Just Say You’re Remaking West Side Story

A hip-hop Romeo and Juliet? Produced by Queen Latifah and Will Smith?  Coming soon to Netflix? Tell me more!

Variety reports:

The movie will set Shakespeare’s tragedy in contemporary New York and follows a Brooklyn waitress and a musician from wealthy family.

Oh, so, West Side Story. I think it’s crazy difficult to do an “adaptation” of Romeo and Juliet because the expectation scale is so out of whack.  Beyond “two people in love who can’t be together,” what exactly are the required elements before we care about this one, and it’s not just another Camp Rock 2 or Gnomeo and  Juliet? Does there have to be a Mercutio? A Tybalt? A sleeping potion, a Friar Laurence?

Something that’s often forgotten in modern Romeo and Juliet adaptations is where Shakespeare says, right there in the first line, “Two households, both alike in dignity…”  Shakespeare never said “worlds apart” or “from different sides of the tracks” or made them two different religions or races or socio-economic classes (although I’ve heard it argued that the Capulets were much better off than the Montagues).  I don’t think modern audiences want to do the extra brain work of keeping track of who is on Romeo’s side and who is on Juliet’s.  “Can’t you dress them all a certain way so I can tell by looking at them?”


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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.)



A New Authorship Theory Has Entered The Game!

This week there are stories about both Amelia Bassano and Delia Bacon making the rounds, so I’ve had to spend some time talking authorship with people in my life.

So when I saw this interesting new AI project called TalkToTransformer I had to have some fun with it. You’re supposed to give this thing a writing prompt, and then it will fill in the rest.  I prompted, “The works of William Shakespeare were actually written by…”  and here’s what I got!

The works of William Shakespeare were actually written by two men; one was English and the other was an American. The English writer William Wordsworth (1710 – 1696), and the American poet John Wilkes Booth (1711 – 1816) were both inspired by Shakespeare, though they were not connected in any way.

William Shakespeare, known as the ‘son of an ironmonger’, wrote much of a tale known as the Merry Wives of Windsor. The story describes a happy couple, a young boy and a young girl – although it’s not clear if the parents are named or the boy is named.

There were many variations of the poem, and it probably wasn’t the last of its kind – perhaps the first. The early versions have been used to create an image of the Victorian age, featuring scenes of women (especially English women) in their prime; and an older man (sometimes male) with a young woman.

The play was first staged during the playwright’s lifetime, in 1819.

Hey, makes about as much sense as every other authorship theory!  I like how it made Wordsworth a time traveler.  I think one of the Booth family would appreciate being credited as an author, too.  When authorship comes up I’m going to start pushing the Wordsworth/Booth theory, because why not?


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Achievement Unlocked (A Geeklet Story)

Both my two oldest now are studying Shakespeare — Othello for one, Romeo and Juliet for the other — so the content comes so fast and furious it’s hard to keep up.  My oldest has to write a paper on Iago, in fact, because they finished the play when I wasn’t looking.

“That’s what I was going to tell you,” she says.  “I had to look something up about Iago for research … and you came up.  That was weird.”

Sure enough, if you Google “Othello’s ancient” here’s what comes up:


The funny thing is that there in the car I said, “It means his right-hand man, right?”  Which is exactly what I wrote in 2011.  And she said, “No, it means flag bearer,” which is also what I learned in 2011 🙂


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Trivial Pursuit for Shakespeare Geeks

I’ve oft-lamented that while I would love to collect and play Shakespeare board games and card games, I don’t really have anyone in the physical world to play with. My family will try to play, but the game ends up 90% me explaining things and letting them keep up.  Where’s the fun in that?

Well when Shakespeare Trivial Pursuit was announced a month before my birthday I knew I had to have it, even if to just add to my collection.

But! I think I’ve found a way to rewrite the game for when the number of Shakespeare geeks is drastically outweighed by non-Shakespeareans.

  • All of the Shakespeare Geeks are on one team.  Anyone not a self professed Shakespeare geek is playing for themselves.
  • The cards are shuffled and placed in the center.
  • The first non-SG player picks a card.  Player is allowed to look at all the questions, and the answers.  Player must then decide which question they think the SG team is most likely to get wrong, and ask SG team that question.
  • If SG team gets it right, they get the card.  If they do not, asking player gets the card.
  • First player or team to a pre-determined number of cards, wins.  SG team must get at least two times that number (since they get a chance to collect a card on every turn, whereas individual players do not).  Odds can be adjusted (3x, 4x..) depending on how many players, and how good SG team is.

Always read the question out loud, as well as the answer (in cases where SG team does not guess correctly). This has the added advantage of teaching the non-SG players something about the subject 🙂

If you play this way, let me know how it goes! Also let me know your ideas on what’s up with the extra wedge holder thingie, I still don’t understand that. 🙂


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