Monday, December 13, 2010

What Would You Teach? (The Romeo And Juliet Dilemma)

As we've just confirmed, Romeo and Juliet remains most students' introduction to Shakespeare (at least in the US, assuming approximately a 9th grade / 14yr old introduction). The problem, as many have also pointed out, is that Romeo and Juliet has got a crazy amount of sex references in it, and typically a high school teacher (again, at least in the US) is severely constrained in exactly how far he or she can go in explaining these things. Lastly there's also the question of whether Romeo and Juliet is the best example of Shakespeare's work to start with. Maybe being a teenager has changed since I was a teenager, but the thought of re-enacting the balcony scene with some random girl from class was always to be met with "Oh god no not that I hate that don't make me do that" feelings.

So then, here's the question : Should it be changed? Assume the following : You must introduce Shakespeare to United States school children in a way that could be accepted as national curriculum (i.e, we can't talk about special case "let them pick their own" situations, we need to actually pick one). When do you introduce it (roughly what age), and what play do you start with? Why? Do you teach it as history, as literature, or as drama? I fully expect "a combination of all three" answers, so let me rephrase that - assuming that Drama, Literature and History are different departments taught by different teachers, who will be teaching Shakespeare? To set a baseline let us also assume that the students would be required to read the play, have some degree of homework associated with the play, and be able to pass some form of test demonstrating their knowledge of the play. This is primarily to rule out the "I took my kids to see The Tempest when they were 3 years old!" argument. I will not try to argue that my kids "know Shakespeare" until they have experienced it to at least this level.

Keep in mind the realities of the situation - there will most likely be a bell-curve of students, some of whom excel, some of whom just can't seem to get it, and a whole bunch in the middle who may or may not care at all. Any play that has any level of performance involved should take into consideration roles for both boys and girls (or at least, have a plan for how to deal with this).

If you want to defend Romeo and Juliet as still the best choice, feel free.


christine said...

i have always felt that Midsummer should be the one they start with. It is far more fun, and the only thing really that I think my kids had a hard time with was don't marry him, or marry him and i'll send you to a nunnery and you're going to be manless your whole life.

anyway, for R&J, yeah -- there is a lot of sex in there. Rebel is doing it in july. i should ask Keri how they handle it or how much they cut. Geoff wants to be mercrutio. i don't know that he'll get it... but ... it's good to dream.

christine said...

Oh -- and i was busy being distracted over the past few days when you did your survey. for me it was

grade 9 - Julius Caesar
grade 10 - Macbeth
grade 11 - R&J
grade 12 - Hamlet

My favorite thing about that was it was a very hot september saturday, and i was reading Penguin Classics "Hamlet" on the bus going to an away football game with the pep band. Had my tenor sax on the seat next to me when my friend barbara got on the bus, and asked if she could ditch her foreign exchange student in the seat with me. She did and went to the back of the bus to hang with the cool kids (I always sat towards the front because school buses make me sick). Anyway.

The exchange student? From denmark.

saw what i was reading and smiled... he grew up in Horsholm, which is about 20 minutes from Kronborg Slot... from the castle.

I fell in love with him immediately, and my senior year was very memorable, thanks to my second favorite dane breaking the ice for me with peter... thank you shakespeare!

Andrea said...

I do teach Shakespeare to homeschooled students. We have studied King Lear & Macbeth and performed Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado about Nothing. They get to know Shakespeare after 7 weeks of rehearsals and several performances. I have also directed 2 Shakespeare productions with elementary age kids - The Tempest and Macbeth. I love that I can get these kids to know and love Shakespeare at these ages. I had one student come to my class who was hesitant and said he absolutely didn't want to do R&J. I think these others are a better introduction to Shakespeare.

Andrew Huntley said...

