It’s winter at Welton, and Todd and Neil are busy going through lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in preparation for Neil’s upcoming performances. Neil is so taken with his lines that he tells Todd that he loves everything about acting—it's the most wonderful thing he knows. Actors, he realizes, can live hundreds of “different lives” by playing different characters. He also mentions that “the girl who plays Hermia” is an excellent performer.
It’s telling that Neil celebrates acting because it allows him to “live many lives”—inspired by Keating, Neil wants to live life to the fullest, and sees acting as the best, and perhaps most literal, way to do so. Even if he started out mostly wanting to rebel against his father, at this point Neil is acting out of a genuine passion for theater.
Todd and Neil walk back to their dorm—and inside, Neil is shocked to find his father, waiting for him. Without even greeting his son, Mr. Perry shouts, “Neil, you are going to quit this ridiculous play immediately.” He demands to know if “that Mr. Keating” put him up to performing. Neil tries to protest—he’s gotten excellent grades, and was going to surprise his father with news of the play. Mr. Perry shakes his head—Neil is to quit his play tomorrow. Neil protests that the play opens tomorrow—he couldn’t possibly quit. Mr. Perry bellows that Neil must quit.
Mr. Perry is at his most tyrannical in this scene. Despite the fact that Neil has still been getting good grades, Mr. Perry insists that Neil give up his play. Mr. Perry simply doesn’t like being contradicted—he’s so overbearing and stubborn that he can’t stand his son disobeying him, or contradicting the plan he has already laid out for Neil’s life.
Later in the day, Dr. Hager notices Meeks, Knox, and Todd eating their food oddly—on closer inspection, he sees that the boys are eating with their left hands. Knox coolly tells Dr. Hager that old habits “perpetuate mechanical living.” Furious, Dr. Hager orders the students to eat with their correct hands. The boys oblige, but switch back as soon as Dr. Hager is out of sight.
Much as Keating encouraged his students to stand on their desk and see the world differently, Knox and his friends here eat with their left hands to “jolt” themselves into seeing the world with fresh eyes. Yet their actions are arguably a good example of how the students have begun to fetishize difference—they’ve become as blindly devoted to originality as they were to conformity. Put another way, not conforming to the rules of Welton has become its own form of conformity.
Neil joins his friends in the dining hall and explains that his father is forcing him to quit the play. Charlie suggests that Neil talk to Mr. Keating about the matter. Charlie, followed reluctantly by Neil and the other Dead Poets, walks over to the Welton teacher’s quarters and finds Mr. Keating’s room. When Charlie finds that the door is unlocked, he enters, curious about how Mr. Keating spends his spare time. The other students follow him, nervous.
In this scene, the Dead Poets’ fascination with Keating is plain. The Dead Poets, especially Neil, think of Keating as a mentor, a guide, and even a father-figure—when Neil has a personal crisis, he turns to Keating.
Inside Mr. Keating’s room, the students find a framed picture of a beautiful woman in her late twenties. Next to the picture there’s a half-written letter, addressed to “Jessica.” The letter describes how “I” (presumably Mr. Keating) can’t stand being away from Jessica. Suddenly, there’s a sound, and Mr. Keating enters the room. Sheepishly, Neil tells Mr. Keating he needs to talk to him alone. The other students leave the room, and Mr. Keating teases them, “Drop by any time.”
In this scene (which didn’t appear in the film), we learn a little about Keating’s personal life. He’s apparently having a love affair (or is at least in love) with a woman named Jessica: a Shakespearean name, appropriate for an English teacher. Keating was apparently speaking from personal experience when he said that the purpose of poetry is to “woo women.”
Once Neil and Mr. Keating are alone, Neil explains that his father is making him quit the play. Neil can understand his father’s interest in making sure he (Neil) does well in school—they’re not a rich family, and a good education at Welton means far more to Neil than it does to Charlie, whose family is already wealthy. But he still wants to act. Mr. Keating urges Neil to talk to his father before the performance and prove his passion and commitment. “Stay true to yourself” is his advice.
Keating’s advice to Neil is, “stay true to yourself.” Keating doesn’t like the idea of Neil lying to his father, because doing so would both deceptive and self-deceptive (Neil would be tricking himself into temporarily forgetting about his father instead of trying to make things better in the long term). The passage is very important because it establishes that Keating wants Neil to be open and honest with Mr. Perry. As we’ll see, Neil’s tragic decision not to take Keating’s advice leads to his suicide.
Meanwhile, the other Dead Poets are at the old cave. Knox sits writing a love poem for Chris, while Todd writes a poem of his own. The Poets suggest that Knox deliver his poem to Chris—they’ve already seen, via Charlie and Gloria, how words can inspire romance.
Here as before, the Poets think of poetry as a means to an end—in this case, convincing women to love them.
The next day, Knox bikes to Chris’s high school. He finds Chris walking to class, and explains that he’s come to apologize to her for the other night—“I acted like a jerk,” he says. He explains that he loves her, and that she deserves better than Chet. Chris continues walking to class, not sure what to say. Knox walks into class with her and begins to read the poem he wrote to her. Chris blushes with embarrassment, and his classmates giggle. Knox concludes, “I love you,” and walks out.
Knox tries to woo Chris using poetry, growing ever more bold. Still, Knox is at least acting more mature than he was at the party—also note that Chris continues to be untroubled by Knox’s past actions, and indeed seems to be interested in him.