Toxic Masculinity in Romeo and Juliet

BY: LIZ KEIPER

Sampson: ‘Tis all one. I will show myself a tyrant. When I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids—I will cut off their heads.

Gregory: The heads of the maids?

Sampson: Ay, the heads of the maids or their maidenheads. Take it in what sense thou wilt.

Gregory: They must take it in sense that feel it.

Sampson: Me they shall feel while I am able to stand; and ‘tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

-Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene I, Lines 20-28

*****

Are you shocked and offended yet? If not, you should be.

Let’s revisit this scene for the people in the back, which is by the way the opening scene to Shakespeare’s quintessential “love story” of Juliet and her Romeo—one of the most solid staples of both the canon and high school English curricula across America.

Yet, not 20 lines into the play, two Capulet servants, Sampson and Gregory start firing off the rape jokes.

Sampson and Gregory, in an effort to show their manly prowess, begin joking about how tough they are and what they would do to any Montague man that they came across, which is namely to fight him. Then they begin discussing their hypothetical treatment of Montague women and find it hilarious to make puns about how they will forcibly take these women’s “maidenheads” (virginity). But Sampson figures it’s ok because he’s a “pretty piece of flesh,” so though he presumably will be raping these women, they will apparently enjoy it because he’s irresistibly attractive.

Yikes.

This leading scene, and many others from Romeo and Juliet, have bothered me more and more each year that I’ve taught the play. I mean, Lord Capulet clearly emotionally controls both Lady Capulet and Juliet and even threatens that Juliet makes his “fingers itch” to beat her. Mercutio makes sarcastically sexual advances on the Nurse in order to demean her. Both the Friar and Romeo allude to love having made Romeo weak and “womanish,” as if weakness and femininity were synonymous.

Don’t get me wrong—I LOVE teaching Shakespeare. I look forward every year to the day I get to wear my Shakespeare leggings, show my students my Shakespeare rubber duck, and explain why my profile picture on our grading system says, “Shakespeare is My Homeboy,” and the answer is because Shakespeare is AWESOME. His ability to communicate complex and challenging themes in a rhetorically beautiful way indeed merits our study of his works.

However, to ignore the elephant in the play of gender attitudes would do harm in several ways.

First of all, if when teaching the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet I just shrugged off Sampson and Gregory’s horrific jokes, my students could come away thinking that it is socially acceptable to joke about an atrocity such as rape because, well, it was in a Shakespearean play, so it must be ok. Statistically speaking, I also know that there are survivors of rape in my classes every year, and they are watching to see how I react to these jokes when they come up in the play.

But second, I would miss an immense opportunity to show my students an important thematic aspect of the play, which is the connection between gendered oppression and the overall propagation of violence in the story.

Inspired by a presentation on the #DisruptTexts movement which I saw at the WVELA Conference in Morgantown, I decided to not just tell my students that viewing women in a subservient manner is unacceptable, but to tackle head on the topic of toxic masculinity in the play—both how it can be seen in the play and what the consequences are for all of the characters.

First, to introduce the topic, I showed my students the Gillette short film The Best Men Can Be. It is a touching 2-minute film that emphasizes the importance of the values that we pass down to our children, and it focuses on the values passed down to the future men of society. Will we teach our sons that their first solution to any problem should be to use their fists, or will we teach them that there are many times when interpersonal violence can be avoided? Will we teach our sons that to be “manly” they should view women as objects to be claimed and used as they please, or will we teach our sons the inherent dignity and value of the women in their life? After showing this to my students, we discussed the theme—what does Gillette want you to come away thinking after viewing this film?

Gilette

 

Next, to further clarify the concept of toxic masculinity, I found two articles on the topic which I excerpted and had my students read and annotate. One was from the American Psychological Association, and the other was from The Independent. After reading and annotating the articles, I had my students answer these three questions and discuss them:

  • Based on the above articles, define “Toxic Masculinity” in your own words.
  • List some negative characteristics that the writers of the articles claim would fall under the category of “toxic masculinity.”
  • What would the authors probably claim would be positive characteristics of healthy masculinity?

