Shakespeare Review: My Shakespeare

On this page, I review a Shakespeare book, movie, or TV show that I feel has some kind of value, either as an interpretation of Shakespeare, or a means to learn more about the man and his writing. This post will introduce you to an incredible documentary, and in my view one of the best ways to encourage, excite, and challenge young people reading Romeo and Juliet Aptly titled, it is called, My Shakespeare.

  1. Name:My Shakespeare
  2. Year: 2004
  3. Director: Michael Waldman
  4. Ages:PG for frank discussions of violence, and occasional suggestive language.
  5. Media:Full length documentary, (available on Amazon and Netflix DVD)
  6. Recommendation: I’d recommend this to high school and college students, as well as all theater teachers and practitioners. A word of caution though- nearly everyone in the documentary speaks with various British accents (from posh London to poor Harlesden), and thus if you think your class might not be able to understand foreign accents, you might want a different version, or put on the subtitles.
  7. Premise: Director Patterson Joseph is a man on a mission- to prove that the people in his home town, (the poor, violence-ridden town of Harlesden England), that these same people can and will put on a production of Romeo and Juliet, in just four weeks. The cast has never acted before, and Patterson sometimes has to drag them kicking and screaming into rehearsals, but eventually they all learn that putting on a Shakespeare play can become an extremely personal experience. In the beginning, they are attempting Shakespeare, but by the end they live it. In between the action, there are interviews with Baz Luhrman, the celebrated director of the Leonardo Dicaprio film version of Romeo and Juliet back in 1996. Baz serves as a sort of chorus, explaining some of the challenges a director like Patterson will inevitably face as he and his actors bring the play to life.
  8. Repeated Ideas That Run Through the Documentary:
    1. You can do this- you can act, you can understand Shakespeare, you can finish something, you can show emotions, and you can direct.
    2. Shakespeare is able to tell stories that appeal to everyone, and here’s the proof.
    3. The best way to understand Shakespeare is to get on your feet and do it.
  9. Moments to watch for: Before I list my favorite moments in the documentary, I’d like to list the theatrical process by which Patterson and his company put on Romeo and Juliet. 
    • The Process Of Creating Romeo and Juliet:
      1. Auditions/ Improv Games (4 weeks to go)
      2. Table Work, where the actors read the script and talk about their characters.
      3. Paraphrasing the script and improv (9 days to go)
      4. Stage combat Rehearsals- prepping the fights.
      5. Opening Scene rehearsal on a basketball court.
      6. Vocal Rehearsal
      7. The Emotion Workshop (8 days to go) The actors try to tap into their own emotions to try and bring some real feelings into their parts.
      8. Death Scene Rehearsal in a Graveyard!
      9. Last minute changes (5 days to go)
      10. Globe theater rehearsal
      11. Nighttime Balcony Scene Rehearsal at the aptly named, “Shakespeare Road.”
      12. Tech Rehearsal at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts.
      13. Speed Through Rehearsal/ The final rehearsal (1 day to go)
      14. Performance at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art
    • Now a look at some of my favorite parts of the documentary.
    1. The audition/ casting scene- In this scene you watch the future cast members explore the story of the play through improvisation, then you see their background through a series of headshots and dossiers. The whole cast is more diverse than any West End production: black, white, Christian, Muslim, young people and old people. Patterson’s casting choices alone makes this production fresh and relevant to our shrinking little world. A few cast members are refugees that came to England because of their countries’ own family feuds in Somalia and Afghanistan. Even more striking, Romeo and Juliet are very young- 18 and 22 respectively, which gives their love scenes an amazing truth and honesty. At first they think they have nothing in common with their characters, but in reality they have even more in common than most of us who read Romeo and Juliet.
