Why Othello Should Replace Romeo and Juliet

A few months ago, I wrote an article about why I hate the term “young adult fiction.” Part of the reason is the fact that the genre often only features young adults as characters, thus limiting teenager’s chance to gain insight into the minds of people of different ages. The assumption around a lot of teen literature is that, in order for young adults to relate, the characters have to be the same age as themselves. This just isn’t true, of course: plenty of teenagers enjoy books like The Great Gatsby, The Hobbit, Macbeth, and various other stories that feature much older protagonists.

Which brings me to the point of this article. One of the staples of Shakespearean literature in all high schools is Romeo and Juliet, arguably Shakespeare’s most well-known play. Every year across the country, millions of students read this play. The question is: why?

Yes, it’s Shakespeare, which has merit in its own right. But Shakespeare wrote more than 30 plays- why is this one always such a staple of high school reading?  The standard answer is that its protagonists are teenagers.

I’d like to begin by saying that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t deserve a lot of the criticism high schoolers often heap on it. It is beautifully written, with timeless characters and an interesting story. Some of the situations raised in Romeo and Juliet could still happen in our modern day Verona (remember the scene where Mercutio and Benvolio take Romeo to a party to meet a new girl, after he’s depressed his crush won’t like him back?) 

However, that being said, the play is not without its flaws. Romeo and Juliet aren’t that likable of characters. Their relationship is rushed. Their decisions are often foolish. Most modern young adult readers are more likely to laugh at them then sympathize with them. And what exactly is the lesson of the play? There is a message about the power of love… however, it’s questionable about whether or not Romeo and Juliet were ever actually in love in the first place. 

So, if you want high schoolers to read a play they can connect with, I propose a different Shakespearean tragedy: Othello.

Othello is also, at the beginning, a forbidden love story, but it is also much more complex than that. It touches on ideas of racism and interracial relationships. (very fitting, considering the freshmen English curriculum includes To Kill A Mockingbird). It also teaches an important lesson about the dangers of believing false rumors, about how jealousy can destroy the best of relationships, and being careful about whom among your friends that you decide to trust. 

All of those ideas are incredibly relevant in a high school. It doesn’t matter that Othello is not a young adult; people are still able to sympathize with his plight, especially teenagers. I would also argue that the Othello is a much sadder tragedy; by the final scene, you really do feel pity for all its main characters, unlike those silly lovebirds in Verona. 

One of the most amazing parts of reading is that it enhances empathy. By giving freshmen Othello instead of Romeo and Juliet, you would be giving them a greater chance to increase their empathy. You would be teaching them lessons about jealousy, rumours, and false friends. And you’d give them characters they can root for and pity; unlike Romeo and Juliet, who most students are actively rooting for to die by the end of the play.