In Brief: Archetypes, Not Dirty-Mindedness

When discussing archetypes, it’s really easy to accuse the literary scholar of being dirty-minded, for it seems that everything tends to lead back to sex. Chasms and other cracks are generally synonymous with the female genitalia; obelisks and other pointed edifices, either natural or artificial, are sure-fire signs of steadfast masculinity; caverns are symbolic of the womb; the color green represents fertility and the color red represents bloody, furious passion; and so on. But the important thing to remember is that literary scholars do not point these symbols out to snicker at and show to their friends, but rather to draw connections between texts and reality. These connections tend to be universal–that is, they are found in every culture across the planet. It just so happens that sex is not only universal to all cultures, but it is something that drives us all subconsciously, whether we want it to or not. We may be embarrassed by it, ashamed of it, or even proud of it, but the fact remains: all humans on the planet are connected by the simple fact that we all feel the need at some point in our lives to reproduce. Archetypes–these narrative symbols that show us correlations between the stories we tell and the lives we lead–merely signify this for us in easily recognizable forms. And while sex is a predominant drive in our psyches, it is by no means the only drive; hence other archetypes, such as symbols related to nourishment, community, rejuvenation, death, etc. Thus, when your teacher points out that So-and-So’s sword represents masculine sexuality and the person he stabs represents the passive, conquered partner, do not think that teacher dirty-minded; instead, appreciate that your teacher is pointing out something fundamentally human to you, and just go with it. Chances are, accepting the sexual symbolic reading of the text will make complete sense to you.

On Teaching the Unmentionables


Romeo and Juliet Explicit Content

The English Teacher’s Dilemma

Every English teacher comes upon times in which he or she is faced with a text (or a section of a text) that some people would deem “inappropriate”, either for the grade level or for society at large. Sometimes this problem is easily solved: when dealing with the prolific use of the “n” word in Huckleberry Finn or in the works of Ernest Hemingway, the teacher can easily explain that the word does not render the authors or even their characters racist, but rather that the word was commonly used in the time periods in which the narratives are set, since it was not yet considered a racial slur at the time of writing. But sometimes the problem is less easily solved: what, for instance, does a teacher do when confronted with the blatantly obscene sexual references in Romeo and Juliet, or the unabashedly foul-mouthed first-person narration of Catcher in the Rye? The teacher cannot justly teach either text by omitting these elements, and the students will rambunctiously broach the subjects in class if the teacher does not calmly do so first. Thus, in order to avoid leaving any “gaping holes” in the texts, and to undermine any classroom disruptions, the teacher must broach the subjects with his or her students. Though many people argue that teaching so-called inappropriate material to adolescent students is unethical, I argue that, in fact, the opposite is true: it would be highly unethical of me to ignore these delicate subjects, for to do so would be to rob the students of the “big picture” — what these subjects mean in their contexts. Censorship in general does nothing but send to kids the highly unethical message that context does not matter and that it is acceptable to judge something — or worse, someone — based on first-impressions.

Since context is everything, it is important to first set up the historical context. Thus, each of my literature units begin with a discussion or an activity — in some cases, even large-scale research papers — regarding the time periods and the cultures in which these texts were written. In so doing, I can nip in the bud small problems, such as the use of the “n”-word in Huckleberry Finn or many Hemingway works. When we get to, say, Mercutio’s bawdy discourse in II.iv of Romeo and Juliet, I can point out that his dirty jokes reflect the strongly masculine man-to-man jibing that was so prevalent in Shakespeare’s world. By having vital discussions such as this, the kids realize that these “unmentionables” in the texts are just characterizational devices and fit right in with the historical contexts. Including the so-called inappropriate sections of the texts in the daily lesson plans does not in any way, shape, or form teach the kids that repeating this language or behavior is appropriate. That is why class discussions are so vital: if I were to ignore the unmentionables, the kids would pick up on them anyway — THEY ARE INFINITELY MORE ASTUTE THAN MOST ADULTS OUT THERE GIVE THEM CREDIT FOR! — but they would not have me at hand to tell them something like, “Unlike Huck, we live obviously live in a time period where using the ‘n’ word is offensive,” or “Mercutio may make sex sound like it is something everyone should recklessly do, but remember: he is just blowing hot air.” People who are so quick to ban books fail to realize that teachers actually talk to their students.

