The above image comes from the American Shakespeare Center's page on their current production of Romeo and Juliet. See their homepage here. If you are new to the Blackfriar in Staunton, VA, check out their informational page that describes what the Blackfriar replica is like and how they made the decisions they did as far as the way that the theatre looks and the way that the productions run.
On this past Thursday, 75 of the English 9 students took a trip down to Staunton, VA, to see the American Shakespeare Center's rendition of Romeo and Juliet. We finished the play in class last week, wrapping up with Act V, scene iii, with almost all of the students together, out of their seats, in the front of the room, participating in that giant scene in some way. I'd been hesitant to teach Romeo and Juliet so early in the year for many reasons, including the difficulty of the text and the potential shyness of new freshmen, who might be reluctant to stand in front of the class and read/act out the play, but because the Blackfriar was putting on Romeo and Juliet this fall as part of their twenty-fifth anniversary series, I took the plunge. It's been awesome and I've had no regrets.
During our unit, we've focused on inferences, characterization, summary, and paraphrasing difficult language. Paraphrasing is a skill that I discovered students needed when I was teaching the poetry components of AP Literature. I think for many of us who are strong readers, paraphrasing seems unnecessary. However, if you cannot break it down and put it into your own words in a way that makes sense to you, you cannot truly understand the text. Now, in the case of the entirety of Romeo and Juliet, we certainly did not need to paraphrase constantly, so the students worked on reading the language (they did many of the smaller scenes aloud in their groups) and talking through the scene until they could summarize the main events. We only paraphrased occasionally. I was still concerned that they didn't get it, but when I put Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 on their skills assessment, they did an awesome job with it. That skill will help them immensely when they get ready to write their poetry research projects. We also balanced our reading with watching scenes from the Franco Zeffirelli version of the play (1968) and the Baz Luhrmann version in 1996. I wrote more about those assignments here. We did film comparisons of several scenes, and the students wrote film comparison essays for the fight scene (Act III, scene 1) that turned out really well. In my evaluation of the essays, I focused on thesis statements, supporting details with commentary explaining what those details show, and MLA format and citations. Those specific skills will prove useful when we get ready to do research projects and other writing assignments. The students made brilliant observations about what they saw, and they had strong opinions about which version was more effective and more powerful. They rarely liked both interpretations--many found the Luhrmann's to be a betrayal of the original play and valued Zeffierelli's attention to the setting and costuming of Shakespeare's time period, whereas others thought that Luhrmann's interpretation was more dramatic and better suited to reaching today's audience.
As far as my personal opinion goes, I do remember seeing the Luhrmann version when it came out and feeling betrayed--I guess I was a purist. However, I now love both versions, and I love examining them side by side because they show the complexity of the text. Although I love both, I must confess that after all of this time of examining both of them, I find the Luhrmann twist on the final scene to be incredibly moving. I've seen that scene many times at this point, and I still get chills every time Juliet's hand grazes Romeo's face and he grabs her arm. Wow. I included that clip below for your viewing pleasure. (My teenage self was appalled by this alteration that sullied the original events in the text. Man, was I missing out.) Anyway, this continual discussion in class about interpretations led the way toward the students being great audience members and critical thinkers when we took our field trip to see it at the Blackfriar.
This discussion about whether to update/modernize the traditional aspects of older texts, particularly Shakespeare's plays, continues to be a hot discussion. The new rendition of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway resulted in this interesting NY Times article debating the merits of modernization. As far as the play we watched in Staunton, the Shakespeare troupe at the Blackfriar did a phenomenal job of blending the traditional with the contemporary. The modern elements seemed natural, not distracting, and much of the traditional elements remained intact. The street fights included switch blades and brass knuckles in addition to swords, and Tybalt fought with a clawed glove (which suited the "King o' Cats," as Mercutio calls him). On the way to the masquerade party at the Capulet mansion, the boys wore Avengers masks and acted like the superheroes. Juliet in her Converses with a formal dress and Romeo in his flannel shirt with a vest showed their youthfulness and their attempts to play adults while still being children.
The cast also did an awesome job of showing the complexity of the characters. The nurse was a cross-dressing male actor, who ranged from being a doting, mother-like figure to an intimidating bouncer. The actor playing Mercutio sucked in the audience during his "Queen Mab" monologue in Act I, encouraging us to laugh along with him and then be struck by his seriousness. Romeo was an impulsive, romantic boy who showed moments of complete devastation and weakness as he lay on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably at the prospect of exile. Lord Capulet showed his only daughter genuine affection and tenderness, and the fight between him and her at the end of Act III felt so much like a real fight had between parents and children who misunderstand each other.
