More Than There Was Before

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Posted by Kathy Waller
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When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before.  ~ Clifton Fadiman
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An 1870 oil painting by Ford Madox Brown depic...

An 1870 oil painting by Ford Madox Brown depicting Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony scene (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Ford Madox Brown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first few years I studied Romeo and Juliet with my high school freshmen, when I was in my early twenties, I followed the Star-Cross’d Lovers school of thought: Romeo and Juliet, two innocents, their eyes meet across a crowded room, she teaches the torches to burn bright, he’s the god of her idolatry, he wants to be a glove upon her hand, she wants to cut him out in little stars–but the cruel world conspires to bring them down. The way Juliet’s father tells her to thank him no thankings nor proud him no prouds but get to that church on Thursday next and marry Paris or he’ll drag her on a hurdle thither–what kind of father says that to a thirteen-year-old girl? Parents don’t listen. The kids might be a little quick to act, and goodness knows Romeo should have waited to talk to Friar Laurence before buying that poison. But who can expect patience of such romantic souls? A sad story indeed.

When I hit thirty, and had several years of teaching under my belt, I shifted to the What Can You Expect When Teenagers Behave Like Brats? philosophy: Romeo and Juliet, a couple of kids in a hurry, he doesn’t even bother to drop in on his family, just runs off to crash Capulet’s party, proposes to a girl before the first date, insists on a jumped-up wedding, then gets himself kicked out of the city, and he still hasn’t been home for dinner. She mouths off to her father, tells him what she will and will not do, and he’s just told her what a nice husband he’s picked out for her. I mean, if you were a parent and your daughter spoke to you in that tone of voice, would you pat her hand and ask what’s wrong, or would you remind

her who’s boss here? If Romeo had just gone home in the first place, like any decent boy would have, instead of running off with his friends, this mess wouldn’t have occurred. In fact, since Old Montague and Old Capulet had that very afternoon been sworn to keep the peace, they might have arranged a marriage between Romeo and Juliet–formed an alliance that way–and the whole of Verona would have lived happily ever after, and Montague would have been spared the expense of a gold Juliet statue. Paris might have been a little put out at being jilted, but he’d have gotten over it. Kids! They don’t think.

When I hit forty, however, I discovered the dogma of the Meddlesome Priest. Friar Laurence has no business performing a secret marriage between two minors without parental consent.

He says he wants to promote peace, but he isn’t a diplomat. His field is pharmacology. Furthermore, when Juliet informs him she’s about to acquire an extra husband, why doesn’t he go right then to Old Capulet and tell the man she’s married? Capulet wouldn’t have been pleased, but he’d have gotten over it. Instead, the Friar gives Juliet a sedative and stuffs her into a tomb with a passel of relatives in varying stages of disrepair. The man appears to mean well, but it’s also possible he intends to take credit for being the brains behind the peace accords. Bunglesome or corrupt–the end is the same. With role models like this, are we surprised that children run amok?

Soon after the last epiphany, I became a librarian and ended my stint as a classroom teacher. I’ve since wondered what would have happened if I’d continued studying Romeo and Juliet year after year. Would I have had new insights? Developed new interpretations? Uncovered new layers of meaning?

How much more would I have found in Shakespeare’s words? How much more would I have shared with my charges?

Would I have continued to teach them respect and reverence? Would I have led them down the primrose path of dalliance and left them mired in levity?

How much more would I have shown my students?

How much more would I have seen in myself?

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Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write, at Austin Mystery Writers, and at Sisters in Crime ~ Heart of Texas Chapter.

This post originally appeared on Kathy’s first blog, Whiskertips, which she abandoned when William and Ernest wrested control and turned it completely cat-centric.

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18 Responses to More Than There Was Before

  1. This is an interesting way to look at Romeo and Juliette. I never thought of it this way before.

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  2. Mike Staton says:

    Hilarious look-back at rereading of Romeo & Juliet at different ages. Couldn’t get my smile under control.

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  3. How very interesting, Kathy. Instead of the trumped up image we have of Romeo and Juliet, you have brilliantly applied their relationship to the teens of today. I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare but have never dissected them as you have. Great post – thank you for causing me to look deeper at something that seems so romantic on the surface!