    2. The table work scene where the cast learns about their characters You see Mustafa as Mercutio learn that Shakespeare can be funny, you see Jonathan as Romeo learn that some of Shakspeare’s words are still used today, and you see Muska just start to flirt with the idea of playing Juliet.
    3. Jonathan’s Story- Unlike most actors who have played Romeo, Jonathan Thomas has been in a real fight, and he describes it in brutal detail, even showing the scars he got from his stab wounds. Hearing his story gives his performance a truth and poignancy that I’ve never seen in any other version.
    4. The Balcony Scene Rehearsals- In this documentary the two leads perform the scene many times, in rehearsal where they talk about how hard it is to play love realistically, in Shakespeare’s Globe, where they see how it was done in Shakespeare’s day, in a modern balcony back in Harlesden, (on the appropriately named “Shakespeare Road,” and at last in the final performance. Few documentaries show just how hard it is to do a Shakespearean scene, particularly if it’s famous, and how many different ways a director and a pair of talented actors can play it and find new things each and every time.
    5. The scene where Patterson lets one of the actors go. Everyone in this production has to overcome obstacles, even the director; when one of his actors fails to perform, he simply has to drop the axe and recast one of his lead roles. Theater is hard work, and just like any job, the director has to take control and do what is necessary to make sure that the production is a success.
    6. Rehearsal at the Globe Theater On one very special day, the actors step onto the stage of the reconstructed Globe, and take a few tentative steps into the 1500s. Once in the space, they take to it like fish to water, playing with the audience, playing with projection, and their lines are infused with a special kind of energy that only arises from the boards of an Elizabethan stage. I found it interesting that when Jonathan was talking to Mark Rylance, the artistic director of the Globe, he asks what kind of man Shakespeare was, because he’s starting to see Shakespeare as a peer!
  1. My reaction: This documentary gives me hope every time I see it. Over and over again Patterson instills in his cast the idea of “Yes, you can,” yes, these people can understand Shakespeare, yes they can learn their lines, yes they can act, yes they can do something intelligent, and moving, and honest, and beautiful and what better play to bring that message across than Romeo and Juliet, which is full of youthful energy and excitement. My only complaint is the interviews with Baz Luhrman don’t really add much to the documentary side of things; Luhrman was really only there for name recognition, and he certainly knows less about Shakespeare than the RSC veteran Patterson. Nevertheless, the whole documentary Is nothing short of inspiring from beginning to end.
  2. Notable cast members
  1. Muska Khpal as Juliet. An 18 year- old Afghan refugee who came to England in 1996, without even speaking English, now playing one of the greatest characters in English literature! Like Juliet herself, Muska has very strict parents (who didn’t approve of her playing the part), and is at first is extremely shy towards Romeo, toward the play, and even the director, but when you hear her talk about her dream to return to Afghanistan and become a doctor, you can sense Juliet’s strength and independence.
  2. Jonathan Taylor 22 year-old Jonathan is a very charismatic and intelligent young man. After this production he became a professional actor. He speaks articulately about the experience of acting for the first time, reading Shakespeare for the first time, and even his own experiences with love and violence on the streets of Harlesden. He is also very talented and speaks the lines with an effortless panache. I found myself rooting for him the whole time, and the fact that I got to see this production spark his interest in acting and then to see him change and grow was truly inspiring.
  3. Mustafa as Mercutio Tiny, sparkle eyed Somali refugee. He is truly Mercurial- he frequently jokes and kids with the cast, yet at the same time, he is deathly serious when he talks about his life in Somalia- seeing people die in front of him. When he dies onstage, you know his performance is drawn from some real world experience.
  1. Grade: 5 Shakespeare globes.