Proving the Book-Banners Wrong

The most ironic thing about having taught Romeo and Juliet for so many years now is that few adults out there actually realize how scandalous the text is. I am sure many people remember the brief nude scene in Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation, but beyond that, the text itself seems to be seen as tamer than Nancy Drew. Take, for instance, this quote from “Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools,” an ultra-rightwing [and thus agenda-driven] parent group that does not understand literature or how English teachers teach texts:

Shakespeare’s characters do not go through undeveloped, implausible, unresolved, vulgar, sexually charged, and otherwise morally repugnant storylines as do so many of the required books. As Shakespeare’s characters work through their humorous, tragic, or dramatic roles, they teach us a tremendous amount about the art of creative writing. No, we do not oppose Shakespeare. We consider his works to be a cornerstone of a fundamentally sound high school education in English literature.

CLASS makes no bones about banning books so obviously controversial as Catcher in the Rye or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but what they fail to realize is that Romeo and Juliet DO, in fact, “go through undeveloped, implausible, unresolved, vulgar, sexually charged, and otherwise morally repugnant” events as they progress towards their suicides: the storyline is quite undeveloped, particularly that regarding the Montagues (e.g., we suddenly learn at the end of Act V that Lady Montague died “of a broken heart” upon learning her son was banished); that Romeo and Juliet would fall in love so passionately and marry within less than twenty-four hours of having met is implausible to the extreme; Friar Lawrence, the mastermind behind Juliet’s feigned death, confesses but is let off the hook, thus leaving his punishment and absolution quite unresolved; Mercutio and the Nurse are as vulgar as they come; Romeo and Juliet are very obviously sexually charged (and Mercutio might even be sexually charged towards Romeo, if one reads the part correctly). Enough said. My friends over at CLASS are irreparably ignorant: they do not read either the books they ban or the books they promote.

But is Romeo and Juliet‘s apparent “vulgarity” any reason to ban it from the classroom? Certainly not. The play makes for a linguistically vivid and engaging first experience with Shakespeare for young people. Should I just not explain the vulgarity? As I have said before, the troubles associated with this are far more problematic than the troubles associated with having a simply discussion about the unmentionables. Thus, Romeo and Juliet stays put, as does the naughtiness.

My Philosophy

I have no political agenda in my book selections or in the ways I teach texts. My friends at CLASS and at PABBIS, too [“Parents Against Bad Books in Schools”–another wonderfully propagandistic, agenda-driven organization] would quickly argue that I have an evident leftwing bias in my teaching since I choose to teach the unmentionables. But what they fail to realize is that I do not promote the unmentionables; rather, I promote conscience. Is not life about choices –doing what is right opposed to what is wrong? Because adolescence is a particularly developmentally appropriate time to drive this lesson home, I use my umentionables-ridden texts to illustrate the lesson. Of course, I do not stand before the class with Romeo and Juliet held aloft, proclaiming that sex should only occur in marriages, but I do often ask kids what choices the characters have before them–which is the moral choice and which is the immoral choice? Which is the socially acceptable choice and which is socially unacceptable [“back then” and these days]? In this way, not only do I mold clear-thinking textual analysts, but I also [help to] mold clear-thinking democratic citizens.

Correct me if I’m, wrong, but isn’t that the point of American education?

“Kubla Khan”: Paradise, Interrupted

“In Xanada did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree…”

The Story:

In Exmoor, England, in opium haze, did S.T. Coleridge his stately vision enscribe.  Upon waking from a laudanum-induced stupor in which he apparently had a mystical vision, Coleridge quickly set about writing down in poetic form the elements of his revelation. He had grand ideas–a poem of at least 300 lines that precisely recorded even the smallest detail of his God-given vision [via the opium, of course]. Unfortunately, in the midst of his poetic elucidation, Coleridge was interrupted by the infamous Person of Porlock, an notorious figure of literary lore who has been supposed to be Coleridge’s doctor, Dr. P. Aaron Potter (delivering more laudanum, no doubt) or even Coleridge himself (i.e., he intruded upon his own thoughts and thus interrupted himself). Still others claim the character is a work of fiction and was created for the sole purpose of endowing the fragmented poem with a sort of legend. Whichever story you believe, the ultimate end is that “Kubla Khan” is just a fragment of the larger, grander poem Coleridge originally had in mind, and we have the Person of Porlock to thank for it.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The Analysis:

