Get Rid of Romeo and Whatsinhername

By the time students graduate from high school all they can tell you about Shakespeare is that they had to read Romeo and Juliet and either the "Scottish Tragedy" or Othello, generally accompanied with a rolling of eyes. Why are we so quick to load already arguably-depressed teens down with tragic Shakespeare? The recommended texts per CCSS are Macbeth and Hamlet, if you’re wondering.
If we are truly concerned with suicide ideation, bullying, and domestic abuse, then shouldn’t we move away from these darker sides of humanity in our literature choices?

The beauty of Shakespeare, we English-teacher types argue, lies in his understanding of human nature and motivation, use of poetry and dramatic structure. mmkay. Then, I humbly suggest that we use some of his comedies to share these same elements with students.

Joe Dixon (Bottom) and Andrea Harris (Titania) in A Midsummer Night's Dream by the RSC. 
Photograph: Tristram Kenton. January 16, 2009

Consider A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which pulls on teen heartstrings just as much, if not more, than R and J. Imagine their reactions to Helena and her machinations, Hermia’s rebellion against an arranged marriage, the outrageously funny Pyramus and Thisby, and the perfect tying up of every plot point—all worlds, the natural, the supernatural, and the created are one.

It’s beautiful, fun, and provides students with an answer to why Shakespeare is timeless.  It answers, “Why do we have to read this?” with a chuckle and perhaps a stronger lean towards understanding his creative choices as a playwright. 

That’s what we want them to understand about him… isn’t it?

Further, what does our audience of students need to read, today? What might effectively transport them to another time, place, and situation, where they might just want to stay for a while?

Some years ago, when Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne plowed through Florida, we decided to cancel our theatre department’s production of Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. After six weeks of no school, we could have pulled it together with a bit less flair, but we took a moment to think about our audience.

Our intended audience was trying to get back on its feet after losing homes, loved ones, and jobs. We all had firsthand knowledge of MREs and generators, and what it was like to go without water and electricity for weeks. People fought each other over bags of ice. Bare signposts and fallen trees, blue FEMA tarps on roofs, and devastated businesses—these were the sights that greeted us on the way into school in the aftermath. That and our gym roof that had been peeled away from the building like a sheet of aluminum foil.

While Miracle Worker is a profound and wonderful play, it just wasn’t what our audience needed.  So, instead, we wrote a play: a comedy that pulled in laughter to help overcome the dark moments. A comedy that spoke to their spirits at that moment.

Comedy, and an analysis of this art form, may be what our audience of students needs. Enough what with the death and the dying and the killing and the feuding families. They’ve got that covered, I think.

Do we dare go against the tide and take a creative risk with students, or do we rest on our tried-and-true already-printed out lesson plans, literary guides, and tests for Romeo and Juliet?


  1. Hello --

    You make interesting, sound, and valid points in your argument; however, I just love R and J for many of the reasons that you've cited. It's just so ... relatable to young people and to their (sometimes brief, sometimes limited) life experiences! When I taught R and J as a high school teacher, the students and I would have all kinds of fun with it, including staging talk shows wherein the topics would be akin to "Should Teens Marry?" and "Teen Love: Against Parents' Wishes." I could see the students' real grasp of issues presented in the text during their prep and performance of such productions. Talk about universal themes!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Mel! Your talk shows sound like a lot of fun! How did those work? I was just pondering, actually. I taught both comedies and tragedies because I couldn't resist. :p

  2. I agree that there is a time and place for Shakespeare. Whether or not we teach the tragedies in-depth comes down to knowing our students or providing critical-input experiences that off set the intensity of the subject matter. Dramatic representations, scene re-writes, or (as another commenter suggested) a talk show atmosphere are all fun ways to get to the big issues without further depressing impressionable minds. The key is that they ARE impressionable and we need to do our best to make sure the best stuff gets pressed in! Great blog!

  3. Even Shakespeare realized the necessity of inserting comedic relief into some of his tragedies. In fact, the first half of Romeo & Juliet has many examples of comedic word play and puns, delivered by characters such as the Nurse, Mercutio and some of the servants. This helps to balance out the more serious and dramatic tension leading up to the very tragic end. I taught Romeo & Juliet to my ninth graders for many years and although it was an intense play, they seemed to enjoy it. One year I tried to teach one of Shakespeare's comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, but it fell rather flat and didn't seem to have the same sense of relevance as R & J has had. I believe it has to do with the many universal themes of R & J that make it so relatable to teens as well as to adults, who can still remember their own adolescent sturm und drang.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Michele! I agree that we certainly recall our "sturm und drang", but given that we teach so many other things that rest on the same issues, I was wondering why not at least introduce Shakespeare with a comedy. I really only like three of the comedies--Ado was never one that I cared for--Midsummer, Shrew, and Comedy of Errors. That's why I asked what do we want students to "get" from Shakespeare. The plot lines and themes? If so, we can give them similar plot lines/themes in other works. It just seems like what makes him (relatively) unique is his dramatic structure (plots/subplots) and use of poetry. We tend to emphasize themes, but unrequited love, revenge, family feuds are everywhere. What's not everywhere is his particular structure. I was also questioning that our curriclum is completely weighted with dramatic works or nonfiction--comedy/humor is virtually left out. Perhaps students have some Twain in 11th grade, not sure. I guess I went overboard! lol

  5. In defense of teaching R&J to high schoolers, I introduce it as a tragedy but with significant comic elements. In fact, the comical side of the play is essential in approaching the main characters as teenagers. Most of my students are quick to criticize both Romeo and Juliet as, more or less, convincing themselves that they are in love, as opposed to really being in love. But that leads to the discussion (after What is real love?): What difference does it make? R&J are experiencing an emotion they believe is real and eternal. Perhaps, given time, their love would diminish, but, in the moment, it is undoubtedly intense and cherished by the lovers. What choice do they have but to experience it fully?

    Significantly, the other characters in the play react to R&J's "love" by trivializing it, rendering it inconsequential. Mercutio, of course, "jests at scars that never felt a wound"; Benvolio treats love as rather arbitrary and based solely on physical attraction; the Nurse attributes it to teenage hormones, always cracking bawdy jokes; Father Laurence views it as foolish lust but possibly the means to an end of a serious feud. None of these reactions takes the love for what it is: a sincere human experience. Nevertheless, R&J go on secretly experiencing this love as sublime (we might even say that they sublimate it themselves in spite of the cynicism surrounding them).

    What Shakespeare creates so masterfully is this state of adolescent love in which resides a kind of tragicomedy -- one in which the discrepancy between how the lovers earnestly experience their feelings and how other, more jaded characters misunderstand their feelings ultimately ends in tragedy. In my experience teaching R&J to adolescents, this tendency to dismiss or misunderstand the intensity of adolescent feelings resonates with students. They even often find themselves dismissing their own feelings just as they do R&J's love. They find that there is much to laugh about in themselves and in their peers -- but, in light of R&J's experience, they realize there is also so much to be taken seriously and to be learned from their experiences as human beings. That's where I find immense value in teaching R&J. I feel that ignoring "the darker sides of humanity" is just a form of ignoring (and teaching them to ignore) those intense human feelings that adolescents have.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Chris! I wouldn't want R/J taken out completely, just perhaps not the very first intro to Shax for freshmen. : ) Wouldn't you agree, though, that for the most part, the "darker side" is what we teach, already?