Importance of Teaching Romeo and Juliet in Contemporary Settings Essay

Of all the Shakespearean plays, no other stands to impress upon and convey the important life messages to contemporary young people as does Romeo and Juliet. The play has survived the centuries, rendition after rendition, in interpretation from its original Shakespearean stage play, to the ultra modern film presentation of director Laz Luhrmann (Leverone, 1996, p. 1), starring contemporary heart-throb Leonardo DiCaprio, to artistic director Yuri Petukhov’s interpretation for Russia’s St. Ballet Theatre audiences in March, 2005, enthralling audiences with what was described by reviewer Barbara Leverone as, “. . . a combination of electric movement style, abstract stage design and intrinsic changes to the well-known story of star-crossed lovers (1996, p. 1) .” The success behind the play’s immortality rests with the fact that it embodies the timeless emotions humanity of young love, fate, moral dilemma, tragedy and accountability; adaptable to any era in which the play has been, or will be performed. It is the timeless social messages embodied in the work, adaptable to any era, lending itself to the need to continue teaching the play from a pedagogical approach so as to allow for and inspire creative and modern interpretations, especially by young artists.

One of the most successful adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, and one emphasizing the play’s contemporary adaptability, is the 1961 film version of the story brought to audiences by directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise in the musical Westside Story (Robbins and Wise, Directors, 1961). In Westside Story, Wise and Robbins have combined the relevant themes of the Shakespearean play with popular music fit into a then modern story contrasting New York City’s white middle class and immigrant Puerto Rican gang populations. The resulting adaptation of the Shakespearean play and themes to contemporary times is in and of itself one has stood as not just a celebration of the Shakespearean play, but as an innovative product of creative collaboration revealing the opportunity that exists for young people through creative collaboration and interpretation of the play. As a result, Westside Story has gone on to be hailed not just as a Shakespearean adaptation, but has assumed an identity apart and separate by way of performance, music, choreography, acting and directing which causes the work to be the ongoing focus of in study courses in film and theatre today. Nor can it be overlooked that the work represents for the audience, the cast, and hopefully anyone else involved; a really good time in music and period drama.

Perhaps no better example of the positive changes which might come about as a result of teaching the Shakespearean play, and the opportunity that it gives rise to for young people, is the story of Ian Squires, Birmingham Chamber of Commerce President and ITV Central’s managing director, who reveals his strong connection to the play in an interview with reporter Ian Halstead (2005, p. 26). “The original version (Romeo and Juliet) was the unexpected catalyst for a dramatic U-turn in his fledgling career (p. 26),” Halstead reports. It was Squires’ love for Shakespeare and an interest in Leonard Bernstein’s interpretation of Westside Story, which brought about significant changes and opportunities for Squires Halstead reports. (p. 26). Squires said, when “A film about the composer won a BAFTA for the Omnibus team during Squires’ two-year spell as editor of the famed arts program (p. 26).” A distinguished honor, and one which compelling Squires even further in his efforts to bring what he felt were the important messages contained in the Shakespeare work to young people. Squires “. . .his involvement with Fair Cities Projects (p. 26).” The Fair Cities Projects, Squires says, is an initiative to bring together young people of varying ethnic backgrounds and employers in Birmingham’s private arts and entertainment related industry; at any and all levels of the industry (p. 26). “I believe that if your work force doesn’t mirror the composition of the local population that eventually people will go elsewhere, because they don’t feel connected (p. 26),” Squires tells Halstead.

