Sunday, September 28, 2008

Romeo and Juliet

Be honest--how many of you have read this thing since high school? I hadn't until yesterday, and good grief, it is not the play I thought I remembered. It was today's subject in my Hardcore Book Group, in which we are reading all of Shakespeare in roughly chronological order, and though opinions on it were diverse, we all agreed on one thing: there is some sick shit going on in Verona. I'll take it a step further and venture the opinion that "Romeo and Juliet" is a cruel, manipulative work about violent perverts. So there!

The general cultural appraisal of "R&J" would seem to be that it is a tragic tale of doomed love. Fair enough. But I was shocked at how detached it actually is from conventional sympathies. Romeo is painfully flighty, Juliet in open rebellion against her choleric father and embittered mother. "By my count," the Lady Capulet tells her marriage-shy daughter, "I was your mother much upon these years / That you are now a maid." In other words, I didn't get to be happy when I was thirteen, and neither should you. The supporting players say almost nothing that is not a double entendre, and their jokes often come at the most inappropriate moments; homoerotic tension abounds, even in the opening passages, wherein a couple of Capulet servingmen verbally duel with "tools," "naked weapons," and "standing" "pieces of flesh." Juliet's Nurse, commonly played as a source of comic relief, proves to be cruel and vindictive in the end, and bawdiness turns to bloodiness in an eyeblink whenever characters clash.

The play reads like a comedy for long pages until Mercutio is killed in act three; his "plague o' both your houses" tips the slapstick into doom, and from then on every move is a mistake, and every mistake results in death. There is, ultimately, nobody to truly engage our empathy--everyone is too small, too flawed, too shortsighted. It is easy to forget, if you haven't read the play in a while, that in act one Romeo is mooning over somebody named Rosaline, and when he starts in with Juliet everyone assumes he still talking about yesterday's girl. He is, in other words, an impetuous child. Threatening suicide is his answer to every problem, much as (accurately, it turns out) doomsaying is Juliet's response to every drama. Meanwhile, Capulet comes off as an affable oaf until he reams out Tybalt for street fighting; even then we give him the benefit of the doubt. Tybalt's a jerk, after all. But when he unleashes his fury on Juliet--"Hang thee, young baggage!"--we are shocked and appalled.

A reader can never get comfortable here; the play twists and turns and screams along at a furious pace, never giving anything time to sink in. But this, ultimately, is the source of its greatness. It's ugly and mean and mesmerizing, and surprisingly radical in purpose and method.

One group member compared it to the Divine Comedy--in that case of that famously blasphemous poem, its instant popularity became, in his words, "a cyst" that the Church had to grow around. What better way to defuse "Romeo and Juliet"'s power, another group member responded, than to force every high school student to read it? In my high school, we even watched the quite racy 1968 Franco Zeffirelli movie of it, ensuring our innoculation against the bonds between violence and sex.

On second thought, maybe that didn't work so well, after all.


John said...

So many people I know pan the '96 Baz Luhrmann version _Romeo + Juliet_. But, man, for me, that picture hits the play just right: it's oversaturated, overdetermined, overeverything. The film gets that the play "screams along at a furious pace." I like more conventional costume dramas as much as the next person, but Luhrmann's setting, his characterizations, his music, his costuming get at the play's danger and twistedness. For a contemporary viewer like me, gown with train and lute cannot get at what the play is doing as effectively.

jrlennon said...

I'll have to check that's true, a really good movie of this play will need some crazy grit to it. It's manic and not remotely romantic.

Thanks for the recommendation!

zoe said...

We show that to the kids at school when we teach it. It seems to make so much more sense to them with the Luhrmann version.

I have to say I'm a bit sick of seeing it taught constantly. I'd rather they did something different. Although I never, ever tire of Macbeth.

John said...

