The Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 10: Romeo & Juliet

Before I begin, a quick apology – I just discovered that there have been comments on these posts that I haven’t replied to. I hadn’t realised that WordPress was no longer sending me notifications for each individual comment, and without notifications I didn’t realise that comments were being posted! I’ll go back and get caught up. Apologies if I appear to have ignored any of you! It was unintentional.

 

Date:  Circa 1595.

 

First read:  In a shortened version, around 1993, then the full text in 1996.

 

Productions seen: Hunners. The Animated Tales in the early 90s, then a production at the Brunton Theatre on a school trip, then over a dozen others over the years.

 

Productions worked on: Bits and pieces during training, one adaptation, one production (in Kent’s Cavern in Torquay, which remains one of my favourite shows to have worked on).

 

Edition I’m using:   Penguin Popular Classics.

 (I am pinned under a cat at time of posting and unable to set up the standard photo. This will be added later.)

 

Observations:

 

  • After Love’s Labours Lost, this is such a relief! The pacing and structure are just so much better. It’s not perfect – the wrapping up of the plot after R&J are dead still goes on a bit too long, as do the Capulet domestic scenes (the party planning, for example, and the musicians after Juliet’s death), but it’s a definite improvement.
  • The use of the Chorus in this is strange. There are prologues for the first and second acts, then the device is simply dropped. It puts me in mind of the way the Christopher Sly device in The Taming of the Shrew is similarly started and discarded.
  • Normally I don’t find the comic relief in R&J too tiresome, but I think I’m still burned out from LLL. Samson and Gregory were getting on my nerves this readthrough. And for the first time, so was Mercutio – but only a little, and only during the Queen Mab scene.
  • Act 1, scene 5 – how on earth does Capulet’s servant not recognise Juliet? The Capulet family’s domestic arrangements are a mess.
  • I really don’t understand Friar Laurence and the Nurse’s willingness to facilitate all of this. Yes, there’s the Friar’s vague idea that a marriage between Romeo and Juliet might bring the feud to an end, but that seems… well, unlikely, to say the least. Capulet claims to be prepared to throw Juliet out of the house for refusing to marry Paris, so I’m not convinced that he’d be easily persuaded that her marriage to a Montague was a good thing. I can imagine that getting them married seems like a better idea than saying no to them and risking them going ahead and having sex anyway, because it’s easy to imagine what damage could be done by Romeo ruining Capulet’s daughter and Friar Laurence doesn’t seem to trust Romeo to keep it in his pants. Still not a good plan, though. Intervening with their parents might have been a better idea…
  • Also, that still doesn’t explain the Nurse. She’s got so much to lose if she gets caught in any part of Juliet’s plan, and unlike Friar Laurence she doesn’t have the safety net of the church. In that respect she’s a strong, well-observed depiction of someone who doesn’t think ahead. Bloody frustrating to read though.
  • Every time I read this script I get angry all over again about all the times I’ve seen Juliet played as a drip. She’s really not. Imaginative and romantic, definitely. Insane, possibly. But she is anything but a drip. She’s decisive to the point of madness, she takes control wherever she can, and the girl’s sharp as a tack. Her first exchange with Romeo, her encounter with Paris, her conversation with her mother in the wake of Tybalt’s death – they’re all beautiful exchanges of wits.
  • Speaking of wits, if Richard III was the play where Shakespeare really mastered the concept of dramatic irony, Romeo and Juliet is the one where he decides that opposites are great fun and should be employed at every opportunity. Not a bad thing – certainly less irritating than his craze for relentless couplets in LLL.
  • And speaking of irritating, after all these years I’ve still never warmed to Romeo. A really strong actors with a particular kind of intensity can distract attention from Romeo’s flightiness and stroppiness (and I’ve been fortunate enough to see and work with actors who can), but it’s still there in the text. Even with judicious cuts, it’s hard to get past the childishness of his nature. Which leads me on to my next point…
  • How on earth did people start thinking of this as a romantic play? Fortunately there are plenty of people who argue otherwise now, but I get a little surge of WTF every time I see a production being marketed as a great love story. Does anyone really think that if the plan had worked and Juliet had made it to Mantua, their marriage would have been a happy one? I’d give it a week before she’s back in Friar Laurence’s cell demanding to know whether a marriage is really legal if there are no witnesses.
  • Once again I found myself feeling very sorry for Paris. Poor guy didn’t sign up for any of this. All he wanted was to marry a girl whom he thought might possibly grow to like him and whose family approved, and instead she dies and he gets stabbed. I get the impression he genuinely likes Juliet – his visit to her grave clearly isn’t just posturing, since it’s done in the dead of night and he takes pains not to be seen. I wish we got to know a bit more about him, though that might make his getting the short end of the stick feel even more unjust.
  • Seventeen years after studying it for my Highers, I still think this is an odd choice for a curriculum text. The rationale seems to be that it’s about a couple of teenagers, so give it to teenagers to study and they’ll find it interesting because it’s about people like them. I remember being 16 and finding that mildly insulting, because I damn well knew not to snog a stranger at a party and then mistake it for love and marry them the next day. It took age and experience to see the play for what it is, to realise that it’s commenting on the mad intensity of young love rather than celebrating it. At 16 I found the power struggles of Macbeth far easier to identify with, but perhaps that’s just me…

