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.

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

11 thoughts on “Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North The dumbing down of Shakespeare”

  1. A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of Courtney Carbone’s *srsly Hamlet* (a modern Hamlet in text-speak, with emojis). After the first page, I was done. I suppose it’s much like *Pride and Prejudice and Zombies* — an author seeing how far s/he can carry a joke. If the reader isn’t enjoying the joke, they’ll abandon it pretty quickly.

    It’s a shame that modern expectations require fiddling with old stories, but hey, it’s on a par with Disney’s happy ending for Ariel (unlike H C Anderson’s original). And wasn’t there a 19th century series of upbeat versions of Shakespeare’s tragedies? Lear and Cordelia surviving to reunite, Hamlet and Ophelia taking a boat to Sweden, Macbeth and Fleance joining forces for a better Scotland? If North’s book leads young readers to E Nesbit’s *Stories from Shakespeare*, that’s at least a step in the right direction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lizzie!
      Yes, I thought about comparing it to PP&Z but it would not have been a fair comparison because PP&Z at least contained the original book. This mess has bits and pieces of the Bard but not enough to truly give Shakespeare his due. PP&Z was approved by my son’s school when they were assigned Austin. It got a lot of attention here as it was the first year the boys became excited to read Austin, LOL.
      the 17th century saw the popularity of upbeat Shakespeare thanks in part to Mary and Charles Lamb’s series. The Romantics threw fits and demanded the original be restored. I am not sure North will lead young readers to search out anything Shakespeare related, though it would be a nice thought. I adore Nesbit’s stories. I should review this book soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Romeo, [second “Romeo” deleted] where are you, kid?”
    “I’m here, Julie.”
    “Stop being a Montague. Be more like a rose.”
    Romeo (aside): “Julie must still be stinko from the party her folks threw last night.”

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I chose the path that said, “Do not pick up this book!” 🙂

        Coincidentally, I was in my local bookstore last night and, without trying, came across the Hamlet version in a prominent location. There seemed something faintly rotten about it. One of the store employees came up to me and gave a long-winded speech recommending the book. The speech was filled with platitudes, which is a longer word than any he used. It was like a Donald Trump speech. So I killed him, and hid his body behind a curtain.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. France? Oh, I do hope you had a grand time. Sorry there was an issue with your mom but I am glad to hear it it getting better. I am at that age in which I now have to worry about my parent’s health. Thankfully I think we may have a few good years yet, but it’s not a given.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I did have a good time, staying in Paris part of the time, staying in a pre-Revolutionary farmhouse in Normandy much of the rest of the time, and even making an overnight trip through the Chunnel to England to meet a fellow blogger.

        The recent travails with my mother have been foreseeable for some years, not that that helped any! It doesn’t help that she’s the first person in the family to come down with dementia . . . primarily because no one else has lived so long. And our elderly care system is geared toward the way people got old in 1965, when Medicare was passed, which is why extended stays in nursing homes and assisted living facilities aren’t covered, although they are becoming the norm for any elderly person who doesn’t die quickly. (sigh) Tell your parents it’s better to plan for a graceful decline, because otherwise decisions will have to be made during a crisis, and no one may be happy with the results.

        Liked by 1 person

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