time I ever saw a Shakespeare play, and it was a challenge just to understand 16th–century dialogue), but I could comprehend enough to know that these were supposed to be two very young people, folks who were close to my age, not my parents' ages.

Later on in life, I recall seeing other movie versions of the play and being struck by how old the stars were. It really prevented me from fully appreciating the story.

But Olivia Hussey, who played Juliet, was a little bit older than the Juliet of the play — but only by a year or two, not a decade or two like some of her predecessors. Likewise, Leonard Whiting, who played Romeo, was perhaps a year or two older than the Romeo in the play, but, again, most of the Romeos who came before him were much older. Sir Laurence Olivier provided the narration.

By and large, sixth–graders are an immature bunch. I say that knowing that, although I was probably more serious than most of my peers at that age, I had my immature side, too.

And my memory is that we all giggled at the mushy stuff ... you know, the kissing scenes and scenes where more of Hussey's breasts could be observed — oh–so fleetingly — than usual.

Such a thing is normal for boys of that age, I guess. For girls, too, I suppose, but I was never an adolescent girl. I remember that Hussey inspired a lot of conversations among the boys on the playground during the days we watched that movie — then our attention shifted to something else.

I don't remember any conversations about the realistic nature of the casting, but I do remember thinking about it — even if I wasn't old enough to think — or communicate — in terms like realism.

Nor do I remember how the post—movie discussion went. A roomful of 12–year–olds probably didn't offer too many deep insights.

And my teacher probably felt frustrated. I am a teacher now, and I know how it feels to plan a lesson and really believe that you've found a way to make it fun and interesting and meaningful for your students — only to discover that it falls far short of your expectations.

I don't know where that teacher is now. If I could, though, I would thank her for opening up the world of Shakespeare to my young eyes and ears.

Her efforts were not in vain.