Another Review: Films Media Group – “My Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet for a New Generation:” http://www.films.com/ecTitleDetail.aspx?TitleID=20674&r=

Interview with the director, Joseph Patterson: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/jul/01/shakespeare-and-me-paterson-joseph-julius-caesar

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Where Did This Play Come From?

Poster for a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” that I worked on in 2012.

When I say that the story of Romeo and Juliet is timeless, I mean that the story’s roots go back almost to the beginnings of time. According to Sigmund Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the desire for love is inexplicably tied to the desires for creation, and destruction. These contradictory forces live deep in the human psyche, which explains why stories of doomed love have been re-interpreted throughout history. What follows is a short history of the stories that inspired Shakespeare, so you can see how this archetypal story has evolved into the one we still read today.

Ancient Sources

When Shakespeare was going to school in the late 1560s, Elizabethan boys were expected to read ancient Greek and Roman writers, who wrote many of the classical love stories listed below. We know that Shakespeare remembered of all these stories because he gives a brief homage to them in Ac II, Scene iv of Romeo and Juliet:

MERCUTIO

Now is he [Romeo] for the numbers
that Petrarch flowed in: Laura to his lady was but a
kitchen-wench; marry, she had a better love to
be-rhyme her; Dido a dowdy; Cleopatra a gipsy;
Helen and Hero hildings and harlots; Thisbe a grey
eye or so, but not to the purpose.

Mercutio’s opinion of these old love stories is that they are based on a false concept of true love, when in fact, love for Mercutio is merely lust and obsession.

Hero and Leander

Leander swimming across the Hellespont. Detail from a painting by Bernard Picart.

          • Author– Unknown (traditional Greek Myth)
          • Date Of Composition 1400- 300 BC (approx)
          • Plot– Hero, a prophetess of Aphrodite loves Leander, a young man from the other side of her temple across a river called the Hellespond. As a priestess, Hero is supposed to remain a virgin, but Leander convinces her to make love to him, and visits her several times by swimming across the Hellespond. Their affair comes to a tragic end when on one stormy night, Leander is overcome by the waves and drowns on his journey to be with his beloved Hero. Consumed with grief, Hero throws herself off the temple tower to be with him.
          • Moral– love (or at least lust), destroys and kills.

The Iliad

        • Author– Homer
        • Date Of Composition 800 BC (approx)
        • Plot– Paris, the prince of Troy abducts and ravishes Helen, the queen of Sparta in Greece, leading to a 10 year war between the Greeks and the Trojans. This war divides everyone in both countries, even the gods, leading to the question of whether love is more important to loyalty to one’s country or family.
        • Moral– Ambiguous- The Greeks fight the Trojans bravely, but only to destroy Troy. Whereas the Trojans are often more sympathetic than the Greeks, but their decision to protect Paris and Helen’s adulterous affair is very unwise. The characters in this story strive to answer the question of what is the most important thing in life- desire for power, fame, to protect one’s home, or love?

Tristan and Isolde

        • Authors– Various, including the French bards Thomas and Beroul
        • Date of Composition– somewhere around the 12th century AD.
        • Plot– Similar to the Trojan War story, but in a medieval context: a young English knight named Tristan meets the heroine, a princess from Ireland, who is engaged to his country’s king. Their passion is instant and fiery, (sometimes it is the result of a love potion they accidentally drank), but it also forces them to make a terrible choice- If Tristan carries off Isolde, he will be disobeying his king, destroying a peaceful alliance, and forcing England and Ireland to go to war. However, it is clear from the beginning that Isolde does not love the one-eyed English king, and  if she marries him, Isolde will be miserable her whole life. Tristan fights gallantly to protect both Isolde and her honor and it puts Tristan, the king, and Isolde into a torturous love triangle, which usually ends with Tristan and the king fighting to the death.
        • Morals
          1. Arranged marriages ruin everything,
          2. love is like a drug,
          3. “Bros before, [you know-what].”
        • Note– This story was also the root of the story of Lancelot in the Arthur myths. In the version created by Thomas Mallory in the 15th century, Lancelot falls in love with Queen Guineveere, and betrays King Arthur, whom he loves like a father. Lancelot’s adultery eventually destroys the fellowship of the Round Table, and allows Arthur’s wicked bastard son Mordred to kill Arthur and ruin Camelot.

Renaissance Sources

Here is a brief timeline of the narrative sources dating from 1530-1580 that Shakespeare used to create his own masterpiece. As you can see, they differ considerably from the ancient sources in plot, and overall morals.

Timeline Of the Narrative Sources of Romeo and Juliet:

