Tag Archives: English

Calling Ron Wimberly’s Prince of Cats “a hip-hop retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”  is too simplistic.  Wimberly goes beyond retelling, he reinvents and recreates. Like the DJs and graffiti artists he references, Wimberly draws on his influences and builds a new story from his favorite pieces.  In this case the blend is Shakespearean language, hip hop braggadocio, Kurosawa’s samurai, and street art. With these components Wimberly remixes a new tragedy, not of love, but of the inability to love. Wimberly expertly deepens Shakespeare’s timeless story by exploring Tybalt: the titular Prince of Cats.

Prince of Cats wears its references proudly. Basquiat’s SAMO tags decorate Wimberly’s Brooklyn. Sampson and Gregory get into a bloody sword fight on the subway, and then eat takoyaki in a gentrified Brooklyn sushi restaurant.  At the masquerade ball (a block party) Tybalt and Juliet are a strong presence dressed as Michael Jackson and Wonder Woman.


Members of both houses fight with katanas (Mercuctio symbolically stands apart with a kopesh), but marking territory through graffiti runs as the strongest theme for the power struggle as Montague yellow, and Capulet red war over wall-space.


In an example of how Wimberly expands on Shakespeare’s original, the previously unseen, Petruchio is re-imagined in the guise of “King of Style” Kase 2, complete with a missing right arm, and his death becomes a central motivation. Wimberly also gives voice the Romeo’s first love, Rosalyn, expanding her character and adding depth to the whole.

Throughout, Wimberly combines Shakespeare’s language from Romeo and Juliet with his own Shakespeare-inspired inventions, infused with urban vernacular while maintaining iambic pentameter.  This helps Prince of Cats read as more than just homage, but as a companion to the original. Tybalt’s story runs alongside the main narrative that we all know, dipping in and out through his interactions with Juliet, Romeo, and members of both houses.

While Romeo struggles to find love, Tybalt struggles to make his mark on society. He is desperate in his attempts for recognition, boldly declaring his desire to maintain Capulet honor at all costs. This is, however, a cover for his deeply broken worldview as Rosalyn exposes in Act 4, saying:

     Thou art a man obsessed.
     I’ve thought about the words you said.
     ..It’s not the crest of Capulet…
     The precious thing thy sword protects…
     …it’s vanity
     …I mean, 
     why risk thy life over and over?
     These self-important suicide attempts
     reveal thy lack of self-regard
     if they heart were truly concerned

     with those for whom you say you risk death

     you would preserve thy life

     and nurture the happiness of those around you


In reading Prince of Cats if found myself falling in love with Romeo and Juliet all over again. I wanted to go back and re-read the play, to watch the film, to find a production to see. Wimberly is a masterful DJ here, sampling from his most loved art forms to create a new work that is simultaneously a love letter to his influences and a wholly new and vibrant work. Prince of Cats is not a replacement, or a retelling. It is an addition to the original mythology, providing context, background, and new perspective.

With regard to teaching, Prince of Cats is extremely rich. It could easily serve as a prelude to Romeo and Juliet or as a lesson in perspective after reading the original play. In terms of character, Tybalt experiences events of the main story in a very different way than Romeo, and in terms of authorship, Wimberly emphasizes themes that are more subtle in Shakespeare’s original. It would be incredible to use both texts and run a comparison of Romeo’s and Tybalt’s abilities to cope with their environments as a look into how at-risk youth either escape, or are entrapped by their surroundings. Alternately one could explore how Shakespeare’s background informed his lens, while Wimberly’s experiences encourage a different focus.

English classes often use Romeo and Juliet to explore themes of love, conflict, and revenge, but students get easily tripped up by language and the difficulty of reading a play without seeing production. To this end, Prince of Cats can serve as a strong hook, allowing students access through hip-hop’s visual imagery, while retaining the Shakespearean linguistic syntax, and vocabulary. Through a willingness to invent and remix, Wimberly’s Prince of Cats is a piece that can stand proudly alongside Shakespeare’s original work.


Grant Wiggins of Understanding By Design fame made some serious waves in the online education commmunity.  Essentially he made a claim that fiction shold be banned from English/Language Arts (ELA) curriculum.  It’s a fairly short post and it comes out pretty strongly against fiction, and has garnered some pretty vitriolic response.  It makes sense that people (particularly ELA educators) would rail against this idea.

Fiction, be it novels, poetry, or short fiction holds a very strong place in ELA curriculum around the country, and Wiggins makes the claim that we should remove it in favor of non-fiction.  His argument is that “the reading all of us are required to do in our adult responsibilities involves heavy doses of nonfiction, for which our students are totally unprepared” and ” the required readings in most English classes do not serve males at all.”  Strong statements that are pretty much guaranteed to make people angry.

Step back though.  Read his post again.  Is this really the kind of argument that you would expect from the man who asks us to use backward design when creating lessons?  This is brash, provocative, and has fairly limited evidence.  This is an intentionally inflammatory statement in the model of A Modest Proposal.  Wiggins is not arguing for the removal of all fiction any more than Swift wanted the Irish to eat their children.  Then what is he doing?

By my reading Wiggins is asking us to examine our assumptions in ELA curriculum.  Why does fiction get such an honored position?  Where is the time spent working with speechwriting, presuasive writing, or informational news writing?  One could easily argue as well that ELA would serve our students well by teaching methods for communicating effectively through blogs and social media.

Wiggins isright to question the types of fiction we traditionally use.  Why does one book make it into the educational canon when others do not?  There is an enormous amount of available literature to use for education, but we traditionally use an extremely small slice.  Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Steinbeck, Orwell, Harper Lee, Fitzgerald, and Salinger.  Why do these authors and their books make the cut when others do not?  Educators could stretch themselves to add more non-canonical texts and add variety to the ELA curriculum.  Text selection is just as important in an English class as it is in a research paper.

Near the end of his post Wiggins makes the claim that students are not appropriately prepared to conduct research and write research papers.  I completely agree with Wiggins here, and I also agree that part of the solution is to increase the non-fiction, and non-textbook, reading that students do.  This is not the sole responsibility of the English classroom though. 

All teachers, and particularly core academic teachers, need to take the responsibility for writing on their shoulders.  Social Studies needs to teach how to write for history and politics.  Science needs to teach writing lab reports.  Math needs to teach writing for mathematical analysis.  No class is exempt from teaching writing, but far too often we say “this isn’t English, I don’t need to teach writing.”  This attitude is what hurts our students more than teaching books they’re not particularly interested in.

Don’t take Wiggins so seriously, but do take a moment and reflect on the pedagogical choices you make.  Why did you choose this text?  Why is this assignment relevant and meaningful?  If you can’t answer these questions maybe you should make some new choices.