As far as I know, nearly every high school in the country reads Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, usually around the ninth grade. If you are reading this post, odds are that you at least pretended to read it at some point in your life.
I am often baffled as to how this play, of all the great Shakespeare plays, is the most commonly taught. Yet here I am, attempting to teach it to my ninth graders. While they may only have gleaned three new sexual euphemisms from it, I think I have actually learned several important things. So here is my new case of why, perhaps, Romeo & Juliet is still of value in the present day.
It explores the following important issues:
At its heart, the play is about the danger of divisions between people. Every three scenes or so, a bunch of dudes get into a fight in the streets because they are members of feuding households. (I will now give you three seconds to come up with two groups of people you may know who can barely be in the same room as each other without fighting.) In the play, this hatred escalates to the point in which two children take their own lives. I am not easily convinced that the two of them are truly in love, but I do believe that they are truly desperate and unable to seek help from their parents because of thoroughly-festered hatred.
Romeo has some serious obsession-with-women issues. Women have been glorified in his mind to such a degree that he is driven almost senseless with lust by two different women in the same day. His friends try to talk to him, and he instead spends several pages ranting about his current obsession. The night that he first meets Juliet, he sneaks around in her backyard to get a glimpse of her again. Somebody seriously needs to talk to the boy about healthy boundaries with women. Well, Friar Lawrence, bless his soul, tries to talk to Romeo about it, but he won’t listen. Romeo forces us to consider why someone would act in such an alarming manner towards a woman he just met.
Juliet is a young woman cracking under the unfair expectations placed on her. She is only thirteen, and she is lined up to be packaged off nicely in an arranged marriage. She constantly tries to play the dutiful daughter and later dutiful wife, but when Romeo arrives as an escape from these expectations, she nearly leaps out of her window to take the opportunity. Yet even in her rebellion, she has to jump through the hoop of a hasty marriage in order to justify her sexuality with Romeo. She seriously couldn’t handle the burden of female purity and perfection. While those standards may have changed, they are still stifling to many.
Toxic masculinity abounds, almost unchecked, throughout the play. There are all sorts of degrading jokes about women, clearly made between friends to earn manliness points. And two men are killed in a sword fight largely fought to assert their own dominance. If that doesn’t scream “check your obsession with masculinity before you are skewered by a sword,” I don’t know what does.
The greatest love story in this play is not Romeo and Juliet’s three-day relationship. It is their friends who will go to any lengths to help them. Romeo’s friends who will sneak into a party with him, risking their lives, in order to try to help him get over his crush. Juliet’s nurse, who raised her as her own, goes against her employer’s wishes in order to help her child she loves more than anything. Mercutio who dies in a sword fight to defend Romeo’s honor (*cough cough* manliness). Their friends don’t always make the wisest decisions, but they almost always do it out of love. Yet the saddest part is that in their obsession with each other, Romeo and Juliet are constantly oblivious to the people around them who love them so incredibly much.
Who knows if my students are getting the same thing out of this play. But at least I am finally beginning to see why there is value in Romeo & Juliet. Why they have remade it into a thousand movies, including one about gnomes and one about sea lions. It is a warning against the power of human hatred. It is an exploration about the expectations and emotions that overwhelm humanity. And it is a love story of people who tirelessly love and support their friends, even when they are being hopelessly impulsive teenagers.
Nice job, William, I guess you did it again.
Susannah Boersma graduated from Calvin University in May of 2020. She studied secondary English education. She lives in Grand Rapids and works at Carson City-Crystal High School as an English teacher.