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  • Writer's pictureGrace Davidson-Lynch

Learning to Hate Shakespeare

I hate Romeo and Juliet.


My first exposure to Shakespeare was in my Year 9 English classroom. I can still recall that burning anger I felt at reading the dialogue, bursting with soppy angst and self-righteous emotional codependency. That play left me baffled. I was 15-years-old myself, almost exactly the same age as the lovesick protagonists. I too was becoming curious about love, and was becoming aware of the restraints the grown-ups in my life had put on me. I too lived in an ecosystem of my own feelings. Yet I failed to find myself in the words penned by that so-called Bard. I couldn't recognise my voice in Juliet's. I could barely comprehend the shattering weight of the love felt by Romeo.


I knew I didn't understand the words, and I knew the plot was dumb.



Now, one theatre degree later, I still can't shake that feeling. I'm largely disinterested in film adaptations as well as reimaginings. I still think the plot is dumb. Now I think the characters are even dumber. But there is one part of the play I did like, then and now.


In the first few minutes of the play, the Prince of Verona arrives to quell a riot beginning to smoulder in his streets. It's no balcony scene or speech by Mercutio, but it was my first glimmering look into Shakespeare's imagination-


PRINCE

Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace, Profaners of this neighbour-stained steel,-- Will they not hear? What, ho! you men, you beasts, That quench the fire of your pernicious rage With purple fountains issuing from your veins, On pain of torture, from those bloody hands Throw your mistemper'd weapons to the ground, And hear the sentence of your moved prince.

(Act 1, Scene 1)

Purple fountains.


I didn't get it. I looked to the translation given in my school-sanctioned copy of the script. It meant that the men of Verona were taking out their feelings by creating bloody fountains out of each other's throats (I am paraphrasing here).


And then, I saw it. I saw a stony marble fountain, ornate and goldenly glinting in the high sun of midday. I saw ivy curling around the hard stone, and water lilies resting gentle on the surface of the burbling water. I saw beauty, wealth and stability. But this fountain was flowing not with water, but purple blood. Shockingly dark, so dark the colours were wrong, pungent, flowing faster than water. Pushing out in fits and starts, jetting through the air and splashing into the basin below. Dark and defined, blood is a link to the past and the start of the future. It was symbolism that swirled and bubbled and decorated the lilies with bright spots.


Now I'm older I can add more to what I imagined. I can add the symbolism to the picture, understand fountains and blood and plant-life to mean more. In that classroom, my mind captured the image thrown at me by the Bard. But Romeo and Juliet is not a play about blood and wealth, my teacher told me- it's about love. True, beautiful, not-at-all-stupid love. So rather than follow my instincts, I stopped looking deeper. Shakespeare was a utility to be used and discarded. This line was a nothing quote from a nothing character. I couldn't use it in an essay, so it meant nothing.


I never wrote down my thoughts, not until now. I didn't refer to it ever again, but it has stayed in my head for almost 10 years. I believed my opinions were worthless compared to the educational machine that was chewing me up, so I resigned myself to bitter hatred like so many disillusioned students before me.


Shakespeare is a formidable presence in Australian school curriculum. Certain plays show up consistently in classrooms, and entire industries have been created to support student confusion. You can purchase scripts with modern language translations to guide your child, or buy tickets to school productions of certain plays to help them see how the language works onstage. You might even hire someone like me, one of many private educators who specialise in English and drama, to help your child dive even deeper into the world of the Bard. And despite this convincing cultural evidence that Shakespearean texts are important and good, millions of students struggle to even read these plays, let alone enjoy them.



The teaching of Shakespeare is a contentious debate. Because of his high position in the pantheon of canonical literature, the Bard is a lightning rod for many of the important discussions being had around the teaching of old straight white male artists in schools. Some teachers have become vocal about their dislike for Shakespeare, or at least for forcing his words upon 15-year-olds. Valerie Strauss, an educator writing for The Washington Post, argues that-


I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. I do not believe that not viewing “Romeo and Juliet” or any other modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play will make my students less able to go out into the world and understand language or human behavior. Mostly, I do not believe I should do something in the classroom just because it has “always been done that way.”

(2019)


Some teachers and their institutions, working on the frontline of education and seeing what effect Shakespeare has on their students, argue that Shakespeare's role may need to be reevaluated. This is particularly necessary when it comes to race and gender, where the re-enforcing of Shakespeare's worldview can be a powerfully alienating process. However, there is obviously a considerable amount of support for the continued teaching of Shakespeare. Take writer Christopher Bantick, who laid out his views on the subject in an article for The Age-


Why the Bard should be mandatory in the Australian curriculum is simply because Shakespeare is part of the foundation of the English language. You can’t be well versed in English literature without having significantly studied Shakespeare... The point about Shakespeare is he still speaks to audiences today. Why then is the teaching of Shakespeare not explicit in the Australian curriculum, whereas indigenous and Asian literature is?

(2014)


I'm sure he will be pleased to know that Shakespeare is in fact mandated in the curriculum for students from Year 9 onwards.


I studied three tragedies and one problem play while in high school, and I studied Hamlet in two different subjects at university. I never learnt that he was the voice of mankind, or that he was the foundation of English literature. The best parts of Shakespeare were the parts I found for myself. After surviving Romeo and Juliet, I was forced to read Macbeth. Macbeth, being a superior work in almost every regard, sated my curiosity once more. I read more widely, and found that my favourite of his plays is Coriolanus. I read that play of my own accord when I was 16-years-old. It's a play no teacher would ever touch in a classroom, and maybe that's part of why I love it so much. It was exciting to learn about a wonderful if flawed play without anyone telling me how to think or feel.


Should Shakespeare be taught or not? I find I am divided. Those plays helped me to open up my mind. Shakespeare taught me to trust my gut and love language. But he never taught me about true love. All I ever got from Romeo's words was mad, unhealthy, darkly magical love. Perhaps it was not the Bard I was mad at. Perhaps the plays are just 400 year old manuscripts with flaws and quirks, that can be respected and also interrogated.


I wasn't born hating Shakespeare. That was something I was taught.



What was your high school experience of Shakespeare? What are your thoughts on teaching Shakespeare? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!



References


Bantick, C 2014, 'Why Shakespeare still has a role in the curriculum', The Age, 24 Apr, <https://www.theage.com.au/education/why-shakespeare-still-has-a-role-in-the-curriculum-20140424-zqyxt.html>.

Sparknotes 2021, No Fear Translation, Romeo and Juliet, <https://www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/romeojuliet/page_14/>.

Strauss, V 2015, 'Teacher: why it is ridiculous not to teach Shakespeare in school', The Washington Post, 14 Jun, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/06/13/teacher-why-it-is-ridiculous-not-to-teach-shakespeare-in-school/>.

Strauss, V 2015, 'Teacher: Why I don’t want to assign Shakespeare anymore (even though he’s in the Common Core)', The Washington Post, 13 June, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/06/13/teacher-why-i-dont-want-to-assign-shakespeare-anymore-even-though-hes-in-the-common-core/>.

Torres, C 2019, 'Why I’m rethinking teaching Shakespeare in my English classroom', Education Week, 1 Oct, <https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-why-im-rethinking-teaching-shakespeare-in-my-english-classroom/2019/10>.


Images

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee © Southampton City Art Gallery

The Balcony Scene in Peter Brooks 1947 production, by Angus McBean © RSC

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