Friday, November 21, 2008

"There Art Thou Happy"

While I've been busy getting back into the swing of speech season with my team, I've also been able to relax into my favorite unit of the year -- teaching Romeo and Juliet. Each year, I take classes full of reluctant freshmen by the hand and introduce them to the glory of the Bard. Just about every student enters the R&J unit with trepidation. Let's face it: the dude has a bad rep. Add to that the fact that I often have classes full of students who don't treasure reading and theatre the way I do, who don't, quite frankly, treasure learning the way I do. It can be a struggle as we start the unit.

Here's the thing that people sometimes don't realize but that I figured out right away the first year I taught R&J. Shakespeare is filthy! His plays are full of double entendres, dirty jokes, and scandalous goings-on. He wrote for his commoner audience -- the exact kind of audience a lot of my students would have been back in 1592. I realized that all the kids needed was to have the poetry translated for them and they would discover the Shakespeare I loved -- the naughty poet.

Examples of said naughtiness? Well, I'm glad you asked.

In the very first scene of R&J, the servants of the Capulet and Montague houses get into a huge fight in "downtown" Verona. The cause of this fight? As Abraham and Balthasar are walking by, Sampson bites his thumb. The kids are always confused by this. "Who cares if this dude is biting his thumb?" a student might ask. That's when I explain to them that biting your thumb at someone was the 16th Century equivalent of giving someone the middle finger today. The kids burst into laughter as suddenly the exchange that follows makes sense -- hilarious sense.

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
I do bite my thumb, sir.
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
[Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I sayay?
No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but Ibite my thumb, sir.

And they've now learned a great new insulting gesture!

We later get to the conversation between Benvolio and Romeo where we learn that Romeo is depressed. The kids seem to grasp right away that Romeo's depression stems from romantic problems, but together we dig deeper to discover the real cause of the lady's rejection of Romeo.

Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit
With Cupid's arrow; she hath Dian's wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm'd,
From love's weak childish bow she lives unharm'd.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.
Then she hath sworn that she will still live chaste?
She hath, and in that sparing makes huge waste,
For beauty starved with her severity
Cuts beauty off from all posterity.
She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair,
To merit bliss by making me despair:
She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow
Do I live dead that live to tell it now.

The problem is that Romeo's lady has taken a vow of chastity. In other words, Romeo's not getting any. Again, once we work through this idea of the lady's chastity and the kids realize what such a vow means, they're once again highly entertained. "So basically, Romeo's horny?" one will ask and, cool teacher that I am, I just nod and say, "Yup."

On top of having the opportunity to hold a class of freshmen in the palm of my hand for 50 minutes each day that we read R&J as they wait eagerly to discover what new naughty gem awaits them in the pages of the play, I also get the joy of reading Shakespeare aloud every day. While I have students assume various roles, I always keep one or two good parts for myself. During the course of the unit, I get the thrill of playing just about every major character in the play -- Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, the Nurse, the Friar, Lord Capulet. And believe me, I give it my all. The kids were shocked yesterday when I played Lord Capulet and shifted from gracious party host to bullying uncle in the blink of an eye. (I did feel a bit sorry for the poor kid playing Tybalt who had to be on the receiving end of "my" fury) It's times like these when I stop and marvel, "Damn, they PAY me to do this."


Dr Pauline Kiernan said...

Hi Glad you're teaching about the sexual puns in Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps you haven't come across my book 'Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Most Outrageous Sexual Puns' (Gotham, paperback just out).

You'll find there are puns more filthy in Romeo and Juliet - and in plenty of other Shakespeare plays - there.
Best wishes,
Dr Pauline Kiernan

Danielle Mari said...

I sold the Bard to my minions... er uh... students... with the same sexy pun carrot. I remember unpacking some sonnets and one student raising his hand and saying, "Ms. D! Shakespeare was a dirty dirty bird!"

I felt that my work was done for that week.

People forget that he aimed his work at the lowest common denominator as much as he did at the royalty who came out to enjoy the warmth of his wooden o (wink wink). I mean- when Hamlet says "Get thee to a nunnery..." he ain't just talking about a convent, folks.

Dirty bird indeed. Hey look- even a DOCTOR agrees! Right here! In this post! ;)

Mel said...

I told my kids that Shakespeare was the Judd Apatow of his day.

Jen said...

It's fun to read Shakespeare as he was meant to be enjoyed--not textual analysis of how many times he used this or that word in a play, but the jokes that got people buying tickets. And if I catch my boys snickering through their high school English homework someday, well, I guess I'll know what they're learning in school that day!

NICKI said...

Ahh, How I wish I had "minions". I enjoyed Shakespeare as a teenager, but I think I will have to pick up a few plays again, 90% of this went right over my head!