How Does Willy Russell Invite the Audience to Sympathise With Shirley Valentine?

‘Shirley Valentine’ by Willy Russell is about a lower class woman who lost her fun loving self when she got married and found that no one really loves her. Throughout the screenplay she is on a metaphorical journey to find love again and in doing so, finding herself. He attempts to encourage us to sympathise with Shirley throughout the screenplay; he uses a variety of devices which help us to sympathise such as the use of flashbacks – so we understand about her past, the setting, his use of language, her actions, the way the monologue is used, the music and others.

These techniques will be discussed in detail throughout this essay and other ideas such as reasons as to why he wrote this screen play was written. The setting of ‘Shirley Valentine’ is in Liverpool, a poor industrial area in Britain, this starts to make us sympathise with Shirley because we can see from that, that she must be having a hard life.

Russell was born near Liverpool and was brought up with a family which held a tradition of storytelling. This shows that from a young age, he was able to create stories easily. Russell left school when he was only fifteen and had only been able to achieve one ‘O level’; he was not a very academic person, just like Shirley. He later, influenced by his mother, became a women’s hairdresser and went on to managing his own salon. He was unsatisfied by his job and spent most of his time composing music; this again shows his creative abilities.

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Russell left his hairdressing job and began working in industrial jobs, before deciding to return to full time education at the age of twenty. While he was training to become a teacher he was encouraged by his wife to pursue his new ambition in drama. His ability to compose and story tell and his interest in drama, all facilitated the fact that he was able to write the successful screen play ‘Shirley Valentine’.

Having worked in the women’s hairdressing profession he was able to develop ideas for ‘Shirley Valentine’, due to the womanly influence around him and the gossiping about their lives. He wrote the play so lower class people, especially woman, could relate to an Everywoman protagonist. The lives of Russell and Shirley are some what similar: both unacademic, both lived in Liverpool, this suggests that he wrote the screen play showing his struggles through a female voice. This encourages us to commiserate more with, not only with Shirley, but with Russell as well because his life, growing up in a lower class, more industrial than residential area, would have been quite tough, as it is with Shirley’s life. Historically Liverpool was a poorer part of Britain and was very industrial and bleak, compared to southern cities most of the north was very similar to Liverpool – industrial, poor, more lower class people, meaning people who lived in these areas, like Shirley, would have struggled and didn’t have the luxuries of the southern cities this makes us aware of the hardship and, especially the people from the north feel that fellow feeling with Shirley.

Arguably, the most important device used by Russell in order for us to correspond with Shirley is monologue. When she is in conversation with the wall, she is indirectly talking to the audience, ‘I do miss them, the kids. Don’t I Wall? … Hey Wall you remember when we first moved in here?’ here she talks about Joe and how he used to fun and loving, so this implies that he is no longer fun to be around with but just a miserable man. Every time she talks to the wall/camera the audience is her confidante, she is able to speak her mind and tell us her feelings which she is unable to do around Joe as he just thinks she’s crazy, ‘Remember that, Wall? He used to love me because I was a nutcase. Now he just thinks I am a nutcase.’ Here Shirley tells us why he loved her but now he just thinks that she is a nutcase. ‘I think you … are going round the bend.’ Joe admits to the audience that he thinks Shirley is crazy.

Many of the monologues are made during she is in the kitchen. The main genre of the screen play is, the British originated, Kitchen sink genre which shows the status of women in those times as housewives spending their lives helplessly working in sadness and it is also a way of connecting to women as they are familiar with life in the kitchen. From the monologues in Liverpool to the monologues in Greece we can see that her attitude changes, she becomes more confident than she was in Liverpool, she uses monologue less because she feels that she is able to speak freely about her emotions without being put down, ‘Jane – I thought there’d been an earthquake.’ Here she tells Jane about her having sex with Costas and she wouldn’t have talked to anybody about her emotions and how she feels in Liverpool. Her use of monologue showed that she was Shirley Bradshaw who was afraid to speak up but in Greece, she used much less monologue this showed that she had found her old self and had become Shirley Valentine again.