The initiative has taken ITV into schools with diverse cultural populations, where ITV show the kids how the program making works, the ins and outs, gets the kids motivated and excited about the opportunities that exist in entertainment and entertainment programming. “We are trying to catch youngsters in their early teens, before they make career-changing decisions, and open their eyes to the opportunities that are available to them in television (p. 26),” Squires explains. It was Squires’ own interest in and appreciation for Shakespeare that is at the root of Squires’ efforts. He fondly recalls both his love for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, its adaptability in time and place, and Bernstein’s interpretation of Westside Story, which helped him focus on the opportunities for not just his own career, but for young people from different ethnic backgrounds. During that time in Squires’ career where he taught a student body reflective of the cultural and ethnic diversity about which he speaks, Squires tells Halstead, “We talked about love and romance, about the gangs, the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, and about Westside Story’s setting in New York, and it really went very well (p. 26),” he says. Then, Squires reports, the reality of what was a very real and modern problem sidetracked what began as an enthusiastic and hopeful venture into the works and opportunities of Shakespeare; handing out copies of the “Bard’s masterpiece, and asked the youngsters to take on the various roles,” which Squires, given his student’s interest during discussions, realized that most of his student body couldn’t read (p. 26). A student body between the ages of 12 and 13, yet, Squires tells Halstead, with the reading abilities of a five-year old (p. 26). Faced with the enormity of what seemed to Squires at the time as an insurmountable problem and task beyond the ability of a single instructor, Squires left teaching. However, the experience, the student’s enthusiasm for the Bard’s masterpiece, and their inability to cope with it, would remain dauntingly at the back of Squires’ mind as he went through his life and career – a career that became highly visible and successful – and up until the time where he began his Fair Cities Projects initiative (p. 26). It remained, the cultural and ethnic diversity, the opportunity through learning the lessons of Romeo and Juliet, that continued to inspire and compel Squires forward with the Fair Cities Project initiative.

However, Squires’ experience does bring up a good point; if Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is to serve as a teaching tool for life’s lessons to contemporary population who, like the body of students with which Squires was tasked with teaching; what happens when the complexity of the language of literature and modern system failings come face-to-face in the academic setting? While perhaps not in an academic setting – but nonetheless in and of itself serving as but yet another example of how creative interpretation of the play can be of service to academia; in a journal article appearing in Shakespeare Bulletin, writer Sharon Beehler discusses a presentation of Romeo and Juliet put on by the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, performed at various locations during their 2004 season (2005, p. 179). “The production of Romeo and Juliet reflected the director’s wish to provide audiences with a traditional interpretation of the play, setting the scene in Renaissance Verona and dressing the cast in lavish Florentine style (p. 179).” Beehler sets the mood then adds what might serve as a valuable idea in the teaching of the work.

“Another distinguishing feature of the production was to make Juliet a teenager whose behavior was familiar to a modern audience. Throughout the performance, in moments of anxiety, Juliet shook her hands in a manner so typical of today’s young women that she seemed to leap across the centuries. Fortunately, she did not accompany this gesture with ‘Geez” or ‘Golly’ or any other exclamation that would have been thoroughly distracting (p. 179).”

Thus, the art of the performance itself is capable of transgressing the lines of literature to convey meaning. While perhaps yet an even more innovative and useful tool for a problem such as that encountered by Squires within the population setting of the very people for who the play would serve best; is the very creative solution of cast doubling utilized by yet another production company, The Jean Cocteau Repertory at the Bowerie Theatre, in New York City, New York as reported on in the Shakespeare Bulletin in a journal article by Martha Tuck Rozett (2005, p. 93).

“With so much doubling of parts, the audience needed help, which McLucas provided in the form of a narrator, the versatile Kate Holland, who also played Benvolio, Paris, the prince and the occasional servant. Holland rapidly set the scene and introduced the characters by name, a device that continued throughout the performance. In 3.1, she used lines from Benvolio’s long speech at the end of the scene to describe the action: as Tybalt drew his sword, Holland interjected, “Romeo speaks Tybalt fair: — How small the quarrel” though the staging did not seem to require explanation (p. 93).”

In overcoming the problems of the literacy and language when teaching Romeo and Juliet, there is a wealth of performance and other creative ideas from which to draw to overcome problems of literacy, to encourage literacy and reading, and to impart the valuable core lessons that are embodied within the Shakespearean work itself.

