Asking Students to Interpret Water Imagery in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

This past week, I asked students to reflect on the recurring use of water imagery in Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet and to consider its thematic significance for the film as an interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.  One enterprising student suggested the idea that, in light of the almost deliberately campy religious imagery used throughout the early part of the film, this might be a symbolic form of baptism in which Romeo sheds his former narcissistic love in favor of a new form of love.  This dovetails nicely with Juliet’s famous reflection on Romeo’s name in 2.2, on which Romeo exclaims “Call me but love and I’ll be new baptized.”  The second, and for me more persuasive, option that we produced was the idea that the images of water are all characterized by the need for air: Juliet’s first appearance under the water of her bath, for instance, is a moment of quiet in the middle of the chaotic Capulet household, and Romeo/DiCaprio emphasizes his inability to breathe underwater as he hides in the revised ‘balcony’ scene.  The final image of the film, then, is the two lovers underwater–symbolizing the impossibility of their love’s survival.  It remains a single moment that they must abandon to survive and can only pursue at their own peril.


Working with FERPA following the demise of Blackboard’s ‘digital dropbox’

Many faculty in English departments are excited about the possibilities of online grading and commenting on papers but are justly concerned about the privacy issues that they may encounter.  From my experience, I have been able to offer better comments and suggestions in less time by using Microsoft Word’s commenting features.  It is important to note that FERPA rules forbid emailing these comments and grades directly to students because:

1. There is no guarantee that students’ email is completely private, and all grades should be sent solely to the student without written permission otherwise

2. There is no guarantee that the email system is totally private and the faculty member may be held liable if the email system is compromised for any reason.  This is because the password-protected course software (Blackboard) is the preferred  method of distributing online grades.

One possible solution is asking students to submit their papers through the ‘Assignments’ module in Blackboard (Bb9) and returning their papers as attachments through this module.

The major downside of this solution, however, is that by asking the students to submit their assignments through the Blackboard ‘Assignments’ page, we are no longer passing them through the SafeAssign filters that would help us to both assess revisions and check for plagiarized material.

A second, more alarming possibility, however, is the possibility of a faculty member accidentally returning the wrong paper to a student.  For this reason, I am seeking to implement a password system in which students produce unique passwords for their papers.  In order to allow for a timed release of papers, I then add my own code word to the end of the password when all of the grades have been uploaded.

This means that the student’s password (let’s say it’s “waffle”) will not open the file until they receive the password to release all of the papers at once (let’s say my password is “syrup”).  Until the student puts in the password (now “wafflesyrup”), he or she cannot access the paper, its grades, or its comments.  This also means that the wrong paper cannot be opened by a student because the unique password “wafflesyrup” would not open another student’s comments/paper.  This should be a relatively elegant solution to the problem of returning papers through Blackboard while avoiding email (because of FERPA rules) and allowing for the possibility of human error.

Teaching the Duchess of Malfi: Questions of Violence

In Webster’s cameo in Shakespeare in Love, he appears as a young child, reveling in the violence of the play he’s just scene in an unbalanced manner that is both comical and intentionally disturbing.  As we begin looking at this play, this time through the context of Swetnam and Speght’s near-contemporary gender materials, I wonder if framing the play as full of action, violence, themes of incest, and revenge is producing a false sense of the play that appeals to our own sense of what we think makes a play exciting to students and contemporary readers/viewers.  Do we sell students short by failing to draw their attention to the family dramas, gender issues, and history of the modern subject that are likewise important throughout this typical Jacobean play?

Religious Figures in Romeo and Juliet, or Luhrmann’s Neon Church

This week, in Shakespeare in the Movies, we are looking specifically at religious imagery and figures in the play and relatively recent film adaptation.  As we know, Luhrmann uses the ‘star-cross’d’ image from the opening sonnet as a guide to the kind of religious imagery he uses throughout, from Romeo’s neon-lit walk towards Juliet’s body to the cross formed by the opening sequence’s gasoline fire.  By tracing the character of Friar Lawrence in particular, the students will be trying to construct a sense of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Franciscan father’s involvements.  Contrasting his speech about the good/evil in each person and each plant derived from nature with Romeo’s procurement of the poison from the apothecary, we will consider whether the Italianate setting of the play might contribute to a critical portrayal of ‘Catholic’ Christianity or the role of money in church matters.  The strangely secular imagery used by the friar (mention of Titan and a devotion to nature that might be unrivaled outside of the Atheist’s Tragedy) might be a way into this that would allow students to point to specific textual evidence as they discover this reading.