My apologies in advance for the length of this post! I started writing my thoughts and just couldn’t stop. On the bright side, I’ve included pictures to break up that dreaded text wall! 🙂
When I started this post, I tried to count up the number of times I’ve read Romeo and Juliet–I read it first in the ninth grade, then again in college, and at least once on my own outside of college. I also just finished teaching this play to my students, so I read it once to prepare and then approximately four times in class with them. As usual, it’s difficult for me to separate out what I read at home for entertainment and what I read for my job or my graduate studies. So it goes without saying that this play has been on my mind, and I thought I’d share why I love it and why I’d recommend it to anyone who might be trying to break into reading Shakespeare for pleasure.
I don’t really remember much about my experience reading the play in high school. I’d like to say ninth grade was when I discovered my love for Shakespeare’s language, but I don’t think that’s quite true. I’d been fascinated by the idea of reading Shakespeare since sixth grade, when we performed a very watered-down version of Macbeth in my English class. In fact, I remember that experience more than reading Romeo and Juliet in high school.
By twelfth grade I could read and understand the plays without help, and I vividly remember laughing out loud while reading Othello. That was the moment I realized that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be scary; I’d just read, understood, and laughed at a joke written some four-hundred-odd years ago.
The next year, as a freshman at Auburn, I fell in love with Shakespeare’s language when I read Hamlet for the first time. Over time, Romeo and Juliet faded into the background as I branched out into Shakespeare’s other works. But lately, as I’ve been teaching Romeo and Juliet, I’ve rediscovered why I enjoy it. So, with all of that personal stuff as an introduction, here are four reasons why you should read this play if you’ve never read it before:
1. The minor characters are my favorites.
Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet may be the main characters, but they aren’t my favorite characters. To me, they are possibly the most boring in the play–they’re in love, they act impulsively, and their stories end in tragedy. The characters I really love in all of this star-crossed madness are the minor characters who don’t often get enough credit: Mercutio, Tybalt, and Benvolio.
Of the three, Mercutio is my favorite. He’s the somewhat mysterious, cynical friend of Romeo’s who has some interesting views on love. Coming in second place is Benvolio, who wins the “good guy” award for always trying to be the peacemaker. And finally, Tybalt, who is “more than a prince of cats,” is an excellent example of a (perhaps) misunderstood villain. I’m not a cat person, but if I ever did have a cat, its name would be Tybalt. To me, these three minor characters make the play so much more than just a doomed love story.
2. The poetry is flawless.
You’d think that after listening to my students read this play out loud over and over for almost a month, I’d be tired of it. I think it’s a real testament to Shakespeare’s talent that this isn’t the case. Even when I taught Macbeth and Hamlet back to back during my student teaching semester, I never got tired of reading the same thing over and over again. In a stark contrast, when I taught Divergent to my seventh grade students, I was ridiculously tired of it by day three or four of the unit. Why is that? I think there’s just something so amazing about how Shakespeare is able to write poetry that also tells a tragic, captivating story. In addition to the sheer loveliness of the poetry, his language can be pretty difficult to understand, so it seems like each time I read through the lines I get a fresh perspective. I mean, just listen to some of my favorite quotes–and by listen, I mean listen to yourself read these quotes out loud, because you should always read Shakespeare out loud!
Mercutio, telling Romeo what he believes about dreams:
“…True, I talk of dreams
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind…” (1.4.103-6)
Juliet, when she hears that Romeo, her new husband, has killed her cousin Tybalt:
“O serpent heart hid in a flow’ring face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!
Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despiséd substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st,
A damnéd saint, an honorable villain.” (3.2.79-85)
Romeo, upon seeing Juliet, whom he believes is dead:
“…Shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorréd monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?
For fear of that I still will stay with thee
And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again. Here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chambermaids. O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh!”
And those are only some of my favorite parts! The whole thing is full of some of Shakespeare’s best poetry.
3. The emotion is genuine…maybe.
As silly as we sometimes think Romeo and Juliet are for jumping headlong into their relationship and ending their lives prematurely, it’s not normal for me to read Shakespeare’s language in this play as flowery, over-the-top silliness. I know that these two teenagers are being (arguably) incredibly foolish, but when I read Romeo’s speech, I only hear sincere emotion and affection. Maybe that’s just the romantic in me, but I’m inclined to think it’s also Shakespeare’s poetry working its magic on the audience. It’s a little ridiculous for Romeo to say that his flesh is “world-wearied” at only eighteen or so years of age, but it’s also romantic to think that he’s willing to stay with his true love to the point of death–even if that romanticism is somewhat misguided.
I think, too, that we read this play with a very modern cultural mindset. We think it’s strange that these two teenagers should fall in love so quickly or at so young an age. To us, Romeo and Juliet are still children, but, according to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge), “childhood” as a concept didn’t really begin until 1600. So to Shakespeare’s audiences, Romeo and Juliet both would have been considered young adults, capable of making their own decisions. This is foreign to us, but it makes sense in the world of the play. It also makes me feel better about indulging my romantic side and looking for references to their fated, star-crossed love affair.
4. The play itself is highly readable.
If you’ve never read any Shakespeare before, this is a great place to start. There’s a reason that this play is standard required reading for ninth-grade students. The plot is familiar, the language is Shakespearean (but not impossibly so), and the humor in the first three acts make this tragedy read more like a romantic comedy at first. It’s not a high tragedy like King Lear or Macbeth, but it’s a story that has played a huge role in our culture. We all know lines to this play by heart, whether we’ve studied it or not. Romeo and Juliet, for all their teenage foolishness and ill-fated love, accomplish their goal of being united in death–we remember them as one. Theirs is one of the greatest love stories of all time, and you can’t think of Romeo without also remembering his Juliet.
Sorry this was such a long post! I didn’t realize when I sat down to write it that I had so much to say! Let me know in the comments if you’ve read Romeo and Juliet and what you thought of the play.