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

Shakespeare, or Something Like It

Guest blogger, Sarah Leeves, writes…

Learning a foreign language is quite an achievement. To be honest, I could never get my head around French, let alone why the chair was feminine and the floor was masculine, or whatever. This is how some people, including my Dad, feel about Shakespeare.

“It’s just a load of arty nonsense,” says Dad. “Why not say exactly what you mean? To the point. It’s just too posh.”

So a few plays, written for “the common people” by a “common” man and performed to the masses as a primitive form of TV is too posh…go figure! But that is the problem, people think Shakespeare is too posh and the language is foreign.

Now don’t get me wrong, Othello isn’t an easy read. I’ve stumbled over “I kiss’d thee ere I killed thee, no way but this; / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (V, ii) countless times; first off, there are too many “e”s for me to cope with. But I enjoy reading it – a play written hundreds of years ago that STILL has relevance today – not that we all settle arguments with rapiers nowadays, but that segregation and prejudice are still problems. STILL. And apparently society has progressed…?

For GCSE, I directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a Bollywood backdrop and a brilliant modern soundtrack. The performance was choreographed with familiar dance routines and the costumes were plush and Eastern. I got an A (thank you). The school and the audience loved it. Why? Because it was relevant and relatable (SPOILER: in actual fact, I didn’t change any of the language or the scenarios, I just changed the costume and the scenery). Audiences love familiarity and when something is alien to them, the language for example, they quickly panic, switch off and go back to Eastenders. With my piece, the audience loved the costumes and the recognizable music so they were immediately hooked. That meant the script worked its magic and enchanted without them even noticing. Fab.

What I’m trying to say, granted in a round-about way, is that Shakespeare is for everyone; it’s clever, relevant and accessible. Once you break down the language “barrier”, it’s plain sailing. It’s only a barrier if you let it be so, like deciding not to go to the gym because it’s raining (put a coat on and just do it). The same can be said for Shakespeare, minus the coat: make a cup of tea, sit down and actually READ IT. Slowly. Maybe I should take my own advice and give French another go…

So to conclude, Shakespeare is as much for today as it was many years ago. If Gnomeo and Juliet has taught me anything other than gardens are magical places, it’s that people secretly love Shakespeare – they just won’t admit it.

Sarah Leeves

Contemporary Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Charlotte Highcock, writes…

Throughout my education within English Literature, Shakespeare has always played a vital role. The diversity of plays, poems and sonnets is what makes each new encounter of Shakespeare so innovative and enjoyable. Personally, the best aspect of Shakespeare is how unique each interpretation of his work can be. For example, my first viewing of a theatrical adaptation of a Shakespearean play was a modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. As a pre-GCSE student, this allowed me to gain easy access to Shakespeare and ensured the start of my enthusiasm of his works.

One of my favourite plays is Othello. The way in which Shakespeare was able to capture the “Moor’s” degrading treatment within society, humbly referring to others as “most potent, grave and reverend signors,” shows how racism was even seen within the Jacobean era, enhancing how contemporary Shakespeare can be. Additionally, the focus on tragedy is another key aspect which I find is what distinctly makes Shakespeare one of the best, if not the best, English playwright, and makes plays such as Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet so successful on stage.

Projects such as this are vital to keeping Shakespeare alive. It will be wonderful to make Shakespeare even more accessible, particularly to students studying at GCSE or A-Level, who may only be exposed to certain set texts.

Charlotte Highcock

My Relevant Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Celia Smith, writes…

November 2008 is a significant date for me for two reasons: it was the first time I sought literary theory outside the classroom, and the first time I saw a Shakespeare play that was not in the rotation of classics with which I was familiar. The literary comment was a defence of T.S. Eliot’s anti-semitism by Jeanette Winterson.  The play was Tim Caroll’s 2008 The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Angus Wright as Shylock. I remember the two together because both were moments that offered ambivalent representations of the Jewish faith; something which interests me.

