“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”
Well, Juliet, he’s hiding in the bushes under your window like a total creep.
“The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” is a culturally cherished story of romance and young love that is replicated time and time again in songs, movies, TV shows, plays and art.
We learn the romantic aspect of the young lovers’ story far before we’re able to see the dark themes embedded in Shakespeare’s most well-known work.
“Romeo and Juliet” is a cornerstone of ninth grade curriculum in Arizona, and I’m learning through my role as a student teacher that the play is much grimmer than we are initially told by our parents or the media.
Many of my students are looking forward to the famous balcony scene, yet don’t know that the scene is filled with mistrust. The two lovers have barely been introduced and are in no way prepared to marry.
Romeo and Juliet are often referred to as “young lovers” in the play. Young is an understatement in this case. Juliet is only 13 years old when she meets Romeo. Although I think that young people can experience love just as strongly as an adult can, these young lovers have serious and dire consequences for their decisions. Puppy love isn’t an option for our two main characters.
A ninth grade education tells you that Romeo’s undying (tee hee) love for Juliet begins when the curtains are lifted. The actual origin of Romeo’s lovesickness begins with Rosaline, a member of the Capulet family he has never actually seen.
Romeo continues to whine and mope over a girl who never even acknowledges him, but many women today wish for their own Romeo. Why? He’s actually a petulant jerk.
These misconceptions carry over to modern life more frequently than we realize. Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” heralds the two lovers and pleads for Juliet to pick out a white dress and find her “happily-ever-after” ending. Leonardo DiCaprio makes a fantastic Romeo in Baz Luhrmann’s modern adaptation “Romeo + Juliet,” but it also fails to do justice to the original play.
So few people are exposed to Shakespeare on a frequent basis that these untrue elements are allowed to persist within popular culture.
The difference between a high school-level Shakespeare lesson and one at a college level is astronomical. High school lessons are often superficial and gloss over the themes and issues in the text in favor of focusing on the meaning of Shakespeare’s antiquated language. College-level Shakespearean studies are challenging and inspire students to learn through inquiry. Shakespeare is taught less frequently as you continue up the educational ladder.
Valuable analytical skills are passed down through the humanities, and literature classes are often overlooked in the case of a school- or district-wide budget cuts. Not only can Shakespeare tell a story: He can speak universal truths about life and love.
If I had any advice for the casual Shakespeare reader or someone who’s not a bibliophile, I would suggest that you do your English teacher a favor and pick up a copy of “Romeo and Juliet.” It can quell your questions and debunk some common misconceptions about Shakespeare.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @soupsnake