John Keating (Robin Williams)
Dude's played by Robin Williams. Therefore he's awesome and heart-warming. Next?
We wouldn't do that to you, Shmoopers. After all, what would John Keating—a character that is not only played by Robin Williams and therefore awesome and heart-warming, but has also inspired every person who is even remotely attached to the field of education/broadening minds/preaching to the masses about the glory of Lit (and film)—say if we gave his character synopsis less than 110%?
Actually, he'd probably say something super-witty and encourage us to write a better character synopsis. (He's just that awesome and heartwarming, after all.)
When we first meet Mr. Keating, he's being introduced to the entire school as the new English instructor. Heads swivel toward the new guy as Headmaster Nolan (yet again) emphasizes the great importance tradition and reputation carry for Welton.
It's all about the legacy, of which the old English professor was a part. Seems like Mr. Keating has some big shoes to fill.
(Just like Neil, huh? Guess they have that in common.)
So it's no surprise that the students expect their first day of class to be "same old, same old." As they wait for Mr. Keating to enter, they take what little opportunity to goof off that they can. After all, he'll likely be another bore…just like the rest.
Instead, he makes them leave the room, much to their surprise. He takes them to the hallway, where he instructs them to call him "Oh captain, my captain" and admonishes them to make the most of life, imparting some wisdom while they view photographs of former students long gone from Welton:
MR. KEATING: Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? (He whispers) Carpe diem, carpe diem. Seize the day, boys, make your lives extraordinary.
The next class follows suit. After having Neil read an insanely dry and weirdly mathematical introduction to the poetry textbook, he lays it on them:
MR. KEATING: Excrement. That's what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We're not laying pipe; we're talking about poetry. […] I want you to rip out that page. Rip out that entire page. You heard me, rip it out!
And so they do. Gleefully.
Though he quickly becomes a favorite among the students, Mr. Keating remains an outsider amongthe faculty, who view his teaching style as revolutionary and disruptive.
Still, Mr. Keating sticks to his guns:
MR. MCCALLISTER: "Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I'll show you a happy man."
MR. KEATING: "But only in their dreams can men be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be." MR.
MR. KEATING: No… Keating.
That's right: Mr. Keating answers a Tennyson (an uber-famous Victorian poet) quote by quoting…himself. Pretty appropriate, considering he's responding to a quote that says people are happier when they're not following foolish dreams. Mr. Keating says that without those dreams, mankind can't ever feel free.
Without dreams, he says, we can't fully live. And he isn't afraid to say it in his own words. Why? Because he's marching to the beat of his own dang drum.
Despite the faculty objections, Mr. Keating imparts some heavy wisdom onto his students. And we don't just mean "carpe diem," though that's certainly an important one.
He teaches them about life, love, and, you guessed it, poetry.
MR. KEATING: We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
He wants the boys to live authentic lives. To really drive his meaning home, Mr. Keating takes the boys outside the classroom…and outside their usual experience. Sometimes they hold class on the soccer field, or on top of his desk. He teaches them the value of individuality and expression, and why it's fundamental to being a member of the human race.
What's more, he teaches them how to dream big. You know, beyond the plans that mom and dad have laid out for them.
It's these dedicated lessons that endear Mr. Keating to his students and earn him the title of "captain" (courtesy of Walt Whitman):
MR. KEATING: O Captain, my Captain. Who knows where that comes from? Anybody? Not a clue? It's from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Now in this class you can either call me Mr. Keating, or if you're slightly more daring, O Captain my Captain.
And it's an appropriate title: Mr. Keating becomes their leader, inspiring them to make big changes in their lives…and form the Dead Poets Society.
It all begins when Neil discovers that Mr. Keating was, as a student, a member of a mysterious group. After finding the DPS listed under Mr. Keating's old yearbook picture, he's intrigued.
When questioned, Mr. Keating explains the ethos of the group:
MR. KEATING: The Dead Poets Society was dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life. That phrase is by Thoreau and was invoked at every meeting. A small group of us would meet at a cave and there we would take turns reading Shelley, Thoreau, Whitman, our own verse—any number of poets—and, in the enchantment of the moment, let them work their magic on us. […] And, believe me, we did not simply read. We let it drip from our tongues like honey. Women swooned, spirits soared...Gods were created, gentlemen! Not a bad way to spend an evening.
This inspires Neil; Mr. Keating not only taught these values, he lived by them. It's enough to make him consider living the "carpe diem" lifestyle, too.
The other boys begin to take his teachings to heart, too. Some use them to gain the courage to pursue love. Others, like Todd, are inspired enough to finally speak up:
MR. KEATING: Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation." Don't be resigned to that. Break out.
So, when Neil dies and the DPS is revealed, it's disheartening for the viewer to see the boys sign a statement blaming Mr. Keating for Neil's death. This statement costs him his job at Welton.
