I seem to be making a habit of getting into unnecessarily determined discussions about apparently trivial issues. Both recent times have been with men who are quite a lot older than me and have led to me calling on the internet as my main line of defence. I really wanted to be right.
The first incident was last weekend when I was describing the more recent film adaptation (Keira Knightley & Matthew MacFadyen) of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to my parents who had only seen the BBC (Colin Firth & Jennifer Ehle) version. Contrasting different portrayals of characters I love from the book, I commented how Brenda Blethyn’s Mrs Bennet is to me a much more sympathetic character than Alison Steadman’s neurotic nightmare of a mother. Steadman is very entertaining, but her Mrs Bennet is such a caricature that I find it hard to understand what the lovely Mr Bennet ever saw in her. However, my use of the word ‘sympathetic’ caused confusion – I think both my parents but my Dad most determinedly thought I meant that Mrs Bennet was sympathetic to others. Emphatically not, I said. I don’t think either Mrs Bennet is sympathetic in her dealings towards others, but I as a viewer sympathised with and even identified with Blethyn’s version much more (although I still would not want to be her daughter).
Disagreements about words are not uncommon in my family and I headed for the dictionary, but to my dismay found that their 2001 Collins Concise was definitely their dictionary. On their side. No mention of my meaning of sympathetic at all. I called on my Facebook friends and perhaps not too surprisingly the ones who commented on the whole agreed with me. But they’re also perhaps more used to film and literary criticism where the ‘sympathetic character’ concept gets used a lot. It seems to be interpreted differently to being a ‘sympathetic person’. Some (obviously far superior and more reliable) dictionaries do include a part of the definition to capture the sense of ‘attracting the liking of others’ or ‘arousing sympathy or compassion’. I did consider complaining to Chambers and Collins and even dictionary.com but decided that would be rather excessive.
Back at work on Monday I found myself in a similarly trivial disagreement with an older male colleague. I was presenting a lecture on Teenage Pregnancy and drew on a historical discussion of how young is too young to have children from ‘Romeo & Juliet’. Drawing on the Shakespeare text we discussed how Juliet was not yet fourteen, an age considered by her father at the start of the play to be too young to marry. He counters Paris’s arguments that ‘Younger than she are happy mothers made’ replying ‘And too soon marr’d are those so early made’. (Act 1 Scene 2) I commented how we don’t know how old Romeo is, but my colleague was convinced that the text had him as sixteen. I was pretty sure he gets referred to as a youth (which he does), but later checking on the internet left me pretty convinced that there is no reference to Romeo’s age. It gets debated a lot, but my colleague later conceded that he had been mistaken. Soon afterwards however, we were embroiled in another heated discussion about whether updated versions of Shakespeare’s work are needed, and whether altering the text can ever be justified. He is definitely a purist, and would probably not have enjoyed the version of the play I saw last night.
Orlando Bloom’s Romeo arrived on stage in jeans, Doc Marten boots and on a motorbike, although the rest of the production was much less specific as to period setting. Bloom is in his thirties, close to my own age – a lot older than most productions would pick although he has a young face. I enjoyed the production including some of the updating and the choice to portray Juliet’s family as African American. This addition of a racial angle, although my colleague disapproved, did mean that the cast was pretty balanced in terms of ethnicity. While some might argue that colour blind casting is preferable, when presenting families it makes more sense to me for them to share a fairly close ethnic heritage. In the play it is the deaths of the young couple which force their parents to reconsider their longstanding feud – a hard lesson to bear. Juliet’s polite and then more desperate attempts to disagree with her parents (over her marriage – a rather more major matter than my dictionary definition) were utterly unsuccessful. They would not listen and her father threatened to disown her.
We don’t see Bloom’s Romeo talking much with his parents but he has some desperate and overblown scenes with Friar Lawrence/Laurence (let’s not go there…). I thought Bloom (or the director) made some interesting choices in his portrayal of Romeo although Mike McCahill wrote in the Guardian that Bloom’s
“constant crowd-courting lends Romeo’s every amorous declaration the sincerity of a bathroom-shot Tinder selfie.”
I’d say that’s harsh – I’d be pretty confident that the portrayal was deliberately naïve, a bit annoying and shallow with plenty of bluster to impress his friends. I wanted to find out if McCahill was another older white man who I could disagree with but it seems he is slightly younger than me – maybe the Tinder comment should have given it away. Romeo should probably be younger than me by now, but I am yet to see a major production where this is the case. Both DiCaprio and Bloom are older than me, and they are both actors I find a bit annoying but this somehow suits Romeo. I don’t think he’s meant to be an entirely sympathetic character…
I was quite quickly aware of the parallels between my arguments with my colleague and my Dad, and some possible projection from me between them. What I didn’t realise was the commonality that both fictional sets of parents are trying to marry off their daughters. I haven’t found my Mr Darcy yet but I suppose I haven’t killed myself over a Romeo either. My parents have not tried to match-make me over the years and I would probably say I was grateful for their lack of interference. I wonder now whether the presence of an ‘arranged husband’ would have provoked me to put more energy into finding someone more suitable. God knows. Maybe I need to put a selfie on Tinder.
Reflecting on my argument with my colleague (who definitely enjoys arguing) I realised that he was probably mainly pushing me to find a better line of argument. I’m not convinced he is really as much of a literary purist as he portrayed – he often chooses an extreme line against students as well and I guess he is trying to provoke them to be critical and come up with some decent evidence for their own ideas. Perhaps I need to hone my powers of persuasion and debate before actually applying them to a situation that genuinely deserves my attention.