Romeo and Juliet


‘s concerns. The Chorus in Henry V complains that the heroic story cannot possibly be adequately staged: But pardon, gentles all,

The flat unraised spirits that hath dared

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth

So great an object. Can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

. . . . . .

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.

(Prologue 1.8-14,23)

Second, here are a few sentences (which may or may not represent Shakespeare’s own views) from Hamlet’s longish lecture to the players: Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. . . . O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings. . . . And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. (3.2.1-47)

Finally, we can quote again from the passage cited earlier in this introduction, concerning the boy actors who played the female roles. Cleopatra imagines with horror a theatrical version of her activities with Antony: The quick comedians

Extemporally will stage us, and present

Our Alexandrian revels: Antony

Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness

I’ th’ posture of a whore.


It is impossible to know how much weight to put on such passages–perhaps Shakespeare was just being modest about his theater’s abilities–but it is easy enough to think that he was unhappy with some aspects of Elizabethan production. Probably no production can fully satisfy a playwright, and for that matter, few productions can fully satisfy us; we regret this or that cut, this or that way of costuming the play, this or that bit of business.

One’s first thought may be this: Why don’t they just do “authentic” Shakespeare, “straight” Shakespeare, the play as Shakespeare wrote it? But as we read the plays–words written to be performed–it sometimes becomes clear that we do not know how to perform them. For instance, in Antony and Cleopatra Antony, the Roman general who has succumbed to Cleopatra and to Egyptian ways, says, “The nobleness of life / Is to do thus” (1.1.36-37). But what is “thus”? Does Antony at this point embrace Cleopatra? Does he embrace and kiss her? (There are, by the way, very few scenes of kissing on Shakespeare’s stage, possibly because boys played the female roles.) Or does he make a sweeping gesture, indicating the Egyptian way of life?

This is not an isolated example; the plays are filled with lines that call for gestures, but we are not sure what the gestures should be. Interpretation is inevitable. Consider a passage in Hamlet. In 3.1, Polonius persuades his daughter, Ophelia, to talk to Hamlet while Polonius and Claudius eavesdrop. The two men conceal themselves, and Hamlet encounters Ophelia. At 3.1.131 Hamlet suddenly says to her, “Where’s your father?” Why does Hamlet, apparently out of nowhere–they have not been talking about Polonius–ask this question? Is this an example of the “antic disposition” (fantastic behavior) that Hamlet earlier (1.5.172) had told Horatio and others–including us–he would display? That is, is the question about the whereabouts of her father a seemingly irrational one, like his earlier question (3.1.103) to Ophelia, “Ha, ha! Are you honest?” Or, on the other hand, has Hamlet (as in many productions) suddenly glimpsed Polonius’s foot protruding from beneath a drapery at the rear? That is, does Hamlet ask the question because he has suddenly seen something suspicious and now is testing Ophelia? (By the way, in productions that do give Hamlet a physical cue, it is almost always Polonius rather than Claudius who provides the clue. This itself is an act of interpretation on the part of the director.) Or (a third possibility) does Hamlet get a clue from Ophelia, who inadvertently betrays the spies by nervously glancing at their place of hiding? This is the interpretation used in the BBC television version, where Ophelia glances in fear toward the hiding place just after Hamlet says “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (121-22). Hamlet, realizing that he is being observed, glances here and there before he asks “Where’s your father?” The question thus is a climax to what he has been doing while speaking the preceding lines. Or (a fourth interpretation) does Hamlet suddenly, without the aid of any clue whatsoever, intuitively (insightfully, mysteriously, wonderfully) sense that someone is spying? Directors must decide, of course–and so must readers.

Recall, too, the preceding discussion of the texts of the plays, which argued that the texts–though they seem to be before us in permanent black on white–are unstable. The Signet text of Hamlet, which draws on the Second Quarto (1604) and the First Folio (1623) is considerably longer than any version staged in Shakespeare’s time. Our version, even if spoken very briskly and played without any intermission, would take close to four hours, far beyond “the two hours’ traffic of our stage” mentioned in the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet. (There are a few contemporary references to the duration of a play, but none mentions more than three hours.) Of Shakespeare’s plays, only The Comedy of Errors, Macbeth, and The Tempest can be done in less than three hours without cutting. And even if we take a play that exists only in a short text, Macbeth, we cannot claim that we are experiencing the very play that Shakespeare conceived, partly because some of the Witches’ songs almost surely are non-Shakespearean additions, and partly because we are not willing to watch the play performed without an intermission and with boys in the female roles.

Further, as the earlier discussion of costumes mentioned, the plays apparently were given chiefly in contemporary, that is, in Elizabethan dress. If today we give them in the costumes that Shakespeare probably saw, the plays seem not contemporary but curiously dated. Yet if we use our own dress, we find lines of dialogue that are at odds with what we see; we may feel that the language, so clearly not our own, is inappropriate coming out of people in today’s dress. A common solution, incidentally, has been to set the plays in the nineteenth century, on the grounds that this attractively distances the plays (gives them a degree of foreignness, allowing for interesting costumes) and yet doesn’t put them into a museum world of Elizabethan England.

