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29 august 2023

Sophie Duncan's Juliet is a wonderful, wide-ranging look at "Shakespeare's first tragic heroine," packed with information, teeming with new directions and connections.

One model for Juliet is John Gross' Shylock (1992), though Duncan doesn't cite Gross' book. Juliet is less of a chronological performance history than Shylock, though. Duncan arranges her book thematically, and goes farther afield into cultural history.

We learn that the boy actor Robert Gough created the role of Juliet (25), though the inferences that lead to that claim are oblique. Still, there were so few boy actors in Shakespeare's companies at any given time that identifying Gough with the role is a process of not much elimination. We know that Gough impressed one viewer. Shakespeare's Ur-fanboy Francis Meres raved in 1598 about seeing "true-harted Julietta did die upon the corps of her dearest Romeo (who might have been superstar Richard Burbage, though that's less possible to verify).

Duncan sweeps through later centuries for Juliet associations. She has a fascinating chapter on slaveowners' use of the name Juliet for enslaved women. The name conveyed something sexual but something sweet too, and basically harmless. Juliet is a teenage suicide, after all; she's feisty, but harmless to others. Very few slave women were named Lady Macbeth.

Duncan makes much of the death-and-sex themes that are central to Romeo and Juliet. I had to both laugh and grimace at a proposal from some reactionaries in Florida that they'd start teaching Romeo and Juliet with all the suggestive material removed – because there'd be nothing left of the play. But Duncan shows that sanitizing Romeo and Juliet is a tradition that goes well back into the 17th century, and has involved anodyne versions for schoolkids as well as cleansed and brightened stage adaptations.

I first read Romeo and Juliet in a Classics Illustrated comic book version, which had some mild swordplay and not much nudity. But not long thereafter, I saw Franco Zeffirelli's film version, which was very adult in content. The Zeffirelli film has recently come under retrospective fire from the real kids, now senior citizens, who played the real kids of Shakespeare's play. Duncan looks at their experience, which was at best uncomfortable and at worst traumatic for Olivia Hussey, the most famous teenage Juliet.

Shakespeare's Juliet, though she's not even fourteen yet, is very sex-positive. She was a constant problem for theater managers and theater-goers throughout more prudish ages. Duncan looks at the history of more-or-less steamy Romeo-Juliet depictions, centering on Charlotte Cushman … as Romeo. Cushman (a lesbian in offstage life) was the most ardent Romeo of the 19th century, a take on the young romance that was further complicated because her Juliet – Susan Cushman – was her own sister.

Duncan offers an elaborate chapter about the cultural history of Juliet in Italy, where (despite never having existed) she remains a tourist icon in Verona, and was the focus of myth-building during the Fascist era. Duncan examines the adage that by the time an actress is old enough to understand Juliet, she is too old to play her (the same is true of King Lear, but for different age brackets).

Duncan also looks at the slippage in recent productions and adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, from being a play about love to being a play about hate. The "ancient strife" of the Montagues and Capulets is never explained. Updated versions, dating from West Side Story, set the play within real-life conflicts sparked by racial, religious, and ethnic tensions.

She also examines how Romeo and Juliet has become central to curricula in both the UK and the US, often to reinforce law and order. Or to warning teenagers to listen to their elders and avoid doing crazy stuff. Though they listen to Friar Laurence and he tells them to to a lot of crazy stuff. In any case, a state like Florida now seems to want to have it both ways:, to teach Romeo and Juliet while suppressing its content. Shakespeare is the ultimate empty cultural cachet.

I can't imagine a better book about Juliet any time soon. But 50 or 100 years from now, someone will do a follow-up that will chart the unpredictable course of future Juliets.

Duncan, Sophie. Juliet: The life and afterlives of Shakespeare's first tragic heroine. New York: Seal [Hachette], 2023.