Literature Review

By having firmly established here the significance of Romeo and Juliet, and the ways in which contemporary problems might be overcome in order to bring to the contemporary the more important messages of the work; it is time now to examine what those messages are in greater detail. The first concept that a body is drawn to, is that of young, innocent love. That, too, clearly was on Shakespeare’s mind, but perhaps in way very different than that with which people might tend to associate it. In a journal article by Karl Franson, appearing in Papers on Language and Literature, 1996; Franson discusses at length the subject of Juliet’s age and what might have been on Shakespeare’s mind as regards the young Capulet’s age (1996, p. 244). Shakespeare makes clear, Franson notes, that the young Capulet daughter is indeed “young.” And this is perhaps one of the most important lessons to be conveyed to contemporary audiences, is that Shakespeare wanted to emphasize, according to Franson, that Juliet was indeed too young to enter into a romantic relationship; and that it was in fact her father’s responsibility, or moral dilemma, to resolve that choice. (p. 244).

Pointing to the literature, Franson notes that Juliet’s father suggests that Juliet should be at least 16 before marrying; “She is still a child,” says her father, “a straunger in this world” who “hath not seene the change of fourteen years”; she should be at least 16,” he says, “before she will be ready for marriage (p. 244).” Why, then, would Shakespeare, who seemingly, and rightly so, would have been so concerned with the young Juliet’s age appropriateness for the condition of marriage, use an under-age Juliet as the subject of Romeo’s love interest? The answer, suggests Franson, lies in the literature itself. Shakespeare attempted to emphasize the character of Juliet as one of girlish charm, impishly iridescent, thusly unflawed and thwarting any ability to dislike, all the while suggesting, “the pathos of her passion to amplify the drama of her progress from innocence to suicide, or merely to ‘apologize to the audience for the boy who played so difficult a part (p. 244)’?”

As Franson points out, and to inform the reader who might not realize that the Elizabethan period from which the work rose was not prone to, marriage before 25-26 was the average age for the Elizabethan woman; to marry earlier was, according to health manuals of the era, not considered in the best interest of a young woman’s health (p. 244). Just as would be the case today of young 13 or 15, or even 16 year old engaging in sexual relations; it could have been Shakespeare’s intention – as it certainly would have mortified his Elizabethan audience to consider Juliet’s marriage at the tender age of 13, as is suggested by the literature (p. 244). Additionally, that the body of belief of the day concerning early sexual activity between a prematurely young woman and a man was thought to be permanently physically damaging, further underscores the seriousness and deliberateness in Shakespeare’s presentation of Juliet as having been less than 16 years of age (p. 244). Certainly here is one of the themes that remains timeless, in that the same concerns surrounding a young girl’s health and sexuality activity prevail today. However, when the focus is redirected from the romantic, away from the “crush” of a young girl’s attraction and forced to be – as was the case of Juliet – on the young woman’s health; the romantic crush diminishes both in charming innocence and in romantic significance; and it is perhaps that lesson that can be successfully conveyed, imparted, to contemporary audiences and performers of the work; a message they take back into the community – especially amongst peers – and share with others. Thus, the importance, the significance, of involving young contemporary school children in the teaching and performance of the social tool embodied in this work. However, a more thorough discussion of “love” will be reserved for final comment here.

There is, too, the all too significant and relevant message carried in the play that centers on feuding; and that, of course, can be one with which anyone living in a major metropolitan area is today familiar with. In the book titled, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Bloom (ed), 2000), writer Ruth Nevo adds input and insight and interpretation of the literature (p.71). In close association with the gang members – especially those who achieved acclaim separate and apart from their gang members, but nonetheless fell victim to those same people, as was the case with rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G (Grehan, 1997, p. 22). – bringing attention to the issue of feud, which is socially significant and relevant to contrast and compare the those parallels which exist between Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and contemporary realty (Bloom (ed), Nevo, p. 71-213). Street violence and the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues is what, of course, segues to tragedy; as is the case of Tupac and Nortorious B.I.G (Grehan, 1997, p. 22) and Romeo and Juliet.

The feuding that exists between the Capulets and the Montagues has gone on for so long, that even they do not recall what is at the root of their feuding. Feuding has become a way of life for the two families, the driving force in their lives and that by which they define themselves. In the case of the modern story version, Westside Story, it is the circumstances between middle-America’s non-immigrant middle-class versus the immigrant class structure, which serves to exemplify the feuding. The fear that those who have little, struggling to gain more, will be supplanted in their struggles by the newer immigrants who are as a group struggling to attain the middle level of success and acceptance on the social ladder. Also, in America, for whatever reason, different ethnic and cultural groups go through periods of cultural struggle before achieving a united “middle America” status as middle class Americans. It was very much that with the influx of Italian immigrants (Goldstein, Marazzi, et al, 2004), Irish immigrants (Mulrooney, 2003), and German immigrants (Fogleman, 1996) during America’s early years.