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    • Kathy Waller says:

      Well, as I told Abbie, reading the play aloud year after year helps you see more layers. By the time I got to phase II, I was saying, “Now, just listen to the way Juliet talked to her father. What if you talked to your father like that? Would he be upset?” Ohhhhh. “Would you be a little angry if you gave your daughter something designed to make her happy and she turned around and said the things Juliet said?” Yeahhhhhhhhhhh. “So maybe Juliet should have toned it down a bit? Maybe said, Please wait a while on this wedding, or even, I already have a husband?” Ahhhhhh. “So is this just a play just about parents and children a zillion years ago?” Nooooooooooooo. I’m just sorry it took me so long to figure that out. Thanks for your comment.

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  4. Kaye George says:

    I very much need to know the answers to those last questions, please! VERY entertaining post!

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    • Kathy Waller says:

      First I had to look at the post to see what the questions are. 1, 2, and 4: I don’t know. 3. Confidentially, I’m afraid I did lead a few down that primrose path, though I didn’t intend to (a few have repeated to me things they swear I said in class, and I hope they’re making it up), and I definitely left some mired in levity. I played my recordings of Andy Griffith’s versions of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet in class. A little irreverence shocks kids into remembering and alleviates boredom for me.

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  5. Doris says:

    Oh my, I have disliked Romeo and Juliet from day one and I think for all the reasons you spoke of, and I was just a freshman in high school. It always seemed stupid to me. Then I read MacBeth and all bets were off, I loved that one and I do with that what you have done with the other. I keep finding more. So enjoyed this post. Doris

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  6. cherley says:

    I have never studied Romeo and Juliet. I’ve tried to read from Shakespeare a few times, but didn’t care much for it. I’d rather have it related to me in the way you just did. But that being said, I think we all get in too big of a hurry in love and in life. I strive to be my best and I strive to be a good role model. Yesterday, a lady came back to church after a long illness, I was so blessed to not only see a line of adults greeting her, but also a line of children, waiting for a hug or a kind word. That’s a testimony. Cher’ley

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    • Kathy Waller says:

      I think Shakespeare is an acquired taste, Cherley. When I read a play I haven’t studied, I have to work to understand (and I read all the glosses). You’re right about being in a hurry. R&J and me, too. That’s lovely about the people waiting in line to hug a friend who had been absent for a long time. It really is a testimony. Thanks for your comment.

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  7. katewyland says:

    I’m with Doris. Always thought it was a stupid story. Especially when you realize how YOUNG they were. But Shakespeare did write some really weird plays – disguises nobody could see through, mistaken identities, etc. And I agree, my reaction to a lot of stories has changed over the years.

    Fun post.

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    • Kathy Waller says:

      I used to advise students to re-read books we studied when they were ten years older, twenty years older, etc. Except for a couple of them, I doubt they ever did. I do understand that not everyone wants to be an English major, and not all English majors spend much time with Shakespeare. My favorite writer not to read is Milton. I had registered for a course in Milton when a doctor said I needed surgery, so I withdrew that semester. I didn’t need surgery, and Milton wasn’t taught the next semester. A win-win situation for me, and Milton didn’t care.

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  8. sstamm625 says:

    I love this post, Kathy! So interesting and so fun to read. I haven’t reread Romeo and Juliet in a long time. In high school, I was all star-struck myself. Then, later, it was like, “Really? Be a little more practical, folks.” But I never thought–or was taught–all the different aspects you bring up. That bit about Friar Laurence–yeah, what was he thinking? Thanks for this!

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  9. Kathy Waller says:

    Thanks, Stephanie. I found the line as to the Friar’s reason for marrying R&J:

    In one respect I’ll thy assistant be;
    For this alliance may so happy prove,
    To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.

    Right after that, he tells Romeo to go slowly, but he’s in a hurry, too. If he’d refused to marry them, there’d have been no tragedy. But the play would have fizzled out, too.

    This is kind of awful, you know. I’m writing as if these characters were real people.

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  10. Nancy Jardine says:

    Great post and I’m a firm fan of Shakespeare. I studied a lot as a teenager, and at first university stage, but it was when I was in my late 30s i did a special degree course on Shakespeare and read everything differently from a more mature outlook. A fellow Crooked Cat author went a step further and wrote a debut novel about a different ending to Romeo and Juliet. In a way she was writing it from the same sort of stance as you, Kathy, having read the play at different ages. Her novel is fabulous – The Ghostly Father by Sue Barnard. She’s given it a different ending, focusing on Friar Lawrence’s part in the whole scenario.

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  11. I, too, enjoyed your post, Kathy. I’ve read some Shakespeare but not much. I watch “West Side Story” and see a lot of similarities — the “Romeo and Juliette” of that day and age. I think we can all find tragic love stories (and other voices thereof) in varied settings. Thanks for additional insight into the story!

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