Romeo and Giulietta

Da Porto's Novel "Newly found story of two noble lovers"-1530

        • Author– Luigi Da Porto in his novel Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti (“Newly found story of two noble lovers”
        • Date of Composition- 1530
        • Background– Da Porto was a soldier and a brilliant story writer. Some claim that he based his tale on an earlier story, while some claim he based it on his falling in love with a girl at a masked ball. In any case, Da Porto was the first to set the story in Verona, created the characters of Mercutio and Benvolio, and also the first author to change the context of the story into two warring households, rather than great empires or kingdoms. This small change helps the audience sympathize with the lovers more, since they are not guilty of treason or adultery.
        • Plot– Two noble houses, the Montecchi and the Cappelletti are at war. The hero  Romeo meets Giulietta at a Carnival ball, which makes him forget about an unrequited love he has for an unnamed girl (the name Rosalind is Shakespeare’s invention).  The two lovers have several liasons over a much longer period than in Shakespeare’s play at Guilietta’s chamber window. Also, although they are married in secret and Romeo is banished just as in Shakespeare’s version, the character he kills is not related to Guilietta. However, the plot device of the sleeping potion and  Romeo’s suicide is also consistent with Shakespeare’s version of the story.

Romeus and Juliet

Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet

        • Author– Matteo Bandello’s in his story Novelle,
          (translated into English) by Arthur Brooke in 1587.
        • Date of Composition– 1554, (translated in 1562, re-printed 1587)
        • Background– Bandello adapted Da Porto’s version of the story and developed the supporting characters, adding The Nurse, the Friar and the Apothecary, and developing Benvolio (without giving him a name).
        • Plot– This plot is almost exactly the same as Shakespeare’s play,but it does reveal some narrative details that Shakespeare omits. Bandello’s poem reveals the origin of the Capulet/ Monegue feud, as well as the ultimate fates of the surviving characters.
        • Moral– Like many other interpretations, the author (or at least the translator) seem to be struggling with the Christian taboo of premarital sex, which to some extent condemns the protagonists. In the English translation by Arthur Brooke, the Preface makes it very clear that Brooke is not condoning Romeus’ premarital sex or his blatant disregard for his parents’ authority. Brooke claims that the story is intended to show the actions of bad people being punished for their actions:

The good man’s example biddeth men to be good, and the evil man’s mischief warneth men not to be evil. To this good end serve all ill ends of ill beginnings. And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’ attaining of their wished lust – (Brooke, Romeus and Juliet )

    • On the other hand, at the end of the poem, Bandello describes Romeus and Juliet’s love (or at least Brooke’s translation), as: “so perfect, sound, and so approvéd love,” which suggests that the author at least approve of the lover’s actions. One can almost imagine Italian passion fighting with English morality in the dueling pens of Brooke and Bandello. It was up to Shakespeare to try and resolve this conflict in his own version.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet 1st Quarto.

      • Author– William Shakespeare
      • Date of Composition 1593 (approximately)
      • Plot– One of the most interesting things about Shakespeare’s play is that he develops the characters of Mercutio, the Nurse, and Friar Lawrence, but deliberately omits certain plot elements such as why the feud began between the Capulets and Montegues, and what happened to The Apothecary, Nurse, and Friar Lawrence after the Prince found out about the lovers’ suicides. This effectively makes the Capulet/Montegue feud seem pointless, which allows the audience to focus more on the lovers. On the other hand, Shakespeare also compresses the time Romeo and Juliet know each other from 9 months as in Brooke’s version to 5 days, making the love affair seem even more rash. These changes in plot make the story much less a morality tale about morally wrong love, and more about the war between creative and destructive love that play in the human psyche.
        • Moral– As we’ve seen, most interpretations of the story condemn the lovers as rash, foolish, and adulterous. Shakespeare refuses to condemn or condone. That is Shakespeare’s great gift for storytelling- he doesn’t give us clear answers because he knows life is more complicated than that. He merely provides two sides of an issue and lets the reader sort it out for themselves.

How did Shakespeare get away with ripping off material this old? You’d think that, since every English schoolboy knew this story for over 1000 years, nobody would see this play since there would be no surprises. The answer is that Shakespeare writes primarily for characters, not plot. He infuses old characters like Romeo and Juliet with a new language that makes them more complete, more modern, and more timeless. That’s why stories like R&J, which was already known to Shakespeare’s audiences, are still entertaining and compelling, even after you read it 100 times, and see hundreds of different productions.

I hope this short history of the sources of Romeo and Juliet allows you to ponder the complex theories behind love and lust that authors have struggled to explain in the history of this story. Each age debates the values of love and whether it’s worth fighting or dying or killing for. Perhaps the best thing about Shakespeare’s version is that it tries to provide the most complete summary of the question, without giving us an answer, allowing us to marvel at how complex it is.

