O Romeo, Romeo, do I explain you?
February 29, 2012 5:54 PM   Subscribe

Taking children, ages 16, 15, and 10, to see Romeo & Juliet. Should I explain it to them first?

On Sunday, I am taking my three nieces to this production of Romeo & Juliet. My nieces are 16, 15, and 10 years old. They are all smart for their age, but they do not really know Shakespeare - or Romeo & Juliet. I am nearly positive that none of them know the double suicide ending.

The 16 year old studied Hamlet at the end of last year in High School. The 15 year old will be studying Romeo & Juliet in the last marking period of this year. The 10 year old knows nothing.

I know that by seeing the play, Shakespeare is much more accessible. However, would they benefit from some back-ground before the play starts? If so, how much? And what exactly should I explain?

I have studied Shakespeare, and seen his plays performed several times. I am well educated, but I am not a literary scholar. My own knowledge of Romeo & Juliet is imperfect.

I know that just the experience of being in the theatre will make the event enjoyable - but is there anything else I should do to make the play more accessible and enjoyable - given the ages of the kids above.

Any thoughts on enhancing this theatrical experience for this age group are greatly appreciated
posted by Flood to Media & Arts (22 answers total)
I'm on my phone so I can't link easily, but Young Shakespeare Players here in Madison does full-length productions with kids as young as 7. (They make awesome witches in the Scottish Play.) You might google them and see if they have some extra study material online.

I really don't think any of your kids will have issues with the material, even the end. I mean, Bambi's mom dies, right? Tragedy is tragedy.

Also, I HIGHLY recommend the explanation given by Andy Griffith in his early standup. "'But soft! What laht bah yonder winduh shahns?' Now, JEW-liet, she says, 'Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?' And he says, 'I'ma raht cheer!'"
posted by Madamina at 6:05 PM on February 29, 2012

I wouldn't tell them much more than that they're star crossed lovers, and hopefully they can piece it all together by viewing.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:21 PM on February 29, 2012

I don't think any preamble is necessary, assuming the youth in question are of average or above intelligence.

Shakespeare is populism at its finest; it's designed to be apprehended immediately and viscerally. While the language may seem foreign to them at first (especially the 10 year old), kids' ears are remarkably adaptable and their brains incredibly adept at inferring based on context...given the obscenely repetitive way in which Old Wills likes to drive home his Big Themes, they should have no problem "getting it".

If they like it and/or have questions about specifics after seeing the show, or if they express interest before you go, it might be an AWESOME activity to start your own little R&J book club with the three of them: read and discuss the play together (gives you a chance to refresh your Shakes chops, gives all of you a chance to live in the language for a while and tease out literary nuances that get glossed over in performance, gives them a chance to explore their dramatic inclinations if they exist, and you can get through the whole thing in a few hours), then maybe watch a few different film adaptations or portions thereof to see interpretive proliferation in action? Zeffirelli's and Luhrmans's versions are both VERY accessible to youth, and shown in tandem with "Shakespeare in Love" can be really fun and instructive. Hooray!

As an aside, this post is an obvious example of why I am the World's Worst Auntie: I honestly think a Shakespeare book club is a fun activity to pursue with my nieces....those poor girls are doomed.
posted by Dorinda at 6:22 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, Romeo and Juliet is fairly straightforward, I wouldn't worry about it. One thing I'd point out to them, maybe not before, but perhaps after, is that Juliet is the most active character in the play. Romeo gives up and gets mopey but Juliet is the one with drive and determination. Yes, things do turn out badly in the end for the couple (though not for the city of Verona, because the Montagues and Capulets kiss and make up) but Juliet is a strong, active character. Literature is sadly often a place where women are secondary and passive, but Juliet is the opposite. That aspect of Romeo and Juliet really makes me appreciate the play more.
posted by Kattullus at 6:37 PM on February 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

One thing for sure: explain what "wherefore" means.
posted by hydrophonic at 6:40 PM on February 29, 2012 [10 favorites]

I'd give them the set up --- just enough so they have a rough sense of who's who when the play starts, not the whole plot.

