I’ve been thinking about this play a lot over the last few days, because I’ve been watching the DVD recording of the Globe production I saw last summer. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, particularly most of the scenes with the young men – but I’m willing to accept some of this as my fault and not the production’s, because I’m not sure I ever have seen a Romeo who completely satisfies me.
What I love about this play:
OK, here’s why I think Romeo is such a difficult role. As tempting as it is to think of the lovers as a pair, they’ve really got quite different story arcs, and I feel like Romeo’s is both more interesting and less intrinsically satisfying. Juliet, pretty much, becomes who she ought to become. Her story is about growing up. She’s a pliant kid when we first meet her, but by Act 4, when she comes to the realization that “my dismal scene I needs must act alone,” she’s become a woman of great courage and determination in a matter of days. It feels right and natural, like an illustration of Ben Jonson’s maxim: “in short measures life may perfect be.”
I tend to think that Romeo’s story, on the other hand, is not so much about maturing but about falling away. (All of the really bad decisions in this play are Romeo’s; if you accept the premise that death is preferable to life without one’s love – and I think you have to accept it for the play to work at all – Juliet probably makes the best choices she can under the circumstances.) Still, I think most of the mistakes he makes are excusable. Here he is, a young man in a culture where “being a man” means brawling in the streets and making jokes about rape. And at least in the first two acts, he’s trying to grope his way toward a different mode of masculinity – and sure, it leads him into silly Petrarchan excesses, but his instincts are good. (It’s no accident, I think, that he seizes on Friar Laurence as a confidant – who is kind of an unlikely mentor for a would-be lover, but he is the only mature male character in the play who lives by an alternative set of values.) And Romeo’s tragedy is that he ends up becoming the man of blood that he tries so hard not to be, killing first Tybalt and then Paris. It’s messier and more complicated and really, really difficult to convey in performance. You also have to capture the fact that there’s something essentially countercultural and transgressive about his love for Rosaline, even if the love itself is shallow. It’s a tall order.
On another note, one of the small things I really like about this play is the number of casual references to unseen people and things, creating the illusion that the characters have backstories and off-stage lives. (I think this is a new tactic that Shakespeare is starting to perfect in R&J; I can’t think of too many examples from his very earliest plays, or from other Renaissance playwrights.) So, for example, in the space of about two and a half lines, we learn that the Nurse had a daughter named Susan, that she was Juliet’s age, and that she’s now dead (but the “she was too good for me” line, plus the fact that the Nurse uses Susan’s age as a reference point when she’s calculating Juliet’s, gives the impression that she did not die in infancy). Probably, we’re not supposed to make too much of this, but I can’t help wondering how this play would be different if Susan were alive (one of the striking things about Juliet is how isolated she is, in comparison to the heroines of the comedies; we hardly ever see her interact with anyone outside of her own household, other than Romeo and Friar Laurence, and there aren’t any other female characters her own age). I also wonder whether we’re meant to see Juliet as shaped by the early death of a playmate of her own age – whether this is why she perceives death as ever-present and life as a thing to be seized – or whether this is way too much psychology to read into a pre-modern play.
Favorite memory: Not sure this merits the name of “favorite,” exactly, but I do remember watching the Zeffirelli film in high school and being captivated by the language and the visual beauty of it all: a little oasis in the relentless ugliness that was ninth grade.