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!

A New (and Exciting!) Way to do Shakespeare

I know I should probably keep this a secret, but I hate teaching Shakespeare. I visibly cringe (and occasionally twitch) when that part of the semester rolls around. I can hear the eyes rolling before I can even completely get the name Shakespeare off my tongue (and, yes, when 28 sets of eyes all roll simultaneously it’s as audible as gravel grinding against asphalt). And, if I’m honest, I’m holding back my own eye roll, as I pass out the tired and worn out materials of the same-old-same-old and prepare for the halting, robotic voices that stumble and stall out over Shakespeare’s unfamiliar language.

Now, though, things are different.

Last Spring, I attended the WV ELA Conference at WVU, hosted by WVCTE and NWP. There, I had the great pleasure of meeting Corinne Viglietta of Folger Shakespeare Library and participating in two of her sessions. I almost didn’t go to the breakout session, because “Ew. Shakespeare. Amiright?!”–BUT! I did. And sweet bard and butter, I’m glad I did! Because guess what? My kids had FUN with Shakespeare–and so did I.

After the conference, I quickly secured a teacher membership with Folger Shakespeare Library (which came with an awesome t-shirt, by the way!) and began scouring Forsooth, the IN-CRED-I-BLE teacher resource/community addition to the Folger Library, for all things Macbeth. I did a complete overhaul of my unit, Folger Ed style.

Day one of the unit, I would normally torture students with a day of Charlie Brown teachering about good ole’ Billy Shakes, the Globe, iambic pentameter, and yada-yada-yada–you get the picture: glazed eyes, bodies so slouched and low you’d swear they were melting, drool pooling in the corners of mouths–the whole shebang. This time, things went a bit differently.

I began by counting students off by three, separating them into smaller groups. Each student got a card with a word from one of Shakespeare’s works (I have a list if you want them!), and each group got a ball. The idea was simple: the first person says their word out loud, tosses the ball to another person in the circle who says their word out loud before tossing the ball to yet another group member, repeat. I let them do this long enough that most people had spoken their words a handful of times. Then, I asked them to continue the same process, but this time when they say the word, they may say it in a rage, seductively, or as a question or in confusion. Some of them got pretty animated–especially with the rage option. But I saw them having fun and enjoying the language, even though they may not have realized it. We talked about how the activity felt (which ranged from cathartic to weird to silly to fun) and where we thought these words might come from–someone in each class guessed Shakespeare.

We then shifted from language to looking at style and meaning in Shakespeare’s writing with an activity shared with us at the conference by Brain Sztabnik. I reviewed the elements of a sonnet with students and divided them up–boys against girls for a bit of friendly competition. Both groups received a copy of Sonnet 116 cut into its fourteen separate lines. Working together and using the notes on the board about sonnets and their own abilities to create meaning from texts, each group had to reassemble the sonnet. Whichever group got it correct first, won.

And boy, was competition fierce. The boys huddled together and moved with urgency, arguing over inferences and theories informing decisions on line order. The girls worked in hushed whispers, but listened and communicated well with one another. It was interesting to see the different approaches, but it was awesome to see all students eager and involved. In my second block, the girls won, leading the boys to call for a rematch. But in fourth block, the boys kept neck and neck with the girls and pushed ahead for the win right at the end. We talked through each quatrain, making meaning from what another student said might as well be a foreign language. When the bell rang dismissing class, they left full of energy and excitement, talking about Shakespeare!

The next day, we began class by putting on brief performances with two-line scenes, a great resource available through Forsooth. Each student was given a slip of paper with a line from Macbeth on it; after pairing up, they make a mini scene using only the lines they were given. I had all the desks arranged in a large circle, and each group would enter the ring to perform their scenes, many of which were hilarious, and would exit the ring to the sound of thunderous applause. We followed this up by a very animated 20-minute Macbeth (also a Folger activity!) before moving into the first Act. When it came time to assign roles, students were jumping at the opportunity to participate.

Just two days in, I was so excited and energized by what I had seen so far, and I could not wait to move through this play with those kids. I think the most successful element that ties all these activities together is the mentality of “safety in numbers”–what I mean is this: no one was alone. No one had to stand in the middle and be the only person performing; everything was done with a partner or the occasional trio. It was a risk to perform in front of everyone, but it was a shared risk. Everyone was goofy, everyone laughed, and with everyone in on the joke, no one felt highly self-conscientious. And wasn’t that what Shakespeare’s plays were intended for–entertainment?

Over the next several weeks, we moved through the play with a variety of incredibly engaging activities and, as a culminating group project, students had to put on their own production of a scene. They had to turn the play into a script, make notes about scenery and tone and character positions, entrances, exits, costume, props, etc. They cut lines, and in some places added them. The ultimate goal was to perform the finished product for the class, and several groups chose to film their performance rather than perform live (which actually lead to some pretty sick effects being applied–kids are editing geniuses these days). I was overwhelmingly impressed and entertained by each and every group performance. Not a single one was “just meh.” And we had fun. All of us. We were all engaged from the first day to the last, and when we were finished, they had a better understanding of the play than any other group I have ever done this play with.

