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“That’s Why a Name Is Important. It Defines You”: Romeo and Juliet and The Hate U Give in Conversation

From the NCTE Secondary Section Steering Committee

 

This blog post was written by NCTE member and Secondary Section Steering Committee member Joshua Cabat.  

 

In a secondary English classroom, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of texts in conversation, either with supplementary materials to a central text or two complete texts.

For the latter mode, there are several interesting variations on the theme. There’s the modern update, such as pairing King Lear with Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. There are pairings where a well-known story is told from a different perspective, such as Beowulf and Gardner’s Grendel, or Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And there is the sequel model; I’ve had good results teaching A Raisin in the Sun with Bruce Norris’ 2009 “continuation” of that play, Clybourne Park.

In this piece, I want to focus on such a conversation that we conducted in my ninth-grade Humanities class this past spring between two works separated by 400 years and 3,000 miles: Romeo and Juliet and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give.

In a way, the THUG LIFE acronym created by Tupac (“The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody”) that Angie Thomas uses for her title feels like it was written as a summary of Shakespeare’s early tragedy.

Like Starr, Thomas’s protagonist, Romeo and Juliet were born into the hate they were given. It was an environment of which they had little understanding and even less control, yet it dictated the paths they were destined to follow. The fundamental connection between the two works is the pairing of Juliet and Starr. Both are intelligent young women who possess an inner strength that is revealed slowly and which surprises even them. Both are boxed in by the arcane rules of a society that they had no hand in creating. Despite this, they ultimately find their respective voices. For Starr, it is a literal moment as she stands on top of the car and addresses the angry crowd. And although her search ends in tragedy, Juliet finds her voice through her own acts of rebellion, particularly when she accepts Friar Laurence’s plan and finds the courage to see it through.

The process we followed was straightforward and simple. We worked on Romeo and Juliet in class together, using Folger Library-style methods grounded in performance. As we made our way through the play, I had my students read a chapter of The Hate U Give each night at home. As they read, they maintained readers’ notebooks, in which they focused on the usual literary elements and reader responses but also paid special attention to the connections they noticed between the two works.

By the time we finished the play in class and the students had performed and evaluated their scenes, they had also finished the Thomas novel and completed their journals. The unit culminated in a three-day Socratic seminar, in which they explored the resonances and connections between the two works.

I am pleased to note that over those three days, I said a grand total of at most a hundred words or so. The students ran with the conversation, and they came up with some insightful and unexpected connections. Among these were:

  • Both works open with violent, public confrontations among a group of teenagers
  • There are two Starrs, as there are two Juliets. There is the Starr who lives in her neighborhood of Garden Heights set against the one who is attending Williamson, the upscale, mostly-white private school. And there is the dutiful, obedient Juliet set against the young woman who defies her family in ways that she would never have even imagined at the start of the play.
  • The people of Verona are like Starr’s friend Natasha, the collateral damage in a cycle of senseless violence whose roots go so far back that no one really remembers what the fight is about other than vague notions of “turf.” Their hatred of both Montagues and Capulets is akin to how the residents of Garden Heights feel about the gangs.
  • Similarly, Miss Rosalie serves the same function as Juliet’s Nurse; they are both non-parental trusted figure of authority and love.
  • Just as Juliet’s only love springs from her only hate, in a way, Starr is also “sleeping with the enemy” in terms of her relationship with Chris, her white classmate who turns out to be decent if mostly ineffectual.
  • This last point provided me the opportunity to introduce students to the idea of intersectionality. In Shakespeare, the power is divided along the lines of gender and social class; in the Thomas novel, it’s gender, social class and, of course, race.
  • Both works raise difficult questions about the ineffectuality of authority figures. The Prince of Verona means well, but does next to nothing as the feud comes to its tragic conclusion. And while Thomas provides balance to the policeman who shoots Khalil through the figure of Starr’s Uncle Carlos, a police detective, it is clear that in both settings, justice is meted out unequally. And both works call into question the nature and the true sources of parental authority.
  • And both works lead the reader to the same wonderful, awful conclusion: that in the end, family is destiny. This is the ultimate answer to Juliet’s deathless question of what’s in a name.

For me, the pairing of these works was one of the more successful such literature units I have seen in my years in the classroom. The interaction enhanced my students’ understanding and appreciation of both. It gave Romeo and Juliet a modern resonance and immediacy, and gave The Hate U Give a sense of authority and timelessness that was pleasantly surprising for a book written just two years ago.

On the surface, the two works could not be more different, but the connections we explored in the culminating seminar made clear to the students why Romeo and Juliet is still read and performed four centuries after it was written, and suggested to them that The Hate U Give may have substantial staying power of its own in years to come.

 

Josh Cabat is currently serving as Chair of English for the Roslyn (NY) Public Schools. For the preceding decade, he taught English and Film Studies at Roslyn High School; previously, he taught in the New York City public high schools for over a decade. He was the co-founder of the New York City Student Shakespeare Festival, and has been awarded three fellowships by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has been a featured speaker at many national conferences, and has published many articles on Shakespeare and Film in publications such as the English Journal. He is a founding member of the Folger Shakespeare Library National Teacher Corps.