The set production of Merchant stood out to me in a way I hadn’t previously considered a Shakespearean performance. The floors, walls and furniture props took on hues of a musty, heat-burnt red – it reminded me of the Mediterranean marketplace setting and the gory blood money theme.  The experience marked a departure from the way I had watched Shakespeare plays as a child. When I was at school I had been used to uncritically sitting through versions of the plays you might typically be taken to see at that age (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet). I think the teachers hoped the trips would sow a seed of intellectual curiosity about the writer’s more obscure gold. Yet it’s a mark of my irrepressible juvenilia that plays like Henry VIII or The Winter’s Tale or Pericles will always exist for me outside the well-established set of Shakespeare texts that are – as they are for so many – imprinted permanently on my adolescent brain. It’s the language from the grand plays that have stayed with me all these years; the cadences of the lines that I have hung my heart on year after years of growing up.

I remember at university, the finalists in the years above me used Antony and Cleopatra and Henry V as they slogged through their exams. One girl wrote on Facebook as she approached the first night of her exams: “the bright day is done / And we are for the dark”. I remember when they were nearly done too because she wrote: “once more unto the breach dear friends!” Those lines returned to me as spurs of encouragement by the time I was doing my own finals. At that time I was comforted by the melodrama I could call on. When I felt like a misery-guts and I could see younger students still having fun, I would grumble: “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth”. I would later eventually drop off after a sleepless night with grouchy resolve: “put out the light, and then put out the light”.

Nowadays working in my graduate job, I still find Shakespeare quotations lift my spirits. After a month working for Nightingale House (a Jewish care home for the elderly), and after a month waiting for social care reforms to come from the House of Commons, I was suddenly struck by how close the company’s talk of quality of care was making me think of Merchant’s speech on quality of mercy.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest:

The Merchant of Venice, IV, i

In the light of the challenging future that faces the elderly community in Britain today, I feel that Shakespeare writes about care (or rather mercy) with a moral fibre that would make me gibber with guilt were I in Government. And that reminder of Merchant brings me back to that date of November 2008, when I was first exploring the world of literary theory. I came across this apologia for poetry in Winterson’s feature in The Guardian. Her argument for the relevance of T.S. Eliot is exactly how I feel about the relevance of Shakespeare:

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

 

Celia Smith

Some Lines from King John

Guest blogger, Jonathan Blaney, writes…

I was interested to hear that King John is, from the evidence of wear, the least read of the plays in the Bodleian’s copy of the First Folio. For me, it contains the most touching lines in all of Shakespeare’s writing. When Constance is separated from her son, Arthur, she says:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

King John, III, iii. 93-7

The play is often dated to 1596. The Arden edition, edited by Honigmann, remarks tersely of this passage: “Some edd. think Shakespeare remembers the death of his son Hamnet, ob. 1596.”

It’s a benefit of not being a Shakespeare scholar to be able to say, “of course he’s remembering Hamnet”. The writing in this part of the play, quite drab by Shakespeare’s standards, briefly takes wing. It’s incongruous and deeply felt. As long as the dating is correct, then of course it’s about Hamnet.

The curious thing is that at this point in the play Arthur is not dead. It seems to me that very often in Shakespeare death is attended by some kind of misprision: Lear thinks Cordelia is alive but she is dead; Romeo thinks Juliet is dead but she is alive. And death frequently strikes blindly, as though through an arras: Hamlet thinks he is killing Claudius but he’s killing Polonius; Claudius thinks he is killing Hamlet but he’s killing Gertrude. Most insistently, Shakespeare works away obsessively at the idea that characters thought to be dead are, in various ways, redeemed from death and restored by drama: Imogen, Ferdinand, Perdita and Marina are just the most explicit examples, as if in the late plays Shakespeare allowed himself licence to write about what interested him most.

I cannot help noticing that after the restoration of the nuclear family in The Winter’s Tale one character is not brought back to the life of Leontes: his son Mamillius, who was perhaps the age of Arthur and of Hamnet.

It may be that I am just partial to such scenes: nothing in Henry V stays in my mind except the death of Falstaff. Or it may be that, as the poet (and wonderful Shakespeare translator) Paul Celan wrote shortly before his own death, “when is great poetry not about last things?”

Jonathan Blaney