Thanks For Reading!

Shakespearean Student

Fun Posts about Friar Lawrence from our Friends at “Zounds, Alack, and By My Troth.”

I love it every time I come across some Shakespearean humor. One of the ideas I keep coming back to in “Romeo and Juliet,” is how close the play comes to being a comedy- it has two lovers, a funny nurse, a wisecracking friend, if people didn’t die it could be a sitcom. Even more ridiculous is the clichéd comic device of having people fake their own deaths, which Shakespeare does again in his comedy Much Ado About Nothing. So here is a humorous take on the old friar, and his go-to advice:

Web comic strip from “Zounds, Alack and By My Troth,” Used with permission.

https://zoundsalackandbymytroth.wordpress.com/comic/friar/

Romeo and Juliet: “Why Do We Have To Read This Play” Part III

Here is the last post on my series of 3 which examines the importance question of why should we read or see this play? In the last post I argued that, although the play is sometimes billed as a moral story, the characters engage in really reprehensible behavior- premarital sex, muder, and whining about their teenage problems. So the question is, if the play isn’t a moral parable, what can we gain from reading it?

Reason # 3- The Play Shows Truths About

the Human Condition.

  • Richard Dadd, Sketch for the Passions. Love (1853)

    Even though the play’s characters frequently do rash and sometimes foolish things, this only serves to make them more complex and realistic. The truth is, we all do foolish things when in love, and they all dramatically effect our lives, (sometimes for better or for worse).

The point is that the qualities we demonstrate when we’re in love, reveal who we truly are. Romeo is foolish, obsessed with his lover, sometimes selfish, and hot-blooded. He is also tender, caring, utterly without deceit or pretense, and committed to his beloved at any cost.

  • I believe this is why we really need to keep reading and watching this play. As Judy Dench said in the film “Shakespeare In Love,” the play shows the very truth and nature of love, not just the budding romances or passionate affairs, but dark obsessions, painful separations, family bonds, and even, “glooming peace,” as the Prince says at the end of the play. Shakespeare shows them all, not judging one to be better or worse, but demonstrating the feelings and the actions that arise in reaction to the powerful force of love.

Frank Dicksee, Romeo and Juliet (1884)

So when you read this play, try to look beyond the peculiar language, the old-fashioned type and the flowery poetry. Inside you might see a reflection of yourself, what Shakespeare called, “the mirror up to nature.”

Thanks for Reading,

-Shakespearean Student

Romeo and Juliet: “Why Do We Read This Play?” (Part II of 3)

Romeo and Juliet: “Why Do We Read This Play?” (Part II of 3)

Posted on August 23, 2012 by Open Air Shakespeare NRV

Hello loyal subscribers and first time readers!

On Tuesday I posted an article about why schools are required to read “Romeo and Juliet.” I’d like to continue with another answer that is not quite as good, but has shaped the course of the play’s history.

Romeo and Juliet: Why Do We Have To Read This Play?

Answer # 2: We still read it because at one time, Romeo and Juliet was considered to be good for ‘moral instruction.’

In the 1770s, Shakespeare’s plays were read aloud, not as dramatic literature, but moral lectures to teach people about jealousy or love or ambition (Source: This American Life). Shakespeare was considered by many to be “The best judge of human nature,” as the dedication page says on the 1753 edition of Romeo and Juliet. This 18th century concept continued into the 19th, as evidenced in this painting, The Reconciliation Of the Capulets and Montegues, 1854.

“The Reconciliation of the Capulets and Montegues ” by Frederick Leighton, 1856.

Notice how in this picture, we see Romeo and Juliet as the lightest objects in the play, while their parents are directly center, holding hands. The “glooming peace” starts with the window, reflects off the dead lovers, and inspires the parents.

To readers and playgoers in the genteel age of the 18th and 19th centuries, Romeo and Juliet seem to champion love and peaceful co-existence, making the play seems to be a good play to teach young people. There is evidence in the play that supports this idea that Shakespeare was judging the youthful Romeo and Juliet to be morally superior to their parents. Shakespeare describes their parent’s hate as a canker or a parasite, sucking the life out of a flower, the feud has infected so much of Romeo and Juliet’s world, that it makes it impossible for their love to take root. In response, the young fight with their peaceful love to save the destructive world that their parents have created, and die as a sacrifice to true love. Looking at it this way, Romeo and Juliet take on a Christ-like status, dying to redeem their parent’s sins, which certainly would have appealed to the predominantly Christian audiences of the 18th and 19th centuries.

