Ack! Pffft! Ack!
Sorry. Those retching noises you just heard were from me. I actually do not subscribe to the sentiments I espoused in my first paragraph, much as I might wish I did. (I’m actually not quite as cynical as my students tend to accuse me of being.) In fact, when I teach R and J to my high school English classes --- and I’ve taught it more times than I care to remember --- I leave them in no doubt as to where my sentiments actually lie when I refer to it as ‘the original teenage emo play.’ Romeo is a whiny suck (hey, it’s not just me that thinks so, either --- his mentor, Friar Laurence, says so too, in one of the story’s great speeches) and Juliet is an immature twit, and also---
So why teach it at all then? I hear you interject. Don’t you have any leeway in which Shakespeare you teach? Well, yes, actually I do. I have done Julius Caesar at that grade level, which is, frankly, a much superior tale. Kids like a sharp plot that teeters on a knife’s edge (heh, heh) rather than relying on a lot of mushy stuff --- as you may recall from The Princess Bride and the boy who berates his grandfather about the tale of Westley and Buttercup. (“Hold it! Hold it! What is this? Are you trying to trick me? Where's the sports? Is this a kissing book?... Well, when does it get good?”) But the problem is that Julie seems a little harder for today’s aspiring Shakespearean scholars to grasp: it’s not just a straight-forward love story, nor is the assassination in the Senate really the central point (heh, heh). Mostly, in fact, it’s about the political and social ramifications that come before and after. (Mark Antony’s legendary ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech is a masterpiece on the subtle art of crowd manipulation, for example.) All of this, ideally, requires an understanding of Roman history and politics specifically, and political theory in general. In contrast, R and J has a much simpler plot line, and even kids who haven’t read Will before high school (which is most of them) have at least a nodding acquaintance with the story. And R and J has a lovely companion film in the form of Shakespeare in Love, 1995’s Best Picture winner that provides a truly entertaining --- if completely fictional --- account of the play’s creative process. I only wish the play was as much a gem as the film makes it out to be. So... to make a long story short, I tend to choke back my nausea and just go with R and J. Thanks for asking. But, (he said, warming to his topic) I haven’t even broached my biggest criticism of Romeo and Juliet yet. Because you interrupted me.
My biggest criticism, and the real subject of today’s epistle that we can take away from a writer’s standpoint, is simply this: the timing is ridiculous. And timing is everything. (So is context, as I tell my students, but that’s a topic for another day.) R and J spins its story over five days. Five days. We go from “I have a huge crush on someone else and don’t even know who you are” to “Wow, I just met you and this is crazy, but call me maybe” to “Let’s get married --- like tomorrow” to “Oops, I just murdered my new brother-in-law” to We can’t stay married, so let’s kill ourselves” to “O happy dagger!” in five --- count ‘em, five --- freakin’ days. Sunday to Thursday. With a couple of hormonal adolescents. That sound you hear now is me rolling my eyes.
Yes, I know we’re talking about a different cultural and societal milieu. Yes, I know we’re not supposed to judge a different time’s social mores by our own. But five days for a story like this is just stupid, folks. It’s not believable. The only people who act like that are certifiable narcissists or the mentally unbalanced. (And no, despite what some of you are thinking right now, that is not a normal state of affairs, even for teenagers.) If R and J had spun out over a period of weeks or months, it would be far more believable --- let’s leave the subject of Romeo and Juliet’s respective maturity alone. (Oh, and yes, I’m aware it’s only a five act play, not a literary behemoth of thousands of pages.) But it took Harry seven years to come to his final climactic duel with Voldemort. It took Katniss three books (and four movies) to take on President Snow. It took Frodo months to get to Mount Doom. And all three protagonists matured considerably in the process --- had to, really, because none of them were mentally or emotionally or physically prepared for their respective climaxes right out of the gate. So I’ll say it again: timing is everything.
Now, if you’re one of those people who get all dewy-eyed over Romeo and Juliet’s tragic tale... well, don’t take my rant personally. Sorry, I just don’t feel it’s Will’s best work. Which is fine, actually, because if nothing else, it’s a good reminder that no writer hits a home run every single time, and I think it’s comforting to know that even the immortal Will had his off days... it gives hope to the rest of us pathetic mere mortals.
Just remember to time your stories realistically. You can’t step out of your hobbit hole and immediately start ascending Mount Doom.
You’ve got to go on an adventure first.