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romeo and juliet

25 december 2015

Romeo and Juliet is so familiar that it might be hard to appreciate how good it is.

As many have noted (let that qualification apply to everything I write here), R&J is the great sex-and-death play of world theater. It's full of the impulsiveness that leads people into great pleasure and great suffering, when mere nice getting along would have required, like, five minutes' thought.

One sharp element of the play is Shakespeare's focus on kinship, and his construction of character traits shared plausibly by members of a family. The Prince's kinsmen, for instance – Mercutio and Paris – are romantic optimists. The Prince thinks he can throw a blanket on the big family feud by saying a few grand words. Paris is sanguine about the prospects for happy marriage with a headstrong girl he barely knows. And Mercutio, though he plays sometimes at being a cynic, is the kind of guy who sees the absurdity of absolutely everything, and takes being stabbed to death as an opportunity to get in a few one-liners.

Romeo's parents are barely drawn (asymmetry being a good thing for drama), but as directors have long known, the much more fully-realized Capulets are very much a matched set. Capulet is generous and hot-tempered, and Juliet is her father's daughter. I'm sure more than one reader has wondered if the Nurse might actually be Juliet's mother. She and Capulet seem to be closer than your typical master and womanservant, and the Nurse matches both father and daughter for the shortness of her attention span and the eloquence of her poetry. She has the best speech in the play:

'Tis since the earthquake now eleven years;
And she was wean'd,—I never shall forget it,—
Of all the days of the year, upon that day:
For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dove-house wall;
My lord and you were then at Mantua:—
Nay, I do bear a brain:—but, as I said,
When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!
Shake quoth the dove-house: 'twas no need, I trow,
To bid me trudge:
And since that time it is eleven years. (Act 1, Scene 3)
It's longer than that, and as good throughout, a perfect blend of rough blank verse and a colloquial speech slapped together out of bits of language we can imagine repeated over and over for those eleven years as the story has taken shape.

I've seen Romeo and Juliet on stage and screen as often as any other Shakespeare play. It has so many good parts for actors that it's been a favorite of school and college companies; it doesn't demand one dominant performance, but it welcomes six or eight strong ones. It's hard to ruin, if at the same time hard to do really well. Characters like Mercutio, Tybalt, and Capulet can easily go over the top (think of Harold Perrineau, John Leguizamo, and Paul Sorvino respectively in Baz Luhrmann's inventive 1996 film version).

But it's a play that I (and many others, I'm sure) know so well that I'm always counter-reciting it in my own mind in parallel with the actors – annoying, perhaps, but I swear I do it silently. Like the very different Julius Caesar, it's a play that Shakespeare seems to have written in the flush of a realization that blank verse, even rhyme, could suddenly have expressive powers far beyond the bombast of some of his early plays, which can be energetic and well-plotted but do not feature characters who talk like people – or like angels.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. 1597, 1599. Edited by Brian Gibbons. 1980. London: Thomson, 2006.

UPDATE 03.21.2017: Gounod's Roméo et Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera last week was certainly interesting, if somewhat protracted. It's a clear and direct rendering of the play, removing some of the plot fussiness to center on the doomed lovers, who were ably sung by Stephen Costello and Pretty Yende. About the only thing that Gounod adds is a song by a soprano in a "breeches" role, Stephano. Stephano is Roméo's page, or something, and sings about a turtledove. This gives a nice role for a second soprano in a plot that would otherwise lack one, but it also humanizes Mercutio. Tybalt comes in, harasses Stephano, and gets into his fatal series of duels when Mercutio stands up for the boy. In Shakespeare, Mercutio is just a jitterbug who likes to tempt fate; in Gounod he's the friend of the little guy. Or girl.