 

NEXT TIME: Richard II

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, dramaturg and director. Here you'll find posts about my work, mental health, arts politics and whatever else happens to catch my attention. View all posts by jenbitespeople

4 responses to “The Roughly Chronological Re-read Week 10: Romeo & Juliet

  • Dr M. D. Bolsover

    Reblogged this on *the fold of the artist and commented:
    *Week 10 of the (roughly) chronological read-through of the complete #Shakespeare plays: Romeo & Juliet. …

  • Pongo Literatii

    We have a lot in common in terms of this play.

    I dislike teaching it immensely. Students come with massive baggage and preconceptions. The language is not the most approachable, and there is – yes – an implied condescension in its being put forward as somehow ‘relatable’. Or indeed about love.

    And, absolutely, there is far less to like about Romeo than there is about Paris. Maybe it’s the way I’ve taught it too, but my classes have seldom taken to Romeo. There’s often an element of satisfaction in his death that goes beyond the catharsis of seeing Macbeth or RIII go to the Great Green Room in the Sky.

    I’ve seen and been involved in a couple of great productions which were fantastically comic and then nosedived in terms of mood as soon as Mercutio died. But on the whole, I tend to avoid it, if I can …

  • BeeDice

    I’m so floored by this play that it’s taking me longer than expected to write up an essay, so I’ll just write down some thoughts in response to what everyone else said:

    * I think the domestic scenes are essential! The play is, after all, entirely a comedy in the first two acts, and while the remaining three are overtly tragic, this intrusion of comedy is oddly fitting.
    * In a similar vein, I like the wrapping up of the plot, as well as the other two long poem/speeches/recapitulations (all spoken to the Prince). They, along with other similar moments (e.g., the opening to Comedy of Errors, another weird genre defier), are basically tales, something coming, probably, through Chaucer.
    * The Friar’s relationship to Romeo seems pretty clear to me — maybe I’m reading too much into his “good pupil” and his tone of voice, but he’s like a mentor, maybe even a father figure. We see all but nothing of the Montagues, but quite a lot of the Nurse, and and enough of the Capulets to wonder about Juliet’s inner thoughts regarding her upbringing. The Friar wants to help his good pupils be happy. I’m not sure what the Nurse wants. I think, like Mercutio, she just likes to fuck with people. She’s not nearly as much on Juliet’s side as we might think, and the end of 3.5 is Juliet realizing this.
    * I agree with you: Juliet is not a drip, Romeo is hard to warm to. Trying to expound on this fully is what’s taking so long for me to actually write a good long essay like I’d like!
    * I do think there’s romance in the play — I agree that marrying on sight is dangerously hasty, and I also wonder what their married life in Mantua would have been like, but I think it’s all defendable. Again, gotta actually write this all up though.
    * To be frank, IMO, Shakespeare just oughtn’t be used at all in high school, except for electives naturally. In an elective, I think this is a fine text, but certainly not on the grounds that it’s a beautiful romance teens will appreciate… that is, indeed, utter nonsense.
    * In response to both Jen and Pongo, re Romeo, ultimately I think the young man is just playing a part. Replace the tragedy in the last three acts with a comedy where Romeo ends up happily married, and as a character, he would’ve done just fine. I don’t think he’s at all ill-willed, just buffeted about on the winds. Again, more on this once I get this essay all written up. WOooooo.