The poem begins with Kubla Khan declaring that Xanadu is a true paradise, a heaven-on-earth. Speaking in terms of archetypes, this renders Xanadu the Garden of Eden: a place that is as close to heaven as any place on earth can get. It also means that this paradise will eventually be lost. Coleridge spares no detail in his description of Xanadu, revealing that

there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forest ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. (8-11)

Not only is this paradise pleasing to all of the senses, Coleridge explains, but it is also much older than human beings, specifically, “older than the hills”. We can also tell by the prevalent usage of the color green–archetypically symbolic for fertility–that this is a land of thriving life, a place where reproduction comes easily. Not surprisingly, there is a “sacred river” (the Alph, apparently fictitious) flowing through Xanadu: rivers are archetypal symbols for the life cycle. It makes sense, then, that the life cycle flows through a fertile, life-giving land. The life cycle is further emphasized by the presence of a “deep romantic chasm [a symbol for the opening of our lives, specifically the vagina] which slanted / Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover [i.e., the pubic mound of the vulva]” (12-13).  Coleridge embellishes this metaphor to the fullest with the overt imagery of conception:

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean. (25-28)

As the spermatozoa races through the vagina until it enters the uterus, the lively Alph flows through a fertile land and then ultimately sinks into a lifeless ocean. Certainly, the uterus is lifeless until an egg is fertilized and an embryo is formed. That this all occurs under Kubla’s “pleasure-dome”, that “The shadow of the dome of pleasure / Floated midway on the waves [of the now-lively ocean]” (31-32) is not a coincidence: conception takes place, after all, after an orgasm. Thus in the first three stanzas, Coleridge describes for us his vision of paradise: an Edenistic domain where sex is not a sin, but is instead recognized as the pleasurable and cataclysmic act of producing life.

But as the Eden symbology from the beginning of the poem implies, this paradise–like our own happy lives–must end at some point. For Coleridge, it seems that his paradise vanished with the appearance of the Person of Porlock, for following the first three stanzas of reverence for Xanadu’s sublimity, we have a concluding stanza discussing Paradise lost:

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw;
It was an Abyssinian maid*
And on her duclimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air. (37-36)

[*Because Abyssinia [now Ethiopia] is in northwestern Africa, it is thought by some to be the possible location of the actual Garden of Eden. From this, we can apply to this Abyssinian maid an Eve-like persona; perhaps we should not proclaim her to be Eve herself, but rather a woman like Eve–someone who has experienced but has lost access to paradise.]

Coleridge makes it plain for us that this is post-Porlock, so to speak, for he now describes the vision in the past tense: he once saw it, which implies he cannot see it anymore; whoever interrupted him simultaneously robbed him of his Edenistic daydream. He remembers now an Abyssinian maid–an Eve-like persona–singing a mournful song of Mount Abora, a feature, it seems, within the bounds of Xanadu. He wishes that he could remember her song, for if he could, he would replay it and thus rebuild the pleasure-dome–i.e., he would relive his vision. But alas, he cannot remember the maid’s song, and so his vision is nothing but a memory, dim and pale in contrast to the brilliant vitality of the daydream.

In a mere 54 lines, Coleridge provides an illustration of Paradise Lost, not specifically imitating Milton, but most assuredly taking cues from him. Though the poem is fragmented, we nevertheless have a clear description of heaven-on-earth, complete with its fertile gardens and life-giving/life-beginning atmosphere, and its ultimate loss. We, too, experience this in our lives, for we reap boundless joys in our life-times, only to lose them as time goes on. But at least we can be contented with the quaint memories of these happier times, and be happy having once upon a time “drunk the milk of Paradise.”