I am going to respectfully disagree and go out on the academic limb, and defend Romeo and Juliet as an introduction to Shakespeare. This is not for traditions' sake (I'm a post modernist, for crying out loud) but because it has most of the elements of what we consider "Shakespearean" These include use of the juxtaposition of verse and prose, the sonnet form, the highly developed characters, and examples of both high and low comedy. I also defend it as a primer to Shakespeare on the grounds of its linear fashion (it's much easier to explain than the storyline of say, Midsummer) One of the things I play up when teaching is the fact the protagonists are the age of the students. And yes, I will acknowledge there is a lot of sex in Romeo and Juliet, but I will maintain no more than the rest of the canon.
Some partial alternatives that have been suggested also deal with this thorny problem. I am thinking specifically of Midsummer and Tempest in regards to this. In Midsummer, aside from the initial consideration of forced marriage, how does one handle the Bottom-Titania liaison? As for Tempest, how does one deal with the attempted rape of Miranda? The point can be taken to the full reducio ad absurdum, that all of Shakespeare has some "unsavory" elements.
The point of that digression was this: one of the reason so many students and adults hate Shakespeare is because their first exposure to Shakespeare wasn't him, it was the sanitized version. This takes away so many of the things we consider "Shakespearean" that we are left with some pale shadow of him. (And we could do a lot worse than teaching Shakespeare, can you imagine trying to sanitize Marlowe?)
To answer the main point, we need to draw a line somewhere, and stick to it. Romeo and Juliet is an ideal beginners point for Shakespeare, as all of the elements are already there. The lack of several minor plots (i.e. Twelfth Night) allows a teacher to focus on each of the points (verse, prose, context, etc) in turn, allowing for a fuller grasp of the material by the students. (My apology for the long post, teaching Shakespeare is one of my sore points, largely from experience.)

Andrew Huntley said...
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Andrew Huntley said...
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Alexi said...

Andrew, while I like Romeo and Juliet as much as the next guy, I think it poses a few problems as an introduction, mostly because so many knock-offs exist that many students are essentially sick of the play before they even study it.

I think the adult content in Midsummer and Tempest is truly negligible. Bottom and Titania's relationship need not be consummated. One can debate what Shakespeare intended here, but that aspect is certainly not integral to teaching the play. The same applies for the single reference to Caliban's past attempt on Miranda's virtue. There are enough other things to discuss in the work that one troubling line can be overlooked the first time a student is taught the play. It does less of a disservice to the text than in Romeo and Juliet, where teenage sexuality is a major plot component.

I think Dream and Tempest would make excellent candidates to introduce Shakespeare. My six-year old sister loves Midsummer Night's Dream, so that one could almost be done in elementary or early middle school.

Twelfth Night would also be fun, especially in a performance class. There is not a bad role in that play. By high school, Andrew, students should be able to understand subplots. If they can watch shows like Lost with multiple long-running story arcs they can deal with a plot and subplot existing in the same play.

At some point in high school, students should definitely read Macbeth. It's the most fast-paced, suspenseful tragedy with the biggest "horror movie" aspect. Students will enjoy it so much they'll hardly notice the brilliant poetry and characterization that they're being exposed to. :)

Duane said...

While I'm a big Tempest fan, I don't think it serves well as an introduction to Shakespeare. How do you make the last meaningful play Shakespeare wrote be the first thing they experience? How do you explain the categorization of the late romances, the ideas of collaboration versus solo effort, the whole "Farewell to the theatre / drown my books" thing, if this is where you've started? Surely his experience at his craft was vastly different then than for, say, Comedy of Errors?

What about chronology, then, does that matter? Does anybody see merit in picking one of Shakespeare's early plays, and working the students up to the great tragedies the same way Shakespeare built up his own abilities?

Alexi said...

Interesting thought, Duane.

The only problem is the early plays are frankly, not as good. There's plenty of material to discuss, of course. We're simply not dealing with Shakespeare at his most brilliant.

I can see Taming being a good introductory show in the hands of a good teacher, but it would open a major can of worms to standardize that as student's first exposure to the Bard. Comedy is kind of lightweight, Love's Labour's Lost is convolutled. Titus has content issues for younger students, and the early histories, while some of my favorite plays, are not for everyone. Where then, do you start? Two Gentlemen of Verona?

