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Shakespeare Text Analysis

On Pain of Torture

An Analysis of the Reading Level of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

by John Hamm

2010

Zefirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, 1968

Most high schools teach one or more plays by Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet is a staple of the 9th grade curriculum. Some schools use modern adaptations, while others teach the original Elizabethan text. I was forced to read this text in 9th grade. As an aspiring English teacher I wanted to see if it was appropriately leveled. Establishing readability for a play written several hundred years ago proved to be difficult.

For my first analysis, I used the Fry Graph for Estimating Readability, which is a standard method. I chose the first long monologue in Act 1, Scene 1. This is spoken by the Prince after he breaks up a brawl. It is the first major block of text in the play, and probably where most children give up. I will discuss why I believe they might give up in my second analysis.

After counting out 100 words, I proceeded to count out the total number of syllables in that block of words. This section of the monologue (it carried on for another 100 words) has 14 line breaks, with 137-140 syllables, at roughly ten to a line. It is apparent that Shakespeare wrote in a distinct meter. Each line has between eight and ten syllables, no more, no less. And depending on how one pronounces some words, the lines that came out less than ten syllables could arguably be spoken in such a way as to make them ten.

It is possible that Shakespeare intended that each line in the monologue have exactly ten syllables, and that the text has been changed over time. Or it could be that Shakespeare was satisfied with a range of eight to ten syllables per line. When read silently or spoken out loud it is not noticeable that one line possesses eight, while another ten. In either case, it does not significantly change the Fry analysis.

What does change the analysis is how one counts sentences. Shakespeare often uses dashes, exclamation points, and questions marks to show pacing in the text. But these marks do not necessarily denotate a sentence. Here is an example:
Profaners of this neighbor-stained steel -
Will they not hear? – What ho, you men, you beasts!
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins – (Act 1 Scene 1, 82-85)

Depending on how one reads, “Will they not hear?” it could be its own sentence, an exasperated continuation of the previous line, or the beginning of the line it is on. One could argue that each line is a sentence, which equals 14 sentences. This is the most objective method. The other possibility is to try to distinguish where one sentence ends and another begins. I counted between four and five sentences, with the last sentence continuing onto the next 100 words.

My conclusions came out very differently depending on how I counted the sentences. At 14 sentences and 140 syllables, the Fry Graph predicted a 3rd grade reading level. At five sentences and 140 syllables it showed an 8th grade level. And counting four sentences (my preferred count) it showed a 9th grade level. Romeo and Juliet is typically taught in 9th grade. It is possible that a passage like this was used to determine readability.

However, the Fry system is lacking in some areas. Is this text really readable for 9th graders? We should take several other factors into consideration when analyzing this text. Vocabulary and grammar are two essential points, followed by the format of the text, and reader motivation.

The vocabulary Shakespeare uses makes this text difficult for a 9th grader to understand. Here are some of the words from this passage: Rebellious, profaners, quench, pernicious, issuing, mistempered, thrice, beseeming, ornaments, wield, and partisans. I have observed two different 9th grade classes trying to learn Romeo and Juliet in Fowler High School, an inner city school in Syracuse, NY. There are many blank stares among the students. The teacher believes that many of the students are reading on a 4th grade level. The vocabulary necessary to read just this passage is simply not there for many of these students.

Shakespeare is famous for his convoluted and complicated text. His characters speak voluminously with linguistic flourishes and subtlety. This is often done to keep the meter consistent. But it does nothing to increase readability. Sentences may be fragmented because of line breaks, or spoken backwards according to modern grammar. For example, one might say, “Throw your weapons to the ground on pain of torture.” But in the text the lines are reversed, and it even includes a description of the offender’s hands in the middle of the clause:
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence of your moved prince. (Act 1 Scene 1, 86-89)

This means that a student must be able to understand difficult vocabulary, decode multiple lines at once, and remember their significance to one another before he can comprehend what is going on. Thomas Gunning confirms that “the two factors that have the highest correlation with text difficulty are sentence complexity and difficulty of vocabulary” (37). It would be hard for students who have never studied Shakespeare to comprehend passages like this. In my own case, even with a degree in English, I still find Shakespeare to be difficult, confusing, and tedious. Reading Shakespeare gives one the feeling of solving a riddle. And it is clear that the students I observed were not enjoying the riddle.

The student’s level of interest is an important, although subjective, factor. The level of interest is tied to the teacher’s ability to motivate the students. Thomas Gunning believes, “Students may put forth extra effort to overcome difficulties if they have a strong interest in the text” (35). It is unclear from my observations at Fowler whether the children are truly uninterested, or if the problem stems from their inability to read the text because of their limited vocabulary.

This is unfortunate because Shakespeare’s texts are still relevant today. Major themes in Romeo and Juliet are fate, justice and innocence. These are all important issues. But it is hard to grab student’s interest without a good teacher. One way is to show students modern film interpretations of Romeo and Juliet. These variations might give them background knowledge to interpret the original text. However, scaffolding like this does not make the text by itself more readable. Only a better understanding of vocabulary and grammar can accomplish that.

The amount of time spent with the text is one factor that I found to be very important when learning to read Shakespeare. It takes time and a lot of reading, discussing, and thinking to be able to read Shakespeare well. In high school one play is taught, then the curriculum moves on to a different author. In college I took a Shakespeare course and found that my reading and comprehension ability increased noticeably by the end of the semester. Also, my general interest in Shakespeare grew as I became more comfortable with his style.

Reading only one text, as in high school, never allows the student to fully immerse themselves in the writings. By the time they figure out how to read the text (if they do at all), they have moved on to something new, and are only left with a negative memory of Shakespeare. In a sense, reading Shakespeare is like learning a foreign language with new rhythms and sentence structure. Gunning points out that, “Reading literature requires going beyond the surface meaning and to experience the emotional depth of the work” (32). Going beyond the surface is not fully possible with a brief examination of one play. One must study several plays in conjunction to get a firm grasp on their depth and complexity.

The format of the book can make the plays more readable and understandable. The text I sampled has an introduction to the play, and footnotes throughout explaining confusing words and phrases. I can honestly say that without this tool I would be frequently lost or misreading the text. In the back of the textbook is a glossary containing many words that we use today that have different meanings in Shakespeare’s period.

Romeo and Juliet in the original Elizabethan text is readable by 9th grade students. A well prepared text that has background introductions, footnotes, and a glossary increase the readability and understanding of a text. This should be combined with a good teacher who can motivate the students and pique their interests. Although, even if students posses motivation, slogging through incomprehensible syntax and unfamiliar words like, “Zounds!” (Short for: by Christ’s wounds!) may turn many students away. A good teacher might be able to hook students by priming background knowledge with multimedia. However, all this assumes that the students are reading at a 9th grade level. After observing the Fowler classes, I would be hesitant to teach such a complicated text to those students without significant supports.

References

Evans, G., Ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1974.

Gunning, Thomas. Building Literacy in the Content Areas. Pearson Education, Inc. 2003.

Rebellious subjects, enemies of peace,
Profaners of this neighbor-stained steel—
Will they not hear? – What ho, you men, you beasts!
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins –
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence of your moved prince.
Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets,
And made Verona’s ancient citizens
Cast by their grave beseeming ornaments
To wield old partisans, in hands as old,
Etc etc……. ( Act1 Scene 1, 81-94)

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