Thoughts on Romeo and Juliet

Contains spoilers.

Romeo and Juliet, published in 1597, is arguably the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays.  It has definitely been the one I’ve been most aware of since childhood, though that might be due the fact our school got us to do a production of it when I was 8 – which was very fun indeed!  I played Paris and relished the death scene.  Probably the best role I’ve ever had in a play, actually.  But that’s digressing.  I remember thinking at the time I wanted to read the ‘original book’, but was put off the idea when I found out it originated from a 400 year old play.  Now, 9 years later, I decided to finally read it.  Because of its immense popularity and widely renowned nature, this is a hard play to discuss objectively.  I knew the story off by heart before reading it so that will also have affected my response.

I think my main reaction was shock towards the plot.  I’d heard beforehand that Juliet is far younger than Romeo and that their relationship only spanned 3 days, but I had no idea just how distastefully this would come across even in the writing itself.  There’s a whole spiel about Juliet being ‘not yet 14’ – it’s never said how old Romeo is but we can presume he is older than 13, and Paris is probably around the same age.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it quite creepy that all these men should be chasing after a girl so young.  I could perhaps just forgive this, except the timescale of the play is so ridiculously played out:  Romeo and Juliet meet at a party he’s crashed, and within a page they’re tasting one another’s saliva.  That’s not love, that’s a hook-up at a party.  I can only presume they’re both drunk (actually, that might explain the entire play).  The fact that their first conversation has the form of a sonnet is a nice touch, but alone is not enough.  The next day they are married because, you know, they’re in love.  Like the people who go to Las Vegas for a party and wake up the next day married.  I had a similar problem with Les Misérables.  Thing is, I highly doubt Romeo actually loves Juliet.  To begin with he’s sulking over this girl called Rosaline, partly because she doesn’t love him but the main focus seems to be on her insistence to ‘remain chaste’.  Suddenly Romeo’s intentions become a bit clearer.  Friar Lawrence gets is right on the mark when he says:

“Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken?  Young men’s love, then, lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”

This might indicate that even Shakespeare disapproves of their relationship.  Is Romeo and Juliet supposed to purport the same idea as his Sonnet 130; to make fun of traditional relationships?  The play does begin as a comedy, after all, only then collapsing into a tragedy.  Was Shakespeare having a laugh?  If that is his intention, he has certainly failed!  Romeo and Juliet has somehow, perversely, become the archetypal love story of “star-cross’d lovers”.  Though I would prefer the alternative of it being a ‘Great Hormone Story’, personally.

I don’t mean to sound overly critical; there were other elements I enjoyed.  Most of all, of course, was Shakespeare’s masterful use of language.  This, again, was held back by the poor plotting of the romance – beautifully written dialogue about love makes the situation even worse, in fact – but the language can be appreciated in isolation as lyrical and deeply poetic.  No examples spring instantly to mind, though again I find myself impressed by just how many modern phrases Shakespeare coined.

Romeo and Juliet does beg a question, for me, on the relationship between language and plot.  Some ‘literary elites’ may argue that true value is found in the skillful and original use of language, but I’m very much on the side of having a detailed, convincing plot, even if this means sacrificing the language.  Which is why I prefer the perhaps sometimes blandly-written Hunger Games or Harry Potter to Shakespeare, simply because they develop characters and stories to a much greater degree.  Other than being ‘star-cross’d lovers’, what development did Romeo and Juliet really have?  When they fall in love, I’m unconvinced.  When they commit suicide, I’m bored.  When Juliet says she would rather her parents die than Romeo be banished from Verona, I’m repulsed by the character.  The reader/audience is supposed to be on Juliet’s side, not cheering when she dies.

Sorry, ranting again.  The use of a chorus interested me.  Is it a technique Shakespeare uses a lot?  This is only my fourth of his plays (after Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello), but I’ve never seen it before.  I also felt the concept of feuding between the Montague and the Capulet families was initially well established, with the point becoming really well made of the futility of such a strife (even if I would argue Juliet’s death is more a reaction to her father’s patriarchal dominance, trying to force her into an arranged marriage, than the quarreling between families).  

