Saturday, February 16, 2008

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life: and Brooklyn teenagers listen.

In the most valuable class that I took in grad school, we read a book called "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods" by Umberto Eco. One of his biggest premises is that "the text is a lazy machine," meaning that the true value of a piece of fiction comes when the reader takes it upon him or herself to really think through they find in front of them; a story can still be entertaining of course, but the meat of it is beyond just the plot.

I'm having one of those moments with Romeo and Juliet right now. I've mentioned before that my relationship with Shakespeare has gone through many phases: complete misunderstanding (Romeo and Juliet, 1995) and hatred (Julius Caesar, 1996) in high school, to appreciation (The History Plays, 2001) and admiration (The Tragedies and Comedies, 2002) in college to actual enjoyment (MacBeth and Twelfth Night, 2003) in graduate school. Actually teaching a play or book requires that you really dig deep into the text; not only understanding all of it, but looking for its intricacies and ways that your students can find and enjoy them. Teaching a text is the best way to become intimately familiar with it: literally, aesthetically, philosophically. There is accountability for my thinking, as well as new insights everyday from 13 year olds (true).

Enough of my pedagogical views on the teaching of reading, though. What I want to write about is the beauty that I have been witnessing reading Romeo and Juliet. Drama, specifically Shakespeare, really is the essential "text as lazy machine." It is almost all dialogue with few stage directions. It is up to the reader/director/actor to cast a vision of what is happening on the page. These questions force us to do the most magnificent critical thinking. But, it is hard to ask a thirteen year old to think critically--especially about Shakespeare. A moment I will never forget is when my CTT class (students with broad learning needs, a class diverse in every sense in the world) was exasperated after we read the prologue, which tells the entire story in sonnet form. It wasn't enough to know the bones of the story. He wanted to know why Romeo and Juliet kill themselves. What kind of love was this, Ms. Robbins? Why would they do it? What did their parents say? I just smiled and told them that this is why it's not just about the plot, and watched the wheels begin to turn. I love it.

We've been doing a bit of film study alongside of our reading. We've been watching the Zepherelli version (1968) of the play, as well as the one Baz Luhrmann directed (1996), better known as the "Leonardo DiCaprio" version. The Luhrman version is brilliant to me. It doesn't get old watching each scene three times a day with my different classes because the interpretation and the incorporation of music and visuals is absolutely mind blowing.

The best part of the week was reading Act 1 Scene 5 with each of my classes, which is when Romeo and Juliet first meet. We debated whether love at first sight was possible, talked about whether Juliet is shy or intentionally playing with Romeo's mind and what it must have felt like to learn that they were from enemy houses. Once the kids (and me) knew and understood the dialogue, the visual aspect of the film becomes quite deep. The bell rang for the kids to pack up and go home--for a week long vacation--and only 5 of them got up to go to their lockers. Boys and girls alike stayed in their seats to watch the last few minutes of this scene that I confess I was equally wrapped up in--even on the 6th viewing in recent weeks.

If I were to direct you anywhere to just get a taste of the brilliance and room for interpretation and thought, I think right now it would be Act 1 Scene 1 lines 170-182. Romeo has a string of oxymorons about love that encapsulate so so much. Shakespeare's language is amazing. That's basically all I wanted to say. So rich and open. Such a beautiful, tragic, complex story. I highly recommend.


stef shaffer said...

you are an amazing teacher.

Steph said...

I'll second that. I HATE trying to teach R & J to our 9th graders and you made me want to do it :)