February 24th, 2007

Understanding (and misunderstanding) Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

One of the most famous misunderstood lines in all of literature is Juliet’s balcony query: “Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

As most of you probably know, the archaic “wherefore” means “why.” But the misconception that the word means “where” persists, even though the latter would make no sense in the context of the scene: Juliet is musing to herself and Romeo is eavesdropping, overhearing her words without her knowledge. She’s certainly not searching for him at that moment.

Shakespeare is difficult, and it’s not just because of his use of outdated words that require explanation in order to understand (well, we can hardly blame him; they weren’t outdated at the time). We’re simply not accustomed to hearing such sophisticated speech and being able to divine meaning from its poetry, its playful images and complex metaphors. Apparently in Shakespeare’s day people were more adept at that, but it’s since become a lost art.

Studying Shakespeare with a good teacher can bring the words and their meaning alive in a way that makes the plays the beloved masterpieces that they have been for centuries. I once had such a teacher; we’ll call him Mr. Jones.

Mr. Jones was an ex-actor with a vaguely British accent crossed with a hint of a Jamaican lilt. He was also a black man at a time when African American teachers weren’t all that common, back in my junior high school days. How he ended up at my school I don’t know, nor do I know much else about him except that he lived with his elderly mother.

Mr. Jones was very big on reading aloud. He had an old-fashioned over-the-top rhetorical style, a huge voice left over from his days treading the boards of un-miked stages, and a fearless disregard for giggle-prone eighth-graders. He would declaim in that commanding voice, and his presence would stifle any desire to laugh. The sounds would wash over us impressively, even if the meaning eluded us.

But he wanted us to understand the meaning, as well. And to this end we spent months studying Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” One would think that this work would be the best choice among all Shakespeare’s plays for a bunch of eighth-graders, and one would be right. After all, Juliet, at fourteen, could have been an eighth-grader herself.

But she wasn’t like any eighth-grader we’d ever known. And Romeo was no better. What were they talking about? It seemed an impenetrable thicket of verbiage.

Mr. Jones tackled the whole thing by making us read every single word aloud. He called on some students to act out each part for a few pages, then switched to other students, and on and on, right to the last line. It took months. No matter how embarrassed we were, or what poor actors we were, or how we stumbled and faltered, we had to read those words. And he was big on non-traditional casting, too; he’d sometimes call on the boys to read the female parts and vice-versa. Talk about embarrassment!

One boy, Carl Anderson, who had the platinum hair and fair skin of his Norwegian forebearers, blushed scarlet every time he was called on to read. Then he’d blush even more startlingly scarlet as embarrassing words were revealed (“Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast! Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!”). But read he did.

Some read in monotones, some gave it pizazz. And then, after every couple of lines, Mr. Jones would have them pause and try to explain the meaning. If they couldn’t guess, the class would tackle it. If all else failed, Mr. Jones would tell us. But, line by line, the wonderful and sorrowful story emerged, and we slowly got better at deciphering it.

As the characters came alive for us, line by line, Shakespeare (and Mr. Jones) managed that feat at which the writers of so many modern movies fail abysmally: making us care about the characters, and making us believe the lovers actually love each other, and showing us why. We loved Romeo and Juliet, too; and we could see that they were exceptionally well-suited to one another, each able to express emotions in ways no other teenagers ever have or ever will.

When Romeo and Juliet first meet at the ball, they have a conversation in which both show an equal adeptness at imagery and playfulness. The whole scene is an extended metaphor that compares the religious (the hands in prayer) with the sexual (the lips in a kiss).

Classier pickup lines were never heard, at least not in my life:

ROM: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet plays hard-to-get with an equally witty rejoinder:

JUL: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Ah, but Romeo is not so easily put off from his goal:

ROM: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

But again, Juliet is equal to the task of parrying him:

JUL: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray’r.

But Romeo is not to be dissuaded. He cleverly extends the image in an attempt to get what he’s looking for–a kiss (to understand what he’s getting at here, think of two hands clasped together in prayer):

ROM: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Ah, who could resist? Certainly not Juliet, who clearly doesn’t even wish to hold him off, although she pays some final lip service (pun intended; after all, Shakespeare likes puns!) to restraint:

JUL: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

And Romeo sees his opportunity:

ROM: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purg’d. [Kisses her.]

Are they not well-matched? Precocious and intensely emotional, they exude the essence of heady young love, love that has as yet no experience of sorrow or betrayal (although they’ll know sorrow soon enough). These two love with all their hearts; they are made for each other, and the audience knows it immediately through their words.

