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Enter Shakespeare or, Why Public School Is Doing You a Disservice

shakespeareArticle by Zach Scalzo

As I’m sure is the case in any other profession, there are certain things you learn as you teach and things that you foresaw when you first thought of teaching that only become more apparent and crystallized, causing you to dread turning the discussion to certain texts.

Enter Shakespeare.

I totally understand it, too. Well, maybe not totally, but I certainly do sympathize with the students who unequivocally and unabashedly hate Shakespeare. When I was in ninth grade, I moved to Florida and my second class of the day was English. By the second week, we were discussing Shakespeare. Now, imagine (if you will) the current-day ninth grader. Young, naïve, perhaps just a little chunkier than he would like to be, he walks to his normal back-row-right-corner desk, pulling out an installment of some cheap paperback series he’s been muddling through in his spare time, when he’s told to turn to the Shakespeare section of the textbook. There, he encounters selections of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (which, if I can add, following Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace is like walking on a treadmill and changing the incline from 0 to 57), what we can only hope is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays, albeit written in intimidating lines of verse. Now, anyone who isn’t this little chubby boy (who, by the way, can’t even tell you a single plot point of the aforementioned paperback series, though he swears he’s read them all) instantly groans, including the teacher. The chubby boy can recite a monologue from memory – well, at least some part from the movie he saw. Upon finishing the selections, even Lord Chunk has no idea what attracted him to this mess in the first place (which, I suppose, can be attributed to the fact that the textbook even had to present “selections” as if that’s a palatable alternative to providing the whole).

And that’s it. That’s the text I dread discussing, even as a teacher (well, teaching assistant.) Give me an obscure Italian text, ancient Latin and Greek poetry – just keep me away from Romeo and Juliet.

Inevitably, you will have two reactions in the class – regardless of whether you’re presenting it in Freshman English in high school or university (both of which, honestly, are probably aiming for an audience a little young). One will be the idealization of the lovers (cue the thirteen-year-old girls and chunky boy), who appreciate at least something about the text (though their comprehension skills should also be taken into account at this point. Some people are just better readers earlier.) The latter is a bit more insidious.

Now, those of you who have read my last submission to this site probably know what’s going to come next (and those of you who haven’t, should read that article as well </shameless plug>) and, admittedly, there is going to be a bit of thematic overlap here (but what can I do? Both pieces have the same author who feels pretty passionately about certain issues).

The second, and far more popular, response is the complete and total, knee-jerk smackdown of the text, saying it doesn’t make sense and that Romeo and Juliet were just two horny teenagers who were crazy and killed themselves and if Shakespeare were writing today, something like this would never happen except, maybe, in cases of Stockholm Syndrome or some other psychological or statutory concern. Which, to an extent, I understand. When you’re in high school or just starting college, chances are you’re in that awkward time in life when you are far too egocentric to really understand how other people exist (and even more so, how people existed), so it becomes even more difficult to empathize with two not-really-existent people of another time and culture (who, by the way, would have died long before you were even born). 13 and 14 in Elizabethan England wasn’t all about checking your social networking site du jour and going to the movies (nor was there a YeOldeGoogle.com to help you navigate, well, any awkward teenage concern), so it would obviously be a bit hard to grasp that Juliet’s already being married off and, at that, okay with the idea of being married at all. Additionally, in our contemporary society, it would understandably be a concern if your 13-year-old married his/her significant other (especially since, I think we can all agree, we’ve all dodged some crazy bullets as far as that goes, be you 13, 14, or 22). On some level, it’s better to be skeptical of the play and examine the messages it presents, even if it comes at the price of registering some distaste for the text.

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Romeo and julietWhat concerns me, though, isn’t the fact that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t appeal to everyone – I tried getting over that a long time ago – and the fact that Romeo and Juliet is a far-reaching narrative that has influenced nearly countless other works of art is one that I feel doesn’t need to be established here nor must we explore here the fact that we have interpreted it in our own way and, as a culture, ascribed a meaning to the play that supersedes the necessity of actually reading it to understand a reference to it (but just in case, see also: Taylor Swift’s Love Story and Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper; the musicals West Side Story and Hair; the films Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Tromeo and Juliet, Gnomeo and Juliet, Letters to Juliet, and Private Romeo; etc.). What, perhaps, should be considered at this point is the fact that in a single, knee-jerk (because it bears repeating) reaction, a large part of our society is willing to disparage the cultural legitimacy of an entire narrative – particularly one that we, as a society, have culturally appropriated as a narrative of our own – to maintain this distaste as unchanged.

So, where are we, as a society, when we can’t recognize the value of a work that is so integrally important to our own definitions of culture, society, and self? And I don’t mean “appreciate” the work, like so many will say they “appreciate” Shakespeare only to gloss over the text itself and assure others of their ability to enjoy a “classic” (not to forget, of course, the added benefit of a little massage to the ego.) But honestly recognize its value.

But Zach, I can almost hear you saying, Romeo and Juliet is worthy of a discerning eye; We don’t want our children falling in love and doing anything rash (i.e. killing themselves). And, you know what. You’re absolutely right. Romeo and Juliet is one of the texts that could most benefit from a discerning eye, that is, one that isn’t already searching for an answer it presumes is there. The point of Romeo and Juliet isn’t to show an ideal form of love to which everyone should ascribe (well, at least we can agree it’s not the sole takeaway here). In fact, that’s almost the exact opposite of what any hyperdense text, particularly a play, should do. Romeo and Juliet, in being such a hyperdense text, has much more to it than the plot of boy-meets-girl, boy-kills-cousin, boy-is-exiled, boy-and-girl-die-because-a-friar-can’t-deliver-a-letter, all-are-punishéd (which, by the way, is a huge condensation of the overall plot and, frequently, all that remains in the general cultural atmosphere). It discusses the importance of society in the context of a relationship and the dangers of relegating certain relationships to silence (or, dare I say, closeting them) and the differences between adolescent and adult love (or, you know, lack thereof) amongst many other things. And, honestly, would it still be around if it weren’t still applicable or would it have fallen by the wayside, to a dusty shelf in the very back, right corner of a library?

So, I guess in short, I’m not saying you have to be in love with Romeo and Juliet (as a play or as people), because, honestly, that’s what makes it so important – that not everyone responds to it in the same way. That it can spark these conversations. That it has value – and not only as a work of literature or of theatre, but also as a piece of social commentary and as a catalyst for these (always important) conversations, even in the tl;dr age.

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