Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Love or Lust: Romeo & Juliet and Missing the Point?

by Dan Bruno (@HSMatters)

I may be in the minority on this one, but I have to come clean. I have never been able to justify the modern argument about love or lust in regards to Romeo & Juliet. There are many reasons for this confusion, but I want to make sure I am clear: I need someone to explain this conflict over love or lust because I cannot see it.

I have many colleagues who fret over the sensitivity of the main characters committing suicide in a play we teach to fourteen-year-old students. I am beginning to believe they fret over this portion of the play because they have allowed cynical, modern lenses to interfere with their artistic vision. If we dive into the play, a number of reasons against the reading of the play as lust surface from the depths of Shakespeare's text.

First, the contrast between the other male characters and Romeo. A softie by any other name would be as saccharine as Romeo tends to be. He speaks in the conventions of courtly love, by acts with the abandon of a teenager. The other male characters do not speak in courtly phrases and tidy metaphors; instead, they revel in violence and conflict. Heck, Tybalt has such an act to grind he actually hates the word peace. Forget the concept they represent, Tybalt's out for logocide. The most bawdy and lusty characters end up dead by open brawling violence, not quietly committing suicide in a tomb. Romeo is different from the other males precisely because he is not as lusty.

Second, the holy palmers' kiss sonnet. Shakespeare and his sonnets; Petrarch and his sonnets; Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her sonnets; let me count the ways. If there is one thing "universal" in literary study, it is that sonnet structure is associated with love. If sonnets are poems about love (yes, even ironically about love), and this first dialogue between Romeo and Juliet is a sonnet, this dialogue must be about love. Before I get harangued for simplistic syllogistic logic, also consider the metaphor Shakespeare uses in the sonnet. The two lovers are not just speaking about love, they are speaking about pilgrims on a holy quest. Love and holiness: I just cannot reconcile myself with lust and holiness being a pair. Was Romeo just pining away for Rosaline? Yes; but my dude does not miss a beat. Why harp on what's past when what's present is so lovely.

Third, the balcony scene. The stories of Petrarch and Laura and Dante and Beatrice are sweet until you realize that they are essentially pulling off the literary equivalent of Frankenstein's monster. Each man, at the loss of so lovely an object of admiration, reanimates the dead woman and speaks for her. In this way, the two female voices become formulaic, expected, in line with the men's perspectives. Juliet is not given the chance to speak in such saccharine language as Romeo because the meddlesome male is spying on her. Juliet is relieved that Romeo sneaks up on her at night because the night's darkness can hide the "maiden blush
 that would "bepaint [her] cheek / For that which [Romeo] hast heard [her] speak." Realizing that the conventions of courtly love are useless at this point, she says one of my favorite lines in Renaissance literature: "But farewell compliment. / Dost thous love me?" I can almost she her crossing her arms, narrowing her eyes, and preparing to shove this fool off of her bedroom balcony. Juliet is not one given to frailty and helplessness. Unlike the ideal women of Petrarch and Dante, Juliet has a life and mind of her own, and she is smart. Some say that Romeo is lusty and pushes her past her own comfort; I say that Juliet knows exactly what she is doing and falls in love with this deep and sensitive soul. Like Ovid before him, Shakespeare seems to be letting the poets prove to be the best lovers.

Fourth, and final, the union of the two families. This feud is old. This feud is bloody. This feud could not be stopped under pain of death. Watching the Folger's Master Class on Romeo & Juliet last night, I was struck by the actress Erin Weaver's explanation of the suicide scene. She says that there is ample justification in the text, besides the love for each other, that drives Romeo and Juliet to suicide. I have to admit that was a new perspective. She explained specifically that Juliet has little in the way of relationships with others outside her family, and these relationships break. The one with her mother is not particularly strong from the start, but when her father says "get thee to church o' Thursday, / or never after look me in the face" Juliet's heart breaks. In the eerily similar passage from Much Ado About Nothing, the good friar convinces Leonato that Hero's disobedience is false. In that play, Leonato relents, is shown the truth, and everybody lives...(you know the rest). In this play, Capulet leaves angry, the betrayal is real, and Friar Lawrence is not big on communicating effectively with others. Abandoned, Juliet only has Romeo left. With him gone, what more can there be? To ascribe to lust the power to end life, the power to stop violence and convert it to peace, and the power to mend physical and emotional wounds is to miss the point. What else but holy love, corrupted by the violence of these two families' rage, could be of significant enough loss to justify the immediate and certain change of heart in these two old, battling fools?