A few years later when I saw the Zefferelli film version of “Romeo and Juliet,” I marveled at the scene as it was acted out with suitable hand gestures (oh, so that’s the way it works!) by the achingly-young Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting (I can’t locate a photo of that scene, but here’s a different one–and, by the way, Whiting was a ringer for my boyfriend at the time):

If you’ve never seen that film, please take a look. Yes, it was roundly criticized for leaving at least half the play on the cutting-room floor. And for including nakedness (as I recall, a rear shot of Romeo during the post-wedding rendezvous in Juliet’s bedroom). And for casting unknown actors who were so young they lacked the requisite Shakespearean gravitas.

But for me, the film made the play come alive. You believed they loved each other. You believed their desperation. And in the death scenes, you could not help but cry at the waste of these two beautiful young lives.

In the film, the meaning of all those Shakespearean lines was clear; a testament to the actors’ skill. But they wouldn’t have been anywhere near as clear to me–or as wonderful– without those efforts of Mr. Jones.

[ADDENDUM: I'm pleased to report that fellow blogger and Romeo-and-Juliet-aficionado[a?] Fausta has found a photo of the scene I described from the Zefferelli movie, where the lovers use “suitable hand gestures” in their prayer/kiss conversation. Here it is:

And here Fausta elaborates on her own relationship to R&J, as well as how a nun at her Catholic school inadvertantly drummed up business for the movie.]

52 Responses to “Understanding (and misunderstanding) Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet”

  1. Good Ole Charlie (SE Penna) Says:


    When you come to counting up your life’s blessing, recall Mr. Jones with a silent prayer of thanks. I, too, have had my share of “Mr. Jones”s…and am thankful.

    And my goal as an over-the-hill science teacher is to become someone’s (male or female) Mr. Jones.

    As is true of all true teachers, I suspect…

    “For would he learn and gladly teach…”

  2. Ymarsakar Says:

    I remember being called upon to read certain literature. I always saw that as a challenge, practicing the lines to get it out well, without hesitation, and with also proper emphasis.

  3. Fausta Says:

    You were so fortunate to have had Mr Jones as a teacher!
    (and a cute boyfriend – Leonard was adorable)

    I loved the Zefferelli R&J when I was a kid. Saw it multiple times with several of my friends from school.

    acted out with suitable hand gestures
    You’re probably thinking of http://static.flickr.com/49/151232133_9c11c11f38_o.jpg

    An anecdote from the olden days: A few years later when I was fifteen or so my then boyfriend quoted the “let lips do what hands do!”, but he got mad when I recognized the line. He wanted me to believe he’d come up with it.
    I dropped him because of that.

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    Fausta!! Thanks so much for that picture! I will add it to the post immediately.

  5. Lee Says:

    Whatever happened to Olivia Hussey? I think she played Norman Bates’ mother in a Psycho prequel, but nothing else I’ve ever noticed. “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move.”

  6. Ymarsakar Says:

    I dropped him because of that.

    Oh haha.

  7. Fausta Says:

    Oh haha.
    Hey, a girl has her standards :-)

  8. Fausta Says:
  9. Fausta Says:


    Olivia Hussey’s still acting http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001377/ and still looks beautiful http://www.oliviahussey.com/index_main.htm

    Back in my teens I had waist-long hair because of R&J. Then in a rare flash of common sense I had it cut to shoulder-length.

  10. guy Says:

    My personal feeling is that any high school Shakespeare reading MUST be followed up with a field trip to see a live performance.

    My teacher made us read through a play or three and I hated it. Luckily he then took us to Spring Green to see “A Comedy of Errors” and suddenly all that weird prose made sense. Everyone in the class loved it and we all had a ball.

  11. Ymarsakar Says:

    You know Neo. The one lesson I got from the ending to Romeo and J was that “where there is life, there is hope”. If you kill yourself…. and if something happens later, you won’t be alive to take advantage of it. Death is permanent.

  12. Ymarsakar Says:

    Sort of like this war really. You haven’t lost… until you give up. If you keep fighting, who knows what might happen tomorrow or some such. True, humans should use their judgement abilities, but more than mortal care should be given to decisions that are made on whim and emotion rather than coldly analytical processes.

  13. Ymarsakar Says:

    Btw, here’s another connection. What about Islamic honor killings? They love death like we love life?

    The point is that people in the west do love life, simply because we believe that life is the only game in town. Let’s ignore heaven for now. Since the Islamics believe there is another game than life, they can suicide.

    But we look at it as a tragedy because we believe you can accomplish more in life than in death, usually.

