Every year, my students begin Romeo and Juliet with certain preconceptions, both about the play and about the character of Romeo. It’s a Shakespeare play, they reason. Shakespeare’s hard to read, noble and magnanimous and all that. He writes about noble ideas, noble dilemmas, high-minded philosophy. They don’t expect it when the play starts out and within a few lines, characters are saying things like this:
The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.
‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I
have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the
maids, and cut off their heads.
The heads of the maids?
Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads;
take it in what sense thou wilt.
They must take it in sense that feel it.
Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and
’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.
I take them through the text enough to get them to realize that these two characters, like Donald Trump, are fond of locker room talk that involves suggestions of sexual assault. (No, I don’t bring in the politics, but the thought crossed my mind to make the connection at least today.) I don’t point out to them what Sampson really means when he says, “Me they shall feel while I am able to stand,” but I suspect some of them get it.
Then there’s Romeo: He’s going to be a good guy, they reason, because the play is the most famous love story of all time, and the most famous love story of all time can’t possibly have anything other than the ideal man in it. So we begin reading and find this passage in response to Benvolio’s queries about what exactly is making Romeo’s days so long:
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.
“How has Romeo tried to win her?” I ask. We mark the text and make a list.
“She will not stay the siege of loving terms?” I ask, and the students figure it out.
“He’s used smooth words.”
“Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes?” I ask, and the students get it.
“He’s been making eyes at her.”
“Good. Finally, ‘Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” Here they stumble.
“No — how do guys use gold to win girls?”
Finally, someone gets it: “Oh, jewelry!”
“Right!” Then the question — should I pursue the issue further? Should I lead them to see just exactly what Romeo’s saying here? Some years, I don’t. This year, I did.
“And what about the rest of the line?”
They look at each other quizzically.
“What do you think he means by ‘ope’?” I ask.
“Open?” a student suggests.
“Correct. Now, she will not ‘ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” I see in some of their eyes that they’ve got it, so I suggest what I suggest every year. “We’ll have to behave as adults in this unit and not giggle and be immature about some of the topics. So what’s he saying?”
They get it. They’re mildly shocked. The girls are a little angry and disappointed that this supposed hero of the greatest love story of all time is a fairly typical male and simply trying to get Rosaline in bed — to spread her legs, literally.
“Nothing ever changes,” one student observes.
The Girl tonight hit on her own preconceptions and battled them mightily. Beans are nasty. She’s decided that already. Of course, at her age, I’d decided the same thing about a lot of things, most beans as well. But we have a rule in our house as Nana and Papa had when I was growing up: you have to try everything. In L’s case, it was about three bites of beans.
We jokingly took a picture with a time-stamp (that’s in fact illegible) to see how long it took her to eat them. Although she didn’t have to sit at the table the whole time, she had her final bite around ten minutes before bedtime.
I remember doing the same thing.
Nothing ever changes.