Why Kids Hate Romeo and Juliet

My younger daughter is studying Romeo and Juliet at the moment. We’ve been over that play so many times over the years that for the first few lessons I learned that she wasn’t even reading the book, she was just going from memory!  Unfortunately she had her events out of order and was getting them wrong (Mercutio and Tybalt do not fight in Act I Scene 1…) but that’s not the point of this story.

Driving to school the other day…

Geeklet: “We have a Romeo and Juliet quiz coming up.”

Me: “You going to crush it?”

Geeklet “I think so.”

Me: “Should we study?”

Geeklet: “What kind of nut does Queen Mab ride around on?”

Me: “I have no idea. But we could find out.”

Geeklet: “It’s a chestnut, isn’t it? I think it’s a chestnut.”

I’m driving, so I ask Google assistant to pull up the Queen Mab speech.  My oldest is sitting in the front seat so she reads.  “See if you can find anything about a nut in there,” I tell her.

Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;

Geeklet: “Oh. I was close.”

Me: “Wait, so, is that actually a question you’d be asked? What kind of nut?”

Geeklet: “Oh she’ll definitely ask that, and if you get it wrong you’d get the whole question marked wrong.”

Me: “That’s stupid. Ask about the point of Queen Mab, or why Mercutio tells us about Queen Mab, or what that tells us about Mercutio’s character.  But to get quizzed on that level of detail? That entire speech is nothing but that level of detail!  Children, children –  please, what kind of *bone* is Queen Mab’s whip made from? Hmm? Anyone?  A grasshopper? No, I’m terribly sorry, the answer we were looking for was cricket.  Cricket bone.  You fail.” Maybe it’s just to prove they read it. Great – prove they read it by translating it into their own words or something. That would show significantly more comprehension, rather than pure word by word memorization.

So instead we turned the rest of the drive into a lesson about why Mercutio is awesome.

Geeklet: “He’s the one that starts the fight with Tybalt, though, right? Because he was defending Romeo.”

Me: “That’s why Mercutio is awesome. He’s a poet *and* he’s a fighter. He’s that guy where, if there’s a party and you weren’t gonna go, then somebody says, “Dude, Mercutio’s gonna be there,” you’d be all, “Oh, sh*t, Mercutio’s going? What are we waiting for!”

Geeklet: “Isn’t he also a drag queen?”

Me: “You’re thinking of the 1996 Romeo+Juliet movie.  But they were all going to a *costume* party. Everybody was dressed up.  Mercutio just kind of got into the spirit more than some others.”

My kids like Shakespeare because we talk about the characters like they’re real people. If you’re supposed to like them we talk about why, and if you’re not supposed to like them we talk about why, too.  I don’t quiz them on perfect recall.  Half the time I get my quotes wrong, too.

But most kids who have to study Shakespeare in school don’t have me.  Nor do they have a parent who plays the same role. So they’re stuck with whatever’s asked of them in class.  And if all that’s ever asked is to memorize, there’s never going to be any appreciation.

(In my daughter’s teacher’s defense, I am not in the class, and I have no idea if my daughter’s description is accurate. My point is still valid, though, because it’s how she sees the class. She *thinks* that is the kind of thing that’s expected of her, and that’s enough to have her spend her time studying the trees rather than appreciating the forest. Perhaps that’s indicative of a larger problem with the default way that students go into classes like this? As far as I know, her teacher never gave any indication that this sort of memorization was expected – my daughter just assumed it.)


3 thoughts on “Why Kids Hate Romeo and Juliet

  1. One of the best thing Shakespeare does for us is invite us to put ourselves in others’ shoes. As Shakespeare writes in Hamlet, “Before thou canst judge another, thou must walk a furlong in his moccasins or ere those shoes be old.”

    I’ve tried to do the same in light of this teacher. Perhaps there’s a reason the hazelnut is significant. Perhaps the teacher lectured on that and wanted to be sure the students got the significance of the hazelnut. Perhaps this is an equivalent question to one on the significance of the item Titania requests her fairies to bring to make coats for her elves (does anyone know the answer to that or why it might be important?) . . .

    Because of that, I checked my Arden edition. I thought the hazelnut might have some deep resonance to the rest of the play and that the teacher had picked up on it and taught about it and wanted to cement it in the students’ minds for future use. After all, there is a 1381 recipe that calls for “þe mylk of the hasel notis,” and that year was the year of the Peasants’ Revolt . . . perhaps Queen Mab is a revolutionary figure opposed to the feudal system and / or in favor of flavorful desserts.

    But I can’t find any significance in the kind of nut Mercutio says Queen Mab’s chariot is made of. I can’t even think of a bawdy joke that Mercutio is making—even though that would be entirely in character: “I once had a chariot made of a hazelnut—hazelnut—nudge, nudge, wink wink, say no more!”

    Hamlet says he could be bounded in a nutshell, but he doesn’t say what kind—no help there. Gonzalo says that the Boatswain is born for hanging, even if the boat were as weak as a nutshell. No help there.

    Mercutio later says that Benvolio is so quarrelsome that he would argue with someone who is cracking nuts just because Benvolio has hazel eyes—anything there? Probably not.

    Could it be that the teacher wanted to be sure that the students understood the imagined size of Queen Mab and her retinue? Her chariot isn’t made of a coconut shell, after all—much less a giant boulder (is anyone keying in to the possible significance of the item Titania asks her fairies to get?) . . . is that the point?

    In short, I don’t think so. Those might be questions discussed in a graduate-level Shakespeare course . . . but then only if the professor’s dissertation was on nuts in early Shakespeare.


  2. Now I’m wondering if there’s a comparison to be made between Mercutio delivering Queen Mab, and Caliban’s “Be not afeard” speech. In both cases, there’s a surface-only interpretation of the character. Mercutio’s a hot-tempered party boy who loves a good double entendre. Caliban’s a foul-mouthed rapist monster. But both have a depth to them that allows them to produce that kind of poetry.

  3. I remember learning Romeo and Juliet for my GCSEs (UK exams the country does at 16) and then Othello for A levels (UK exams the country does at 18).
    I felt for GCSEs there was a similar problem to the one you outline – we were taught in our exam essays to generally focus on minute language points to get marks and tick boxes, rather than coming to an understanding of what Shakespeare was actually saying. So I ended up not really liking or understanding Shakespeare.
    But for A levels, it seemed completely different. We were discussing so many interesting ideas and what Shakespeare was actually trying to say, as well as being forced to analyse critics with really interesting ideas, that by the end of the course we all loved it! I think it goes to show that teens can come to love Shakespeare, it just all depends on how it’s taught

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