Overall, Romeo and Juliet is a great story that’s let down by lazy* storytelling.  Most of my criticisms do, I admit, come from applying a 21st century worldview onto a story written in the 16th.  Is it wrong to look at old plays from the perspective of modern values?  Well, I am a reader in the 21st century and if the play no longer feels convincing then it simply hasn’t stood the test of time.  That’s not to say there’s no value for Shakespeare in the modern world; many aspects of his plays remain hugely relevant today, which is a testament to his skill as a writer, and I don’t think his mastery of the English language will ever stop provoking awe.  I’m just afraid that, in this case, it didn’t work for me.

Final rating (if forced): 6.5/10

*Oh no, it’s a mortal sin to call The Bard lazy, isn’t it?  Well, while his use of language may be unrivaled, the plot is lazy.  The amount of times I’ve bitten my tongue to stop myself arguing with a teacher who kept finding excuses to cover up Shakespeare’s plot holes…  The unquestioning reverence our society holds Shakespeare in is wrong.

[I should probably point out that there is a lot of Shakespeare’s work I like.  Sonnet 130 is a really interesting subversion of poetic conventions at the time and most of Macbeth is a complete joy to read].

The Problem with English Lessons

I’ve been reading a brief of UK Education Secretary Michael Gove’s planned changes to the GCSE system in England.  This doesn’t affect Scotland (which is introducing its own controversial changes to education) but it is still fascinating for me to read.  Some aspects I’ve always been opposed to, such as the emphasis on external examinations as a means of assessment.  I’ve always been in favour of coursework for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, I do not believe that one bad experience during the exam should invalidate a whole year of work; and secondly, it’s totally unrepresentative of the kind of work people will face in adulthood (when will someone ever have to write a detailed essay in 45 minutes with no reference material?).

But I’m digressing.  What shocked me was that, for the subjects I have a claim to – English and History – the proposals to the actual course sound almost decent.  In English, the BBC put emphasis on how pupils will have to read ‘whole books’ or ‘whole Shakespeare plays’, rather than the ‘chunks’ they can get away with now.  This would be a very good change.  No wonder pupils resent English and reading so much when they’re forced to learn plots, characters, arcs, themes etc. without having had the opportunity to enjoy the piece.  I still remember my absolute horror of my Higher English teacher skimming through Macbeth, murmuring “No, you don’t need this bit, um… A major character dies here but that’s not very important…”  Sure, pupils can opt to read the whole text themselves – as I did – but realistically, with the stresses of exams, not many books are going to be read that year.

Another problem with English lessons is the uniform way in which we are taught to do it.  Formulas are driven into us (STAR = Statement, Text, Analysis, Relate) which becomes the basic way in which we construct essays; creative writing is seemingly judged not on innovation but on the number of metaphors used and the ability to follow a standard narrative.  Then, once we reached Advanced Higher level, our teachers were surprised at how rigid our approaches initially were.  I think in my case this was a particular problem because our school made Higher English mandatory for all students, so teachers were faced* with classes of pupils who loathe the subject.  Which is why they understandably react with simplification and the abhorrent STAR system.

As for history, there will supposedly be a greater focus on essays for GCSE level, which I also think is a good thing.  Answering questions is alright as an introduction to the subject, but teaching pupils to construct reasoned, developed arguments as early as you can is not a bad thing in my opinion.  That said, it’s incredibly difficult to do just that during exam conditions and, although a good idea on its own, will most likely exacerbate the problem of focusing entirely on exams.  I’m also not too keen on a move away from ‘World History’; the Scotland-centric curriculum I’ve had to put up with, as much as I enjoyed them, became rather repetitive.

Make no mistake, I think Michael Gove is making a terrible Education Secretary – I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard a news headline: “Teachers vote of no confidence in Gove” – and I’m extremely glad he has no power over education here in Scotland.  Yet, some elements of education do need reform.

*Using past tense still feels incredibly weird.