Cover Image courtesy of enotes.com
I’ve seen quite a lot of ‘dissing’ of Romeo and Juliet over the last few days, and can’t help but get annoyed on behalf of the tragic duo. I don’t know if this is a general backlash against the exam question, a question that I, and the students I spoke to, really liked. I understand why some didn’t; the extract was small and relatively lacking in language, but everything that was there could be used for a question on masculinity, from ‘naked weapons’ to thumb-biting, to the use of the respectful ‘sir’ to questioning to checking legal positioning. Plus, if students had learned some of the juicer quotes from the rest of the play, there was plenty more language analysis to be had.
I had a training session with AQA about 3 weeks before the exam, which made me change the way that I taught students how to answer the question. At the session, we were told that examiners would want to see that students understood how an extract fitted into the play as a whole, to consider how the character/theme/idea developed across the play, and that therefore the bullet points in the question were not necessarily evenly weighted. An answer, particularly for the higher grades should focus on the development and this may sometimes mean the focus on the whole becomes greater. For example, seeing it as a development, means that you naturally consider what happen before and after the extract, meaning that the analysis of the rest of the play is bound to therefore be longer. To me, that appears to be something that this week’s question was naturally encouraging. Not a bad thing, as surely it is easier to assess a student’s understanding of the play they have been studying if they show they take a holistic approach. The session also made it clear that the higher grades should show a clear opinion on what they had read and be able to discuss alternative interpretations.
But back to my defence of Romeo and Juliet.
It isn’t an ‘easy’ play at all; it is a play which more than any other Shakespeare I have taught, encourages strong personal opinions amongst teenagers. It is a play that is full of beautiful and intriguing uses of language and switches between language forms. It is a play that every time I read it with a class throws up something different, encourages talk, discussion and strong personal opinions. It is a play with themes and ideas that still resonate with young people today. Obsession, sex, relationships with parents, fighting, dishonour, friendships, to name but a few, and certainly where I teach, there are those students who will later who go through the process of arranged marriage, for which the play opens up a platform for discussion.
When I hear that the play is being taught to younger students in year 7 or 8, or even as I heard recently, in year 6, I wonder, actually what is being taught? Is all Mercutio’s innuendo being missed out, surely the ‘poperin pear’ and mention of Rosaline’s ‘quivering thigh’ are far too intense for year 7?
But without discussing this sexualisation of women, how do you have an understanding of whether or not you think Romeo’s love is real or not, compared to what was expected of a man in the Shakespearean era? Is the fact that Romeo bemoans the fact that Rosaline won’t take his gold and wants to stay ‘chaste’ being glossed over in an attempt to prove that it is just a wonderful love story?
And the whole play starts with some incredibly sexual banter. The more astute student in Monday’s exam, would have further referenced the fact that up until the point where the extract starts, Sampson and Gregory had already almost whipped themselves up into a masculine, penis-related frenzy:
All of this adds to students’ understanding of the time in which the play was written, the social conventions, the idea of gender and masculinity. Students do relate this to today, to banter amongst friends and it encourages them to question why this is, whether it should be and whether things have actually changed.
And what about the misunderstanding between Romeo and Juliet on the balcony and the fact that she seems to either panic, or become angry (depending on the interpretation) that perhaps Romeo is not as she thinks he might be, but instead wants sex. After listening to him mope about Rosaline not wanting to’ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’ the average 15 year old has a pretty solid view on this.
And then we have Juliet’s soliloquy on the night she waits for Romeo. She is scared, nervous and excited to possess the ‘mansion of a love’ It’s about a ‘winning match’ where she will lose her ‘maidenhood’….and the comparison of this being like ‘an impatient child that hath new robes’ only serves to highlight the youth and immaturity of someone about to take part in the most adult and mature act…and without the support and advice of her mother.
So Romeo and Juliet is just full of sex, basically. This interpretation goes even further…I’m not sure I would want to take it that far, but it’s interesting nonetheless
I’m teaching the play at the moment to 2 classes of year 10s. One of them is a top set, which has allowed me to really push and squeeze lots of interesting ideas out of them. We have reached 3, Scene 1. They know the basic story of the play, but we have been through and annotated and discussed the language in detail. They have fierce opinions on the characters, and I allow them to discuss and argue with each other, because those personal interpretations are so very important for this GCSE. One of the more interesting arguments from the last couple of weeks concerned this:
One of the the young men in my class, thought that this just added to the comedy in the scene, that had also included Mercutio’s sexual banter towards the Nurse where he had basically described her as an ‘old whore’…year 7 anyone?