Documents for the activity can be accessed here:

Toxic Masculinity in Romeo and Juliet

Toxic Masculinity in Romeo and Juliet

We discussed, based on the articles, what “toxic masculinity” did refer to (i.e. defining masculinity in terms of hyper-violence, sexual dominance, or lack of emotion) and what it decidedly did not refer to (i.e. man-hating or defining any masculine trait as inherently “toxic.”)

You can be masculine

 

Then, to bring it full circle, I gave each table group a particular section of Romeo and Juliet which they had already read. Below are the sections I assigned with a short summary of what happens:

Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 7-29: Sampson and Gregory joke about the prospect of taking sexual advantage of Montague women to show dominance.

Act 2, Scene 4, Lines 88-126: Mercutio and Benvolio sarcastically make sexual advances toward the Nurse to show dominance.

Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 55-79: Mercutio calls Romeo weak for turning down Tybalt’s challenge to fight.

Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 102-129: Romeo chastises himself for being “effeminate” and turning down Tybalt’s challenge, then chases Tybalt down and kills him.

Act 3, Scene 3, Lines 108-158: The Friar demeans Romeo’s expression of emotion at the news of his banishment as “womanish.”

Act 3, Scene 5, Lines 141-204: Lord Capulet threatens to beat and disown Juliet if she doesn’t obey him and marry Paris.

I asked the students to re-read the section and answer these questions as a group about the section:

  • Summarize in a sentence what happens in your section.
  • How are character(s) in this section of reading showing toxic masculinity? Connect to something that you read in one of the articles.
  • How is this contributing negatively to other characters, society, or themselves? In other words, whom is their behavior primarily hurting? Explain.

toxic-men-WEB

In this light, Romeo and Juliet actually becomes the perfect avenue for addressing the topic of toxic masculinity. Not surprisingly, I did at first get pushback from some of my students on this lesson. As soon as I announced that we would be discussing toxic masculinity, because this is sometimes seen as a political or ideological trigger phrase, I could see on the faces of some students that they mentally set up walls against what I was going to say so as not to be taken in by my “feminist brainwashing.” When reading their questions responding to the articles, I saw some antagonism in that several students wrote to the effect that the authors of the articles wanted “men to stop being manly,” which is of course not what the articles are claiming and was simply a knee-jerk negative reaction to the overall topic.

However, digging into the play itself did more to teach my students about the harmful effects of toxic masculinity than the articles did by far. In analyzing the scene in which Lord Capulet threatens to beat and disown Juliet, my students wrote about how this disconnected Lady Capulet from Juliet and backed Juliet into a corner so that she felt that her only option was suicide. When analyzing the Friar’s condemnation of Romeo’s “womanish” behavior in his highly emotive reaction to the news of his banishment and separation from his wife, they wrote about how this contributed to his hasty decisions later in that he felt like he had to “man up” and that asking for help or guidance was un-manly. When analyzing Mercutio and Tybalt’s violent posturing in Act 3, Scene 1, they wrote about how this prevailing view of what it means to be a “real man” in Verona makes all the men feel like if they don’t jump to violence as their first option to solve a problem, they are weak, thereby feeding into the feud. And finally, in analyzing the degrading sexual jokes, my students wrote about how making a habit of dehumanizing women leads the men in this play to become comfortable with dehumanizing and demonizing the “other” side in the feud.

healthy-masculinity

Shakespeare’s own masterful story did the work for me on this one because those were exactly the concepts I wanted them to come away with. The sins of the fathers are surely visited on both the sons and the daughters in Verona when toxic masculinity becomes the norm that is passed from one generation to the next.

So, is it really disrupting a text if those themes are inherently in the text? And was Shakespeare actually a supporter of gender equality ahead of his time?

My response is, does it really matter what Shakespeare thought? As teachers of literature, we know that a work of art has a life greater than the perceptions or beliefs of the person who created it. If Romeo and Juliet is a story that reflects truth, then the themes will play out in a way that transcends culture, social construct, or time period. And whether this lesson is truly “disrupting” Romeo and Juliet itself or whether it is simply “disrupting” a traditional reading of Romeo and Juliet seems to me to be splitting hairs. I know that my students came away from this activity with a deeper understanding of the text, the relationships between the characters, the societal implications of their actions, and how it applies to our lives and culture today.