The monologues start depicting various messages as the screen play progresses, at the start of the screen play her monologues are about getting to know Shirley better through the use of flashbacks this allows us to feel an affinity with Shirley as we find out that she has had a difficult life from her school life – teachers not treating her with respect, thinking that she was a less able person and never praising her when she got something right, but instead putting her down telling her that she cheated, ‘Oh, very well Shirley. You might as well get it wrong along with everybody else.’ ‘Someone must have told you!’ ‘Well Shirley – naturally you are leaving us. And a brief glance at your report confirms my deep suspicion that you will not go far in life.’ These quotes show us how she was always put down by her teachers and was never expected to do well and didn’t receive any support from any teachers. Here Russell has encouraged us to concord with Shirley.

Flashbacks are another device which is used dextrously for the audience to form an alliance with the everywoman protagonist. They give us details about her past and how it used to be a better life when she was younger or in some cases worse. Personally, I think the most important flash back was when she told us about how Joe used to fun and loving towards Shirley because she tells us that he wasn’t always a grumpy, unappreciative man. He never bossed her around making her do all the work – they were both painting and sharing the work load where as now he expects her to stay home, do all the work and make sure that his tea is on the table at six o’clock sharp. Also he used to respect her for who she was, ‘I love you … Shirley Valentine.’ Even after she was married and her surname became Bradshaw he still used her maiden name this showed that he used to have respect for her. The sympathy that we feel for her is great because, now her love life has gone down the drain and she feels as if he doesn’t love her and she is just a housewife to him.

Another flashback that makes me feel sensitive toward Shirley is when she talks about her son. She tells us about how he lives in a squat in Kirkby and she talks about in a way that she almost doesn’t even care that he lives in a squat. It gives a hint of Shirley not being a good mother, she doesn’t object to him living in a squat but she does the opposite in giving him recommendations of where good squats are, ‘If you’re goin’ to live in a squat … Somewhere like Woolton – or Childwall’ this shows bad motherhood because any good mother would discourage their child from living in a squat and tell them to either find a good house/flat or to come back and stay with them but she does neither.

The flashback showing her with her friends shows the Shirley Valentine we all know and love. She is more confident and speaks freely with her friends and make jokes about herself. This showed the part of her life where she wished she had again and also it started showing the time when Joe started becoming ‘bored’ of Shirley and in his eyes slowly turning her into just another piece of furniture, ‘I said ‘Joe’ I said ‘have you ever … go as well as the Ford Cortina’ this shows his ignorance starting to reveal itself and we understand that he thinks nothing of womanly parts and he thinks that it is a type of car. This dictates that Shirley is in need of sympathy because her own husband is ignorant towards her and we can see the start of the process of him becoming the unappreciative, unloving, rude Joe he is in present times.

The setting of ‘Shirley Valentine’ is in the kitchen of a Liverpool house, where it is very dull and boring, pathetic fallacy is used here to reflect the character’s mood – Shirley is sad and isolated so the surroundings around her are dull, small and uninteresting. Houses are very small indicating that Liverpool is a poor area and there are many factories and gas towers telling us that it is an industrial area. The language used in ‘Shirley Valentine’ is also a way that Russell invites us to unify with Shirley. The style in which she speaks in is very informal this is so the audience can feel on a level with Shirley and not think of it as just a screen play but also an example of reality, ‘He can’t understand a bleedin’ word I’m sayin’.’ By dropping the ‘g’ it also makes the audience understand her and relate to her as it is their type of dialect and language.

Rhetorical questions gives the audience something to think about and they feel as if they are more connected to Shirley because they are almost always directed at the audience, ‘What happened to her? What happened to Shirley Valentine?’ She talks about herself in the third person in these two questions to show how she feels that she has fragmented and lost her identity. The language in which we feel intimate with Shirley again makes us feel on level with her and that the audience can relate to her as if she was their friend, ‘Hello… Bet you didn’t recognise me’ she talks directly to the audience and it makes the screen play come alive and makes the protagonist sort of a real person this is effective because she includes the audience and differs from other screen plays where you would just sit and watch the play and have no interaction with the characters. Russell is able to break down barriers between the audiences this way.

Persuasive language is used such as repetition is also another device which hooks the audience to sympathise. The repetition of ‘Goodbye Shirley. Goodbye Shirley Valentine.’ emphasises that there are still people who consider Shirley as unchanged, still the fun loving person she was and also the person who everybody loves. Also it is like she is waving goodbye to her old self as she feels she has lost her identity Emotive language is used all throughout the play, she is focussed on the theme of love right the way through. Her focus on love is throughout the screenplay and is crucial because the screenplay is ultimately about her finding love again and when she has done that she has found herself. Also it is an emotion every person has so people are able to feel that rapport with Shirley because she has a lack of it from her nearest and dearest.