Inevitably our productions are adaptations, our adaptations, and inevitably they will look dated, not in a century but in twenty years, or perhaps even in a decade. Still, we cannot escape from our own conceptions. As the director Peter Brook has said, in The Empty Space (1968): It is not only the hairstyles, costumes and makeups that look dated. All the different elements of staging–the shorthands of behavior that stand for emotions; gestures, gesticulations and tones of voice–are all fluctuating on an invisible stock exchange all the time. . . . A living theatre that thinks it can stand aloof from anything as trivial as fashion will wilt. (p. 16)

As Brook indicates, it is through today’s hairstyles, costumes, makeup, gestures, gesticulations, tones of voice–this includes our conception of earlier hairstyles, costumes, and so forth if we stage the play in a period other than our own–that we inevitably stage the plays.

It is a truism that every age invents its own Shakespeare, just as, for instance, every age has invented its own classical world. Our view of ancient Greece, a slave-holding society in which even free Athenian women were severely circumscribed, does not much resemble the Victorians’ view of ancient Greece as a glorious democracy, just as, perhaps, our view of Victorianism itself does not much resemble theirs. We cannot claim that the Shakespeare on our stage is the true Shakespeare, but in our stage productions we find a Shakespeare that speaks to us, a Shakespeare that our ancestors doubtless did not know but one that seems to us to be the true Shakespeare–at least for a while.

Our age is remarkable for the wide variety of kinds of staging that it uses for Shakespeare, but one development deserves special mention. This is the now common practice of race-blind or color-blind or nontraditional casting, which allows persons who are not white to play in Shakespeare. Previously blacks performing in Shakespeare were limited to a mere three roles, Othello, Aaron (in Titus Andronicus), and the Prince of Morocco (in The Merchant of Venice), and there were no roles at all for Asians. Indeed, African-Americans rarely could play even one of these three roles, since they were not welcome in white companies. Ira Aldridge (c.1806-1867), a black actor of undoubted talent, was forced to make his living by performing Shakespeare in England and in Europe, where he could play not only Othello but also–in whiteface–other tragic roles such as King Lear. Paul Robeson (1898-1976) made theatrical history when he played Othello in London in 1930, and there was some talk about bringing the production to the United States, but there was more talk about whether American audiences would tolerate the sight of a black man–a real black man, not a white man in blackface–kissing and then killing a white woman. The idea was tried out in summer stock in 1942, the reviews were enthusiastic, and in the following year Robeson opened on Broadway in a production that ran an astounding 296 performances. An occasional all-black company sometimes performed Shakespeare’s plays, but otherwise blacks (and other minority members) were in effect shut out from performing Shakespeare. Only since about 1970 has it been common for nonwhites to play major roles along with whites. Thus, in a 1996-97 production of Antony and Cleopatra, a white Cleopatra, Vanessa Red-grave, played opposite a black Antony, David Harewood. Multiracial casting is now especially common at the New York Shakespeare Festival, founded in 1954 by Joseph Papp, and in England, where even siblings such as Claudio and Isabella in Measure for Measure or Lear’s three daughters may be of different races. Probably most viewers today soon stop worrying about the lack of realism, and move beyond the color of the performers’ skin to the quality of the performance.

Nontraditional casting is not only a matter of color or race; it includes sex. In the past, occasionally a distinguished woman of the theater has taken on a male role–Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) as Hamlet is perhaps the most famous example–but such performances were widely regarded as eccentric. Although today there have been some performances involving cross-dressing (a drag As You Like It staged by the National Theatre in England in 1966 and in the United States in 1974 has achieved considerable fame in the annals of stage history), what is more interesting is the casting of women in roles that traditionally are male but that need not be. Thus, a 1993-94 English production of Henry V used a woman–not cross-dressed–in the role of the governor of Harfleur. According to Peter Holland, who reviewed the production in Shakespeare Survey 48 (1995), “having a female Governor of Harfleur feminized the city and provided a direct response to the horrendous threat of rape and murder that Henry had offered, his language and her body in direct connection and opposition” (p. 210). Ten years from now the device may not play so effectively, but today it speaks to us. Shakespeare, born in the Elizabethan Age, has been dead nearly four hundred years, yet he is, as Ben Jonson said, “not of an age but for all time.” We must understand, however, that he is “for all time” precisely because each age finds in his abundance something for itself and something of itself.

And here we come back to two issues discussed earlier in this introduction–the instability of the text and, curiously, the Bacon/Oxford heresy concerning the authorship of the plays. Of course Shakespeare wrote the plays, and we should daily fall on our knees to thank him for them–and yet there is something to the idea that he is not their only author. Every editor, every director and actor, and every reader to some degree shapes them, too, for when we edit, direct, act, or read, we inevitably become Shakespeare’s collaborator and re-create the plays. The plays, one might say, are so cunningly contrived that they guide our responses, tell us how we ought to feel, and make a mark on us, but (for better or for worse) we also make a mark on them.