So, long story short, I don’t hate teaching Shakespeare anymore. In fact, it’s something I very much look forward to. If you have the pleasure and good fortune to be attending the conference this March, the Folger sessions are an absolute must. I promise it will change your teacher life.

On Teaching Shakespeare and Skinning Cats

by Adrin Fisher

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. This gruesome proverb, with roots in Renaissance England, describes precisely how a teacher in the early twenty-first century should be teaching Shakespeare:  however she can.

During my career, I’ve taught at least one play by The Bard per year—sometimes three. That’s no surprise.  Shakespeare’s work has been The Greatest Hit of English literature for centuries, and is required in high schools and colleges throughout the US—even in non-literature courses like biology or journalism (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/400-years-after-shakespeares-death-hes-still-required-reading-even-for-econ-majors/ ). The Common Core State Standards demand one Shakespeare play each year in high school.  The message is clear—you’re stuck with Shakespeare, so what’s the right way to teach him?  Here are some ways I’ve seen advocated.

  • The Folger Shakespeare Library (https://www.folger.edu/ ) campaigns for performance-based readings. According to their PD sessions, they want Shakespeare’s words in students’ mouths.  It doesn’t matter so much that you teach the whole play or parse every line.  I’ve tried some of their activities in a mixed-grade, mixed-ability Theater Appreciation class with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I brought in a teddy bear—Shakesbear, if you will—and we “tossed lines” (and the bear) around the circle.  It was fun—and kids got to insult each other with Hermia’s and Helena’s best barbs.
First-Folio-Tour-OG.jpg
https://www.folger.edu/first-folio-tour
  • Dr. Bob Harrison, a WV educator with a doctorate in Teaching Shakespeare, believes in viewing performances—not even necessarily reading the plays. In his experience, he’s found it’s enough to hear the words and to discuss the story.  But he’s also found a way to engage non-college-bound students.  In the lectures I’ve attended, “Dr. Bob” advocated showing kids the historical value of the texts via a facsimile of the First Folio.  He’ll talk about, say, the printing process, and show trays of wooden type and, thereby, get students engaged in the “how” of Shakespeare.
  • I have a colleague down the hall who reads Macbeth out loud with her students. Personally, I’d rather stick a pencil in my ear than hear an unpracticed class of 10th graders stumble through a page of text. But, there’s something wonderful about making it clear that Shakespeare is for everyone at every level.

Skinning Shakespeare

Over the years, I’ve developed my preferred method of teaching high school kids who are more interested in maintaining their Snapchat streaks.  For each play I’ve taught, I’ve purchased a full-cast CD (or in a few cases, downloaded MP4s from iTunes).  I have students open their books to follow along while listening to the performance, hitting two learning modalities at once—auditory and visual. I ask kids to not worry about the meaning of every word or phrase, but instead, to get “the gist.” One of the main tools I give them is the actors’ inflection.  My major focus with Shakespeare is plot, but themes are a close second.  Right behind is his rich language.

My method of discussion is time-consuming and thorough.  First, I tell them what will happen in plain language:

“Horatio feels like an ancient Roman soldier.  Do you know what a high-ranking soldier would do on the battlefield if his king were killed? He’d fall on his sword. Oh, you’ve heard of Japanese ritual suicide, seppuku? Right! Same idea. So Horatio knows that Hamlet’s dying, so he’s ready to lick the poisoned cup. But Hamlet’s going to say no—be ready to tell me why.”

Then I push play and we follow along.

Then I ask them to answer my question.  And they can.

Then we do some study guide questions, with a partner if the kids need support, and then we talk as a whole class.  We get Shakespeare.

As you can imagine, though, it’s a slow process.  My co-teach seniors and I are finally winding up Hamlet, and we’re all pretty tired of his whining.  It’s been a few weeks, after all.

Necessity has caused a shift in my preferred method.  Last year, in dealing with a truculent group, I found Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet invaluable.  He directed and starred in an epic full-text film full of secret doors, one-way mirrors, lush furnishings, and a padded room for poor Ophelia.  Partway through the play, we switched from CD to DVD with subtitles (and books and study guides).

For my seniors, it’s been wonderful to see the film acted:  to tap into modern sensibilities, to be the critic, to watch facial expressions and nonverbal cues.

And for me, watching my seniors watch a 400-year-old play come to life before their eyes, helping them grapple with revenge and death and decision-making, giving them the privilege of seeing the world through another’s eyes—priceless.

There’s something to be said for Shakespeare—no matter how you want to skin him.

 

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. What ways have you found to teach The Bard? What advice can you offer your colleagues? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not managing lively discussions, dreaming up new ways to engage her students, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her drinking chai latte, walking through the woods, or pounding through a good novel. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

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!