I am interested in what you think. Am I just being ridiculous? Have I missed something big glaring at me? I have always found the idea of having the debate over love and lust intriguing, but I've never seen how the lust side can get enough textual support to be convincing. I'm looking forward to reading some feedback and discussing this seminal text.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mastering Shakespeare: the Folger's 21st Century Outreach

by Dan Bruno (@HSMatters)

Tomorrow night at 7 PM EST, anyone who is anyone is the wild world of High School English will be tuned into the first Folger Master Class on teaching Romeo & Juliet. Just what is this wonderful opportunity you ask? Listen "to hear true shrift":

This one-hour professional development session will be stremed live to any computer, iPad, or Android device. You need only register ahead of time to be a part of the action.

You will be able to see, hear, and/or interact with:

  • Two scholars: 
    • Gail Kern Paster, director emeritus of the Folger Library
    • Ayanna Thompson, professor at George Washington University
  • Actors in the Folger's current production of the play
  • Teachers from around the country
On top of all of this dialogue, each participant receives a downloadable bevvy of materials for teaching the play.

This course is a history-maker for the library; it is the pilot of this new type of digital learning experience. the Library will be asking all who participate to complete a survey when the Master Class is over. If you are interested, please click this link to reach the registration page.

So, come be a part of the action as the Folger enters a brave new world that has such technological wonders in't.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Being Atticus Finch: Teaching Students to Walk in Another's Skin

by Dan Bruno (@HSMatters)

When Othello suspects that Desdemona has been unfaithful, he says: "My name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face." Once again, the bard is ahead of his time; he has Othello use the language of a different race to identify his shame with his color. What would it be like to think of your own skin color as a metaphor for shame everyday?

This question also led to one of the most important psychological experiments of the 20th century: the Clark Doll Experiment. Kenneth and Mamie Clark did not intend to be the linchpin in the famous Brown v. Board of Education court case, but their ingenuity became just that. After seeing example after example of African-American child choose the white doll for the wrong reasons, the Warren court overturned the prior ruling of separate but equal and changed the face of 20th century America.
How does a privileged white kid understand living in a town where you used to be slaves? How does any privileged kid understand living in poverty?

Why my obsession with race? Our program, the Commonwealth Governor's School, has just begun our newest unit: an interdisciplinary study of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. We could just read the the text, but there are social issues, especially for my students, that need to be understood. How does a privileged white kid from the suburbs understand fearing Johns Hopkins University Hospital because the doctors there are white? How does a privileged white kid understand living in a town where you used to be slaves? How does any privileged kid understand living in poverty? With these questions in mind, I began to design how I would introduce students to the unit's ideas.

The first thing that came to mind was a website I first learned about in my sociology of education class at UVA. Project Implicit, a sociological project from Harvard, maintains a website where anyone can take an IAT (Implicit Attitude Test). According to the project's website, "The IAT asks you to pair two concepts (e.g., young and good, orelderly and good). The more closely associated the two concepts are, the easier it is to respond to them as a single unit. So, if young and good are strongly associated, it should be easier to respond faster when you are asked to give the same response (i.e. the 'E' or 'I' key) to these two. If elderly and good are not so strongly associated, it should be harder to respond fast when they are paired. This gives a measure of how strongly associated the two types of concepts are. The more associated, the more rapidly you should be able to respond." The time it takes to respond one way or the other reveals the switch from unconscious attitude to conscious choice. So, I might not want to associate the elderly with negativity, but it takes me longer to correct this unconscious attitude and hit the appropriate key.

