Sunday, December 24, 2006

Romeo and Juliet - Opening Questions

Shakespeare lovers,

As a team, we've been more unfamiliar than well-versed going into the first eight plays. Romeo and Juliet, though, bring us I'm sure to our first "universal" text. I can use the following phrases in class and know that many of my students will get the reference, even if they have neither read nor seen the play/movie. "Star-crossed lovers." "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" "O, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" "That which we call a Rose by any other word would smell as sweet." "Parting is such sweet sorrow." "A plague on both your houses." "Never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo." (The last one is a dead giveaway.)

So the first question I have is how do we "discover" this play (as we did Titus Andronicus or Love's Labor's Lost or 1 Henry VI,) when most of us have landed on these shores before? I ask this both collegially and professionally, first because the joy of our group is that we have no pre-determined critical axes to grind, no established beachheads that must be defended. What has resulted, for me reading your posts at least, is a sense of reading Shakespeare fresh. So how do we keep that vibe in a text we know well? Second, as a teacher of young Shakespeare readers, the distance between my reading of Romeo and theirs grows greater every year. So I wonder if there is a technique to reading Shakespeare fresh, one that can allow us (and me, specifically) to bridge the gap between initial discovery and experience.

That's not really a topic for conversation so much as a question about what it means to experience Shakespeare while taking stock of one's growing Shakespeare experience. Will our conversation change in any way, and if so, will it change significantly?

After that, and after finishing the play, I have rounded up many of the usual suspects as initial discussion questions.

First, genre. W. H. Auden says "Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare's first tragedy in the strict sense of the term." And Harold Bloom calls it "Shakespeare's first authentic tragedy." What gives? Why doesn't Titus Andronicus rate? Or, one might point out, Shakespeare's play about that hunchback guy that was entitled The Tragedy of Richard III. So, by the pen, this is Shakespeare's third tragedy. Yet there are striking differences in tone and subject from the previous works. Add to that Shakespeare's neat trick in following comic conventions up to the moment that Mercutio and Tybalt get kilt. So what does Romeo and Juliet tell us about tragedy, and what does it tell us about Shakespeare the writer? (If I might also request from one of you college guys, a definition of 'classical unities.' So often critics refer to following the unities, for the life of me, I don't know what they're talking about.)

Second, language. Rostand (via Cyrano) has a word for this. It is panache. We have plays on words, conceits, reversals, allusions, persistent pairings of opposites ("O brawling love, O loving hate"), and I'm sure half of Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms to be found roaming freely about this play. Yet there is none of the schoolbook exercise quality of language manipulation that seemed to emanate from Love's Labor's Lost. Add to that three distinct language patterns for the commoners, the aristocrats, and the lovers. Wow. So, what is your favorite language moment in the play? And wherefore?

Third, character. Here's a problem I have had. Romeo and Juliet has become shorthand for great (albeit tragic) romance. They are the great lovers. Yet whenever I read the play, I have trouble taking Romeo seriously. He's …feckless about his love. First there's the whole Rosaline thing; he seems to love and not love her regardless of her actual personality. Then there's "O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied," which has always sounded a lot like a request for sex. (And when Juliet gets angry about his impropriety – "what satisfaction canst thou have tonight?" – and he's all, like, "Th'exchange of thy love's faithful vow for mine," it's, like, nice recovery dude!) So, is there a point at which Romeo goes from boy in love with love, if you see it that way, to mature lover? Does he ever really love Juliet?

And Juliet. In Lloyd Kaufman's Tromeo and Juliet, a modern, twisted, and occasionally pornographic version of Romeo and Juliet, one fascinating sequence stands out. The sick-minded, incestuous Capulet imprisons Juliet, naked, in a glass box after she has defied him. This image seems an appropriate visualization of Juliet's psychological and political position in the play. She is subject completely to the agendae of the men around her: Capulet, Tybalt, Paris, Romeo. Yet, within that frame she makes autonomous, self-determining decisions that defy the patriarchal structure. Is Juliet a proto-feminist? I get the feeling she is the stronger of the two main characters, in the way that tempered steel is stronger than raw ore. Also, we have so many daughters to come: Hermia, Jessica, Cordelia, Miranda; let's start the conversation about daughters. And, then, if you were staging the play, how is it best to play Juliet?

Fourth, productions. We have lamented on occasion the transient nature of our memories when it comes to theatrical productions. What Romeos have you seen and what has stuck in your memory? And how have those productions changed your reading of the play? We might save film versions for our second week discussion, both to give you time to rush off to a friends house and watch a few again but also so we stay focused on Shakespeare for a few days before lighting into Cukor, Castellani, Zeffirelli, Luhrmann, Kaufman, et al.

Finally, from all, and perhaps specifically from Ernst who has done this for us before, I would love a list of questions one would ask students, "the answering of which would open up their …understanding and appreciation of the play."

And so we're off. Pick a topic, any topic.

Thank me no thankings,

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