Books are a good thing, my friends. Not just mine, but so many others — works by the likes of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and that British guy that stole all those plays from Sir Francis Bacon… Billy something, I think. But after almost a decade of teaching high school students the joys and wonders of the greatest works of literature, and also the Transcendentalists, I’ve come to an important conclusion.
Some of our best works of literature are the works of deranged minds.
And to help us all comes to grips with that, on May 11th I’m releasing my new book, Everything You Need to Know to Survive English Class!
Not a novel, this new book is a critical look at the foibles of some magnificent works of art. And by “critical look” I mean I “poke fun at everything I hold dear.” What do Game of Thrones fans have to learn from Don Quixote? How did Odysseus convince his wife that nothing went on during the extended period when he was trapped on not one, but TWO separate islands controlled by lust-crazed goddesses? What’s “wuthering” anyway, and how can a height do it? For thousands of years, the greatest storytellers of all time have been producing timeless works of art, all so that here, now, today, I can use them in the context of a joke about the Transformers.
The book is currently available for pre-order for your Amazon Kindle or Kindle App, or in the Smashwords bookstore for every other eBook format. Not only that, but we’ll soon be adding it to the Barnes and Noble Nook, Apple iBook and Kobo bookstores, and we’re finalizing the print version as well. But for now, place your pre-orders! Tell your friends! Get in on the ground floor!
What, that isn’t enough? Fine. How about if we give you a sneak preview? For your reading edification, ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to give you a sneak preview of what you can expect in this soon-to-be classic. Here, in its entirety (including the footnotes), is the Everything You Need to Know to Survive English Class entry on that play you all read in high school, but still didn’t understand, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
ROMEO AND JULIET
This is Shakespeare’s most popular play, despite the fact that many of the others — Titus Andronicus, for example — are way funnier. It is also considered the greatest love story of all time, mainly by high school students who don’t understand what they’re reading, songwriters who think it makes them sound more intelligent than it actually does, and people who have never read The Princess Bride. The themes of drugs, underage sex, and suicide have resonated with overdramatic teenagers for over 400 years.
Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, Italy, although one can be forgiven for not realizing this, since everyone in the play speaks with a British accent. For as long as anyone in Verona can remember, the wealthy Montague and Capulet families have been feuding with each other, and the play begins with a violent altercation between members of the two households. The Prince, Richard Dawson, is fed up with this behavior and declares that anyone caught fighting in public again will be put to death, which at the time was considered a rather strict punishment.
Meanwhile Romeo, son of Montague, is bummed. He’s in love with a girl named Rosaline, who has told him in no uncertain terms that she’s just not that into him, even going so far as to take a vow of chastity in the hopes that he can take a hint. After an illiterate messenger lets it slip that Rosaline has been invited to the Capulet’s masquerade ball, Romeo’s buddies Mercutio and Benvolio agree to help him crash the party and talk to her, as stalking apparently wasn’t a thing yet.
Lady Capulet, meanwhile, is worried that her daughter Juliet will become an old maid, as she’s now at the ripe age of 13. The Capulets arrange a meet/cute for Juliet and Paris (the Prince’s cousin) at the masquerade ball, but everything is shot to hell when she meets Romeo instead. The two of them fall in love in approximately the space of 15 seconds, holding hands, mumbling some nonsense about Pilgrims, which seriously confused Juliet since they weren’t scheduled to leave for America for about 120 years. The next day, Romeo convinces his friend Friar Laurence to marry the two of them in secret. He agrees in the hopes that a marriage will end the feud, because in-laws always get along, right?
That afternoon Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, pissed that Romeo crashed the party, picks a fight with him in a public square. Romeo resists fighting his new cousin-in-law until Tybalt kills Mercutio, who takes four acts and a trip to the bathroom during intermission before he actually dies, cursing both of their houses. Enraged, Romeo kills Tybalt, declares himself “fortune’s fool,” and hauls ass.
The writers of this book would like to remind you that, at this point, Romeo and Juliet have known each other less than 24 hours.
When the Prince arrives on the crime scene, Tybalt and Mercutio’s respective corpses festering in the harsh sun of Verona (or, in the Baz Lurman version, fishing Tybalt’s bullet-ridden corpse out of a convenient fountain), he realizes Romeo was avenging Mercutio, an uninvolved party and yet another of the Prince’s many cousins. So he’s going to go easy on the fugitive: exile instead of execution. This would go on to hurt him at re-election time when his opponent tried to paint him as being “soft on violent criminals,” but that’s a different play.
