Romeo and/or Juliet: Playing With a Classic

As a book nerd, I’m always look for fun ways to re-experience classics I’ve already read. Just this week I was lucky enough to find something really fun, fun and Shakespearean! I picked up two very exciting books, both by Ryan North and with the same concept; choose your own adventure Shakespeare plays.

Romeo and/ or Juliet tells the famous love story we think we know, but this time you get to choose the outcome of the play, meaning that a great deal of these love stories are actually nothing like Shakespeare’s work. What they are is hilarious. North plays around with the characters irreverently, making this book a fun way to make even reluctant high school English students connect with the material. You’d probably have to warn them first that they shouldn’t use this book when writing their essay though. You’re results may vary, but it’s actually very unlikely you’ll get the same ending, much less the play’s actual ending more than once.

I haven’t read all the endings in this book, not by a long shot, but in one Juliet marries Orlando from As You Like It somehow and in another one she ends up becoming a pirate and working as a personal trainer in a gym. When I played as Romeo, he got caught snooping around Castle Capulet and then murdered, but then I got better at playing a dude and Romeo and Juliet totally ended up getting married and living happily ever after. Sorry, I’m not sure what the spoiler rules are for choose your own adventure books, but I may have broke them a little bit just now. Technically, I only spoiled a few of the many endings you could find though. I just needed to show you that North takes the story in new directions that are extremely fun, but very confusing if you tried to incorporate them into an English essay. That detail about Juliet being obsessed with body building is a 21st century addition, not something you missed in the Sparknotes. I felt that almost all North’s choices and additions were very welcome.

Romeo and/or Juliet is the newest of Ryan’s work, but the story of R and/or/ J’s predecessor is actually very interesting. To Be or Not To Be was originally a Kickstarter project, pitched as a choose your own adventure version of Hamlet. He presented a demo online and his work was accompanied by many artists who wanted to get in on the project by adding fun illustrations. Two of my favorite nerdy artists, Kate Beaton and Emily Carroll, contribute to the both book’s hilarious artwork. Because of all the artists backing it and the generally awesome idea, To Be or Not To Be was extremely well funded, hence North being able to release this next adventure.

I think the popularity of these books show that classics benefit from taking time to not take themselves so seriously. Sometimes a good sense of humor offers the best insight, as North proves by offering numerous pointed jabs at the ridiculous intended message of each work he plays with. My favorite so far from Romeo and/or Juliet goes like this:

“[…]you begin to realize that relationships can be a success even if they end in a breakup. They have to, right? Otherwise every relationship you ever have ever will be a failure unless one or both of you DIES, and that’s baloney. That’s straight up baloney sandwiches.”

-Ryan North, Shakespearean Critic

I didn’t think one of the most emotionally mature analyses I’ve ever read of this play would contain the words “baloney sandwiches” in it, but I was wrong. While a bunch of stuffy old academics where busy glorifying the rushed romance of two underage teenagers ending in a double suicide, North was busy asking his friends to draw Juliet as a pirate or Romeo as a house maid and he still made a deliciously spot-on baloney sandwich of literary commentary.

This just demonstrates why I love playing around with classics. “Great” works only really grow when you aren’t afraid to play around with them, experiment, and have fun. If you excuse me now, I’m going to see if there’s a way I could make Hamlet be less of a whiny  emo boy.



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