The Darkness Lurking Beneath: Romeo and Juliet

 

Guest blogger, Laura Marriott, writes…

One of the most thumbed plays in the Bodleian’s copy of the first folio, which can now be found online, is Romeo and Juliet. But what is it about this tragedy that continues to resonate so powerfully across the centuries? Typically seen as an all consuming romance, the play concludes with the deaths of two star crossed lovers, who could see no future that involved themselves without the other by their side. It has undoubtedly cast a shadow over popular ides of romance since its first showing, with many of its key themes surviving in popular romantic culture today. From Jane Austen’s tales of confusion being righted in marriage to the appropriate person to nearly every Hollywood rom-com with it’s happily ever after.

However surely this is missing the key part, the tragedy that made this one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The multiple deaths and suicides from Romeo and Juliet seem to have fallen by the wayside with most romances now ending with the wedding itself, cutting off the flow of blood before it has even begun. If you puncture the surface of Romeo and Juliet you can see the darkness lurking beneath. Even before you get to the high mortality rate of its characters the play throws up troubling questions about the difference between Elizabethan society and our own.

Starting with the question of age. It is repeated throughout the play that Juliet will shortly be 14 when her parents think she is ready to marry, but no age is ever given for either of Juliet’s potential suitors, Paris and Romeo. It is perfectly conceivable that they were older than her, possible even in their twenties or thirties, which shines a slightly different light on our star-crossed lovers. This is rounded off by the fact that Romeo and Juliet do not actually see each other properly until they are married. When they first meet they are wearing masks, then it is by moonlight for the infamous balcony scene, and then Juliet is hidden behind a veil as they marry. However when you then consider how little time they spend with each other during the play, this is perhaps less surprising.

The only modern production that I have seen that brought the darkness to light and juxtaposed it beautifully with the central love theme was Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, performed by the Iraqi Theatre Company at the RSC last year. This version had an aging Paris as would-be suitor and although this Romeo knew his Juliet (and had certainly seen her before) the innocence is retained. They are not physically intimate, and rely on the language of passion and elevating of objects – a silken scarf that passes between them – to illustrate their feelings for each other.

Set in a background of a family feud in war-torn Baghdad, Romeo and Juliet’s delicate love story is heightened by the sharp contrast of the insecure, dangerous setting. This is further emphasized by the use of real gun shots which shook the audience out of their preconceptions and made one really aware of the danger lurking beneath if these two were to pursue their love affair. There is no elopement and suicide for this pair of star-crossed lovers, but instead a deadly bomb blast. They die together having been unable to live together, and this ending, perhaps more than most, highlights that their fate is out of their hands, that there could be no happy ever after for Romeo and Juliet.

Laura Marriott

Lefties or Righties? The handwriting of Shakespeare’s publishers

Guest blogger, Ben Higgins, writes…

Graphology – the scientific-sounding name for guessing a person’s character traits from their handwriting – is rubbish. This from an official forensic handwriting analyst during a fascinating talk at the CEMS conference on Describing Early Modern Handwriting last week. For me, this was something of a relief. My crabby little scrawl is far, far worse than the reasonably neat italic of Edward Blount who probably lead the group that published the First Folio. Blount’s writing is pictured below on a short receipt in the State Papers archive – the scrap survives because Blount was a key trade contact for several leading diplomats, dealing not just in books and manuscripts, but an eclectic assortment of artworks, seeds, and treacle.

Edward Blount hand

Samples of handwriting for all four (or five, if you count both Jaggards) publishers of Shakespeare’s folio do survive, scattered around. And, though we can’t tell how organised, religious or in love they were in 1623 from these samples, Tom Davis, the forensic expert I mentioned earlier (his website gives an insight into a truly remarkable career), did mention you can usually tell if someone is right- or left-handed, by the direction of their short, horizontal strokes. The cross of a lower-case t, for instance, or the bar in an upper-case A. If you’re a leftie, you probably cross these letters with a stroke moving from right to left; the reverse is also true.

Blount Crossed tees

Edward Blount, then, was probably right-handed, like me. See the way his stroke fades out to the right of those two ts? A bit of a shame that; he also published first editions of Montaigne, Marlowe, Charron and Cervantes, and I’d quite like him to have been a creative-genius leftie type.

And the other publishers? I don’t have a proper sample of Isaac Jaggard‘s handwriting to hand, I’m afraid, but a closer look at the ts and As of the other two (John Smethwick and William Aspley), confirms they were also probably right-handed chaps.

John Smethwick's italic handwriting and signature, from his original will

John Smethwick’s italic handwriting and signature, from his original will

William Aspley's hand and signature, also from his original will

William Aspley’s hand and signature, also from his original will

Three quick final points about this handwriting: the first a disclaimer. Pip Willcox, digital editor of the Sprint for Shakespeare project, reminds me that in the nineteenth century, students were discouraged from writing left-handed. I don’t know whether this disapproval was already entrenched in the Elizabethan grammar schools Shakespeare’s publishers attended, but would love to hear from anyone who does.

Secondly – the reason handwriting samples survive for each of the folio publishers is because they were an elite bunch. Their signatures appear on official documents, in diplomatic correspondence, and most of them accrued a large enough estate to warrant writing a will.

The majority of stationers from this time left little or no traces in the documentary archive, and this is one index to the significance of the folio syndicate within their peer group.

Secondly, in his will, dated 1640 and pictured above, William Aspley specifically named his most valuable copyrights in bequests to relatives. Several authors and works are mentioned: the theologian John Boys (the dean of Canterbury, not the Cambridge Greek professor), the French philosopher Pierre Charron, and the popular preacher Roger Fenton. Shakespeare, however, did not make this list. Meaning that by 1640, Aspley thought it was not worth specifically naming Shakespeare’s plays in his bequests. Which in hindsight, given the bidding wars over Shakespeare’s rights in the time of Jacob Tonson, his relatives may not have thanked him for.

Ben Higgins