And that’s kind of the whole point of studying literature, right?

 

Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • How do you implement #DisruptTexts with Shakespeare, specifically with Romeo and Juliet?
  • What other connection activities would be helpful to teach about this concept in Romeo and Juliet?

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Connecting Stories: The Archetype Scavenger Hunt

BY: LIZ KEIPER

Student: “Yo, like all of these archetypes are in Fortnite!”

Me: “Heck yeah they are! That’s pretty much the point…”

*****

I’m in a love relationship with archetypes. To me, literary archetypes take symbolism to a whole new level—it’s literary symbols that inherently encourage text connections. Thinking archetypally was certainly a game-changer in my own literary analysis, and I want to equip my own students with those skills.

When a reader realizes that no literature exists in isolation, stories take on deeper meaning. When students begin to see that characters sharing a meal often symbolizes communion, they recognize that authors use this to show union, fellowship, connection. They can recognize when authors play upon this timeless archetype or when they tweak it for their own purposes. When students begin to recognize aquatic submersion, or sometimes rain, as baptism, they can quickly recognize the themes of rebirth, new life, restoration. They see archetypes as signal flags… “Hey, you’ve seen this before in stories. You should probably look to see if this author is referring to classic archetypes in other stories in order to tell you something.”

I first bring up the concept of archetypes to my students while reading Romeo and Juliet. We discuss the archetype of star-crossed lovers and compare the classic tragedy to other stories featuring lovers separated by fate, such as Jack and Rose in Titanic (with the iceberg playing the role of fate), and Hazel and Augustus in The Fault in Our Stars (in which cancer plays the role of fate). This helps them see how various authors take this archetype and change it to meet the various circumstances of their individual story.

However, I take on the concept of archetypes in earnest when leading into The Odyssey. Homer’s tale is rife with archetypes, and I want my students to be looking for these classic symbols in the story from the get-go. That gives us a platform for discussing text connections and looking for symbolic implications as we read the story. So, I have my students do an archetype scavenger hunt.

Well, a figurative scavenger hunt, at least. After refreshing their brains with the definition of an archetype, I give my students a list of common archetypes, most of which can be found in The Odyssey. I then have them try to list as many examples of stories which contain these archetypes as they can. I remind the students that “stories” can include movies, short stories, books, video games, songs, TV shows, or fairy tales—stories transcend traditional books. And, of course, the winning group gets candy, so… it’s a race! Ready, set, go!

Here is a list of the archetypes that I have my students use for the “scavenger hunt”:

The Quest or Journey

The Task

The Hero

The Blind Character

The Shared Meal

Death and Rebirth

The Battle Between Good and Evil

The Unhealable Wound

The character who thinks they are normal until told they are a hero

The Return Home

Mentor-Pupil Relationship

The Threshold Guardian

Father-Son Conflict

Hunting Group of Companions

The Side-kick

The Evil Character with an Ultimately Good Heart

The Creature of Nightmare

The Outcast

The Damsel in Distress

The Beautiful but Dangerous Woman

The Friendly Beast

The Shadow

The Devil Figure

The Unfaithful Wife

Lovers Who Are Separated by Circumstance (Star-Crossed Lovers)

Light vs. Darkness

Nature vs. Civilization

The Underworld

The Maze

The Castle

The Magic Weapon

The Whirlpool

Here is a PowerPoint and Word Document of the activity with another activity focusing on the archetype of The Hero, which allows me to also highlight differences between The Epic Hero and our modern conception of “heroes.” This prepares them to understand some of Odysseus’ choices which are at times frustrating to a modern audience.

Archetypes and the Epic Hero Archetypes and the epic hero

At first during the scavenger hunt, I usually have a few students who think they can’t list any archetype examples.

“I don’t know any stories,” they tell me.

“That’s false,” I respond. “You watch movies. You watch TV. You play video games. Those are all stories. Tell me a movie that has a hero in it.”

“Ummm, like, Thor Ragnarok? That counts?”