It has been nothing less than that with subsequent other immigrant groups, including Puerto Rican immigrants, who are the subject of the “gang” feud in Westside Story (Waldinger, 2001). In the case of the love struck couple in Westside Story, they exemplified the process through which struggling immigrant groups of youth often go; that is, “This pattern is exemplified by the forced-choice dilemma confronting the Chicano and Puerto Rican youth studied by Margaret Gibson and Philippe Bourgois, both of whom found that Chicano and Puerto Rican students who did well in school were forcefully excluded by their coethnic peers as “turnovers” acting “white (Waldinger, p. 42).” This peer opinion is the foundation upon which the Puerto Ricans respond to the love interest between a middle-class white male and a second generation immigrant Puerto Rican female who has by virtue of her immigrant parent’s struggle and her own hard work through study stands at the brink of middle class America classification. It becomes a conflict within her peer group, whose protests lead to the Romeo and Julietesque tragedy through feuding.

It is no less the status-quo with America’s current and on-going Hispanic immigrant influx, who are the core of many gang related issues in major cities across the US at the present time. There exists between those groups and middle Americans the “feud” for jobs, services, and status in the American class hierarchy, which has a tendency to express itself in terms of the group earning the lesser income conglomerating into sub-standard housing blocks, which give rise to gangs, which give rise to competition within the gang groups, which gives rise to violence. To the extent that an individual, especially previously affiliated, or ethnically or culturally identified as an affiliate of those gang environments, that results in the tragedy of loss of life once the affiliated image achieves or surpasses middle America; then the end result can be tragic.

It is the sense of “senseless” tragedy that is the focus in Romeo and Juliet, and in Westside Story; and in the loss of talented performers like Tupac and Nortorious B.I.G. The lesson that is hopefully conveyed through teaching Romeo and Juliet is one that will hopefully help young and susceptible students who are in those dangerous situations to move beyond them, and into a safer realm free from both the dangers and the environment that gives rise to the dangers. The cases of Tupac and Nortorious B.I.G., especially occurring outside both of these men’s experiences that would cause them to be in an image affiliated status, is both “coincidental and tragic.” On this, referencing Romeo and Juliet, Nevo writes:

“Shakespeare, so far from mitigating the effect of unfortunate coincidence is evidently concerned to draw our attention to it. Bad luck, misfortune, sheer inexplicable contingency is a far from negligible source of the suffering and calamity in human life which is the subject of tragedy’s mimesis; whilst of all the ancient and deep-seated responses of man to the world which he inhabits the fear of some force beyond his control and indifferent, if not positively inimical, to his desires is one of the most persistent (Bloom (ed), 2000 p. 72)”

In other words, that to which man aspires that compels him beyond his present circumstance will give rise to conflict and contention; as was the case of when he aspired to wed the young Capulet. The coincidental factor, of course, being the “chance” meeting between Romeo and Benvolio carrying the undecipherable message, an invitation that would resolve conflict and tragedy, but goes unheeded because it cannot be understood by Romeo (Bloom (ed), 2000, p. 72) So writes Ruth Nevo:

“The plot of Romeo and Juliet stresses the accidental. The fortuitous meeting of Romeo and Benvolio with Capulet’s illiterate messenger bearing the invitations he cannot decipher, the chance encounter between Romeo and Tybalt at a most unpropitious moment, the outbreak of the plague which quarantines Friar John, the meeting of Romeo and Paris at the Capulet tomb are instances which come to mind (p. 72).”

We bear these accidents, coincidences and tragedies in mind as we parallel them to the reality of feuds in life situations that bear these same resemblances.

