Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North The dumbing down of Shakespeare

Ryan North Riverhead Books Penguin Random House 2016
Ryan North
Riverhead Books
Penguin Random House

“You are Sari! Right now you are standing in a library looking at the books in the “New Arrival” rack, wondering if “Romeo and/or Juliet a chooseable-path adventure” would smell just as sweet as the original story. You hesitantly reach out to pick it up.

If you pick it up continue to paragraph 2.

If you laugh and think, “oh hell no”, stop reading this post.

You pick it up wondering if this is truly something that would encourage your average teen to become engaged with Shakespeare. You flip to a random page out of curiosity. With mild trepidation you read a paragraph. The first thing you notice is the simplistic writing style. The author uses short, concise sentences. You wonder if he does this out of fear that his audience has a short attention span. As you read on, you wonder if the author has a short attention span. As you flip to the next page to read more, you wonder if the author is 10 years old. You begin to regret your current life choices, beginning when you read the title of the book you now hold in your hand.

It’s occurred to me that with the plethora of books we’ve seen published in the last 24 months with “Shakespeare” in their titles that my best course of action would be to smother my keyboard with tuna and allow my cat license to stomp around my computer for a few hours and then submit the mess to a publisher under the title “A Feline’s Guide to Shakespeare”. My luck it would hit the bestseller’s list and my cat would become the academic hero of the family. When will publishers say, “Enough is enough”!

Oh sure this book by Ryan North is full of words, words, words, but as an intro to Shakespeare it is useless. The library has classified the book as suitable for ages 8 to 16. Did the publisher suggest this? I’m not sure a book that makes use of several sexual references is suitable for 8 year olds and the writing is far too simplistic for 16 year olds.

In this adventure you start out as Juliet but quickly become Romeo who can choose to fall in love with Juliet or fall in love with a dude (North’s word, not mine), making it very un-Shakespeare like and more of a modern “politically correct” book. So much for Shakespeare.

There is very little in the way of Shakespeare’s work in this book. Most of it consists of Ryan’s self-indulging humor(I could almost hear him laughing at his own jokes). He starts off on the wrong foot when he says it’s Juliet’s 17th birthday (she’s actually 14) and quickly goes off the rails from there.

You have things to do too, Juliet. You tear through some quick stomach crunches (three reps of ten) and some pec blasts (four reps of eight), and your ready to start your day. So! Your well muscled and your family’s rich. What’s for breakfast? (page 4)

This is modern Shakespeare?
This is modern Shakespeare?

How are we to take this book? Surly this cannot be taken as a serious effort to get teens into classical literature. And if this is indicative of modern teen books, it shouldn’t surprise us that fewer and fewer teens are choosing to read as a leisurely pursuit.

It appears Mr. North does have an audience. His first choose an adventure book, Hamlet, was funded by Kickstarter. That book turned out to be the most funded publishing project for the company to date. This must have emboldened Mr. North to try again with Random House behind the project. I just wish I understood his aim (besides monetary gain). Did he really believe he this would bring teens closer to Shakespeare or did he also notice that anything with Shakespeare in its title would be easy to publish?

Personally I don’t think dumbing down Shakespeare or turning his work into adventure stories is doing our culture any favors. I see this type of art as part of the problem we are now facing. The government’s emphasis on more science-based education is pushing the Humanities to the outer edges. Colleges are bemoaning the fact that students are not receiving a well-rounded education because of this. Books like North’s do little in the way of helping the situation, as his simplistic approach to “Shakespeare” is little more than an adventure into the land of pop-fiction. And lousy pop-fiction at that.

I’d recommend skipping this adventure.

And now for something completely different, the view of Sari’s world


The View From Sari’s World has always been a tightrope walk. Each post is designed to balance my personal views with facts so that the end result doesn’t lean too far academically or too far anecdotally. I do this in part because I favor non-fiction writers who are able to humanize even the driest of subjects (Barrows’ Painless Algebra comes to mind) and in part to connect with my readers so as to relate with like-minded individuals. Not that there is anything wrong with blogs that lean one way or another; many of the blogs I follow don’t attempt to walk the same tightrope as I.

The View From Sari’s World was started as a way of strengthening my writing skills (check) as well as establishing my “voice” in the academic world (I’m still working on this). It has always been my goal to use my blog site as a vehicle in which I am moved in new directions. Over the last two years my writing has received some attention from the academic world but not as much as I had hoped, and obviously the fault lies squarely on my shoulders. This is one reason I’ve started to post less often about what is going on in my life and or my views. Let’s face it, most blog posts that are all about the author tend to be self-serving and boring to the casual reader. I tend to avoid these blogs. And yes, I see the irony because of the title of my blog, but the name itself is a bit of irony or a play one words. The View From Sari’s World sounds so much better than, Sari’s View of the World (or lately, Sari’s View of Shakespeare’s World).

But today, instead of a view of the world at large, I am going to talk about Sari’s world, at least a small part of it and what you can expect in the coming weeks.

Friends and long time readers are aware that my health has been in decline for some time. I was born with a heart defect known as tetralogy of fallot. Though it is now repairable with life-saving surgeries, it does continue to take its toll on the hearts of those afflicted with this defect as they age. I am learning this the hard way. I am writing this post one week after having my heart pacemaker replaced with an advanced model that can “adjust” its pacing whenever my heart goes out of its normal rhythm. This new model comes with an app that allows me to take a “snapshot” of my pacing and send it via the cloud to my physician. This allows closer monitoring without constant trips to the doctor’s office. Oh the miracles of modern medicine!

One of the effects tetralogy has on an aging heart is that the blood becomes low on oxygen. This leads to low energy and fuzzy thinking; a combination that is not contusive to writing has been the main reason my posts of late have been sporadic and short. At first I blamed my inability to stay awake past 6pm to stress, but over the last few months, when my physical abilities started to decline along with my thinking, it became clear there was more going on than stress or even mild depression. Now that I have this new pacemaker it is obvious that my health issue was heart and blood flow related. One week out and already my friends are noting a vast improvement in my energy levels and thinking skills. I am going out on an optimistic limb and hope that soon I will be back to my old self. For you my friends this means I will be back to writing on a regular basis; walking at least a bi-weekly tightrope for your enjoyment. But please excuse me if for the next few weeks my posts continue to be short (though I promise not sporadic). Once I am confident I can manage to write coherent sentences with little grammatical damage to my reputation, you will see a blog that leans towards the academic side and shift focus to the view of Shakespeare’s world and his continued influence on ours. After all, his world is a hell of a lot more interesting than mine.

So that’s the view of my world of late. How have you all been?