Book Lists for the 2010-2011 School Year

After some exhausting research and preparation, I finally managed to put together my updated  curricula for English 8 and Latin 7 for the 2010-2011 school-year:


(Summer Readings)

*Greek Gods and Heroes, by Robert Graves

*Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson

(School Year Readings)

*The Essential Odyssey, by Homer; trans. Stanley Lombardo

*The Burial at Thebes (A New Verse Translation of Sophocles’ Antigone), trans. Seamus Heaney

*Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

*The Nick Adams Stories, by Nick Adams

*Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens [Enrichment Sections Only]

*Night, by Elie Wiesel

*Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

*100 Great Poets of the English Language (ed. Dana Gioia) [Poetry Anthology]


*Oxford Latin Course, Part I, by Maurice Balme and James Morwood

*The Ancient Romans, by Allison Lassieur

The English courses expl0re the nature of narratives from early history throughout modern times; we make comparisons to non-canonical texts often (e.g., we will compare Odysseus to explicitly non-Western heroes like Rama and Mulan). While we’ll scrutinize and act out the texts of Antigone and Romeo and Juliet, we’ll also view and study Kenneth Branagh‘s film version of Much Ado About Nothing. The last (and largest) leg of the course will explore how we communicate themes and truths through fictional and nonfictional narratives (e.g., The Nick Adams Stories, Night, etc.). To complement this comprehensive literary study of the human condition, we will watch and analyze Life is Beautiful and perhaps Hotel Rwanda.

The Latin course will introduce 7th Graders to the Latin language and Roman history and culture in general. The idea with this class is to provide a context for the language, which is vital since the language itself is, of course, “dead” (or at least not spoken commonly). A large portion of the course entails a hands-on simulation in which the students act as the various branches of the Roman senate to solve a variety of problems that I throw at them throughout the year (ranging from food shortages to barbarian invasions). Eventually, the senate simulations give way to governing simulations; this shift will coincide with our study of Rome’s shift from Republic to Empire. With the appropriate context in place, the students will begin reading and writing elementary Latin sentences by the start of the second semester.

Hoc multus labor fuit, et nunc fessus sum! Valete!

“Sailing to Byzantium”: The Pilgrim’s Journey

"I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium" Detail from 'The Return of the King' (2003)

Text of the poem:

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

(W.B. Yeats; 1927)

In literature, a journey is rarely about what happens along the way from Point A to Point B, but is rather about what the pilgrim’s travels represent.  Yeat’s sententious poem, “Sailing to Byzantium”, discusses a metaphoric journey such as this: the speaker has left a land in which he felt alienated and has come to Byzantium–Istanbul, which was once Constantinople–in search of spiritual acceptance and enlightenment. Indeed, Yeats deems the specific events of the journey so unimportant that we get no description of what happened along the way: we only hear what Point A was like, and what Point B seems to be like now. Yet even though we get no details of the actual journey, we nevertheless see its symbolic value: a pilgrim has left the dark confines of his previous life in search of spiritual enlightenment elsewhere; like every other wayfarer who has set out on a journey, the speaker of this poem has been called to adventure and has consequently set out for his destination.

The first line of the poem boldly states, “That is no country for old men”; the word “that” clearly indicates that the speaker is no longer in that country for he would have otherwise said, “this”. Thus, we know from this that the journey is done and that the speaker has reached his destination. But why did he leave in the first place? He indicates that the country he has left–“that” country–is full of youthfulness and teeming life, all of which “neglect / [m]onuments of unaging intellect” (7-8), which is to say that the country is brimming with vitality and surging life that pays no attention the elderly, the so-called “monuments of unaging intellect”. Based on this decidedly derisive depiction, we can guess that the speaker is an old man, someone offended by the neglect he suffered in the land he has left. The young are too busy “in one another’s arms” (2), the birds are too busy singing, etc., to pay any attention to the old. They are–to paraphrase a line from The Shawshank Redemption (1994)–too busy living to worry about those who are busy dying.