What about teaching _The Merchant of Venice_? jrlennon points out the tipping point from comedy to tragedy in _R&J_. _Merchant_ tips back and forth and back and forth. It takes up a number of things that might draw in high school readers: in group v. out group (you'd have to take up anti-Semitism); the more controversial and hard-to-characterize relationship between Antonio and Bassanio; the lengths a person might go to when wronged; strong, smart women; the cost of winning a lover.

jrlennon, some might say that the Luhrmann is a cheap MTV version that doesn't elevate the play properly, that appeals too much to a common denominator. That assessment is dumb, I think, especially when you think of the movie in relation to how your initial post characterizes the play.

zoe said...

We also teach the Merchant of Venice. We have a system where different year levels and abilities get a different Shakespeare play. So S3 (14 - 15 yr olds) get Macbeth, The best S5s (about 16 yrs old) get Romeo and Juliet and the slightly poorer ones get Merchant of Venice. The S6 (about 17 yrs old) who opt to do Advanced Higher (similar to first year of an English degree) currently get Anthony and Cleopatra and Othello.

I didn't make the decision on which text was harder or more appropriate for different abilities and, personally, I hate this approach.

But then (and please don't ban me from Ward Six for this admission) I am not a massive Shakespeare fan. but that could be because I was obliged to study lots of him as part of my undergraduate degree and it wasn't taught very inspiringly.

jrlennon said...

zoe, I am enjoying Shakespeare much more as a grownup than I ever did in school. So I don't blame you. I probably wouldn't have dived back in with such enthusiasm without the social pressure of my book group.

MoV...I haven't re-read it yet, but that Shylock is a bitter pill to swallow. I mean, there is just no avoiding's as though Shakespeare started out making him a stock character, and he just got more and more interesting, until he just didn't make sense anymore. But I'm sure I'll post about that when we hit that play.

gcm said...

"zoe, I am enjoying Shakespeare much more as a grownup than I ever did in school."

I feel the same about Moby-Dick! Recently re-read for the first time since 9th grade. As a kid I chucked it across my bedroom. Today I think it's easily one of the best novels ever written. Probably the best I've ever read.

I don't blame my younger self for hating Melville, but it made me wonder: should that book be taught to teenagers? Think this question could be asked of Shakespeare's work as well.

Issues of complexity aside, both authors can be stiflingly dull. Without years of experience as a reader - which in some ways seems only practiced tolerance of seemingly pointless digression - can you honestly pull much meaning from their work?

Wonder if we shouldn't withhold Shakespeare and hand them Kerouac - or even Doestoevsky. Any decent author whose prose is at pace with the average teenager's hummingbird metabolism.

John said...

zoe, I have never heard of Shakespeare plays falling into ease-of-access categories. I would love to know how those choices were made. Do the curriculum directors consider the tragedies as better suited for headier folks? The comedies--even ones that contains dark, tragic elements like _MoV_--are for less accelerated students? Huh.

I guess the tragedies have always been taken a bit more seriously--as somehow closer to the human condition and therefore more profound--but are they necessarily harder? I don't think that _MoV_ is easier than _R&J_. I pair it with _R&J_ because they have similarities, one of which is blurring the distinction between comedy and tragedy in so many places.

Thanks for a cool post, jrlennon. Is your group reading the sonnet sequence also?

jrlennon said...

Grant: I agree, Moby-Dick shouldn't be taught in high school. It's one of the weirdest "great books" ever, and I suspect I would never have been able to enjoy it at that age.

And yes, I agree that divvying up Shakespeare plays by difficulty level is silly. Even A Comedy of Errors is complex enough to challenge and entertain older/smarter kids...

John, yep, we're going to read the sonnets too...

zoe said...

The reason the plays were divvied up that way was because a) my boss always teaches the best kids and like R&J and also Macbeth is pretty easy to follow on different levels.

I am not at all into splitting the plays up along difficulty lines. However, weird decisions are frequently made in schools about texts and you learn to work around them.

zoe said...

Sorry, I forgot the b).

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