I asked the students to take the IAT at the beginning of class and then to write their responses down on 3 x 5 note cards (leaving off their names). I collected these and read them aloud while another student kept a tally of the class's responses on the board. The results are posted here:
IAT Results for my class
(EA over AA is on the Left)
The IAT we took was on race. The outcome measured was how much the test taker preferred European-Americans (EA) over African-Americans(AA) (to get a really clear idea, I suggest you take the test at this link). I had the student serving as our scribe put an "S" on the left for strong preference of EA over AA, then an "M" for moderate preference, and L→0 for little to no preference. We mirrored the M and S on the right side, but these were for preference of AA over EA. If you look closely at the photo, you can see that the overwhelming majority of my students have a strong to moderate preference for EA over AA. In fact, 65 % of my class fell into this range. If you include the little to no preference students, the total rises to 83%; the other 17% fall into the right side.

What makes these percentages so important is that the percentage of non-African-to-African-Americans in the class falls out about the same: 87% non-African American; 13% African-American. These three students come from varied backgrounds and varied places. The only cultural similarity that they share is that they have darker skin tones than everyone else. Moreover, these three represent distinct variations on the skin color continuum: one mixed, one lighter, one very dark. When I opened the class period, none of the students believed they were about to come face-to-face with the cultural divisions that have lingered between us since before this country was founded, but they did. The difficulty of the lesson arises now. How do you help relieve the guilt that inevitably comes from modern cultural perspective? Every single non-African-American
student's head was bowed, their eyes diverted away from their darker peers.
I referenced examples of things I'd seen in my career: the rush to judgment and rejection of students of color in disciplinary matters; the habitual rewarding of or taking away of points in regards to students of color based solely on color and not merit; entire classrooms segregated by seating chart.

I dove first into the psychology. I put up for examples of racists Bob Ewell (we read To Kill a Mockingbird earlier in the year) and pre-conversion James Jarvis (from Cry, the Beloved Country) as examples of men who consciously acted upon their subconscious attitudes. The hatred made them racist in (and I introduce this term in process) overtly racist. What we are attempting to coax into the light is the notion of covert racism. I referenced examples of things I'd seen in my career: the rush to judgment and rejection of students of color in disciplinary matters; the habitual rewarding of or taking away of points in regards to students of color based solely on color and not merit; entire classrooms segregated by seating chart. Then, I hit them where they live--television. I asked them to stand inside the 7-11 near school, to browse the aisles looking for a quick snack as the smell of 24-hour coffee and 24-hour sausage invades their nostrils, to feel the shake of the bass as the lowered vehicle glides into a space, to consider their immediate reaction when four young black men get out of the car. Nearly everyone flinched. I admitted that subconsciously I also would hit the panic button, but then I ask them to think about every crime show they have seen on TV. I ask them to consider who plays the street thug. Who plays the informant? Who plays the violent and dangerous criminal? Most of the time, it is a black man or a group of black men. Even when the black man is just sitting in a frame placed on him by a white guy, we have to make that stop before reaching our lily white villain. These biases are programmed culturally; feeling them is not the student's fault.

Then, I bring it to Kenneth and Mamie Clark. I ask them to watch the heartbreaking video of young black boys and girls rejecting the doll that looks like them. And then I ask the class to consider why even with three black students, no one strongly preferred African-Americans to European-Americans. There are times in life where the silence is so loud it is nearly unbearable. The mute cacophony of the class was almost too much for each one of them to bear, so before the discomfort became too great, I brought it back to the text.

One of the spots in the text of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that catches me off guard is the part where Skloot discusses how the Lackses and their friends feared Hopkins. Could they imagine, I ask, feeling mistrust for an entire hospital based on the racial biases that were woven into the African-American cultural fabric as a means of survival? The responses are coming thick now. They have never felt it, but they can understand how an attitude can become rooted in the subconscious, worrying the conscious mind with the spectre of what may happen. Then, a discussion ensues that makes me proud to call these my students.
I even heard one of the African-American students say "that is how I feel everyday."

They made me proud because they owned the subconscious biases and spoke openly about race for probably the first time in many of their lives. I even heard one of the African-American students say "that is how I feel everyday."

As English teachers, we deal with a lot of topics surrounding hatred and racial bias. As Robert Frost might say, "Something there is that harps on racial conscience." So many of the novels, plays, and poems we teach are laden with the tension of centuries of racial misunderstanding, violence, and fear. Then again, so are the hallways of our schools. I encourage you to use the IAT; like Atticus suggests, it can force students to consider what life would be like wearing a different person's skin.