    I think in Shakespeare’s time, they were having a sort of duality tugging between life and honor. You know. Do you go with tradition (honor) and have your families arrange your marriages, or do you go with your heart and the newness (spice) of life?

    I always loved the moral dilemmas that his plays gave me. Such things as Othello. Genius, madness, hubris, falls, and all kinds of human fallibilities.

    I’ve always gotten the impression that people saw Romeo and J as a tragic romance, star crossed lovers. In that sense, romance then becomes a sort of nihilism, a belief that living isn’t worth it, that it is better to die for your loved ones, in their arms, than to live together. If we apply the description romantic to the end of R and J.

    Sort of Bonnie and Clyde.

    My personal sense was that it showed the foolishness of youth and the lack of wisdom inherent in such a state.

    Mercurio (mercutio?) always seemed to me like the wise old adviser or some such, really pissed off that he died because of the squablings of children.

    In a sense, the people in S’s day valued life. All the more simply because of high infant mortality rates and how fleeting it can really be. It must be a double tragedy to see two younglings suicide and waste such life they are given. And not just in the religious Catholic sense, either.

    To us here in the modern w, it still reveberates. Because we are still dealing with the issues of life, happiness, tradition, and religion. The more things change, the more things…

  14. Lee Says:

    “Out of the blue, and into the black. They give you this, but you paid for that. And once you’re gone you can never come back when you’re out of the blue, and into the black.” “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” I think ymar’s onto something there.

  15. ginger Says:

    Ah Neo…..again our very similar age brings common memories. I too had one terrific English Lit teacher in HS, who totally brought Othello to life for me so it remains my favorite of the Bard’s writings. But, then there was ‘that movie’ which likewise captured my heart. Some months after it’s release they produced a boxed LP set of it (that’s an ‘album’ for you youngsters :) ). If memory serves it was a total of 8, the entire audio track of the movie word for word and a terrific book, chock full of both all the written text and pages of pictures. Good lord how I begged for that, it was something like $60 which is those days was A LOT of money! My Mom surprised me with it for my birthday and I listed to it so much I could darn near recite the entire movie. I have that boxed set still, to this day, although I no longer have a turntable. :) Thanks again for yet another frun memory trip.

  16. Fausta Says:

    Ginger, get yourself to Best Buy and buy a turntable.

    I can still play the theme from Romeo and Juliet on the piano.

    Ymarsakarm, in literary terms, Romantic lit always had a tragic ending.

  17. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    I posted last month on “Permission to not understand Shakespeare.” It must be studied to be understood now, almost line-by-line as you received it.


  18. Ymarsakar Says:

    Just in case people don’t know, please use the shortened version of my name, Ymar.

  19. pat Says:

    I saw the Z version in Australia and they left in a full-frontal nude scene of the young lovers. Everyone loves the Z version (moi aussi) but I really liked the Baz Lurhrmann version. What it lacked in verse it gained in verve. How dangerous were the times? Baz captures the atmosphere and danger of the times. He translated the danger posed by armed nobles with sword — a cinematic cliche that didn’t connote danger to a present day audience — to pistols named after swords.

    Shakespeare is so deep it can seem like you are diving into caves in a coral reef, each more wondrous thanthe next. Melchiori devotes a whole book to unpeeling the layers in just five of his sonnets.

    We are slowly losing Shakespeare through the dumbing down of education. If Islam wins, Shakespeare would be erased from human history. That would be a tragedy. Preventing it is the most just cause.

  20. pat Says:

    What happened to Olivia Hussey?

    God invented Google to answer such questions. Here is part of the answer:

    “Most recently Olivia has completed her life’s dream, portraying Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a movie shot entirely on location in Sri Lanka and Italy. Her performance was received with open arms by the Sisters of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity when it was screened for them in Italy. Also present at the screening, and pleased with her portrayal, was Agi Bojaxhiu, a wonderful lady and the niece and only direct living relative of Mother herself.”

  21. Ymarsakar Says:

    You know what else would be erased from history? Chess. The Taliban banned it, and I think Iran bans it as well.

    The game of mind, strategy, and spirit. Fun game. You could almost call it the game of life, ha.

  22. Sergey Says:

    Comparing your recollection of your school days with what can be read about contemporary US schools one comes to conclusion that a very serious deterioration of the educational system as a whole has taken place for last three decades. Is it true? I was choked reading “Centaur” by John Apdike. A gloomy picture.

  23. Sarah Rolph Says:

    Great post, neo! What nice memories this brings back.

