11. Romeo and Juliet
Like last week with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this was a play that I knew incredibly well. I have been in two (very) different productions of Romeo and Juliet, as well as having read and seen it many times. Once again, it was fascinating to see how my opinions of the play changed through this reading and by reading it as part of the collection of Shakespeare plays rather than just in its own right.
Sitting down to write this blog on Romeo and Juliet, I feel very conflicted. After reading the first three acts of the play, I was left questioning why it is performed so much and feeling that it was incredibly overrated. Yet by the time I had read the final two acts, my opinions had shifted slightly, and I was started to see elements that helped bring the whole together and make sense of the story and the world of the play.
I’ll start with my misgivings from the first half. Undoubtedly, to a modern audience especially, this is a problematic play in many ways. If you were reading it as a piece of new writing, you’d be taking major issue with how easily two teenagers fall in love in such an uncompromising manner. To fall in love after one dance and one evening together to the degree that you want to marry the next day and are prepared to kill yourself when that person dies, seems to stretch the imagination a bit far! Frankly, it is absurd.
Furthermore, there are inconsistencies in the plotting. Juliet’s father, Capulet, seems in no hurry to marry Juliet off at the beginning of the play. He quite plainly tells Paris that Juliet is only fourteen and he should wait a little longer before making her is wife. Yet, a couple of days later, Capulet is so adamant that Juliet must marry Paris immediately that he is prepared to disown her and kick her out of the house if she doesn’t! Connected to this is the biggest question of all – why doesn’t Juliet go with Romeo to Mantua? When Romeo is banished, surely she could have just gone with him? Even if they didn’t want to do this to start with, then it would certainly be the easiest option once the marriage with Paris was on the cards. It would have been a darn sight simpler to just run away to Mantua, than to take a magic sleeping potion, pretend to be dead, get buried, be rescued by Romeo and then go to Mantua… (though, admittedly, not as dramatic).
On top of this there are other areas of confusion. Why does the Nurse talk about Tybalt being her best friend when there is no reason at all why they would ever have had anything to do with each other? And even if they did, why would a street fighting youth be good friends with a blabbering nurse? And, above all, why are the Montagues and Capulets fighting at all?? There doesn’t seem to be any reason at all for them to keep fighting in the streets. They keep trying (and succeeding) to kill each other in the streets, yet Capulet doesn’t seem bothered at all when Romeo turns up at his party. The very fact that Montague and Capulet make up so quickly at the end of the story – once both their children have committed suicide – makes one seriously question what all the fuss was about. Maybe this is the point, I suppose? That the fighting may have had a reason long ago but has now just become mindless violence.
Most of the above is workable – problems are often what makes great plays great. The problems leave room for debate and interpretation. They allow the audience space for their own opinions and thoughts. But I am yet to see a production where I truly believe in the relationship between Romeo and Juliet – aside from maybe in ballet form.
Which leads on to what I think is the more fundamental problem with the play – the language. Now, I’m not against Shakespeare’s language at all but where I do have an issue is where the language becomes so literary, lyrical and metaphorical that it lacks action or forward motion. Much of the language in Romeo and Juliet is so flowery and poetic, that it is very difficult to deliver without falling into a pretty verse speaking mode, rather than character attempting to move the action forward.
When the characters aren’t using metaphors at great length to romantically describe the depths of their woe or love, they are using metaphors to make glorified cock jokes. Honestly, the number of cock jokes in this play is ridiculous. Although they may have been funny once, they are most certainly not funny now. They even appear at the most inappropriate moments – the Nurse makes multiple erection jokes whilst in Friar Laurance’s cell after Romeo has just killed Tybalt (hardly the time or the place, darling). This means that there are huge sections of the play that just really don’t work to a modern audience. Neither the Nurse nor Mercutio are especially funny – although I can appreciate how they are technically funny or would have been funny in Shakespeare’s day, the only way the meaning of their jokes can really be portrayed to a modern audience is through repeated pelvic thrusting (something we’ve all seen far too many productions do!).
So, I’m not the biggest fan of the play! BUT where I do think it has a saving grace is in the more fantastical moments. The play came to life for me when Juliet took the magic potion. Suddenly, the story becomes a fairy tale, rather than a piece of gritty drama. When the whole thing is viewed as a pantomime that goes horribly wrong, it suddenly becomes quite interesting and starts to come together more. I think any production has to inject some element of fantasy, magic or, at the very least, fate in order for it to work. If you thread this through the whole, especially the moment when Romeo and Juliet first meet – then you have a chance of the plot holes mattering much less. It also allows for Mercutio and the Nurse to become dame-like characters – unashamedly ridiculous and inappropriate. The Friar becomes a kind of good fairy, who is trying his best to bring the young couple together and end the mindless feud between the two families, but who ultimately fails. There definitely seems to be something worth pursuing here to me.
Rereading Romeo and Juliet has certainly made me think and has left me more than a little confused as to my opinions of it. As a result, it leaves me wanting to direct it, simply to have the opportunity to spend more time working these things out and playing with different options. There are some plays you want to direct because you love them, there are others you want to direct because you don’t fully understand them. This is certainly the latter for me.