Ultimately, he can't conform to Welton's strict rules. Welton is just no place for carpe diem.
But he's still the boys' captain. In the final scene, they stand on their desks and salute him, using the words of their mentor:
TODD: Oh Captain! My Captain!
NOLAN: Sit down, Mr. Anderson! Do you hear me? Sit down! Sit down! This is your final warning, Anderson. How dare you? Do you hear me?
KNOX: O Captain! My Captain!
NOLAN: Mr. Overstreet, I warn you! Sit down! Sit down! Sit down. All of you. I want you seated. Sit down. Leave, Mr. Keating. All of you, down. I want you seated. Do you hear me? Sit down!
MR. KEATING: Thank you, boys. Thank you.
Does Mr. Keating ever falter, even in the face of loss? It doesn't seem like he does. He stands firm in his beliefs in individuality, poetry, and dreams.
And these values outlived not only the character, but the film itself. After Williams' death in 2015, fans from all over the world revisited the final scene, saluting the actor one last time. The poignancy of these last words remains one of the film's most moving legacies and, for the fictional students of Welton as well the actual audiences at home, serve as a fitting goodbye to an inspirational man.John Keating's Timeline
By Jessica See
Dead Poets Society explores the conflict between realism and romanticism as these contrasting ideals are presented to the students at an all boys preparatory school. Welton Academy is founded on tradition and excellence and is bent on providing strict structured lessons prescribed by the realist, anti-youth administration. With the dawning of each new semester, hundreds of parents abandon their sons, leaving them in the tried hands of Welton staff in hopes that they will raise doctors and lawyers. When a replacement English teacher arrives, who happens to be a Welton alumnus, he brings with him a passion for teaching romanticism, thus opening a never-before-seen world to his students.
The story is predominantly viewed through the eyes of Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), a newcomer to Welton, and his roommate Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard). Todd is painfully shy and terrified that what he might say is insignificant and meaningless. This is particularly disturbing to him since he is repeatedly told that he has “big shoes to fill” being the younger brother of a former valedictorian. Neil, on the other hand, is bright and full of ambition, which is unfortunately squelched by his overbearing, controlling father. Mr. Perry dictates every detail of his son’s life including extra curricular activities, future plans, and specifically what others think of him.
The new English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) begins his teachings with a fervent lecture on their imminent deaths, explaining to the students that their lives are fleeting so they should seize the day to make their lives count, to leave a legacy of “carpe diem.” He continues his teaching by instructing the class to rip out the pages of their books which describe a scientific way to determine the greatness of poetry. He teaches them the works of the romantic poets such as Thoreau and Lord Byron and employs outdoor exercises to warn them of the dangers of conformity and the power of sports as a way which human beings push each other to excel.
Amidst these eccentric activities, the students, intrigued with their new teacher, learn that he was a member of the Dead Poets Society. When asked, Keating describes glorious moments of creating gods, but warns them to forget about the idea. Nevertheless, they repeatedly sneak off campus to convene their own version of the Dead Poets Society. Todd is allowed to attend as an exception: since he does not want to read aloud, he keeps minutes of the meetings. Throughout these meetings, each character is able to develop his own romantic or realist nature.
The shocking clash between realism and romanticism begins to unfold when Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) prints an obnoxious article in the school news in the name of the Dead Poets. The administration is appalled and begins an investigation. Meanwhile, Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) fall madly in love with a girl who is practically engaged to the son of his parent’s friends. He pursues her relentlessly, driven by romantic ideals, in the face of the threats on his life by her boyfriend. Neil realizes that his real passion in life is acting and proceeds to land the role of Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the local theater. He begins to weave a tangled web of deception by failing to inform his father, then lying to Mr. Keating when his father finds out and demands he quit the play. Feeling trapped, after his final performance and a standing ovation, he takes his own life.
This horrible outrage echoes through the hallowed halls of Welton, applying even greater pressure to the Dead Poets. When Mr. and Mrs. Perry demand a thorough investigation, Welton administration links the Dead Poets Society, which they determined as the cause for the upheaval, to Mr. Keating. Each member is called before the administration and their parents to sign a confession statement indicating that Mr. Keating filled their minds with these lofty ideals ultimately leading to Neil’s suicide. Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), ultimately a realist concerned most with doing what is already determined to be right, signs the statement and encourages the rest of them to do the same. Knowing full well that Keating was not responsible, Cameron lets him take the rap to free himself.
Angered by this betrayal, Dalton punches Cameron in an impulsive fit displaying his final romantic act, only to be expelled. The last to sign, though unwillingly, is Todd, thus removing John Keating from his treasured position. In one final scene, displaying the beauty of a balance between the two ideals, Todd is able to cry out to Mr. Keating, who stopped by the class to collect his belongings, “O Captain, my Captain!” Todd, who previously had no identity, contributed his verse to mankind, climbing to the top of his desk to salute his fallen teacher, who changed his life.