“For sure! Write it down!”

As they begin to realize that they actually know a whole lot of archetypes, even though they previously didn’t know that they were called “archetypes,” they get super competitive with the activity, which is exciting. Let’s be honest—it’s May in on-grade freshmen English class. The beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is eerily applicable this time of year. It’s getting tougher by the day to engage certain lovelies in these classes. However, all of my tough-sells were so into this. They were spitting out archetypal examples like literary profs.

After the scavenger hunt, one of these students turned to me and asked, “So, the next story we’re reading has all of this stuff in it?”

Me: “You better believe it!”

Student: “Sweet!”

I think I just got a 14-year-old wanna-be tough-guy pumped to read a 3,000-year-old epic poem.

Sweet.

*****

I partially owe my love of archetypes to my college professor Dr. Gina Blackburn from Grove City College who assigned the book How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. I would highly recommend this book to every high school English teacher or anyone who wants to find deeper meaning in the stories that surround our lives.

Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • How do you engage your students with classic texts?
  • What are other ways in which you can help your students make symbolic text connections while reading?

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

A Lesson I Love: Channeling Understanding by Design to Create Themes

BY: LIZ KEIPER

“Am I really teaching my students what I need to teach them? I mean, I’m meeting the standards, and they’re doing work, reading things, writing things, and whatnot, but… Are they really getting… what I want them to get from this?”

I’m pretty sure that every teacher has moments of existential crisis like this. Teaching well over 100 or even upwards of 150 students day with various learning needs, personalities, and backgrounds does leave even the best of the us with the haunting feeling that perhaps we’re not getting to the depths that we should with them.

This sentiment is summed up well by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design. Wiggins and McTighe pose the rhetorical questions that teachers should be asking as, “Why are we asking students to read this particular novel—in other words, what learnings will we seek from their having read it? Do the students grasp why and how the purpose should influence their studying? What should students be expected to understand and do upon reading the book, related to the goals beyond the book?” (15).

Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design Framework has helped me structure my units in a way which gives me confidence in answering those rhetorical questions and has also inspired the lesson that I love: my Big Ideas to Themes lesson.

UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN

The UbD Framework revolves around the principle of Backwards Design. A teacher must establish their end goals for a unit up front and work toward those end goals throughout the unit. Otherwise, we tend to end up marching through a text, having students complete activities for the sake of completing them without thinking about the bigger picture of the overall learning they should be gaining. Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design describe the latter as “throw[ing] some content and activities against the wall and hop[ing] some of it sticks” (15).

In the UbD Framework, there are three overarching steps that a teacher must plan before ever starting a unit:

  • Identify Desired Results: What understandings and/or skills do we want students to take away long-term from the unit?
  • Determine Acceptable Evidence: How will you measure whether they have achieved those understandings and/or skills?
  • Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction: What day to day activities work as pieces of the puzzle to create the overall picture that you want to form by the end of the unit?

For English teachers, the first step of the UbD Framework of identifying desired results for a novel unit places a lot of emphasis on conceptual planning up front. English teachers must consider the piece of literature as a whole and determine the following:

  • Big Ideas: What are some large concepts that I want my students to grapple with throughout this text?

Example: In Romeo and Juliet, some big ideas are love, hate, youth, family, mortality, fate and free will, marriage, impetuosity.

  • Essential Questions: What questions can I form from these big ideas to drive my students to consider how they function in the story?

Example: For the big idea of love in Romeo and Juliet, essential questions could be, Is there such a thing as love at first sight? Can teenagers know what true love is? Does love truly transcend all? Does family love trump romantic love? Is love the most powerful of human emotions?

  • Enduring Understandings: What conclusions do I want my students to draw about the big ideas from the stories? In other words, what are the themes of the story—what is the author trying to say about the big ideas through the story?

Example: For the big idea of love in Romeo and Juliet, enduring understandings or themes might be, Love makes people impetuous, Love cannot exist without hate, Friendship can be a love as strong as family love, Love can transcend prejudice, Mistaking lust for love brings tragedy.

