One of my grade 10 students is currently studying what is probably Shakespeare’s most famous theatrical play: Romeo and Juliet. Who’s never heard of the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers who fell in love at first sight only to die several days later? Well, at least they died together… Consequently, all the talk of “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” brought me back to my sweet sixteen, high school days.
Shakespeare was absolutely mandatory in the syllabus; it’s pretty much impossible to avoid Shakespeare when you’re a high schooler in the UK. We even studied Twelfth Night, The Tempest and Macbeth (though not as thoroughly as Romeo and Juliet). I promise I’m not complaining because I actually enjoyed studying Shakespeare, but what is it with him and death? Why does the man love it so much? Romeo and Juliet: six deaths, Macbeth: ten deaths, Hamlet… well, we didn’t study that particular play but everyone knows how that one ends (spoiler alert – they all die), which leads to the prevalent conflicting question.
Should Romeo and Juliet be taught in school?
Some say that the overly violent and sexual theme is inappropriate for teenagers and that the old English makes it difficult and confusing for them to analyse and dissect the play further. But despite that, clearly the English literature curriculum has not seen a lot of change in the past ten years (has it really been ten years since I was in school? I feel so old now). My student has even just recently been studying Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I distinctively remember was the book my GCSE exam was based on. Of course, that particular book became one of my all-time favourite classic novels; you can probably tell from the quote on my homepage right? But I digress.
So where do I stand with Romeo and Juliet?
Well, I’m a sucker for anything romantic and Romeo and Juliet is, above all, a love story. A tragedy sure, but one concerning love nonetheless. My 16 year-old self loved reading the play, even if the old English made it a little tedious at times. But now that I’m re-reading it and re-analysing it in depth with my student, I’ve come to realise that Romeo and Juliet were both just a couple of crazy kids. I mean, Juliet was barely 14 when she met and married Romeo, not to mention the fact that she married him within 24 hours of meeting him for the first time. That’s insane! Then there’s the whole Romeo died because of a little miscommunication. What was the Friar even doing all that time after he found out his letter never made it to Romeo? Why didn’t he rush straight to Juliet’s tomb and wait there? It’s just a little unbelievable for me, or maybe I’m just ranting because they didn’t get their happily ever after (I’m a sucker for happy endings too).
My final verdict?
By all means, keep Romeo and Juliet in the English literature syllabus; the students love it – well, at least I did. Plus if the teacher lets you watch the 1996 movie adaptation with Leo DiCaprio (like mine did) that’s a whole other bonus. But as a 20-something, I have to say that I don’t really care much for it. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a work of art; Shakespeare is considered England’s greatest and most prolific poets and playwright after all. I just think the story is a little far-fetched.
There’s this Indonesian saying (which, incidentally, my brother lives by) “belum makan, kalo belum makan nasi”, which roughly translated means “a meal is not a meal without rice.” I know, typical Asians right? But I feel like this works well to describe this topic: Eng lit. is not Eng lit. without Shakespeare. So even though I think the tale of Romeo and Juliet is kind of absurd, I still believe that students can benefit from learning it.
I’m going to end the article with a short excerpt from one of Juliet’s soliloquies, which is a popular choice for close reading due to its symbolism of day and night, and the theme of duality in light and dark. After re-examining it however, I’m starting to think that Romeo and Juliet was based more on lust at first sight rather than love at first sight. Good thing my 16 year-old self was far too naïve and innocent to understand this particular part of the act back then ha.. ha..
Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Play’d for a pair of stainless maidenhoods.
Hood my unmann’d blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle, till strange love grow bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
– Act 3, Scene 2
What are your thoughts on William Shakespeare and the most popular romantic tragedy of all time? Let me know by leaving a comment below!