As someone who invests a lot of time and effort into all things Shakespeare, I find myself consistently having the same conversations. One of these does not involve the “author debate,” because whenever someone tries to bring this up, I stick my fingers in my ears and whistle.
But one topic that I allow myself to be dragged into begins with “the problem with Romeo and Juliet is…” The remainder of this sentence reflects the speaker’s discontent with their high school experience studying the play. I have heard my students complain, as well as those long since graduated. What is the problem? Romeo and Juliet is a terrible romance, it’s not real, it cannot be taken seriously.
My first reaction, whether spoken or not, is that there is some fault with the teacher’s understanding of the play, but this is an oversimplification.
Let’s go back to the problem for a moment. The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet is not meant to be a realistic portrayal of two lovers. Romeo, in act one, is not simply displaying his “teenage angst.” The accelerated timeline that this play exists is not a problem with the play but a key factor. The play is a satire (or fantasy) of the idea of ideal love. A quick Google search of “Romeo and Juliet, satire” will demonstrate that there are those seeking out this information.
All of this seems to be ignored in many elementary or high school classes. The story is taken as it is, with little reading between the lines. Instead of impressing upon students the need for critical analysis, they are taught to look at the rashness of the two lovers and see how we, collectively, are better than they are.
Some of this may be due to inexperience with the play. No teacher can be an expert in everything he or she teaches. There are some who, before teaching Romeo and Juliet, have not studied the play since they were in high school; turning to guide books which, while providing some good exercises for exploring the characters or language, offers no great analysis of the deeper meaning of the play.
So let me offer up a potential strategy for tackling the Romeo and Juliet problem: step back.
Start with a bit of context. Introduce students to Petrarch’s sonnets 132 and 134 from Canzoniere, stressing that this is a book Shakespeare would have certainly read as a student. Allow them to find the parallels between Petrarch’s poet and Romeo in Act 1, scene 1. Discuss why Shakespeare might have been trying to do with Petrarch’s poems – this could lead to the idea of parody. Introduce a video demonstrating a parody of something current: pop culture offers up many options. Following these simple steps will not only provide better insight into the satirical (or high fantastic) nature of Romeo and Juliet, but will keep the lesson focused on the important skills of critical thinking and making connections.
This was a very basic example which I have used successfully in a grade nine class, but there are many such examples to be found when we realize that Shakespeare’s plays are not the vacuum society makes them to be. They are entrenched in the history, politics, and art that preceded them. Let students see this and we may, once and for all, be able to eliminate the phrase “the problem with Romeo and Juliet is…” The author debate may still linger; just practise your whistling.