Like acne or an attitude or algebra, Romeo and Juliet is just something that happens to you in high school. Thanks to a long-running cultural positive feedback loop, the concepts “high school play” and “Romeo and Juliet” have become so star-crossed in our collective consciousness that, even if you never had to don a color-coded Capulet or Montague costume in tenth grade, you probably feel like you did.
For teenagers, Romeo and Juliet is supposed to be Shakespeare’s most “relatable” play. Its protagonists are adolescents who rebel against the social order by acting on their overwhelming feelings for one another. Many educators are savvy to the play’s inherent sexiness and use this hook to get students invested in Shakespeare, who is usually considered a tough sell to teens. While lots of students will find themselves fretting and gossiping about who will have to (or get to) kiss whom in the production, the teacher still entertains hopes that they’ll also pick up some iambic pentameter and do a little thinking about systemic violence.
Christian schools and homeschool collectives do Romeo and Juliet too, but tell the story with a different moral. A standard public school production of R & J levels its critique at the “two houses” and shows how tribal pride and prejudice work together to destroy innocent lives. Many a Christian school, on the other hand, will teach Romeo and Juliet as if it were a cautionary tale against young love itself: don’t follow your deceitful, wicked heart, or the consequences could be dire.
But no matter what warning label educators might affix to it, Romeo and Juliet is compelling to teens—and yes, Christian teens—because it puts their romantic and sexual impulses into stirring drama and poetry. And if Christian educators believe that a lavish production of R & J is just the thing for scaring teens straight—and that there will be no giggling or fantasizing backstage—they prove themselves just as naive as the famous lovers they aim to condemn.
Most adults, of course, can recommend a story of torrid, suicidal teen romance to students in good conscience because they trust students to understand the concept of extenuating circumstances. If Romeo and Juliet had met under different circumstances, they might have had a healthy romance and a public marriage. But since swords were drawn and blood had been spilled—it was wartime, essentially—the young lovers had nowhere to go, no sanctioned or appropriate outlet for their desires. Desperate times call for secret weddings and sleeping draughts. Teen readers are meant to understand that the situation in the play is extreme, and that a garden-variety junior high crush is no cause to call up a friar and an apothecary. But the mitigating circumstances in the play allow teen readers to take vicarious pleasure in the romance. They enjoy picturing themselves in a fictional scenario in which no one would blame them for acting on their very non-fictional desires.
Dramas of extenuating circumstances often make for particularly juicy and particularly popular narratives. Of course, historically, the whole purpose of drama has been to show human beings in situations with higher stakes and greater tension than the average person will ever face. Drama usually deals with extreme cases.
But dramas of extenuating circumstances deal with ethical extremes, stories where the standard guidelines for human behavior contradict each other, where the usual precedents don’t seem to apply. Greek tragedies used extenuating circumstances to make their audiences uncomfortable, to provoke horror, moral inquiry, and humility. What if your brother died an enemy of the state: would you bury him and betray your nation, or leave him to rot and betray your family? What if you had to murder your mother to avenge your father? They were chilling thought experiments, drama as a laboratory for ethics.