PTS read-through: Romeo and Juliet, Act II, sc. ii
‘He jests at scars that never felt a wound.’ (II.ii.1) [a]
This is one of the reasons why I avoid teaching R&J at GCSE.
In the UK, every exam board offers teachers the opportunity to teach the play at GCSE; none do at A Level. I think I’d be far more likely to teach it to the latter (were RIII unavailable, of course), for a number of reasons:
- it brings too much baggage and unhelpful assumptions;
- linked to the above, too many students have seen the Lurhman adaptation and write about what they have seen there in their essays;
- many boys have a built-in resistance to anything they perceive as a romance, and we have enough on our plates encouraging them in a subject which has a massive female bias (I’d suggest that’s borne out by A Level ratios of 1:4-ish when it comes to students choosing the subject);
- because of the subject matter, the language is more ornamental and potentially less accessible than in other plays (eg Macbeth or Othello); and finally
- returning to Romeo’s riposte to Mercutio’s laddish teasing, above, it’s a lazy cliché that the play will be ‘relatable’ to kids (God, I hate that word). We teach R&J when many of them are 14, and the rest 15. How many of them have actually been ‘wounded’ by love by this stage? It’s just not good enough to say that Juliet was herself 13. Times change. In our society, children are waiting longer to even have steady partners, let alone have sex, get married (men at 37, women at 35 [b]), and have kids. They eschew alcohol for high-caffeine and super-sugared energy drinks. They are not us. So the chances are far more likely that at 17 – as part of an A Level course – they can better empathise with what love actually is.
On to the text itself …
I’ve said elsewhere that I like Romeo better when he’s not around his friends. I also trust the soliloquy more than I would almost any dialogue sequence. So, I hear real longing in the assonant groans that accompany his spying on her. Of course, we have no telling what kind of language he had previously used to Rosaline, but still, he seems genuine. Romeo (rightly) places Juliet on a pedestal – the semantic field of height built up by references to the sun, moon, stars, heaven, angels, and birds, reflect not just his worship of her but also, perhaps, Juliet’s perceived unattainability; the remoteness of his chances: the high walls of the orchard, the murderous intent of Tybalt, and of course his own teenage goofiness. Here’s a sample:
being o’er my head
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wondering eyes
Of mortals (II.ii)
But if I like Romeo better at this stage, I think I prefer Juliet throughout. Her ‘wherefore art thou, Romeo?‘ speech deserves to be famous, not because it is so often misunderstood, but because it takes relatively little effort to translate this into an observation on the absurd rules that so often prevent people getting together: the judgements made about people based on their skin colour, religion, nationality, gender, dress, accent, background, etc, when what ought to be important is what is in their minds and in their hearts. By the time we reach adulthood, which of us hasn’t had a partner our nearest and dearest don’t approve of?
This scene is what earned Leonard Whiting, as Romeo, the epithet ‘pervy monkey boy’ back when I was a trainee teacher, as Whiting leapt about the orchard and up to the balcony with suspicious energy. At least we weren’t watching our kids in the pool, Lurhman-style …
Juliet can’t help but be flattered by the risks Romeo is taking for her, and she does, occasionally, become giddy herself, but there’s an element of caution, of common-sense, which I admire and which prevents her getting carried away by her suitor, literally or otherwise. She has to acknowledge that her early words were meant with the honesty of soliloquy, notwithstanding the eavesdropping. She still needs to be won, but we sense she is worth the winning.
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond,
And therefore thou mayst think my ‘havior light:
But trust me, gentleman, I’ll prove more true
Than those that have more cunning to be strange.
I should have been more strange, I must confess,
But that thou overheard’st, ere I was ware,
My true-love passion. Therefore pardon me,
And not impute this yielding to light love,
Which the dark night hath so discovered. (II.ii.98-106)
With Juliet’s ‘daughter-in-law material’ approval rating so high, I’m all the more worried for her.
Romeo: O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?
Juliet: What satisfaction canst thou have tonight? (II.ii.125-126)
This might be the new improved Romeo. Alternatively, it might be the one who was on fire to get in Rosaline’s pants. ‘Keep your snake in its cage‘, boy. Or you might have scars of a different kind!
[a] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (Arden third edition, ed. René Weis), (Methuen Drama: London, 2012). All further references to the play text will be to this version.
[b] UK marriage statistics for heterosexual marriages in 2015 – source: Office for National Statistics