What You Probably Missed When Reading 'Romeo and Juliet'
"It is a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life."
Do you know who said that? It was Samuel Pepys, the earliest known critic of plays. This guy:
Pepys wrote his succinct and cutthroat review in 1662, in response to William Shakespeare’s most enduring romance, Romeo and Juliet. Now, after more than three years since it’s last performance on Broadway, that staple of junior high English classes everywhere is coming back, and it's looking for blood.
This time, with Orlando Bloom.
While scores of over-caffeinated 13-year-olds and hungover undergrads looking to fill credit requirements continue to pore through William Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter-ed tragedy of two star-crossed lovers, it is always worth taking a step back and looking at some of the play's quirks. Romeo and Juliet has been put on a pedestal, which can make it feel inaccessible when one is reading or watching it. But there is an undeniable humanity to the play, which one might overlook while putting together an essay on the historical connotations of Mercutio’s reference to a "plague" in his dying breath. Romeo and Juliet is a story designed to entertain the common man. Don't forget that.
So while Condola Rashad and Bloom "break barriers" on Broadway, let’s try to make this play a bit more real.
Shakespeare "Borrowed" Material.
Shakespeare was as human as the rest of us, and like all artistic humans, not all of his ideas were completely original. So he borrowed a couple things. Romeo and Juliet is thought to be based on Arthur Brook’s 1562 poem "Romeus and Juliet." Most of the story remains the same, with one exception: Mercutio. But does Mercutio make all the difference?
Of course he does, which is why everyone in the world knows the name Shakespeare.
Sadly, True Love Will Find a Way.
Mr. Capulet was a business guy, and Paris was a good choice. Is that so wrong? Juliet might have really liked him if she had given him a chance. Not to mention the fact that she was only 13 years old, or something like that. "What good decision has anyone ever made at 13?" I think to myself, as my Pokemon cards collect dust in my parent’s attic. Alas, one climb up a balcony later, you get a whole bunch of young people dead and a lonely dude with not a lot of lines. Poor Paris, save your money for the next girl.
The family feud between the Montagues and Capulets is thought to have been based on a real feud between the Danvers and Long families of England. Some historians also point to the Montecchis and Capuletis, rival families in Verona during the 13th century. Long story short, rival families are all over the place, and they lead to nothing good. Besides stories. They lead to great stories.
Give the People What They Want.
In Shakespeare's age, the theater was a public place, and working class people would go there for entertainment. Shakespeare was a man who knew his audience. The raunchier the play, the better. Romeo and Juliet was the first romantic play to feature an onstage kiss between a man and woman. Remember that scene in Shakespeare in Love where Shakespeare kisses Gwyneth Paltrow? (I know none of it was factual, but bear with me.) Romantic, right? Now imagine it was the first time anyone in that audience ever saw a kiss take place on a stage. How beautiful is that? Shakespeare also made sure his plays, Romeo and Juliet included, were full of duels, innuendo-rich "gritty" dialogue, and a whole lot of death.
It is hard to picture notable people of history doing anything in their youth. I'm thinking about Shakespeare. This guy:
It's weird to think about Shakespeare being my age, writing plays and hobnobbing with a bunch of hipster artist types who let dishes pile up and drink each other’s beer. Imagining Shakespeare making it happen (despite some not-so-good reviews) in his 20s and 30s is an interesting thing to do while reading or watching one of his plays. Shakespeare had it. For a short time, he was it. Shakespeare survived the critics and bubonic plague just long enough to reach his 52 birthday. While it was not uncommon for people living in the 1600s to die at an even earlier age, it is remarkable that Shakespeare produced the canon of enduring work that he did in such a short amount of time.
If only he knew the man he would become.
In honor of the latest incarnation of Romeo and Juliet, I leave you with the wise words of Robert Greene, who was the first man to reference Shakespeare: "There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country."
"The only Shake-scene," indeed. Shakespeare is a figure best served human.