Vengeance over virtue

25th January 2013 at 00:00

I've just finished studying The Tempest with Year 13. Like me, they have a problem with the ending. They don't like the way Prospero (think Derren Brown with a big stick) forgives his unrepentant enemies. At the end of the play, the transgressors - the brother who tries to kill Prospero, the monster who has a go at his daughter and wants to pimp her out to a drunk, and the director responsible for Ariel's sequinned leotard - all get off scot-free. (OK, Caliban does have to tidy up Prospero's cell but a quick flick with a duster is hardly the same as a stretch in Strangeways.)

Shakespeare prepares us for his happily-ever-after ending by persuading us that "the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance", but that's as irritating as being told that there is no "I" in "team". We don't want that feel-good rubbish; we get enough of that in school. We want good old-fashioned retribution: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

The reason the kids are uneasy with the ending is that in real life no one is that nice. We'd all rather take offence than hand out forgiveness. Take the recent furore caused by writer Suzanne Moore. Her ill-judged remark in a New Statesman article, where she stated that women are "angry with ourselves for not... having the ideal body shape - that of a Brazilian transsexual", sparked a pyrotechnic display of righteous indignation that flared into a media storm. Forgiveness just didn't get a look in. The transsexual community took offence. The lefties, Lib Dems and literati took offence. Then Moore took offence at the fact that she had been misunderstood. To cap it all, she sparked a whole new outrage by tweeting: "People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me."

Undoubtedly the problem was exacerbated by Moore's own background. Being working class, a woman and a writer is like enabling "God mode" on a computer game - you can say anything and get away with it because your council house background is the invincible shield that protects you from the flak of your victim's feelings. I know because I use it myself.

To make matters worse, Julie Burchill, described by The Telegraph as "the Bernard Manning of feminism", delivered a defence of Moore, attacking the "bedwetters in bad wigs" who had hounded her friend off Twitter. As one astute commentator put it: "Burchill poured oil on troubled waters. Then she put some seabirds in the oil. Then she set fire to the oil."

Sadly, this escalating cycle of offence simply mirrors what we see in schools, where pupils favour vengeance over virtue. Take my Year 10s. They are continually fighting. Their scathing attacks on each other start with some mindless remark, then suddenly they're chucking insults around like snowballs, rolling their invective into hard, icy missiles. By the time it turns into, "Who are you calling an orange lesbian, you fat, ugly twat? At least I don't look 'special' ", every minority group has become potential collateral damage.

The Moore furore finally fizzled out. Moore wrote a slightly mollifying column for The Guardian and The Observer apologised for running Burchill's piece. In the classroom, such rapprochement is rare, possibly because in our efforts to show progression we forget to model compassion. Both the "orange lesbian" and the "fat, ugly twat" will be punished, but the fact that they neither repent nor forgive means the ending of The Tempest is a hard act to swallow.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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