BWW Blog: The Modern Relevance of Romeo and Juliet
In the aftermath of the massacre of children in Connecticut in December 2012, I found myself mesmerized watching Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association Wayne LaPierre on "Meet the Press." I remember the horror I felt, as he struggled to articulate his defense, as he interrupted with his solution to violence in our schools: "More guns." He said arming adults in U.S. schools was the answer to decreasing future violence in U.S. schools.
Here, I thought, was the perfect, tragic embodiment of our country's need to teach our children Romeo and Juliet differently. Five children end up dead in that story and they were likely whisked there due to their parents' foundationless rage.
Perhaps Shakespeare's lesson was lost on Mr. LaPierre-a man who is in a powerful and financially influential position to affect political races and public policy--because his experience with Romeo and Juliet as mandatory curriculum in his freshman year in high school was much like mine: somewhat inexplicably taught and perhaps factually learned, but with little personal relevance.
I don't know why so many states in the U.S. mandate our reading of this play if not as a model to children and adults alike to sensitize us all to compassion, respect, and deadly violence. The play provides a safe platform from which to act the possibilities of the story and then open up a forum for discussion: not just about the play, but about how the play applies to our lives. Why else would we ask our children to read and take tests on a play that kills five teenagers?
My concern for our students is that without a proper, common core Arts curriculum in our school system, the reason for playing this play starts to be washed out with so many video games or films that feature violence and death as entertainment. Compassion might well be lost. Generating and inspiring the articulation of compassion is perhaps theatre's and William Shakespeare's greatest gift to us.
But if we choose to keep Shakespeare and this play under academic glass for our children, and if we adults aren't sensitized to the continuing need to teach and play and hear the drama, then perhaps all of us are the reason that there is an adult in a position of authority and influence, in the wake of the massacre of children, saying to the nation on television, "More guns."
I say the notion of armed violence as a proper answer to armed violence and murdered children is barbaric and void of reason and grace. It is inhumane. If there were ever a reason to move the classical and performing arts closer to the center of our learning experience and to teach truly the meaning of five young deaths and how a community moves forward invested in change and compassion, that reason is the utterance of Mr. LaPierre.
This comes in the wake of Tennessee Shakespeare Company's final week of rehearsals on the play and of our teaching more than 600 students from underserved schools in the last two weeks - many of whom live in the unfortunate world of the play. When given the opportunity, they will speak with personal understanding and compassion. Then they start answering the question, "What can I do to affect change?"
In three years of our Romeo and Juliet Project in the Memphis schools, not one child has responded, "More guns."