But I also might... Moderate your expectations, a bit? Sorry to be a Debbie Downer. It's just that from what I recall of seeing my first Shakespeare production around that same age, that language comes at you thick and fast and it's so different from how we usually speak that it can be tough to pick up on the sense, never mind the poetry. And we had read the play we saw. I was around 14 or do myself and not necessarily averse to difficult text --- I remember being sufficiently intrigued by my history teacher's offhand mentions of its gruesomeness to pick up the Inferno --- but I recall being surprise at how much of the play went past me. Ymmv, of course.
posted by Diablevert at 6:42 PM on February 29, 2012

You only get one chance to see/hear the ending of Romeo & Juliet the first time. Why spoil it?
posted by logicpunk at 6:51 PM on February 29, 2012 [9 favorites]

I kind of disagree with everyone. My parents took me to Shakespeare plays when I was in my early teens and I would have been lost if they hadn't explained the plot to me beforehand. You don't have to spoil they ending, but I think they should know who the main characters are and their relationships to each other before the show starts, and the general premise of the play at least.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 6:57 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think you might want to go over the setup; who the Montagues and Capulets are, who the key characters are, maybe a little about the nature of love and marriage in fair Verona. If they know what's going on for the first act or so, that may help them get accustomed to the language, so that they're more into what's going on for the rest of the play. I find that with Shakespeare (or anything a long way from mainstream English, whether Trainspotting or The Wire), the trick is getting into the groove with the language, and if you have to follow the plot and learn about the characters at the same time, it can get overwhelming.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 6:59 PM on February 29, 2012

I agree with Homeboy. Some 'keys' to the language might make things easier to understand and enjoy it.
posted by Vaike at 7:30 PM on February 29, 2012

Let them jump in feet first, don't tell them anything more than "it's about two teenagers in love."

After this play, if they express that they're interested in seeing more Shakespeare but need it explained beforehand, then do so.

Unless it's an awful production, you could watch the whole thing on mute and be able to figure out what's going on.
posted by incessant at 7:32 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My mother would take my sisters and I to the theatre as often as she could when we were growing up (we didn't live near any theatres though, so it was A Big Deal when it happened). You've got to give the kids something. My first Shakespearean Play was "As You Like It" and I didn't know anything about the plot ... I got more than a bit lost (I enjoyed it very much, but I missed so much of what was going on). You don't need to explain the ending, the thing is to make sure that the kids have enough knowledge of the first part that they will be able to follow it until they get a hang of the language. So really, all you have to do is say:

1) This is a play about a boy and a girl.
2) They come from different families, and their families do NOT get on well at all.
3) The boy and girl meet at a party, not realising at first that one is a Montague and the other a Capulet. When they do realise that they come from opposing families they decide that they love each other anyway.

That's pretty much the set up. Maybe also explain to them that Romeo's sidekick is Mercutio and Juliet's comic sidekick is The Nurse.

This way, they won't be struggling from the start... they can relax and just watch the thing unfold.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 7:53 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Honestly, this will probably be a hugely unpopular decision, but I'd probably show them the Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet first (while explaining that it's a re-imagining and that no one actually had guns or cars). I watched it again recently and was impressed by how, script-wise, it actually stuck pretty closely to the original (from what I recall), while still having a decent soundtrack, lovely scene-dressing, lush coloring and (slightly) more relatable characters.

Even as an adult with a graduate degree in English, I have trouble understanding unfamiliar Shakespeare plays, simply because the language is unfamiliar and it goes by very quickly. This is compounded by unfamiliar mores, habits, traditions, and jokes of the time. So I always read at least a wiki summary or, more preferably, an annotated version of the unfamiliar play first. Romeo and Juliet is one of the more straightforward ones, but I still wouldn't want to risk the nieces being bored and having a general distaste for Shakespeare in the future simply because they didn't understand or thought they were stupid because they didn't understand (and their cool aunt expected them to).