Her use of humorous language strengthens the connections with the audience it makes us feel on the same level as Shirley. The point in the play when Joe gets home and his tea isn’t ready we experience her use of humorous language ‘Oh, my God! It’s six o’ clock …. Does this mean the end of civilisation as we know it?’, ‘So just think how excitin’ it would be …. Joe Eats Late!’ she uses sarcasm to argue back at Joe who bosses her around, shouting at her just because the tea isn’t ready at 6 o’ clock. Her self deprecating language shows us how she puts herself down but in some ways humorously, ‘Oh well, our Millandra’s bit of a mare – and Brian’s a headcase. So, yeah, they are like me.’ Here, Shirley describes her children in negative ways and then refers them back to herself. At other times she puts herself down in serious ways ‘Shirley, you are one silly bitch. You’re forty-two not twenty-two. You’re just another stupid woman looking for an adventure.’ Here we see Shirley really doubting about going to Greece and all that confidence she had built up melting away. We see the boring Shirley Bradshaw, who lets people walk all over her, taking over for a while.

Also in many ways Joe’s language forces us to sympathise more with Shirley than Joe himself because his language makes us feel sorry for her ‘Is this it? … I’m expected to eat this!’ here we see Joe being very unappreciative of Shirley and all the time she put into making his tea is criticised just because he couldn’t go without his steak for one day. Shirley’s actions define who and what type of person she is. At the start of the screen play we see Shirley sympathising with Gillian’s bloodhound who is fed muesli. She gets on her knees to become on the dogs level and gives him steak to eat which was supposed to be for Joe’s tea. This indicates that she could care more for the dog than she does for Joe and also that she is a loving caring person. Here we are encouraged to commiserate with Shirley and also the dog because by her getting on her knees we see her as nothing more that the status of the dog and this is good because we see a person who gets on the same level as the dog just so they can care for them with love and care.

Also, the bloodhound deserves our sympathy because he is practically forced to eat something which is against his nature – muesli instead of meat and his owner, Gillian, is too blind to see that it isn’t good for the dog. When Shirley decides on going to Greece she feels scared that she won’t be able to face Joe and tell him that she is going, this makes us want to understand her situation because we all know that he will react in a negative way but when she plucks up the courage to tell him we feel proud that she stands up to him and that is a message to all woman that they should not be afraid of their husband but have the courage to do their own things.

When she goes to Greece all the sympathy that we have given seems to disappear when she feels that the only way she is able to find her own self is to have casual sex with a stranger she doesn’t even know much about. All the pride, sympathy and understanding we’ve felt for her seems as a waste of time because her first time she’s been abroad anywhere and within one week she is cheating on her husband who now starts to appreciate her now that she is gone. At the time of her departure she runs away back to where she had been living for the fortnight leaving Jane to go back to Liverpool on her own. We feel that she no longer needs our sympathy now she has ‘found’ herself and she goes back to see that within a space of probably an hour her new ‘lover’ is hitting off with another woman. She shrugs it off thinking nothing of it but I think inside she must have felt hurt that she was only a ‘thing’ that Costas used for his own pleasure.

The opening credits are another device used by Russell to invite us to sympathise. They show sketches of a housewife doing work, all day long. These sketches are very dull and drawn in a dark boring colour which reflects the meaning of the picture, the slow dissolve between each sketch indicates the dragging day that passes by doing nothing but work. The music accompanied with the opening credits are slow as well showing the sad life the housewife has to go through, being sung by a female singer this connects the fact that woman in those times were victims of being socially marginalised not being allowed to go out being confined to doing work. The lyrics to the song connect to the life Shirley has – once cheerful, happy, free and then put into a cycle of deprivation by her husband doing the same boring thing everyday. In conclusion, I feel that Shirley Valentine deserves our respect and sympathy in many places throughout the screen play and although she made unwise decisions she is still a person people can reflect to, but some people would disagree that not everyone reflects to Shirley this means that she could not be an Everywoman character – people would feel that

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How Does Willy Russell Invite the Audience to Sympathise With Shirley Valentine?. (2018, Dec 19). Retrieved from

How Does Willy Russell Invite the Audience to Sympathise With Shirley Valentine?
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