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.
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?
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:
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.”)
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.
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.
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!