I’d not really thought about it and asked him why he thought it could be seen as comedic. He said that the fact that he had appeared to be romantic and gushing about Juliet, but at the last minute had told the Nurse to wait for a ladder so he could get up to her room that night. The student thought that it said everything about what Romeo really wanted, and was so ridiculously obvious that it was funny and therefore matched the earlier sexual banter from Mercutio.
We also had much discussion about this section where Frair Lawrence suggests that, ‘young men’s love then lies, not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes’ and ask does he think this is real love? What are his motives for marrying them? What are the Friar’s views on women? What do we learn about Elizabethan society?
And so to language…obviously we have the conversation written as a sonnet
Which also happens to be full of religious imagery for students to get their teeth into. I’ve had students consider it blasphemous, or see it as love being as important as religion, or as him trying to persuade her through the use of religious imagery…there’s a hundred and one interpretations.
The play is full of light and dark imagery, death imagery, symbolism, sexual imagery, puns, oxymoron and antithesis and some of the most east to learn lines in literary history (which makes it perfect for a closed book exam) It has a prologue which tells us the story, meaning that the scope for dramatic irony is huge. You can talk about the classic 5 part structure:
Or you can discuss how it fits into the genre of Greek Tragedy…or in fact how it doesn’t. You can discuss whether you think Romeo is a tragic hero, or of in fact you think that he isn’t
This week year 10 and I looked at Act 3, scene 1 and the language within it. We looked at why Mercutio speaks in Prose. What does it tell us about him?
We thought about how this showed Benvolio was a calmer and more controlled character than Mercutio, and that Mercutio’s uncontrolled, hectic nature was reflected in the way that he spoke in Prose, which was often at odds with the way others spoke. We discussed how this made it more difficult to work out what he might do next, his speech being as erratic and chaotic as his mercurial nature.
Later in the scene, we looked at how Tybalt changes from blank verse to match Mercutio’s Prose and considered why that might be.
“It’s a bit like when someone says ‘your mum'” a student suggested. “You do the same because at that point you need to be on the same level, so Shakespeare does this to show that Tybalt feels he needs to match Mercutio.” I’m happy with that.
This then led into a conversation about whether Shakespeare could seriously have written all his plays by himself, because it would take an awful lot of work to create all that blank verse, and rhymed verse and sonnet form….they were thinking and questioning and asking.
What about this bit in the same scene? I got the students to tell me what they thought were the important words in this section
They picked the words ‘my’, ‘me’ and ‘I’, and we discussed what it suggested about his character…the fact that he doesn’t take responsibility and instead blames everyone and everything else, including fate. We discussed how earlier in the scene he had told Tybalt to ‘be satisfied’, but had hinted that there was something he didn’t know and aggravated the situation further. There is so much there to unpick, so much to have a personal opinion on, and I lost count of all the times that they related characters and events to things that they had experienced within their own realm of existence.
I could go on forever, I love this play, and I love the reaction it provokes with teenagers. Do I think it should be taught to year 7? If it is, then much of the actual, important stuff is clearly being glossed over. It is so much more than a love story, it is a comment on gender, it is a comment on patriarchal society, it is an argument as to whether love and infatuation are the same thing. We wonder whether Mercutio’s rants about whether he ‘consort’st’ with Romeo and his utter contempt for women are because he is hopelessly in love with Romeo, or because he hates that he has chosen a woman over his friends…’bros before hoes’ is the year 10 phrase of choice. We question Romeo’s real intentions and we wonder whether Juliet is just desperate for some real attention. We question whether Shakespeare wanted to please Elizabeth by making Juliet a woman who takes control of her life at the end, by deciding to end it all and by facing perhaps the bravest death of all.
My personal opinion is that 15 years old is the perfect time to study this play. It is the time when it means something and the time when teenagers are turning a corner in being confident in their opinions. Will I keep teaching it at GCSE? Yes, I bloody well will, because I think it is perfect for the demands of the new GCSE, it is brilliant for language, themes, ideas, alternative interpretations and personal opinions. It is brilliant for tracking a character/theme/idea across the entirety of a play and I will enthuse about it forever.
But that’s just my opinion…