It goes without saying that the parallels between Romeo and Juliet and “youthful love,” are very much the focus of Shakespeare and young audiences who could benefit from the lessons conveyed through Romeo and Julie about youthful love, lust, and desire. Also, the “triangle” of love young and disaster is often present in the formula. In 1996, in an article appearing in London’s The Mirror, the classic triangle story of love and tragedy is, again, played out in real life (Young, 1996, p. 4). The death of a young woman, a well-known physician’s daughter, her lover with whom she would secretly rendezvous in an unfurnished apartment; both dead, and seemingly at the hands of a third, jealous person come as close to paralleling Romeo and Juliet as we can get when we think of the multitude of reasons why this classic Shakespearean work would benefit young audiences. It’s because young love, misunderstood love, immature love, continues to be the driving force behind the decisions that young people – especially young people in at risk segments of society, where their economic and social conditions tend to put into an even more important status the condition of young love. Unfortunately, all too often, the result is tragic as it often involves not just one person, but, as with the young physician’s daughter and her lovers, as with Romeo and Juliet, other families. Often, in the modern and real life situation, we find that it involves the arrival of an infant, which brings little to the young person’s abilities to cope better with life’s realities, or to move beyond the current circumstances and environment.

“Popular manuals of health, as well as observations of married life, led Elizabethans to believe that early marriage and its consummation permanently damaged a young woman’s health, impaired a young man’s physical and mental development, and produced sickly or stunted children (Franson, 1996, p. 1).”

Again, the parallels from the story to real life are close ranging; a young woman – or man for that matter, must be concerned about their health given the range of potential health hazards that can come about as a result of sexual activity when there are no precautions taken. Today, those hazards do not just pertain to young, unwed motherhood or fatherhood, but fatal and life threatening diseases such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases which, even if one has not had prior sexual encounters, a young person could still be unknowingly infected with, or a carrier of. Thus, a sexual impulse to physically satisfy a lust-attraction, can result in permanent and irreversible repercussions.

It appears, too, that Elizabethans were no less concerned with infant mortality than we are today, since the literature of their day suggests, too, that early or premature youthful pregnancies yield infants who are often not healthy. A 1998 article appearing in the Daily Record, cautions that infants born to teenage mothers are more likely to die in infancy or suffer serious accidents (Frew, 1998, p. 14). It’s an all too common problem, the lack of thought given the act, and the end result is too permanent to perform the act with mindless-lust. In teaching Romeo and Juliet, it’s possible to move beyond the story, to that which Nevo and Bloom and others point to, that it is the young love over and above all else, allowing it to rule not just the heart and mind, but the body, too, that is harmful and carries with it modern day consequences. We need to point out that Shakespeare, as well as Elizabethans during the period during Shakespeare wrote the play, were, as today, concerned with young love and the results on their physicality and for the babies that such acts produced.

That these different connections at so many important social levels between a time past and current day events probably does not exist in any other creative work except Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s play is not only entertainment, it is an opportunity to discuss modern day events using a work of classical literature to help make those lessons more obvious, more entertaining, more accessible to our young people in academic settings today. Not to mention, too, that the work itself promotes the promise of opportunity for the creative side of the young person, which often has a tendency to serve as an overriding element in the choices a young person makes; when it comes to pursuing lustful love versus the opportunity to pursuer broader and potentially more rewarding creative avenues, the expectation is that the student will opt for that which holds the greater opportunity both experience and opportunity, the broader creative avenues.

Modern performances of the classic continue – will continue – to be performed. That the modern filmmaker’s interpretation attracts the largely talented attention of actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, or the attention of the director of the Russian Ballet, or even the smaller production companies that were discussed here, is significant of the fact that this play is never going to go away. It’s worth becoming involved in, worth presenting to young people in their high school settings, especially at risk settings, where the production and participation in the performance of the work will open it up to the very discussions on the subjects that appear in this paper, and in numerous other academic works where Shakespeare has in fact been credited with having created a lasting and valuable tool with which to teach so many valuable and lasting social lessons to modern young people. This is a work that transcends time, its message is multi-faceted, from which other long-standing and lasting works like Westside Story have come to us; and, like Romeo and Juliet, appears equally timeless and one which will prevail and only serve to be repeated again and again by new and emerging creative thinkers.

There is, too, the final lesson that must be mentioned here. It is the lesson that this play is indeed a valuable teaching tool, and should continue to be made available to students.


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