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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: August ::
Re: *Romeo and Juliet*
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0770  Sunday, 16 August 1998.

[1]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Saturday, 15 Aug 1998 12:08:36 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   *Romeo and Juliet*

[2]     From:   Alan Pierpoint <
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        Date:   Saturday, 15 Aug 1998 15:18:20 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0758  Re: Lust in Rom.


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Saturday, 15 Aug 1998 12:08:36 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        *Romeo and Juliet*

Dave Evett's insightful and learned appreciation of *R&J* implicitly
poses the question of what kind of tragic model Shakespeare was working
from-or toward. If not Aristotle, then what? (Actually, a case can be
made that Shakespeare may not have read Aristotle when he wrote the
play.)

As I argued in my previous post, one model he may have had in mind was
the English mystery plays, some of which he may have seen as a kid. But
I would also propose that he was working toward a model that is
audience-based and whose aim is to produce in the audience the
experience of deep and intense emotion based on a better knowledge of
the ways in which a flawed, fallen world works.  If we are fortunate
enough to witness a good production of *R&J,* we feel at the end great
sadness when we realize how easily and how often "quick, bright things
come to confusion," and we lament the fact that these vital lovers must
be sacrificed because it is the only way that an obtuse patriarchy can
right itself. Another way of saying this is that in a better world, the
lovers would not have to be sacrificed but would live on in a comic
world of endless promise for both themselves and for us. Of course, the
reconciliation of the two feuding families at the end promises hope, but
this hope is bought at great cost to innocents, and that recognition is
in itself another measure of the imperfect world in which we live.

Getting back to the question of teaching this play in high school and
the vigorous objections that some parents have to it, I would propose
that the (post)modern world does not want to acknowledge that, apart
from technological progress, progress in human affairs-say, in
government, in families, and in love-is at best temporary and fraught
with costs of all kinds. Indeed, lasting progress in these areas may be
an illusion.  We want to think that if we follow Dr. Spock everything
will be OK, but as conservatives have astutely pointed out, Dr. Spock
may be the problem, not the solution. In short, we face intractable
problems that can be solved only momentarily if at all. In my state, the
Hatfields and the McCoys echo the Capulets and the Montagues, which in
turn reflect the animosities between Bill Clinton and Ken Starr.

In this limited but important sense, it may be that the much-maligned
"old historicists" have a point when they argue (those who are still
alive, that is) that Shakespeare reflects eternal truths, or, at the
very least, truths that will be with us for a long, long time.  This
should give us courage and make us feel that as teachers we have
some-thing to offer beyond "interpretive strategies." We can also
transmit a world view (Shakespeare's?) that commands both respect and,
often, assent.

Musophilus, Jr. (a.k.a. Ed Taft)

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Alan Pierpoint <
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Date:           Saturday, 15 Aug 1998 15:18:20 EDT
Subject: 9.0758  Re: Lust in Rom.
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0758  Re: Lust in Rom.

Responding to Ed Taft, who suggests with such good sense that R&J may
not be an Aristotelian tragedy, and likewise Hamlet:  Shakespeare may
make the occasional nod to contemporary readings of Aristotle ("So oft
it chances in particular men..."), and Hamlet may seem to give himself a
tragic flaw as he decries his failure to act; but if we look past theory
and let our interpretations be guided by the raw material of the plays,
we will be led away from such reductive interpretations as, for example,
bedeviled Olivier a half-century ago in his rendering of Hamlet.  The
Prologue in R&J puts the blame squarely on the "ancient grudge" between
the two warring households.  It says nothing about the consequences of
lust.  At the end, not a word about lust escapes the lips of Escalus as
he pronounces his judgment. Blame for the tragedy is ascribed to the
feuding families, and to himself for letting it go on.  Golden statues
will be raised to the memory of the dead lovers, at the expense of the
parents, now reconciled by shared grief.  What more could Shakespeare
have done to lead us away from blaming the victims, as the "tragic flaw"
approach might have us do?

As an English teacher AND a father of a teenage daughter, I admit to a
certain squeamishness about teaching this play, especially on the 9th
grade level, which is where we usually encounter it in textbooks (which
I don't use).  The lovers may be "kids," but the content of this play is
profoundly adult.  However, the issues the play raises have to be
confronted by teenagers (and families) in spite of the demands they make
on the comfort level of teachers and parents.  To take two examples:  On
the issue of glamorizing suicide, students can be asked to write about
how the two lovers could have avoided the tragic ending.  Was it fate,
or could they have checked the accuracy of their perceptions before
taking drastic action?  (Here we're concerned not about the integrity of
the play but about making sound decisions in real life, and the students
usually generate a wealth of constructive ideas.)  On the issue of sex
and early marriage, what, after all, do we expect our children to do
with the decade or so that separates the dawn of adolescent sexuality
from the age at which marriage makes economic sense?  We (society)
haven't institutionalized a helpful response to this dilemma, leaving
families and individual teenagers to work out their own solutions.   We
might as well talk about these issues, since failure to do so will leave
our young people as isolated as R&J were.  (We see from the Nurse and
Friar Lawrence that well-intentioned adult intervention doesn't always
work, but maybe we can learn from that, too.

Respectfully,
Alan Pierpoint
English Department
Southwestern Academy
San Marino, CA
 

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