    I, too, read Romeo & Juliet in high school, and though I didn’t have a memorable teacher, I found the play a revelation. I took to the language immediately. As I recall we had a guide to look up all the headscratchers like “wherefore.” To me it was the rhythm that was (and is) exciting. Once I had gotten the feel of the language, I felt like it was a secret world I had entered.

    I recently watched the relatively new movie starring Claire Danes and Leonard DiCaprio. I didn’t like DiCaprio much in the role, and I didn’t like the violence or the humor or the general sensibility of the modern interpretation very much, but I still enjoyed the movie because it’s still Shakespeare. It thought it worked. I found that somewhat surprising and quite heartening.

    So, needless to say, I disagree that we are in much danger of losing Shakespeare.

    Thanks for reminding us about what it feels like to discover Shakespeare. And also for bringing back the joys of the Zefferelli film. I, too, loved it very much. I’ll have to put it in the queue for another viewing. (Maybe we should have a Romeo & Juliet virtual night at the movies, pick an evening to watch it and then have a conversation the next day!)

    Funny now to think that the brief flash of a naked bottom was scandalous back then. I remember earnestly arguing at the time that the scene wasn’t inappropriate because of the context. As I recall that was a daring position to take! Ah, innocence.

    By the way, Ymar: Thanks for the tip on your name, I was wondering about that.

    Three cheers for Mr. Jones.

  24. Ymarsakar Says:

    Well Sarah, I actually did a post on that where I cloned Neo’s “why neo-neocon” theme.

    All research done already

  25. Fausta Says:

    Here’s the R&J trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LOfgaSvKz8

  26. Ymarsakar Says:

    I remember that film, I saw it in class.

    My only complaint is that in certain scenes, I need the go back to the literature to find out what the heck they were saying. If only because there was no youtube rewind available…

    I much prefered the stately given lines like Juliet, with slower cadence. Not the fast scenes where everything comes out at a clipped speed.

  27. Cappy Says:

    English was my worst subject in High School. But I talk good now.

  28. neo-neocon Says:

    Sergey: Yes, I believe education has declined in the US greatly. Many many reasons for it, some of them policial correctness, some just general reflections of cultural changes.

    I have to say, though (and some day I may write more about this) that the entire school system used to be tracked. I went to public schools all the way, kindergarten through all of high school, in an area of NY that was very blue collar. In fact, the majority of the kids in my high school did not go on to college, as best I can recall. And most of the college-bound went to the local community college.

    However, the demands were quite rigorous, especially in the Honors classes, where I was placed. That’s what I refer to as the “track” system–the most academically inclined kids were taught in separate classes from the rest. The same was true of the kids in the middle, and the slower (or more disinclined to attend school) ones were placed in what were called “business” (ie mostly non-academic classes that supposedly prepared them for the world of work, but mostly were disciplinary). In addition, there was a vocational school that catered to those who wanted to learn practical trades. The whole thing was a class system of classes, you might say. But the upshot of it was that the top thirty or so kids (in a school in which each grade had over 700 kids) got a pretty decent and very traditional education.

  29. Good Ole Charlie (SE Penna) Says:


    I agree with Neo…you CAN get a decent education these days, especially if you are in what she refers to as a “tracked” situation.

    I teach three level of high school chemistry: basic (little math mostly descriptive material), honors (gets some math now, but an extremely wide exposure to the science), and advanced (basically introductory to college level, lots of problems and math: this is an AP course).

    The honors level would have been almost college level when I took chemistry 1 in college long time ago. I don’t dilute down the difficulty, but try to raise the kids to the right level. I have about fifty kids in this category. The basic contains about eighty: some of these kids just are tone deaf when it comes to science, but need the credits to graduate.

    The advanced course has five students…all have had some physical science, hopefully chemistry before. Basically it’s designed for future science majors and taken in their final year of high school. It’s tough, it’s rough, it’s designed to make you change your mind if you’re not willing to work hard.

    No one drops advanced, but a lot of my students “drop down” from honors to basic once the mathematics kicks in. Some of the basic students drop into biology: much more descriptive and little math beyond arithmetic.

    This also holds for the other academic courses, not just in science, but also in the humanities. Similar systems also prevail.

    Yes, you can get just as good an education as that obtainable anywhere and anytime. But you have to have a work ethic that is becoming more rare every year.

    And I keep it that way: my examinations are noted for their difficulty.

    I believe in what a Russian friend told me what a saying of Kutuzov: “Train hard, fight easy”.

    That last remark is true under any discipline…

  30. Lee Says:

    “And on the eighth day, God said: ‘Let there be google’, and there was google. Thanks, I think? Also ironic that chess was invented in Persia.