In a section Shakespeare included to help literature teachers learn how to use the “skip” button on their DVD players, Romeo decides that — darn it — he may be an admitted murderer and subject to death if he’s found in Verona, but it’s still his wedding night. Shakespeare knew how teenage boys thought, what can you say? Romeo hooks up with Juliet before fleeing to his exile in the town of Mantua, where he hires a spaceship piloted by Han Solo and Chewba– wait, it’s possible we’re getting this confused with something else.
Juliet’s dad, whose nephew Romeo just killed, decides that a wedding would be just the thing to perk up everybody in the family, so he orders Juliet to marry Paris. She turns to Friar Laurence for help and he comes up with another brilliant plan, because the first one worked so well. He gives Juliet a potion to make her look dead, then sends word to Romeo to come get her out of the family crypt after her funeral. That way, when the potion wears off, they can run away together with nobody noticing she’s gone, at least until the next Capulet dies, which couldn’t be until next Tuesday or so, at least.
Once again, though, Fate screws up Friar Laurence’s plan. Laurence’s messenger, Friar John, gets trapped in a house where one of the residents is suspected of having the black plague. At the time, in this era before antibiotics or immune booster smoothie add-ins, there was only one real treatment if you found a house where someone was dying of the plague: board it up from the outside, walk away whistling innocently, and hope the agonized screams from within didn’t take too long to stop. As a result, Romeo never gets the Friar’s message, but he does hear from his pal Balthazar that Juliet is dead.
In anguish, Romeo returns to Verona and encounters Paris at Juliet’s grave. If we may be allowed to editorialize a bit here, the writers of this book have always felt Paris gets kind of a raw deal. People look at him as an interloper, an obstacle, the jackass boyfriend in every romantic comedy who has to be done away with so Meg Ryan can find her true love. But really, what does Paris ever do that’s actually wrong? He attempts to arrange a marriage with Juliet, yes, but that was both common and acceptable at the time. What’s more, he seems to genuinely care for her, displaying his love when he tries to convince her to marry him. In his grief, he even guards her tomb after her “death.” And what does he get for it? Killed, that’s what. Romeo kills the shit out of him.
With Paris dead, Romeo enters the tomb and, standing over the quiet Juliet, kills himself. Friar Laurence — who has realized his plans have as much of a chance of working as the castaways have of getting off Gilligan’s Island this week — arrives to find Romeo dead just as Juliet is waking up. He tells her to wait while he checks out a noise, giving her the opportunity to stab herself with Romeo’s dagger, which is actually not a double entendre.
The Prince, the Capulets, and the Montagues all arrive at the tomb to investigate who the hell is making all that noise, only to find the remnants of the bloodbath. We also learn that, in a scene the studio cut for time, Romeo’s mother has died of a broken heart after her son’s exile, which is kinda funny since his corpse is, like, right there. The Montagues and the Capulets embrace, end the feud, and pinky-swear to never, ever fight again.
This play, of course, is widely regarded as a masterpiece and is still studied today in high schools all over the world, where teachers attempt to impart upon their students the true message of Shakespeare’s work: teenagers, shut the hell up and listen to your parents or six people will die for no damn reason.
Although the text explicitly gives us Juliet’s age as being 13 (or, as her father says, she “hath not seen the change of fourteen years”), it has no such specificity about Romeo. Speculation tends to run from him being 13 himself to being somewhere in his 20s, or, “still young enough to make a complete ass out of himself.” Although today such an age gap would result in him being arrested in every state in the union, in the middle ages it would not have been unusual at all. Women at that time were expected to marry older men, who would then die and leave them rich at a relatively young age, at which point they would immediately embark upon a scandalous relationship with the stable boy. Juliet’s mother, in fact, tells us she was already a mother at Juliet’s age. Since Juliet is apparently an only child, this means Mama Capulet is about 26 years old at the time of the play, and she was looking to be a grandma. Be prepared to have a frank discussion with certain students in your high school class who mistakenly consider her a role model.
Partially because it’s a classic, but mostly because it’s public domain, Romeo and Juliet remains Shakespeare’s most-produced play, with thousands of high school and community theater productions annually. It has also inspired dozens of movies, including versions where the characters are radioactive mutants, one where there are car chases and gunfights, and the Disney-distributed film Gnomeo and Juliet, in which the characters are garden gnomes and nobody actually dies, because Disney lost their stones after they offed Bambi’s mom.
 Spoiler alert: he can’t.
 In Act V the Friar coins the classic Shakespearean quotation, “Boy, Fate is a real asshole, huh?”
 Played by Greg Kinnear.
 We sincerely hope.