The first few years I studied Romeo and Juliet with my high school freshmen, when I was in my early twenties, I followed the Star-Cross’d Lovers school of thought: Romeo and Juliet, two innocents, their eyes meet across a crowded room, she teaches the torches to burn bright, he’s the god of her idolatry, he wants to be a glove upon her hand, she wants to cut him out in little stars–but the cruel world conspires to bring them down. The way Juliet’s father tells her to thank him no thankings nor proud him no prouds but get to that church on Thursday and marry Paris or he’ll drag her thither on a hurdle–what kind of father says that to a thirteen-year-old girl? Parents don’t listen. The kids might be a little quick to act, and goodness knows Romeo should have waited to talk to Friar Laurence before buying that poison. But who can expect patience of such romantic souls? A sad story indeed.
When I hit thirty, and had several years of teaching under my belt, I shifted to the What Can You Expect When Teenagers Behave Like Brats? philosophy: Romeo and Juliet, a couple of kids in a hurry, he doesn’t even bother to drop in on his family, just runs off to crash Capulet’s party, proposes to a girl before the first date, insists on a jumped-up wedding, then gets himself kicked out of the city, and he still hasn’t been home for dinner. She mouths off to her father, tells him what she will and will not do, and right after he’s told her what a nice husband he’s picked out for her. I mean, if you were a parent and your daughter spoke to you in that tone of voice, would you pat her hand and ask what’s wrong, or would you remind her who’s boss here? If Romeo had just gone home in the first place, like any decent boy would, instead of running off with his friends, this mess wouldn’t have occurred. In fact, since Old Montague and Old Capulet had that very afternoon been sworn to keep the peace, they might have arranged a marriage between Romeo and Juliet–formed an alliance that way–and the whole of Verona would have lived happily ever after, and Montague would have been spared the expense of a gold Juliet statue. Paris might have been a little put out at being jilted, but he’d have gotten over it. Kids! They don’t think.
When I hit forty, however, I discovered the dogma of the Meddlesome Priest. Friar Laurence has no business performing a secret marriage between two minors without parental consent. He says he wants to promote peace, but he isn’t a diplomat. His field is pharmacology. Furthermore, when Juliet informs him she’s about to acquire an extra husband, why doesn’t he go right then to her father and tell the man she’s married? Capulet wouldn’t have been pleased, but he’d have gotten over it. Instead, the Friar gives Juliet a sedative and stuffs her into a tomb with a passel of relatives in varying stages of disrepair. The man appears to mean well, but it’s also possible he intends to take credit for being the brains behind the peace accords. Bunglesome or corrupt–the end is the same. With role models like this, are we surprised that children run amok?
Soon after the last epiphany, I ended my stint as a classroom teacher. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d continued studying Romeo and Juliet year after year. Would I have had new insights? Developed new interpretations? Uncovered new layers of meaning?
How much more would I have discovered in Shakespeare’s words? How much more would I have shared with my students?
Would I have continued to teach them respect and reverence? Would I have led them down the primrose path of dalliance and left them mired in levity?
How much more would I have given my students?
How much more would I have seen in myself?