This approach does have its problems though:

  • Problem #2: The Language is FILTHY! When people like David Garrick adapted Romeo and Juliet, he cut all of Sampson and Gregory’s dirty jokes, and most of Mercutio’s. Even audiences today might be shocked to learn that one passage in Romeo and Juliet is still considered by modern standards to be PG-13:Problem #1: Although he dies nobly, Romeo also engages in many immoral behaviors, including his attempts to seduce Rosalind at the start of the play, his hot-blooded murder of Tybalt, and his purchase of illegal drugs from the Apothecary.
  • Mercutio:
    • Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
      And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
      As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
      Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
      An open a**, thou a poperin pear!

Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii

I won’t go into what Mercutio is actually talking about when he mentions the pear-like medlars, which women used to joke about when they were alone. Suffice it to say that if you ever believed that Shakespeare ennobles us because he only speaks in proper, age-appropriate language, I can only say that you are:

  • Problem #3: Nobody ever thinks in this play!
Claire Danes from “Romeo and Juliet” (1996) holds a gun to her head, and threatens suicide rather than marrying Paris.
Claire Danes from “Romeo and Juliet” (1996) holds a gun to her head, and threatens suicide rather than marrying Paris.
    •  Even though their parent’s feud is morally wrong, neither Romeo nor Juliet try to deal with it in a lasting, practical way, but instead try to run away from the problem. As Peter Saccio says in his lecture on Shakespearean tragedy, this approach is highly flawed: “Romeo and Juliet cannot live outside the social strata that their parents have created,” which means that they can’t run away forever or their lives will literally waste away. However lovely Romeo and Juliet’s  love is, it blinds their judgement too.
    • Even Friar Lawrence acts rashly as this wonderful video demonstrates:
  • Problem #4: The parents, (especially Lord Capulet), are also terrible moral figures-
  • As you can see in this lovely video from the BBC, Capulet attempts to fix his daughter up with an arranged marriage to manipulate the Prince to favor the Capulets. When Juliet refuses, Capulet reacts violently and threatens to disown her and hit her. Hardly an example of proper fatherly devotion.

Looking at all these examples, one could make the argument that Romeo and Juliet is a better example of immoral behavior. One could even argue that the tragic death of the two lovers was just the natural consequence of  their hasty, overly passionate affair.

As dubious as the morals in this play are, they can and have been used to construct several moral arguments, such as arguments against  pre-marrital sex,  or  arguments to pursue peace, or arguments for young people to be wiser in relationships. Each one is legitimate and Shakespeare gives each one its time to shine.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for Part III!

-Shakespeare Guru

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

Happy Birthday Juliet!

Hi Folks,

Not only is it the first day of this month, it’s also a Shakespearean holiday! According to this passage from “Romeo and Juliet,” today is Juliet’s Birthday!

NURSE: Even or odd, of all days in the year,
Come Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen.
Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene ii.
Lammas Eve, is a pagan holiday, also known as Lughnasa, a Celtic holiday traditionally held on August 1st, or the midway point between the summer solstice and the Equinox. It was a day celebrating harvests and the beginning of fall, and was celebrated through eating wheat, drinking wine and burning a giant wicker man in effigy, (the inspiration of the film of the same name, and the festival of Burning Man). By the way, not everyone appreciates this holiday, click here to see what I mean.
There is also another significance to Juliet’s birthday. It makes her a Leo, a star sign traditionally associated with the Sun. So, when Romeo calls her “The Sun,” there is a literal connection to her birth. Shakespeare makes many allusions to astrology in Romeo and Juliet, as a metaphor for fate.
In the next few days I’ll be talking about what these allusions mean and how they help people understand the play.
Enjoy Juliet’s Birthday everyone!
By the way, here’s a link to a fun website: Juliet’s Blog: http://julietisthesun.blogspot.com/