The topic of old age continues into the next stanza, wherein the speaker explains that

an aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress. (9-10)

An old man, the speaker says, is a worthless and insignificant thing unless the old man has a “luminous” soul, so to speak, one that outshines the old man’s worn-out body. How does a soul accomplish this–how does a soul “clap its hand and sing”? According to Yeats’ speaker, it seems this is accomplished by creating “[m]onuments of its [the soul’s] own magnificence” (14)–in the speaker’s case, these monuments seem to be poems, though these could ostensibly come in any other artistic form, such as paintings, sculptures, etc. These monuments are apparently either nonexistent or otherwise unappreciated in “that country”, so the speaker has “sailed the seas and come / [t]o the holy city of Byzantium” (15-16).

Fortunately, the speaker has found what he was looking for within the city walls of Byzantium: there are at least sages (wise old men) and gold mosaics (the “monuments of unaging intellect”), so his journey was not in vain; this is a country for old men. So happy is he to be in this city that he pleads to the sages:

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animals

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity. (19-24)

Here, the speaker acknowledges his mortality and begs the wise old men of Byzantium to immortalize his soul. He has made the pilgrimage from a land devoid of what he considers to be spiritual significance and is now seeking the ultimate pay-off in this ancient place: eternal spiritual existence. This makes sense, of course, since he is an old man: he is dying and, at the end of his life, wants to ensure a place for his soul in the hereafter–in the “artifice of eternity”.

So his journey, we see, is not quite over. Certainly, his physical travels are completed now that he has arrived in Byzantium, but his spiritual journey will not end until his has actually died and passed onto heaven. Upon arriving there, he claims, he will reject sentient reincarnation (25-26), but instead will take

such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lord and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come. (27-32)

He will, in short, only accept reincarnation as a “monument of unaging intellect”–specifically, an artificial gilded bird that will sing out as he was never able to in mortal life. As a living man, his soul cannot sing; but as an immortal ornament of spiritualized artifice, his soul will sing out for eternity.

But how does the journey-as-metaphor model work into this metaphysical meditation? Let us think about the reason for the first leg of his journey–the physical trek from “that country” to Byzantium: he left in search of spiritual acceptance and enlightenment. While he does find these there, he acknowledges that his spirit must still journey on past the ancient city into “the artifice of eternity”–heaven. He leaves the spiritual alienation and ignorance in is his former country and eventually finds in Byzantium the sages that teach his soul to sing so that, once reaching the afterlife, he can become immortalized as a beautiful piece of art–a golden bird that will sing out for all who will listen about the past, the present, and the future. Thus, the speaker’s journey is symbolic of every human’s desire to give meaning to his or her existence: everyone who has ever even briefly pondered the meaning of life has undergone this quest, this search for truth. Yeats’ meaning seems to be found in the singing of his soul, and while this might be true for him, this is certainly not true for everyone; but this is just an end. The means–the journey–is the same. All of us who have ever sought out truths beyond the visible world have sailed to Byzantium; but some of us, to be sure, are still pilgrims en route to our holy city.

‘Romeo and Juliet’: Getting Kids Engaged with Shakespeare…Using the Bard’s Dirty Jokes

Shakespeare: Not so prudish as you'd think


Romeo and Juliet has long been deigned the first Shakespearean play that students should experience. Though I often find myself at odds with pedagogical wisdom that ran current a century ago, I cannot but agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. The play is a sort of encapsulation of Shakespeare’s entire body of work, for it is part-comedy and part-tragedy, it is rife with puns and iambic pentameter, and it even contains a few sonnets. Students, however, rarely care about any of this at first-glance; after all, what do dramatic genres or poetic conventions have to do with them? Moreover, pop culture tends to give our kids the impression that Shakespeare is dusty and pretentious–and thus boring–which is of course not necessarily true (though admittedly, I myself have oft fallen asleep in the midst of reading Timon of Athens; but every Spielberg must have his AI). But the aspect of Romeo and Juliet that perennially surprises my students is its straightforward raunchiness, particularly in the first two acts. As a teacher and world-class opportunist, I regularly exploit this dirty-mindedness in class, for it draws the students into the liveliness of Shakespeare–the humanity that pervades his plays and engages those readers who are willing to see it. Once the kids see the dirty jokes, they start paying closer attention in the hope of finding more naughtiness; and while they do assuredly find more off-color humor, they also ultimately find themselves engaged with the play–something, I am sure, they were not expecting when they first brought the text to class. 