Once a teacher determines these big ideas and themes up front, it makes it much easier to emphasize them throughout the reading. You then have themes in the forefront of your mind as you are planning day to day activities which allows you to scaffold your students’ understanding towards those overall themes.

A LESSON I LOVE: BIG IDEAS TO THEMES

However, I don’t want to be the only one in my room going through the Ubd Framework process. This structure for thinking about pulling themes from a text has transformed my mindset as a reader, so I wanted to give my students the same opportunity to build understanding of themes for themselves.

I do start out every novel unit with some sort of anticipatory guide. I ask students their initial thoughts on some of the essential questions formed from big ideas which are going to be important throughout the book and we have a class discussion on them, usually in the form of philosophical chairs or Socratic Seminar. This helps to center their attention thematically on the questions we will be tackling over the course of the story. I also purposefully reinforce thematic content as we see it in the story. For example, I make sure to point out references to fate in Romeo and Juliet over and over again as we come across them so that it stays at the forefront of their minds.

At the end of most of my novel units, I then have my students do a lesson which I call “Big Ideas to Themes.”

Step 1: Assign Big Ideas

I break my students into groups of 3-4 and give each group a different big idea from the text. It is their job to become experts on that big idea and how it functions in the particular story that we just read.

I have found that the website Shmoop is an excellent resource for this activity. For most commonly taught stories, Shmoop has a variety of student-friendly resources pooled for that text. The theme section is especially helpful for this lesson. Though Shmoop calls the section “Theme,” according to the UbD Framework, the words listed there are actually big ideas because they are concepts that are important throughout the course of the text. For example, check out the Shmoop big ideas for Romeo and Juliet; most of my earlier examples of big ideas in Romeo and Juliet were inspired by this page on Shmoop.

Step 2: Answer Essential Questions about the Group’s Big Idea

Shmoop is also wonderful in that they also provide several essential questions for each of their big ideas for a certain text. I use these questions (and weave in questions of my own creation) and have each group start by answering these essential questions together based on what happened in the novel. This centers my students around their particular big idea and how it plays out in the story.

Step 3: Listing Examples of the Big Idea in the Story

I then have students list the three times when their big idea was most important over the course of the story. I make them find a quote in the story as text evidence of their example.

Step 4: Creating a Theme

Once students have grappled with the big idea in the above manner, they are more prepared to create enduring understandings, or themes, for themselves. I ask them to think, “What is the author’s point about this big idea in the story? What does he or she want you to learn about this big idea by reading the story? What is the point? What is the moral of the story?”

Step 5: Teaching the Class

After this high level of analysis and synthesis by my students, I want them to be able to share their findings with the class. I have every group create a poster showing their big idea, their examples of the big idea from the text, their theme based on the big idea, and an image that visually represents their theme to help the class understand it. I have each group present to the class, and I have their peers take notes on their big idea, examples, and theme.

ADVANTAGES

One of the biggest reasons why I love this lesson so much is because of the lack of direct teaching that I do combined with the depth of understanding that the students gain. I love when I am able to put the ball in the students’ court. This is where we want to get to as teachers: equipping our students to create deep meaning for themselves. If a unit is structured using the principles of UbD and Backward Design, the students will be ready to tackle these deep questions when we get to them. They will be able to answer them, create meaning, and then teach their peers about their discoveries. Getting to observe the fruits of what the students have gained over the course of a unit is one of the most rewarding parts of being an English teacher.

Pushing my students to themselves go through the UbD Framework also gives meaning to their learning. If students see reading a novel as a game of remembering character names and plot events, they aren’t going to care as much. Who cares if Bob actually kills Bill in the end? Bob and Bill aren’t real anyway—they’re not my friends. This isn’t my life. Having my students create themes from big ideas allows them to see the transcending power of literature. Shakespeare wasn’t just writing Romeo and Juliet as a sad play about two teenagers who die; he was answering big questions about life that are still applicable today in our universe.

Our students crave depth. They crave meaning. They crave purpose. And the lesson I love helps my students derive all of these things from the texts we read.

Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • How do you engage your students in themes with a text?
  • In what ways do you think that you could adapt the UbD Framework to fit the needs of your classroom?

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!