–SYLVAN BARNET Tufts University


Romeo and Juliet, even in the mutilated versions that Restoration and eighteenth-century audiences knew, has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Since 1845, when Charlotte and Susan Cushman finally brought a version approaching Shakespeare’s original back to the stage, it has been a coveted vehicle among actors and actresses alike, on both sides of the Atlantic; and some of the theater’s greatest names have been associated with it. In recent years audiences have also been enjoying it in film versions and on television. Among professional scholars the play has sparked less enthusiasm. In this quarter one hears praise for the ingenuity of the language, for the brilliance of the characterizations, and for the portrayal of young love; but such praise is frequently qualified by the uneasy admission that Romeo and Juliet resists measurement by the rules conventionally applied to Shakespeare’s later tragedies. Scholarly critics continue to express misgivings about the emphasis on pathos, the absence of ethical purpose, and what appears to be a capricious shifting of tone, particularly between the first two acts and the last three.

Such misgivings among modern readers are understandable, but one may question whether the Elizabethans would have felt or even understood them. Apparently most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries still considered an ending in death the principal requirement for tragedy; and since Romeo and Juliet offered six deaths, five of them on stage and two of them the deaths of protagonists, audiences in those days probably thought it more tragic than many plays so labeled. Elizabethan audiences would have found equally strange the objection that the play lacks ethical purpose. They knew by training what to think of impetuous young lovers who deceived their parents and sought advice from friars. Arthur Brooke, whose Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562) was most likely Shakespeare’s only source, had spelled it all out as follows: To this ende (good Reader) is this tragicall matter written, to describe unto thee a coople of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authoritie and advise of parents and frendes, conferring their principall counsels with dronken gossyppes, and superstitious friers (the naturally fitte instrumentes of unchastitie) attemptyng all adventures of peryll, for thattaynyng of their wished lust, usying auriculer confession (the kay of whoredome, and treason) for furtheraunce of theyre purpose, abusyng the honorable name of lawefull mariage, the cloke the shame of stolne contractes, finallye, by all means of unhonest lyfe, hastyng to most unhappy deathe.

In addition, Elizabethans also knew that suicide was the devil’s business and usually meant damnation; in their view, therefore, Romeo and Juliet must have had automatically an abundance of ethical import. Shakespeare probably should be given some kind of credit for not challenging these deep-seated convictions of his contemporary auditors and readers; for, ironically, the modern feeling that his play is ethically deficient stems partly from the modern ability to see that Shakespeare has really approved the love of Romeo and Juliet, condoned their deceptions, and laid the blame for their deaths, even though by suicide, upon their elders.

A better explanation for the modern reader’s uneasiness about ranking Romeo and Juliet with the so-called major tragedies lies in the widespread assumption that Shakespeare meant the play to be deterministic. Shakespeare seems to invite such a view when he promises in the Prologue to show the “misadventured piteous overthrows” of “a pair of star-crossed lovers” and thereafter lets the principals make references to fate and the stars and has them express various kinds of premonition. Romeo, for example, says in Act 1 that his “mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars” (1.4.106-7); Friar Lawrence tries to reassure himself with uneasy prayers but soon observes that “violent delights have violent ends” (2.6.9); and Juliet, on taking leave of her husband, cries, “O Fortune, Fortune! All men call thee fickle” (3.5.60). These and other references make it easy to argue that the characters are, as they themselves sometimes imply, little better than puppets, pitiful perhaps but ethically uninteresting and scarcely due the fearful respect that one gives to the heroes of Shakespeare’s later tragedies. Actually, the text as a whole gives little justification for such a view. It is true that Romeo says, as he is about to enter the Capulet’s great hall, . . . my mind misgives

Some consequence yet hanging in the stars

Shall bitterly begin his fearful date

With this night’s revels and expire the term

Of a despised life, closed in my breast,

By some vile forfeit of untimely death.


But he immediately adds, “. . . he that hath the steerage of my course / Direct my sail!” The first part of this quotation is typical of what we find–and find not so often as some imagine–in Romeo and Juliet: premonitions, prayers, misgivings, references to Fortune, all uttered much as we ourselves utter such things, without necessarily implying real belief in astral influence. Sometimes the character’s premonition is confirmed by later events; sometimes not, as is true of the auspicious part of Romeo’s dream on the night before his suicide. The second part of the quotation is typical, too; for almost as often as these characters speak of fate they speak of a superior Providence, mysteriously directing but never absolutely determining human destiny. Moreover, accident-prone as Romeo and Juliet may occasionally seem, they are really no more than Hamlet, who also has his share of premonitions; and their actions are no more clearly determined by supernatural influence than those of Macbeth. Like its successors, Romeo and Juliet takes place in a universe where there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow and where what will be, assuredly will be. All that is asked of the inhabitants of this Shakespearean world of tragedy is that they achieve readiness or ripeness for what is to come, and in this tragedy as in the others they are

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