The first dirty joke arrives subtly in lines 12-19: 

Sampson. A dog of that house shall move me to stand. I 

will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s. 

Gregory. That shows thee a weak slave, for the weak- 

est goes to the wall. 

Sampson. ‘Tis true, and therefore women, being the 

weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall. There- 

fore I will push Montague’s men from the wall and 

thrust his maids to the wall. 

Let’s face it: adolescents are already incredibly dirty-minded. (And don’t be fooled that dirty-mindedness only runs in young men’s minds; some of the young ladies I’ve taught in the past have had among the filthiest minds I could ever imagine an adolescent having.) Thus, when they read something about a boisterous young servant talking of women being “thrust to the wall,” they giggle, if only inwardly, at the sexual connotation. But they don’t expect me to say anything about it–they just think it’s a classic example of some boring writer writing something he didn’t mean to write. But not to correct this thinking robs the students of a terrific opportunity for a lesson in the history of theater: for Shakespeare was a writer for the masses, and knew to include the raunchy jokes that would elicit hearty laughs from the audience, ranging from those in the Pit to those in the more expensive seats (and possibly even to Elizabeth or James, who both appreciated Shakespeare’s plays and ostensibly his dirty humor). Thus, the raunchiness is there, and pointing this fact out helps engage those students who otherwise believe Shakespeare is chaste and soporific. 

But one should not think that the dirty jokes in Romeo and Juliet are the end of students’ engagement with the play; rather, the raunchiness serves as a portal into the text’s finer points, specifically, the language of the soliloquies and monologues. Once the kids are hooked and are scrutinizing the text for the next sexual reference, they will come upon lines like, 

 O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! 

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night 

As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear– 

Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear. (I.v.51-3) 

Invariably, when the students I teach come upon language like this, we’ll hear some sort of audible noise, be that a whistle, a gasp, or a Keanu Reevesish “Woah”. It is arresting imagery when you truly think about it–and since the kids are reading so closely in search of the off-color references, they are thinking about it. At this point (by the end of Act I), my nubile Shakespeareans tend to be engaged enough with the play itself–not simply with the dirty jokes, but with Shakespeare’s unignorable language. They may at first be in the Pit, so to speak, for the dirty jokes, but through this portal of sorts, they finds themselves inextricably trapped in the play’s luminous language (not to mention, of course, its prepossessing plot). 

Besides the amorous titular characters (with whom the students always sympathize with since Romeo is 15 and Juliet has “not seen the change of fourteen years” [I.ii. 9]), the two characters that best further bewitch the students into liking Shakespeare are the Nurse and Mercutio–both of whom, not surprisingly, are quite filthy-minded. The Nurse, the servingwoman who breastfed Juliet as a baby and has otherwise taken care of her since birth, reflects her social class’ (and the students’) love of off-color wit. She makes liberal reference to her feminine anatomy (“Now, by my maidenhead…” [I.iii.2]), and cherishes dirty jokes, even when they are in reference to her own Juliet as a toddler: 

She [Juliet] could have run and waddled all about, 

For even the day before, she broke her brow, 

And then my husband (God be with his soul, 

He was a merry man) took up the child. 

“Yea,” quoth he, “Dost thou fall upon thy face? 

Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit, 

Wilt thou not, Jule?” And, by my holidam, 

The pretty wretch left crying and said “Ay.” (I.iii.41-8) 

Even in the midst of an otherwise sweet reminiscence, the Nurse cannot help crack up over a lascivious remark her husband made to Juliet regarding how quickly the girl would be on her back with the implied sexual partner on top. In fact, even when Lady Capulet asks her to stop talking of such things, the Nurse finds she cannot, and instead repeats the punch line: 

“To think it should leave crying and say “Ay” 


“Yea,” quoth my husband. “Fall’st upon thy face? 

