Romeo and Juliet: Why Do We Have To Read This Play? (Part I of 3)

Most schools in the US and the UK study Romeo and Juliet at one time or another, so for this blog entry, I wanted to ask the question you might have asked at some point in your life:

“WHY DO WE HAVE TO READ THIS PLAY?”

I will answer this question in three posts, with three different responses, to try and make my answers as complete, and yet concise as possible:
Reason #1: Shakespeare Himself Is Part Of the Educational Establishment.

From the beginning of American education, Shakespeare has influenced education. What follows is a brief history that hopefully helps explain why, even though he was born in England, Shakespeare is as American as it gets.

Prologue: Life Imitates Art

The first settlements in Virginia occurred in Shakespeare’s lifetime. After all, Virginia was named after Shakespeare’s ruler, the virgin queen Elizabeth. In 1609, a voyage to repopulate the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia hit a terrible storm and was shipwrecked in an island in the Bermudas. The survivors wrote down their story in  a book called A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle Of Devils in 1610, which could have inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest. Shakespeare wasn’t ignorant of the New World; he references America in The Comedy Of Errors, so it’s not impossible that Shakespeare based his last great play on this “Brave New World.”

The Beginning Of Shakespeare In American Education

In England during the 18th and 19th centuries, Shakespeare was considered a way of educating people in the Greco-Roman tradition, since his plays were based on such Roman authors as Plautus, Seneca, Plutarch, and Ovid (Saccio). Romeo & Juliet is a perfect example of Shakespeare borrowing from the older western traditions- he took the plot and characters from an Italian Renaissance story recorded in Mateo Bandello’s Novelle (1554). The concept of forbidden love though, is much older. Like many Renaissance stories, Romeo and Juliet has roots that go all the way back to the Trojan war, which according to Greek mythology, started with a man from Troy who dared to love a woman from his city’s mortal enemy. Our founding fathers were schooled in this tradition and they helped transplant Shakespeare to the new world.

Shakespeare Comes to America:

Picture of the first ever edition of Shakespeare printed in America, the 1795 Hopkinson Edition by Bioren and Madan
Picture of the first ever edition of Shakespeare printed in America, the 1795 Hopkinson Edition by Bioren and Madan

Our country’s early settlers were Puritans and Quakers, who disapproved of theatre in general and tried to have it banned. Nevertheless, many of the founding fathers loved Shakespeare and enjoyed reading his plays ; John Adams and Thomas Jefferson took a pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s birthplace, and George Washington even staged some of his plays (Behn). Even though he was an English playwright, most early Americans were quick to adopt Shakespeare as their own .

Shakespeare In the Classroom

In the 1830s, Shakespeare first appeared in American textbooks as something called “The McGuffey Reader,” a book that contained short snippets of text ranging from old nursery rhymes, to passages from Nathanial Hawthorne. In this sample, you can see that there is one passage from Shakespeare called: “Shylock: the pound of flesh” listed in the table of contents.

At the same time, going to Shakespearean plays and owning copies of Shakespeare’s works became more and more popular in the post Civil War period. As Mark Twain mentions in The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn, productions of Shakespeare were common to early settlers, which is why Twain writes the So-called Duke and Dauphin characters, who pose as actors and perform a perfectly awful rendition of a soliloquy:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin That makes calamity of so long life; For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane, But that the fear of something after death Murders the innocent sleep, Great nature’s second course, And makes us rather sling arrows of outrageous fortune Than fly to others that we know not of . . . (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain).

As this passage indicates, even people in rural towns on the Mississippi knew the basics of Shakespeare. In fact, by the mid-19thcentury, you were more likely to see a Bible and a copy of Shakespeare’s works in an American home, than any other book (Source: Lawrence Levine, “Shakespeare In America”). For another funny example of Shakespeare in this period, check out this clip from the film My Darling Clementine, where an old English Shakespearean actor performs for cowboys, which was a common practice during the gold rush.

Shakespeare Goes to Harvard

In the 1870s and 80s, Shakespeare became part of the curriculum of many colleges and universities like Harvard, since studying Shakespeare taught undergraduates the critical thinking skills they would use if they chose to study law or psychology. After the universities let Shakespeare in, high schools integrated Shakespeare into the curriculum to prepare students for college. This is why we study Shakespeare in most high schools today; according to a recent study, about 84% of American high schools are required to read Romeo and Juliet (Source: Hoffman, Jeremy The Western Canon In Today’s High Schools).

To sum up, the first reason we read this play is because it helps us broaden our minds and connect to the wisdom of the past. Also, a huge amount of our culture is inexplicably tied to Shakespeare.

Sources:

  1. Behn, Richard J: “America’s Founding Dramas” (online article) Retrieved 8/1/15 from http://lehrmaninstitute.org/history/essays15.html. 
  2. Levine, Lawrence:”William Shakespeare in America”
    from Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Harvard University Press, 1998.
  3. Saccio, Peter. Lecture 1: “Shakespeare Then and Now.” Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. The Teaching Company, 2001. CD. Dartmouth College.
  4. Waterson, Sam (Narrator) et. all. “The Father of the Man in America: Shakespeare in Civic life and Education.” Shakespeare in American Life, (radio documentary). Produced by Richard Paul. Originally airing on Public Radio International (PRI) stations April 2007.Retrieved 21st of August, 2012 from http://www.shakespeareinamericanlife.org/education/episode.cfm
That’s all for now, stay tuned for later posts this week!
-Shakespeare Guru
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