Giulia Listo said...

Well, I believe that R+J is the most common to start with because some teachers (at least here in Brazil) think that it's the best way to get students attention. They identify with R+J in the age, the new and strong feelings teenagers tend to have.
Most brazilian students tend to have no knowledge of Shakespeare whatsoever (with some happy exceptions), so teachers feel a little lost. Midsummer is obviously lighter and fun, but I think some teenagers wouldn't identify themselves and understand the elements. I think to introduce to younger children I would't go with Midsummer, because of all the magic. But for teenagers, I defend Romeo & Juliet.
Very nice post. It's a interesting question :)

CGriff said...

I can see why teachers choose R&J as an introduction (assuming the introduction comes at 14) - the characters are relatable, the poetry familiar and easy, and the plot exciting for everyone (romance for girls, violence for boys). We start with passages from R&J in 3rd grade classrooms (Queen Mab and the Prologue) to introduce imagery and to get acquainted with the way Shakespeare uses words.

Like with any play, the sexy bits can be glossed over until it's appropriate to teach them (I have vivid memories of my college professor comparing Troilus and Cressida's every scene to a different venereal disease), and high schoolers definitely love a little naughtiness.

Alternately,, this year especially, we've been trying to steer our teachers away from R&J and Midsummer, if possible, just because we'd like to see a little variety. I'm teaching Macbeth to the 4th grade to be performed in May (a 20-minute version), and the high school teachers are branching out quite a bit.

If not R&J, I'd probably kick off a high school course with Hamlet, just to get them over that "familiar stuff" hump. Or Twelfth Night, because that letter scene is honestly one of my favorite things ever.

JM said...

Alexi wrote:"My six-year old sister loves Midsummer Night's Dream, so that one could almost be done in elementary or early middle school."

More than almost:
I taught them every day for a month.
The kindergarten LOVED Puck's "I'll follow you..." bit. They wore me out asking for more. :)
I also have a version of Macbeth for elementary actors which has been performed twice in two different school districts and once on regional cable.

Jonathan said...

You know what? I'm going history. I would start with Richard III or Henry IV part I. Both have rather a lot of blood and thunder, vaulting rhetoric- although Shakespeare matured substantially between the writing of the two. But maybe more to the point, they are both plays which feature intensely charismatic figures- Richard on the one hand, Sir Jack and Hotspur on the other. Both plays have startling bursts of comedy, although Henry has the more successful. And, like R&J or the Dream, they would allow you an entree without forcing your students to immediately confront the high tragedies- which I feel benefit from some prior exposure on the part of the reader or audience.

Jennifer Harrington said...

Here's what I *wish* I'd been taught in high school: Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It. Both have smart, likable heroines, snappy dialog, and a happy ending. My school only taught the tragedies (R&J, Macbeth and Hamlet) and I grew up thinking Shakespeare was a downer. I guess the subplot in Much Ado (Hero's supposed infidelity) might be too adult if you're wanting to avoid the "sex" element. Then again, how to teach Shakespeare and NOT talk about sex? Must be why they stuck to the tragedies. (Though our class got to giggle at the love scenes when we watched Zefirelli's R&J.)

shakespeareprof said...

Just getting in on the chat, but for me it was:

MSND: 7th
Romeo and Juliet: 8th
Julius Caesar: 9th
Macbeth: 10th
Hamlet: 12th

I think R and J is great for 8th/9th graders. They are at that same emotional and mental space where hormones are running wild and everything is sex sex sex anyways. I also think we see a great representation of the "maturity gap" between the two sexes at the time in the comparisons between the emotionally and linguistically sophisticated Juliet and the rather trite and Petrarchan Romeo. I remember first seeing the Zeffirelli version in 8th grade and falling completely in love with the beauty of the film; used it this summer when I taught a college level class, in fact. IMHO, keep it in!