The actors playing Romeo and Juliet showed the giddiness and silliness of first encounters, but they coupled that humor with the tenderness of new love. They also showed the transformation from innocence and playfulness to intimacy and seriousness as they progressed from the balcony scene in Act II to the first (and only) night they spend together in Act IV. They made their initial infatuation believable, and they swept the audience up in the headiness of their sudden, passionate love. We mourned with them and for them. We went from side-aching laughter when the nurse wouldn't tell Juliet the news from Romeo to teary eyes as the nurse mourned the loss of her beloved Juliet. When Romeo killed Paris, he used a crowbar that left Paris hung against the door to the vault--an act that showed the rashness and frantic rage filling Romeo at that moment.
That is the magic of a phenomenal theatre cast--they were able to move us from absolute hilarity to profound sadness and loss. The students were awed and amazed. Despite the length of the play, the students remained focused and seated, sucked into the magic of the events as they unfolded. Several of them talked about taking their families to see it. Lots of them talked about going back to see other plays. The students are also dying to see the new version of Romeo and Juliet that just came out in film, but sadly, it isn't showing in our area. We may have to wait until it comes out on video to watch it.
I can't wait to see how watching the play has enhanced their understanding of the text, and I look forward to hearing their insights in the Socratic discussion we have this week as our final activity for the unit.
While I intend to focus primarily on contemporary YA lit and how to use it in the classroom, it’s been “much upon my mind that I ought to tell…the whole truth,” (things I remember from my own high school experience: Dickens’ Great Expectations) and the truth is that in class, I’ve been teaching Romeo and Juliet. Couldn’t get more classic, less contemporary, could we?
Because of its canonical aspects and the language barrier, I approached the unit with trepidation. While I’ve taught many of Shakespeare’s plays, I have rarely taught freshmen and had not yet come across this particular task.
I have no use for beating difficult texts over students’ heads (metaphorically, of course—I feel obligated to highlight that I do not promote abuse). I certainly have done my share of suffering when teaching texts that students did not enjoy (A failed attempt at The Crucible comes to mind, as do the early parts of years when I taught American lit as a chronological survey course). While I love teaching Hamlet to seniors, I found the thought of Romeo and Juliet with freshmen intimidating. I believe in instilling the love of literature and of learning in the hearts and minds of kids, and I believe that some texts invite that possibility more than others.
So I did what I do when I am anxious—I researched (which, as a random aside, is a terrible plan when it comes to things like medical concerns, but which works quite well for conquering fears over teaching certain texts). I came across lots of mediocre ideas and some stellar ones as well. I used one of John Green's amazing Crash Course videos (see youtube link here) to get the students interested and give them some helpful background information. For other engaging activities during the unit, I relied especially heavily on Dana Huff’s posts (on www.huffenglish.com). I was most excited by her ideas about pairing scenes from the Zeffirelli version of the film (1968) with the Luhrmann version of the film (1996). Many of the students are visual learners, and all of them are better equipped to interpret and analyze film, so those activities have been amazingly successful. They made great notes, had good discussions, and wrote strong essays. The films bring out so much of the power within the writing and the story. I watched Luhrmann’s version of Act V scene iii five times. This is the testament to the power of interpretation: I felt a shiver of chills every time Romeo took the poison and felt Juliet’s hand. I’m not easily moved, but I cringed (as did every student watching) as Romeo discovered the horrifying truth.
The unit has been much more successful than I expected. They have become much better at paraphrasing, have made tremendous progress with reading, and have managed to push through the difficult language and into the complex issues that the story itself presents. With the recent epidemic of star-crossed lovers in awesome YA lit novels, the story feels remarkably relevant and even exciting. (If any teachers want to contact me for additional ideas or resources for Romeo and Juliet, please feel free to do so on the contact page or through twitter.)
And so I look toward next year’s Fate and Choice unit with excitement instead of dread. I keep thinking of all the things I can change and add. I used a small excerpt from John Green’s The Fault in our Stars (a phenomenal novel! A review of this will come at some point, I’m sure, but at this moment suffice it to say that I highly recommend it) this year to help students understand the term star-crossed, but I’m excited about the notion of introducing more pairings next year. I just read Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (which is exquisitely written and includes a delightful balance between the crude nature of zombies and the irrepressible force of love), and I’m fantasizing about fun pairings between balcony scenes and other aspects of the two texts. Whether it’s gnomes (I have full intentions of using some aspect of the movie Gnomeo and Juliet), zombies, or terminally-ill teens, the power of this trope resonates throughout our world.
As R. says in Warm Bodies: “In my mind I am eloquent; I can climb intricate scaffolds of words to reach the highest cathedral ceilings and paint my thoughts. But when I open my mouth, everything collapses.”
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.