  31. Lee Says:

    Chess could be “islamicized”. Just change the Bishops to Imams.

  32. Ymarsakar Says:

    But the bishops would have to be more powerful than the queen, lee. That would just ruin the game.

    Neo, there’s still “tracks” in Georgia schools. Don’t know about anywhere else. However there is a distinct well social exclusion of non-academic/college level courses concerning technical schule. Which I think is not exactly helpful.

  33. Lee Says:

    Maybe the queen could be ayatollahed.

  34. Fausta Says:

    No, actually, the Queen is replaced by a Vizir.

  35. Lee Says:

    And the king becomes “caliph”?

  36. Lee Says:

    Pawns of course are “martyrs”.

  37. Ymarsakar Says:

    Pawns are the children, that get promoted to knight (suicide bomber) or rook (bin laden) or bishop (cleric islamic) and so forth.

  38. Lee Says:

    Of course! Forgot their children are the human shields. Thanks, ymar.

  39. Lee Says:

    I wonder if you could “islamicize” Romeo & Juliet. I guess they would have been stoned for their “non-Islamic behavior” and the “honor” of their families.

  40. Lee Says:

    The final line from the sheik: “All are blessed, ALL ARE BLESSED!”

  41. stumbley Says:

    Also worth watching for excellent film adaptations of Shakespeare:

    Roman Polanski’s version of “Macbeth” (if you can find it), and Kenneth Branagh’s version of “Henry V.”

    His “Crispian’s Day” speech is one of the great moments in film.

  42. Jen in NY Says:

    A good while back I had the distinct pleasure of attending a one-man show by Ian McKellan on Shakespeare. I wish there was a recording of it, because it should be required viewing for all high school students prior to the study of Shakespeare. Your Mr. Jones, Neo, certainly would have approved, as McKellan brought out many of the same points you have made in this post.

    The central thrust of McKellan’s show was that Shakespeare was NOT writing literature, expecting it to be read. He was writing plays expecting them to be performed. We are supposed to be able to SEE what he was talking about (as in the hands-kissing gestures Neo mentions.)

    Furthermore, because Shakespeare is so sparse when it comes to stage direction, the actors must take their cues from the script itself, and this, McKellan argued, was precisely what Shakespeare meant them to do. The hands-kissing scene you mentioned was not just offering visual imagery, it was suggesting actions the actors were to portray. Hence the richness of the visual imagery Shakespeare provides.

    I tell you, that production by Ian McKellan was quite the eye-opener, and it opened Shakespeare’s work up to me in a way no teacher of mine, sadly, ever did. My teachers seemed to regard Shakespeare entirely as a literary writer — they expected us to read the works to ourselves (NEVER aloud) and never showed us any video of it being enacted. The fools.

    God bless the Mr. Jones’s and Ian McKellans of the world. :)

  43. Sergey Says:

    In one of his essays Gilbert Keith Chesterton noted a special advantage of reading classics: he found this is a powerful antidote against heresy and fashionable insanity. And among many he especially distinguished Shakespeare as the most comprehensive “Eternal Man”, possessing what he called “plenitude of orthodoxy”.

  44. Lee Says:

    Thanks, stumbley. Brannaugh’s Henry V is my favorite Shakespeare. The “band of brothers”, “we happy few” is very stirring. I liked the “Once more into the breach” part. “For Harry, England, and St. George!” But for all that, it was actually a love story. “Will you teach our cousin English?” “I would teach her how much I love her, and that IS good English.”

  45. Fausta Says:

    You’ll probably enjoy the RSC’s Playing Shakespeare http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086780/
    and IMK’s Acting Shakespeare http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0269355/

  46. Lee Says:

    Is it me? Or, don’t the “trolls” ever have any comments about the “lighter” or “cultural” articles neo-neocon puts up?

  47. NOT TC Says:

    Hollywood is run by Jews—it’s no accident that “West Bank Story”, a grim parable about the ethnic cleansing of “Palestinians” on the West Bank won “Best Short Subject”.

    Just another Zionist plot…Sally probably enjoyed it in her childish way…

    Sad, really…

  48. stumbley Says:


    Did I fool anyone?

  49. Lee Says:

    That WAS good, stumbley. You’ve got his phrases down to a “T”(or is that a “TC”?)!

  50. Ymarsakar Says:

    Neo-TC, Stumb.

  51. Scott Says:

    A reading of the Lincoln-Douglas debates from 140 years ago gives an idea of the average American’s ability to “hear sophisticated speech and be able to divine meaning from its poetry, its playful images and complex metaphors”

    We have fallen far from our cultural roots.


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