Thou wilt fall backward when thou comest to age, 

Wilt thou not, Jule?” It stinted and said “Ay.” (I.iii.56-62) 

When I point out to the students what the Nurse is talking about, they giggle and turn beat-red–but they get it, and in the process become increasingly more interested in the play. Whenever we select parts to be read aloud in class, the kids tend to get excited when receiving the part of the Nurse–and, funnily enough, both the guys and the girls are generally glad to get the part. But in the end, what’s not to like about the Nurse in the first few acts of the play? She’s funny, she’s down-to-earth, and she’s extremely affectionate towards Juliet–infinitely more affectionate than Lady Capulet could ever be. Like the off-color humor that the Nurse so often employs, the Nurse herself is another portal of sorts that helps the kids further engage with the text. She’s a prurient clown, and a character the kids truly love reading about. 

If the Nurse is playfully lascivious, then Mercutio is downright licentious. Take, for instance, his conjuration of Romeo when he and Benvolio are looking for their lovesick friend at the beginning of Act II: 

I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes, 

By here high forehead and her scarlet lip, 

By her fine foot, straight leg and quivering thigh 

And the demesnes that there adjacent lie, 

That in thy likeness thou appear to us! (II.i.19-23) 

Building on his prior knowledge that Romeo has lately been head-over-heels in love (or, more exactly, in lust) with a resolutely chaste Veronese socialite named Rosaline, Mercutio pretends to be a sort of magician and mockingly calls Romeo to him in the name of Rosaline’s various body parts, from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet–and leaving no part vital part out, not the least her vagina, the “demesnes” near her “quivering thigh”. This explicit reference is actually not something I need to point out to my students, for the Folger edition of Romeo and Juliet that my students use clearly states in the notes that “demesnes” means “region”; thus, they need no help connecting the dots in figuring out what exactly Mercutio is talking about when he refers to the demesnes adjacent to Rosaline’s thigh. In fact, I’m quite certain they could connect the dots without the definition of demesnes, because hormonal teenagers will tend to giggle whenever they see the word “quivering” attached to almost any word. Either way, Mercutio’s blatant obscenity, like the Nurse’s comparatively mild lewdness, does much to draw new readers of Shakespeare further into the text. No adolescent can read a line like, 

…’twould anger him [Romeo] 

To raise a spirit in his mistress’ circle 

Of some strange nature, letting it there stand 

Till she had laid it and conjured it down (II.i.25-8) 

and not pay closer attention to what is being said or what is going on, all the while most certainly giggling giddily. Sure, students could easily get off-task when these comments are discussed or read aloud in class, but that has less to do with the students’ engagement with the text than with the teacher’s command of the classroom. If a teacher cannot honestly and straightforwardly talk with adolescent students about the obviously sexual nature of Shakespeare’s words–and furthermore cannot nip the students’ own off-color discussions in the bud–then that teacher probably should not be teaching adolescents. Indeed, as the saying that has always floated about the profession goes, it takes a special kind of person to teach anyone in middle school or early high school. Part of that “specialness,” I suppose, is a fearlessness about broaching sensitive, risque topics with young people. But we must remember: these off-color riffs are explained and discussed with a higher purpose in mind: they help the students engage with the otherwise difficult literature. As I mentioned earlier, an appreciation of Shakespeare’s dirty jokes will inevitably lead to an appreciation of Shakespeare’s mellifluous soliloquies and monologues and his enthralling plot construction. This is what makes Romeo and Juliet a particularly effective first full-length Shakespearean experience for students: they become engaged with the text via the bawdy humor in the first two acts, but find themselves still inextricably drawn into the play as the tragedy unfolds following Mercutio’s untimely death at the beginning of Act III. Even with the absence of the dirty jokes in the latter half of the play, the students–having been initiated by the lewdness in the opening acts–continue to be loyal followers of the play until its closing lines following three full acts of humorless tragedy. Think of Shakespeare’s lasciviousness as a sort of gateway drug for students; certainly, the dying words of Romeo and Juliet are far heavier and more difficult for young people to handle than any dirty joke could ever be. 

If you are a student of Shakespeare and have appreciated the occasional but memorable bawdiness of the Bard’s plays, then you know what I’ve been talking about; but if you made it through a study of Shakespeare (or even if you didn’t make it through) and didn’t notice the dirty jokes, pick up Romeo and Juliet and read the first page. I think you’ll find the dust will fly off Old Will as he quickly springs to potently virile, quivering life.