Sunday, April 30, 2017

Romeo and Juliet Breaks My Heart (In a Good Way)

I must must must tell you a story about our Reading class where the freshmen have been struggling with Romeo and Juliet for the last few weeks. The text grows more and more beautiful every time I read it, but you know, for these kids the language is largely impenetrable, and the text is a dense ancient wood with only a few shafts of comprehensible light in the darkness. So we work our way through, translating, trying to give the kids as much info as we can reading out loud and watching movie clips and reading the ever-helpful graphic novel and slogging away, line by line by line.

So I've got to tell you about the wonderful day in First and Second Period when we put the kids in groups with a section to paraphrase into their own words, then act out for the class. We were working with Act III, Scene 1, where Romeo's friend Mercutio is killed by Juliet's fiery cousin Tybalt in a street fight, setting in motion the final inevitable cascade of tragedy.

The scene opens with Mercutio, our resident jester, teasing the good Benvolio by accusing him of being a hot-headed fighter. Now we all know that dear Benvolio only raises his sword to part fighting fools so this speech is a gentle joke at the expense of a friendly and favored character.

(Whenever I think about Benvolio, I think of a freshman I had in 2002, the ego-less and cooperative quarterback on the freshman football team, who asked me, "Hey Ms. Fey, why can't you keep teaching after you have your baby?" And he laughed with wide eyes and a big open-mouth smile when I said, "I could! But I want to take care of the baby. And they eat about twelve times a day! And they POOP about twenty!")

Adorable Dash Mihok as Benvolio in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film version Romeo + Juliet

So our freshmen were working in groups on their passages and Sugar, Dristian and Mayla were grappling with these lines:

Thou art like one of these fellows that, when he enters the confines of a tavern, claps me his sword upon the table, and says, “God send me no need of thee!” and by the operation of the second cup draws him on the drawer, when indeed there is no need.

Am I like such a fellow?

Come, come, thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood as any in Italy, and as soon mov’d to be moody, and as soon moody to be mov’d.

And what to?

Nay, and there were two such, we should have none shortly, for one would kill the other. Thou? Why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou hast. Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes. What eye but such an eye would spy out such a quarrel? Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat, and yet thy head hath been beaten as addle as an egg for quarrelling. Thou hast quarrell’d with a man for coughing in the street, because he hath waken’d thy dog that hath lain asleep in the sun. Didst thou not fall out with a tailor for wearing his new doublet before Easter? With another for tying his new shoes with old riband? And yet thou wilt tutor me from quarrelling!

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Mesmerizing Luigi Sotille as Ned Alleyn playing Mercutio in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of Shakespeare in Love

I sat with the three kids and told them my story about the quarterback and read them some of the lines with all the inflection and drama I could muster and they were totally getting it. "What's tavern?" asks Mayla and "What's hazel?" "What's quarrel?" We worked through it and it was so exciting to see the light break through. At the end of the period, Imee the English teacher collected their work and made a copy of the script for each kid in the group to perform the next day.

The day of performances one of the kids drew a background of houses and trees on the whiteboard and Christine the Reading teacher brought in placards with the characters names strung with yarn to hang around the kids' necks.

The three kids got up in front. Imee had put down a wide rectangle of purple duct tape on the floor to designate the borders of the stage. Dristian gave an overview of the scene, then Mayla as Benvolio and Sugar as Mercutio began the scene.

Mayla/Benviolio: Let's go home. The Capulets are looking for us. We don't want to start a fight.

Sugar/Mercutio: You are one of the angry people. You walk into a bar and pull out your knife for no reason.

Mayla/Benvolio: Am I that type of person?

They were doing great. Mayla put on a smile to show she how sweet Benvolio is. The irony in the casting was that this lovely girl is the one I need to remind nearly weekly to use her words instead of slapping other kids.

Sugar/Mercutio: You are as stubborn a-a-and moody as anyone in Italy. 

Sugar's stumble may have been because he was a little nervous. His one hand held his script, the other was tucked into the pocket of his red hoodie.

Mayla/Benvolio: And why is that?

Mayla gave Sugar the stinkeye.

Sugar/Mercutio: If there were two of you, you'd kill each other! You'd pick a fight with someone who has a bigger beard than you! You'd a pick a fight with someone who has the same hazel eyes as you. Your head is always thinking of fights, like an egg is full of meat. And like an egg, you always get beat!

And with the egg line, the class LAUGHS. They laughed, a quick little bubble of joy despite the rushed, monotone recitation, the swaying awkward stance of the actors distracted and concentrating by the work of reading, eyes down on their papers.

Sugar smiled as he continues: You'd  fight someone across the street because they woke up a sleeping dog. Didn't you fight someone for wearing a jacket before Easter? And another for wearing shoes with old laces? And you're teaching me how to fight?

Mayla/Benvolio: If I fight like you describe, I would be worthless.

Sugar/Mercutio: Oh yeah, you are worthless.

ANOTHER LAUGH! this time, with a taunting "uh-oh" and "oo" thrown in to heighten the tension.

Mayla/Benvolio: The Caps are coming.
Sugar/Mercutio: Let them come, I don't care.

Big applause and finger snaps. One of my favorite moments of the school year.