By Joshua Benton
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Yeah, it may be pretty and all, but it goes on for another 23 lines! Why couldn’t Billy Shakespeare just cut to the chase: “Juliet is a hotty!”
That’s the approach taken by a newly published series of Shakespeare’s plays, which lets high school students trade in Elizabethan couplets for MTV talk.
“Some people don’t like it, but they’re always adults,” said John Price, the Grand Prairie English teacher responsible for shoving Romeo and Juliet into the 21st century.
“I tell them: ‘You’re not the audience I’m writing for. I’m trying to get high school kids to actually read for a change.'”
Dr. Price’s book features the full, standard text of Shakespeare’s play, a tale of love and suicide among young teens. But alongside the thous and anons is Dr. Price’s snarky running commentary – the same aesthetic made popular by VH1’s hit Pop-Up Video.
When Romeo learns of his banishment from Verona, he cries, “There is not world without Verona walls / But purgatory, torture, hell itself.” Dr. Price notes sarcastically: “He’s not taking this well at all.”
When Lady Capulet mourns her daughter’s death (“Alack the day, she’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead!”), Dr. Price remarks: “Everybody got that? She’s dead.”
Annotated editions of Shakespeare are nothing new; usually they clue readers into the meaning of words long ago discarded by standard English. But Dr. Price’s book seems to reach a new level of sarcasm and pop-culture immersion.
He got the gig by answering an ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education seeking someone who knew his Shakespeare but could also crack jokes aimed at 14-year-olds. “I figured, ‘I can play cheesy for a while,'” he said.
Dr. Price, who teaches English at Grand Prairie High’s freshman center, said he relied on his teenage daughter for lingo advice, such as the meaning of “crunk.” (It’s like “phat,” only more so.)
His academic credentials – both his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation were on Shakespeare – were strong enough to handle the rest.
In his “Red Reader” edition, the traditional listing of characters is renamed from “Dramatis Personae” to “Shakespeare’s Peeps.” Lord Capulet, usually described as the head of the Capulet household, becomes “Juliet’s pop and a straight-up control freak.” Benvolio becomes Romeo’s “homey.” Friar Laurence becomes Father Larry.
The tone is clear from Act I, Scene I, which Dr. Price, 40, summarized thusly:
The servants of the two feuding families, the Montagues and Capulets, dis’ each other ’til a fight breaks out. Prince Escalus goes off on both families, warning that if another fight occurs, heads will roll.
MacDaddy Romeo (or so he thinks!) is bummed about Rosaline, a babe he wants to hook up with, because she ignores him. His cousin Benvolio (Benny) encourages him to get his groove on elsewhere.
“This is really part of a trend that’s been going on for 300 years or so,” said James Harner, a Texas A&M University professor and editor of the World Shakespeare Bibliography, a massive database of just about everything that’s ever been written about the bard. “Shakespeare gets remade for each generation.”
The Shakespeare scholarly community has its share of purists, but many seem fine with the liberties Dr. Price has taken.
“My view is that Shakespeare is the most wonderful thing that’s ever been done in the English language,” said David Crystal, a linguist and professor at the University of Wales.
“But most people never read him or discover him too late. Getting kids interested is difficult, and I’m all for efforts to interest them. Maybe next time, they’ll dip their toes into the water a little deeper.
“Of course, half or three-quarters of the Shakespeare world would sniff at it.”
The approach seems to be working, at least financially. Dr. Price finished writing in April; the book’s already sold 40,000 copies, according to its publisher, Michigan-based Teacher’s Discovery.
With Romeo’s success, five more works will get the Red Reader treatment in 2003, including a Price treatment of MacBeth and editions of The Scarlet Letter and Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories.
“Teachers already do all these things in their classes,” said Lori Pendley, a South Texas Community College instructor who annotated The Scarlet Letter. “We talk about a chapter in a novel, then we say, ‘Here’s what they’re really saying.’ We put it into their language.”
Dr. Price hasn’t actually used his book in class yet – his freshman students won’t get to Romeo and Juliet until next month. But he asked a teaching colleague to try it out last spring, apparently with winning results.
“My kids adored it,” said Debbie Dobbs, head of the freshman center’s English department. “They could understand everything, so they dug into it deeper than they ever had before.
“You have to have some sort of catch to reach today’s student.”