As with most things in my life, the 80’s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes provided me with my initial exposure to Shakespeare. To my six-year-old mind, Romeo and Juliet, as presented by Arnold and the gang, was about this girl who looks out of a window and talks funny until this guy who talks funny comes out and kisses her. Then they drink juice and die.
From that point on, the Romeo and Juliet as school play trope was so ubiquitous that I was already sick of the play before I finally read it in high school. You see, this play was pretty much a rite of passage for my generation. Fast forward nearly 15 years and I am attempting to pass this tradition on to my freshmen with varying results. The language is a hang up, oh and haven’t you heard? Shakespeare is meant to be seen not read! Yet, there I was clapping out iambic pentameter and prodding kids through Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of the play (complete with underage nudity, yikes). I felt like one of those infomercial clods who fumbles frustrated through a basic task, turning to the camera exclaiming “There’s got to be a better way!”
Enter Gareth Hinds. At this point, I had already experimented with comics in the classroom and had great success, but I did not trust any of the comic versions of the Bard’s work because too often comic adaptations were vapid, dumbed-down versions of the original work. Hinds’ approach is to service the material, and to honor his audience. Often, when a classic work is adapted into comic form, it seems as if the adapter is more concerned with the adapting and less concerned with the original iteration. Hinds understands that his audience is there to read Shakespeare and not a watered down version. The reason why Hinds’ R and J, Beowulf, The Odyssey, etc., are so effective is because they are high quality works of art in their own right, outside of the source material.
When I introduced this version of R and J to my classes, the immediate effect was that they could see the play while they read it. So now instead of struggling with the original language, or passively watching the play, students were forced to exercise multiple modes of literacy all at once. This led to greater understanding of the play, and a more rewarding experience for my class as a whole.
Classroom Rating: 10/10. This is easy. If you teach Romeo and Juliet as a text why wouldn’t you want your students to visually experience the play? Hinds’ staging of the scenes, art direction, setting, characterization and overall direction of the play is just as masterful as if you went to see it in person. Hinds also made the decision to present the play with a multi-racial cast which brings some much-needed diversity and modernization, and also allows students to see that literature is not a stagnant art form. Through adaptation, Hinds breathes new life into the original play.
What could you teach with Hinds’ Romeo and Juliet? What could you teach with the original play? Theme? Check. Literary elements like metaphor and foreshadowing? Check. Literary analysis? Double check. You could treat this almost exactly the same way as the original, with the added benefit of discussing author’s intent/purpose with a different angle due to the adaptation.
Highlights: Hinds’ choices with the art are the true highlight here. The character design is very distinct, and the entire book has a cinematic feel. Especially Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech.