While my freshmen students knew Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, the details on the relationship of the “star-crossed lovers” were a little fuzzy. Romeo and Juliet is often a student’s first introduction to Shakespeare for not so surprising reasons. The characters Romeo and Juliet are young-she is 13 years old. They are in love. Their families stand in the way of their love. They must meet in secret. They defy the authority of their parents. Many of these elements appealed to my 9th grade students. But there were surprises everyday when we performed scenes from the play in class.
The biggest surprise for me was the willingness of my students to take on the difficult meter and vocabulary of Shakespeare in order to play one of the parts in the play. Hands would go up, “I want to be Mercutio!” or “Can I be the Messenger?” and “Can’t a guy play the Nurse?”
Of course, they were almost always terrible. Shakespeare’s verse is difficult to read “cold”.
Billy stumbled but persisted in his reading Benvolio’s lines while we patiently waited:
The fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepared,
Which, as he breathed defiance to my ears,
He swung about his head and cut the winds,
Who nothing hurt withal hiss’d him in scorn.
Each of the students stumbled over the strange vocabulary: prolixity, holp, God gi’ god-den, tetchy, sirrah, obsequy. Matthew wondered aloud why Capulet is always saying, “What? ho!” Michael regularly referred to the language of the play as Old English; he would not be convinced otherwise.
When we turned the page to Act Two, scene 3, I saw Logan take big breath, visibly steeling himself to read Friar Lawrence’s lengthy speech. In Act Three Scene 5, completely unaware of pace and more interested in finishing the scene before the bell rang, Malia raced through the Nurse’s teasing of Juliet. Not one of them (thankfully) really understood the allusions in Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech in Act One scene 5. Yet, everyday they entered the classroom asking, “Are we acting out the play today?”
We played the balcony scene three times in the large hallway on the stairs to the auditorium’s upper level seating. Students paired up to read a reduced script, so several Juliets had the chance to meet their Romeos that class period. Back in the classroom, I played the soundtrack to the Zefferelli film (“A Time for Us”) during Act Three scene 5 as Alexa asked her Romeo:
Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
They memorized the Prologue; they wrote haikus to summarize each act to review the action of the play:
Romeo met Juliet,
Romeo loves her
They are married secretly,
The nurse keeps it quiet
Tybalt is now dead,
Romeo must run away,
Juliet is scared
Juliet fakes death
Capulets are deeply hurt
Marriage is off
Then, Nick as Romeo entered Juliet’s “tomb” and several lines later, he stepped over Chase who lay on the floor, slain as Paris. Nick began his soliloquy with great seriousness. Holding the dry erase marker, our stage prop for the vial, high in one hand, he read the verse aloud, “Here’s to my love! O true apothecary!/Thy drugs are quick.” He dramatically uncorked the marker, and then “drank”. He gasped, ” Thus, with a kiss,” he leaned down to the sleeping Juliet, and quietly said,” I die.” Staggering, he fell to the ground.
Several students following along in the text, started and then sat in a palpable stunned realization.“He dies?”
“But Juliet’s still alive!”started as a murmur.
The chorus of voices grew louder. “He’s dead!” “She doesn’t know!”
There was a collective pause, followed by an audible, “This sucks.”
I was surprised. I thought they knew.
The final speech of the play begins, “A glooming peace this morning with it brings”; that speech captured the mood of my students. Of course they understood at some literal level that the play was a tragedy; this fact was clearly stated on the back cover of their text: This is the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. However, until that moment of Romeo’s willful self-destruction, followed by Juliet’s suicide, my students did not appreciate the play’s heartbreaking conclusion.
I was surprised by the level of their reaction. Ours was not a polished performance, the staging was clumsy and the actors read the lines without understanding much of what was being said. However, they did feel for the characters, always willing to summarize what had just happened or wanting to give advice. Despite our failures to interpret the language, the result was that the play made them grow up a little.
No one should ever be surprised at the ability of this Shakespeare play-however rudimentary in performance- to engage an audience.