Plus, if you show them the re-imagined version and a classic take on it, you can discuss that afterwards.
posted by wending my way at 9:34 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I basically majored in Shakespeare. And while I don't think you need to give away the ending if you don't want to, I would totally advise giving them some basic setup -- it'll let them start out relaxed and confident, instead of ZOMG I'm doing it wrong because I don't understand everything.
posted by desuetude at 10:10 PM on February 29, 2012

My philosophy when introducing people to works of literature is that (with some exceptions, e.g. "The Lottery," where it's better not to know what's going on at first), it's usually a good idea to provide first-time readers with at least some context for the work; sometimes that means a bit of info about the historical or geographical setting, or a bit about the author or where s/he was coming from, culturally speaking. It doesn't mean a summary of the entire plot, and it doesn't mean you have to give away the ending; just make sure your nieces know the basic setup (I liked Alice Russel-Wallace's points). They will get the hang of the language after a bit, and the visuals will help a lot. But it is nice if they can go in with a little bit of background.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:21 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The prologue tells people what happens... So it would be completely consistent with Shakespeare's intentions for you to tell them the story, which was in fact drawn from another myth (referenced in A midsummer Night's Dream) anyway. Tragedy is meant to be enjoyed in part because one knows of the tragic ending.
Personally, I also think it a bit pretentious and unrealistic to expect them to just 'absorb' anyway. They will get much more from it if they are not confused by the simple content. Then they may be able to focus on and enjoy the experience of theatre, and for the older one, the language.
posted by jojobobo at 10:23 PM on February 29, 2012

I saw a lot of Shakespeare as a kid with my parents, and honestly I enjoyed it a lot more when I knew the plot and major characters beforehand. The thing with Shakespeare is it's often really funny (even a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet), but if all your energy is spent trying to decipher the language and keep track of what's going on, you tend to miss the jokes. My family would sometimes get the Cliff Notes and read them together, which I enjoyed in and of itself.
posted by sparrow89 at 3:17 AM on March 1, 2012

I'm with the folks who say "give them a brief plot explanation ahead of time." I have an MA in English and I STILL feel much better if I can review the plot/characters of a Shakespeare play ahead of time if I'm going to see it on stage. Makes it so much better to be able to soak up the language and enjoy the spectacle without the bulk of my brain power going to "why did he just do that?" or "is that guy the other guy's brother?" (This is more common for the histories than for anything else, granted; R&J is more accessible in general.)
I think it makes it more pleasant for anyone I go with, as well, since I'm not poking them for clarification.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:27 AM on March 1, 2012

Best answer: I might be prepared to do some damage control afterward. Teenagers sometimes come away from R&J thinking, "OMG the power of true love! So romantic!" and ignore the subtext that these are 14-year-old idiots who, even if they knew what romantic love was yet, literally just met each other.

If I'm remembering correctly, the priest's only (?) monologue of any length talk about this more or less explicitly.

I strongly suspect that it's intended to be much more comedic than it's generally regarded and played now. Like more awkward Ricky Gervais as David Brent and less wackiness like Taming of the Shrew.
posted by cmoj at 7:30 AM on March 1, 2012

I'd ask them what they know about Shakespeare and about the story, and ask them if they want you to talk about it with them beforehand.

I was introduced to Romeo and Juliet when I was about 15 (right around when the Baz Luhrmann movie came out, no less) and I was the perfect age and disposition to enjoy the story of star-crossed teenage lovers. We also studied it in my freshman English class and we spent a lot of time talking about the prologue. I think reading the passage itself with your nieces beforehand might actually freak them out since the words on the page are much harder to follow than when you hear them. But if you read through it on your own, you can remind yourself of the key points and themes, and make sure you talk about those (if your nieces want to).

And clearly I am also an Aunt from Hell, because if one of those kids was really into the play afterwards, I'd totally invite her to sit down and go through the prologue line by line with me, so she could appreciate how much she understood.
posted by juliplease at 11:36 AM on March 1, 2012

Re: the Baz Luhrmann movie, I think it's a bit mature for the 10-year-old. I remember seeing it in the theater when I was 12 (having already read the play in school) and finding it kind of upsetting and intense.

My vote is for very basic outline, without ruining the ending.
posted by naoko at 7:01 PM on March 1, 2012

Maybe "West Side Story"?
posted by rmd1023 at 5:30 PM on March 4, 2012

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