  • BeeDice

    If Love’s Labour’s Lost was Shakespeare’s experimental masterpiece in which he realized there’s no limit to the reach and obscurity of language, Romeo & Juliet, which I imagine was written right after, is Shakespeare’s rightfully and eternally popular masterpiece in which he reigned in that grasp of language, and implanted it into vividly inward characters who speak an eloquent lyricism that makes much of the play read like a poem. Bloom points out in his own rough chronological re-read that Shakespeare rarely had a genre, which has certainly held true so far, and it’s fitting, given the above proposed chronology, that Romeo & Juliet starts off as a comedy for a full two acts. All the tragedy is contained in the remaining three, kicked off by the doozer of the third, in which Mercutio gets himself killed, Romeo gets himself banished, and Capulet (bafflingly) marries Juliet off against her will. That the play maintains such strength of lyricism and characterization in both halves is striking, and that this is Shakespeare at the start of his canonical mastery is almost beyond me (think of what’s still left to come for a moment).

    Magnificent though the entire play is, its heart is Juliet. I can think of no other character in Shakespeare who is as flawless. I mean that literally: her hasty marriage notwithstanding, to which I’ll return later, there’s just nothing bad that we can say about her. The Friar’s ultimately a little pushy, the Nurse is an enigma who clearly doesn’t care for Juliet as much as we might think, Mercutio’s a hotheaded asshole, poor Romeo’s just playing a part and isn’t smart enough to know it, the Montagues aren’t present, and Paris evidently doesn’t care for Juliet’s opinion on the marriage. So what we do have is a young (very young) woman, since a woman apparently you were at that age, who gives us not only the sweetest poetry of the play (of course she gets “Parting is such sweet sorrow / that I shall say good night till it be morrow”), but who shows, at various times, wit, perception, courage, processing (as in emotions), wisdom: all in the text alone. I, too, have to wonder what her married life would have been like, but my worry isn’t her, it’s Romeo, who I’m not sure I understand as well as, I should hope, Juliet does.

    It’s not clear to me who Romeo really is. I suspect he’s good-willed enough, which may be what Juliet sees in him, but it’s like he decided one day he wanted to be in love and started acting like a lover should, with the frowns, the sadness, the poetry — something which he does rather poorly, considering he can’t help himself from joking around with his friends all the time. This might explain why he immediately (and oh so wholly) forgets Rosaline, just like he said he wouldn’t. And it might also explain his most sincere moment, standing in shock over the body of Tybalt, processing what he did (or attempting to). This same rashness is also the cause of his death, as it’s really not much to ask that he reign it in a tad and at least talk to someone close to Juliet (I suggest the confidante who married them), but instead, like a proper grieving lover, he launches headfirst into poetic suicide.

    Romeo being what he is, or rather, what he doesn’t seem to be, we’re back to wondering why Juliet decides to marry him (although we might still ask the same about him). I suspect it’d take a good deal of research to truly place yourself in a world where girls younger than 14 were expected to bear children, and barring that, I don’t feel qualified to offer much wisdom to the two lovers. Certainly Juliet’s strained relationship with her parents and nurse plays some factor in her decisions, but most of that is left off stage. As I’ve mentioned before, this is exactly the sort of backgrounding that Shakespeare leaves untold before raising the curtain, and depending on how you fill in those blanks, you’re led to different explanations for why the characters act the way they do. Maybe ultimately I’m just a sucker for the play’s lyricism (or maybe that’s why it’s there?), but it’s hard for me to find fault with their rushed marriage, and I can only wish them the very best.

    Of course, the very best is not what they get, as they fall victims to some impeccable timing, kicked off by poor Paris just happening to be at Juliet’s tomb as Romeo arrives, since Romeo dies only seconds before Friar Laurence enters the tomb and Juliet wakes up. I am struck by this unfortunate string of ill-timed events more than I am inclined to blame Mercutio or Capulet or Romeo. Except for giving Mercutio rein to tear apart the newly-married couple, which he certainly would do, there’s no reason why the play couldn’t have continued as a comedy , or even ended with their safe escape in Mantua, a real genre-bender. This inability to direct our own course of actions is a key point in this abundant masterpiece, and mirrors the contemporary Richard II’s “What you will have, I’ll give, and willing too; For do we must what force will have us do” (3.4.206). This very quality raises Juliet’s death to an unrivaled pathos, as she rushes to stab herself after kissing her love one last time, hoping some left-over poison would save her the pain.

    This abundance of character, poetry, and drama is certainly beyond anything Shakespeare wrote previously, and is unmatched except by a very select few of his later works. Romeo & Juliet is the youthful Shakespeare at his absolute best, a towering peak in his long career.

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