By: Liz Keiper

Raise your hand if you’ve ever struggled to teach your students about symbolism.

*Hand raise* I have.

And by teach, I mean teaching them to recognize, pull out, analyze, and meaningfully connect symbols in a text on their own. To recognize that an author is implying that something in a story is signifying a larger concept because that is really the author’s intent and not just because you, the teacher, magically says that it is.

I mean, teaching symbolism without telling them what symbolizes what in a story.

It’s hard. Moving young teens from the concrete, plot-based schema of their earlier language arts instruction to an analytical-thematic literature-based instruction is no small task, and I think that in some ways, it’s especially hard for me because I’m naturally inclined to analysis. “Don’t you see the symbolic significance of everything on this page??” I sometimes inwardly yell.

However, I had a lot of success this year teaching motif analysis through Baz Luhrmann’s 1997 film version of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.















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Now, I know that not every English teacher is a fan of this interpretation of The Bard’s tragic romance. However, this film is near and dear to my heart because for me, it represents a shift in my analytical abilities as a reader. I wasn’t always a fan of it—in fact, when we watched it my freshman year of high school, my teacher told us, “It has drugs, guns, and a cross-dresser! You’ll love it!”

But I far from ‘loved it’… I came away thinking it was one of the most absurd movies I had ever been subjected to watching. How could they say, “Give me my sword!” and pull out a gun? A gun is not a sword. Were the movie producers that insipid that they didn’t know the difference in time period weaponry? Oh, also, they didn’t drive cars in Shakespeare’s day. Major anachronism there.

Then, I took a Shakespeare class in college in which we read a Shakespeare play every week, analyzed it in class, then watched a film version of the play and wrote an analysis of the story’s portrayal in visual form. And when we got to Romeo and Juliet, my professor chose… the 1997 version. Joy. I got to watch the worst movie I had ever seen twice.

But as I watched the film as a senior English major with almost four years of literature analysis under my belt, my opinions on this film began to change.

I started noticing that there were a whole lot of uses of water in the movie. In the beginning of the film, Juliet is submerged in bath water before the party, and at the party, that shot is replicated as Romeo submerges his head in a sink. Then, when they see each other for the first time, it is through a fish tank filled with… water. During the balcony scene, they fall into a pool filled with… water. Mercutio is killed at the beach which contains a lot of… water. When Tybalt is shot, he falls backwards into a pool of… water. Oh yeah, and it’s raining. Water.

So, I wrote my analysis for that play on the use of the visual motif of water in the film and how it was used as a medium of transformation or baptism of the characters in the story. I was astounded that there was so much significance that I had missed in the film as a high school student.

As I began to teach Romeo and Juliet to my students and also show the 1997 version of the film in conjunction with the unit, I encountered some students who had the same reaction that I had in high school. “They shoot guns and drive cars. It’s dumb. It makes no sense.”

I wanted to take them further and challenge them to see the depth of what the movie producers were saying through the film as I had. So, this school year before I showed the film, I started off with a mini-lesson on the word “motif.”

I gave my students the definition of “motif,” which is “a reoccurring symbol.” Then, we discussed the motif of birds/flight in the movie and book Divergent. I asked them first to list the instances in which birds or flight were important in the book or film Divergent.

“Tris gets a bird tattoo,” says one student. “Birds attack her in her fear landscape,” says another. “She’s the first to jump into the Dauntless training center, which is kind of like flying,” says one. “And she rides on that zip line thing, which is definitely like flying!” chimes in another. “Ummm, well, I haven’t seen the movie, but there are birds in the background of the movie cover,” says another timidly.

And there are.













In fact, birds and the concept of flying are woven throughout the film and the text. If it occurred once or twice, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but since it occurs over and over again, that’s a hint that it might be a motif and that, at least, it is significant.

“So, what could birds represent in Divergent?” I next ask my class.

“Well, they could symbolize freedom, since birds can fly wherever they want,” says one student. “Yeah, and joining Dauntless and riding on the zip line were major steps for Tris in finding her freedom!” says another. “Why were there birds in her fear landscape, then?” I ask, playing devil’s advocate. “Maybe because she wanted freedom but also feared it,” a student remarks. Yes, child, yes. Now we’re getting somewhere. Never knew there was so much depth to some bird tattoos, did you?

I then explained to my students that we were going to use a similar model of analysis while watching the film Romeo and Juliet. I gave them a sheet of paper that had four major motifs in the film listed:


  1. Water
  2. Fire/Light
  3. Clothing/Costumes
  4. Religious Icons/Items

While watching the film, students had to write down at least three times when they noticed a use of those motifs.

The day after we finished the film, I broke the students up into groups of four or five. I gave each group a motif to focus on. Their first task as a group was to pool all their examples for that motif and make one long list of all the occurrences of that motif in the film.

Once they had all shared their examples for their assigned motif and had written them down, as a group they had to start discussing what they thought that motif could symbolize and why.

The most beautiful English class conversations then ensued. Some groups determined that water represented a transformation or new life, or that it represented both love and death (like the symbolism of the plant rosemary mentioned by the nurse to Romeo).

Groups talked about fire and light representing the violence and destruction of the family feud, or representing passion—both of anger and of love.

Clothing was determined to portray aspects of a character’s personality. (I mean, is it a coincidence that Juliet is dressed as an angel, Romeo as a knight in shining armor, Tybalt as a devil, or Lord Capulet as a Roman emperor? I think not.)

Some groups determined that the ever present religious figures presiding over almost every scene showed religion as a force of unstoppable fate in the story. Others saw the devotion to religion as a mirror of the devotion of Romeo and Juliet for each other.

Each group shared their motif with the class, and the class took notes on the motifs of each presenter so that at the end, they had a full list of film motifs and their analyses.

This method of film analysis definitely strengthened my students’ understanding both of how motifs work and also how Shakespeare uses motifs in Romeo and Juliet as well. One of my students wrote in her final essay about fire and light in the film, “The first time Romeo sees Juliet, he remarks about her beauty, ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’ (1.5.42) This is interesting because in the movie when they actually meet, they are in a dimmer area before hopping into a bright, gold elevator. This is representative of the strong emotions between the two teens.”

I would highly recommend using this activity with any visually significant film adaptation of a story. I think that this activity would work well with another Baz Luhrmann film, The Great Gatsby, Rupert Goold’s 2010 interpretation of Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart, or Sean Penn’s 2007 version of Into the Wild to name a few. Regardless of the film you use, young teens struggle at times to connect symbolic significance to motifs structured in a text, and it is easier for them to connect this way with visual motifs. Analyzing visual symbols in a film can be the scaffolding that they need to understand how symbols work in a text.

Recognizing how an author is using symbolism in a text exponentially increases the message of the themes that he or she is trying to portray. Let’s help our students get more out of what they read… and what they watch.

How do you include film analysis in your English Language Arts classroom? What other skills might film analysis introduce or reinforce?

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