Earlier this week we were approached by a performing group who was going to use Romeo and Juliet for the first time with their young audience. They were concerned with how to tell the end of the story without being too disturbing or too blase – getting the lesson across without traumatizing their audience.
We’ve been giving the tragedies to elementary-aged kids for a good long while, but it was still an interesting question to ponder. Lucretia Anderson put in her two cents: “They were desperate teens who did something awful to themselves resulting in a huge tragic loss for both families. This should teach students that coming together and eradicating hate is the way to go. We usually say that they “took their own lives” instead of saying they “committed suicide” or “killed themselves.” Romeo takes poison, Juliet stabs herself with a dagger. The elementary kids can handle it.
Ultimately, each teacher or presenter is familiar enough with their own audience of students that they know what they’ll be able to handle. But is there a line to toe, and where is it?
The research bug got me again, so I looked at a few examples of books for kids that depicted the lovers’ final acts. Read on for these examples, below, but how do you talk about fictional tragedy in your classroom?
~Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb
Here Romeo took his last leave of his lady’s lips, kissing them; and here he shook the burden of his cross stars [sic] from his weary body, swallowing the poison which the apothecary had sold him, whose operation was fatal and real, not like the dissembling potion Juliet had swallowed, the effect of which was now nearly expiring, and she about to awake, to complain that Romeo had not kept his time, or that he had come too soon.
…but when Juliet saw the cup closed in her true love’s hands, she guessed that poison had been the cause of his end, and she would have swallowed the dregs if any had been left, and she kissed his still warm lips to try if any poison yet did hang upon them: they [sic] hearing a nearer noise of people coming, she quickly unsheathed a dagger which she wore, and stabbing herself, died by her true Romeo’s side.
~Shakespeare Stories by Leon Garfield
He knelt beside her and made his sad farewell.
“Eyes, look your last. Arms, take your last embrace! And lips, O you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss a dateless bargain to engrossing Death.” Then, with a sudden joyfulness he cried, “Here’s to my love!” and drank the apothecary’s poison; and so, in an instant, ended for ever the parting from his love.
Longingly she kissed Romeo’s lips in the hope that some poison still remained on them. There was none; so she took his dagger and pressed it lovingly into her heart.
~Romeo and Juliet for Kids by Lois Burnett
He held her close in a final embrace.
Romeo found the poison and held it high,
“Here’s to my love. Thus with a kiss I die!”
The Friar left her in the tomb below,
And she knelt one last time by her Romeo.
What’s here? A cup, closed in my true love’s hand?
Poison, my lord! This is not what we planned!”
She drank from the bottle, but it was dry,
“One friendly drop to me you deny?
Juliet stabbed herself, and life defied,
Then fell to the ground by Romeo’s side.
~The Random House Book of Shakespeare Stories, [liberally] retold by Andrew Matthews
With a cry, Romeo rushed to her side and covered her face with kisses and tears. “I cannot live without you,” he whispered. “I want your beauty to be the last thing my eyes see. We could not be together in life, my sweet love, but in death nothing shall part us!”
Romeo drew the cork from the poison bottle and raised it to his lips. He felt the vile liquid sting his throat. Then darkness swallowed him.
For a time, there was no sound except the spluttering of the torch. Then Juliet began to breathe. She opened her eyes and saw Romeo dead at her side with the empty poison bottle in his hand. At first, she thought she was dreaming. But when she reached out to touch Romeo’s face and smelled the bitter scent of the poison, she knew the nightmare was real. Friar Laurence’s plan had gone terribly wrong. She cradled Romeo in her arms and rocked him, weeping into his hair. “If you had only waited a little longer!” she whispered. She kissed Romeo again and again, desperately hoping that there was enough poison on his lips to kill her too.
Then she saw the torchlight gleam on the dagger at Romeo’s belt. She drew the weapon and pressed the point to her heart. “Now, dagger, take me to my love!” she said, and pushed with all her strength.
~The Best-Loved Plays of Shakespeare, from Star Bright Books
The death of Romeo
Romeo opens Juliet’s tomb. He gazes lovingly at his bride.
“…Ah, dear Juliet, Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe that unsubstantial death is amorous and that the lean abhorred monster keeps thee here in dark to be his paramour?”
Romeo then prepares himself to die.
“Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace! And lips, O you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss…”
He drinks the poison and dies.
Just as Juliet wakes up, the Friar arrives. He sees the bodies of Paris and Romeo. He tells Juliet they must fly away at once. When Juliet sees that Romeo is dead, she refuses to leave. She sees that he has taken poison. ‘O, churl! Drink all and left no friendly drop to help me after?’ she says. She kisses his lips. Then she takes up Romeo’s dagger to stab herself.
~Tales from Shakespeare, by Tina Packer
Romeo held the lantern over Juliet’s face. “O my love! My wife! Death hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.” He kissed her cold lips, then lay beside her. “Here will I remain with worms that are thy chambermaids.” Romeo uncorked his poison. “Here’s to my love!” He closed his eyes and drained the bottle. The poison was quick. Romeo kissed Juliet again. “Thus, with a kiss, I die.”
Juliet knelt down. She found Romeo’s bottle and lifted it to her lips. “O, churl,” she said fondly. “Drunk all, and left no friendly drop to help me after? I will kiss thy lips. Perhaps some poison yet doth hang on them.”
The voices outside grew louder.
Juliet drew Romeo’s knife and aimed it at her heart. “Oh happy dagger! This is thy sheath. There rust and let me die.” With a swift motion, she stabbed herself and collapsed beside her husband.