Where Art Thou (in pop culture), Romeo?

Where Art Thou (in pop culture), Romeo?

“When you’re watching your peers’ presentations, I want you to think about questions, lessons and messages,” Upper School English teacher Katherine Burd instructed her group of Class 8 students.

These scholars, who had recently finished reading Act 1, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, had established the tumultuous relationship between the Montegues and the Capulets and formed some basic assumptions of the play.

“As one of the most famous plays in the world, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to approach the text without some understanding of its role as a cultural touchstone,” Ms. Burd said, noting that the play is a source of illusion, parody and retelling.

Thus, with a few pages under their belt, Class 8 embarked on a project titled “Finding a Text in the Culture.”

With no shortage of options, students were required to select one short-format text (song, poem, tv/film scene, etc.) that alludes or refers to Romeo and Juliet and then hypothesize what people think the play really means and how the authors of those texts use Shakespeare’s work to explain something. For example, if in your song you refer to your beloved as Juliet, what archetypal significance are you communicating to the people listening? 

In groups of three, the eighth graders recently shared their robust presentations inside room 212. “Remember to address the class when you’re presenting, not me!” Ms. Burd reminded. “The goal is for your classmates to learn from you.”

The first group chose to dissect the balcony scene from the 2021 film adaptation of West Side Story. “The forbidden love trope has become so appealing,” one student noted, explaining that in this scene, Tony is reaching his arm out and trying to bring Maria closer, which, they believe, symbolizes tension and forces keeping them apart.

“The ‘balcony scene’ has become ubiquitous in pop culture,” another student added, as examples populated the screen behind her.

The group concluded that the dim and romantic lighting and Tony’s gesture of reaching for Maria, who is positioned higher than he is on the fire escape, symbolizes romanticism – an active choice made by directors.

The second group showed a music video for the song “Hey Juliet” by boyband LMNT. Through these lyrics, the group shared, the song toys with the idea of fate, destiny and love.

“In the music video, you can also see him reaching out [for a woman], which reminds us of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story.” They also noted that the video shows the boy trying to get into contact with his “Juliet” despite their separation, further underscoring its connection to Romeo and Juliet.

Citing the specific lyric ‘I wanna be your Romeo,’ one student said, “To be someone’s Romeo is to ‘save’ them and care for them.” The work of Romeo and Juliet, this group of students expressed, “helps listeners understand [LMNT’s] message. The references allow for the song to tell a story in fewer words.”

After showing a clip from NBC’s “The Office” (season 7, episode 15 to be exact), the next group explained that main characters Michael Scott and Holly Flax are “forbidden lovers” because he is her boss. In the scene, Michael says ‘Holly and I are like Romeo and Juliet and this office is the dragon that kept them apart.’

While there is no dragon in Shakespeare’s tale, they are known to be mighty creatures in fairytales. “It’s a metaphor for how they have no power, similar to Romeo and Juliet, who have no power against their families,” the students said.

The last two groups both chose to deconstruct Taylor Swift’s world-renowned tune “Love Story.”

“In the lyrics, you can hear that the family disapproves of the relationship, but it differs because it’s from Juliet’s point of view,” one student stated, adding that Swift’s lyrics offer a look into “true love” and how such love can make people do crazy things. A particularly powerful lyric that alludes to Romeo and Juliet, they noted, is, “We’d be dead if they knew…so close your eyes.”

The other group added that this song concludes with a “happily ever after” in stark contrast to the play’s tragic ending.

After applauding her students’ thoughtful work, Ms. Burd asked, “What are some questions coming out of these presentations?” to which students responded: ‘Who’s chasing whom? Is one more invested in the other – how can you tell?’ ‘Does Romeo like Juliet just because she’s a Capulet?’ ‘Has the story held up as Shakespeare imagined?’ and ‘How much of a romantic hero is Romeo?’

“These will be helpful while you’re reading the play,” Ms. Burd encouraged. “This assignment helps show that people can have misconceptions about the story – he doesn’t even love Juliet in Act 1, Scene 1, he likes Rosaline!”

With that, the eighth graders headed out, ready to tackle the remainder of the multifaceted play.