Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

So quick bright things come to confusion.

Opening weekend has come and gone for Julian Fellowes’s new version of Romeo and Juliet in cinemas, and the numbers were not good.

I wouldn’t bring this up again so soon, but for a quote from Fellowes which appeared in an article from BBC News last week:

“When people say we should have filmed the original, I don’t attack them for that point of view, but to see the original in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearian scholarship and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on.

“I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.”

My mind ground to a halt reading that. I went quite speechless (except for the occasional squeak or screech or indignant huff.) Is he serious? The NY Times tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, preceding this quote thusly: “With tongue presumably in cheek or perhaps just a foot deep in mouth,” but still I reel at this presumption. How grossly can you underestimate your audience?

A richly furnished Cambridge education is not what’s needed to revel in understanding of Shakespeare’s verses. It’s exposure to the language itself: put into action, spoken aloud, seen in performance, played with.

It seems, so far, that at least some reviewers agree that this pandering approach isn’t working:

“why not encourage the tween audience to rise to the language rather than hide the words from them?”
~ The Village Voice

“If this “Romeo & Juliet” were better, fierier or juicier, far less polite and rather more unhinged, it would be easier to ignore Mr. Fellowes’s ideas about the intelligence of his audience.”
~ The NY Times

“The Fellowes defence is that he’s writing for a new generation, who need the play livened up a bit. In the shonky hands of Italian director Carlo Carlei, his dutiful pastiche has quite the opposite effect.”
~The Telegraph

And yet – I still wouldn’t have so much ire towards this if Fellowes had simply owned  his adaptation and felt sufficiently comfortable to put his name in front of the title instead of Shakespeare’s. Sure, Shakespeare’s name sells, but don’t the names Romeo and Juliet have a little selling-power of their own? Why rely on the writer you’ve cut from the project? Shakespeare was an adapter, as I’ve mentioned before. So why hide behind him if you’re only going to push him out of the way because you think people are too stupid to understand his words?

What do you think? Were any of you one of the few who saw this film over its opening weekend? Do you plan to see it before it closes?


  • Insulting. A well delivered line can be comprehended even when it is not “understood.” I’ve taught Shakespeare to 13 year olds. They don’t have a Cambridge education, and they don’t need it.

  • Cambridge being the second oldest university in the English-speaking world and third oldest surviving school in the world, clearly Fellowes is riding these facts, we still have to keep in mind he made these remarks after being criticized on his version of Romeo and Juliet, clearly Cambridge didnt school him on the ethics and or modes of humility. If Shakespeare’s work is so revered and difficult for many to understand why would you attempt to rewrite at any degree. He later states, ” not all education has to be exspensive. I know excellent Shakesperians who went to comprehensive schools.” What?
    Seems as though “good acting/directing” with people who have the ability to make the audience understand is being confused or completely misconstrueing the point and purpose of productions. Productions, play writes and actors tell the story, the audience is to be captivated and made to understand. Fellowes should keep in mind it is the directors job to seek creative licenses to make a point and tell a story, not the audience/viewers.
    Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet creates significant sources in various different ways but still maintains literary tradition, the various creative licenses Shakespeare used made sense, for example, to dramatize the erroneousness of Romeo and Juliets love he took the play from 9 months to just 4 days or even the creation. Of Mercutio, worked excellently, who was not in the first version. I would have rather Fellowes do a piece telling the story of two star crossed lovers, touching on the stereotypes associated with individuals of two different warring universities. Since clearly there is battles and vaste unspeakable differences from schools like Cambridge and comprehensive ones- theres a start right there! That way atleast the point of Romeo and Juliet would be targeted- the ability to show the conception and aftermath of love ridiculously overwhelmed by “external” obstacles and inherited stereotypes.

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