Shakespearing #13 by David Foley
Romeo and Juliet
One of the pleasures of re-reading a familiar text is that things you’ve taken for granted suddenly leap out at you. Like that prologue. Why would Shakespeare begin his liveliest play with a plodding plot summary in sonnet form?
My first playwright’s thought is producer interference. “But how will they know it’s a tragedy?” Shakespeare’s colleagues worry. (It’s a producer’s job to assume audiences are dumb.)
How indeed? The play begins with a comic bit which, in most productions, turns the fight that follows into operetta, despite the fact that blood clearly flows. (As evidence, we have not just the Prince’s “neighbor-stained steel” but Romeo’s line, “O me, what fray was here?” What could he be seeing but blood?) Then we get Romeo mooning hyperbolically about love, Capulet’s bustling preparations for the party, some comic business with the servingman, after which our heroine is introduced in a scene dominated by one of the theatre’s most richly drawn comic characters. What kind of way is that to start a tragedy?
My second thought is that Shakespeare himself wanted the prologue. Lately I’ve been reading James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. One of Shapiro’s points is that Shakespeare increasingly chafed against the conventions of Elizabethan theatre. One of those conventions might have been starting a play while the audience was as yet imperfectly attending. How long did it take for the spectators to finish shushing each other and listen up? The prologue famously ends with a dig at the audience: “What here shall miss our toil shall strive to mend.”
And then we’re plunged into action. This seems breathtaking to me now. I can’t think of a previous Shakespeare play that does this. The prologue now (third thought) seems like a form of joke, its stodgy locutions a carpet that’s about to be yanked out from under the audience.
You notice, too, how fluidly he’s using the stage space. In the opening scenes, the main characters—Benvolio, Capulet, Romeo, Paris—weave in and out, coupling and re-coupling, swirling the stage with life.
If you want to know why Shakespeare remains a touchstone for playwrights (a friend tells me that Arthur Miller learned his craft by typing out Shakespeare’s plays), read Romeo and Juliet. Read the scene in which the Nurse returns to Juliet with her message from Romeo. Feel the joy of what Tennessee Williams once called “that cloudy, flickering, evanescent—fiercely charged!—interplay of live human beings…”
You can learn subtler lessons from Shakespeare. The compressed time frame of the play is astonishing, but this compression also happens within individual scenes. When the Nurse brings news of Tybalt’s death, Juliet suddenly intuits the narrative the Nurse hasn’t quite explained. These lacunae, easy to notice on the page, play out on stage only as an electric charge leaping a gap.
The other playwriting lesson to be learnt from Shakespeare is one some playwrights never learn. Shakespeare never allows a vibrating tension to resolve. (This, too, I’m getting from Shapiro.) I wonder if Romeo and Juliet’s story would still be as potent if it weren’t so hard to name it as either love or desire. Various characters (Mercutio, Friar Laurence, the Nurse) keep reframing love as desire, and even the second chorus describes the lovers as “alike bewitched by the charm of looks.” Juliet’s (and actually Shakespeare’s) insistence on Romeo’s beauty keeps their love from resolving into a sentimental idea and makes Juliet’s love both intense and girlishly real. We’re left with a spectacle that’s both a massive mutual crush and an enduring tragedy of love.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.