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Shakespeare's Secrets - Romeo And Juliet

Shakespeare's Secrets - Romeo And Juliet

Book excerpt


In the ramp-up to my first time directing R&J, I was reading and re-reading the script, watching other productions, and even visiting Verona as a lark — not that Shakespeare ever went there, but for the past hundred years or so, the city has become, at least partially, an industry town for the play. Shakespeare’s Italian Disneyland.

Used to looking at a play through the eyes of a single character, this was the first time since Mr. Tobin’s ninth-grade English class that I was forced to explore the play as a whole. I took a look at all the questions, including the perennial, ‘What caused the feud?’ Not technically vital to either an actor’s or audience’s understanding of the show because, at the top of Act One, the feud is an established fact. But still, worth pondering.

Cutting a script is still my least favorite chore. Back then, it drove me mad. What to keep, what to lose? I was nearly done, working on the final scene — Paris is slain, Romeo and Juliet are both dead, we’re firmly into the denouement — when suddenly a line jumped out at me.

Capulet and his wife have just found their daughter’s bleeding body. Romeo’s father, Lord Montague, enters, and the Prince addresses him:


Come, Montague, for thou art early up

To see thy son and heir now early down.


Montague replies:


Alas, my liege, my wife is dead tonight;

Grief of my son’s exile hath stopped her breath.

What further woe conspires against my age?


These lines baffled me. Realize, I’d been looking at the show for days, thinking about actors entering and exiting, considering who I could double-cast, and so forth. I clearly didn’t need Lady Montague for the final scene — her husband just told us she’s dead. I flipped back to find her last scene. She’s listed as entering in Act Three, Scene Four, when Mercutio and Tybalt both buy it — but she’s strangely quiet in that scene. Lord Capulet, too, but at least people talk to him. No one addresses Romeo’s mom, even when her son is banished. In fact, looking at it harder, Lady Montague hasn’t been heard from since Act One, Scene One, in which she utters a mere two lines!

So this was my quandary — do I cut Montague’s lines at the end of the show? Why not? Here we are, the play is basically over. We’ve just watched the two romantic leads die pitiably, and young, kind, noble Paris croaks, as well. Why do we care if some woman we barely remember is dead?

But it continued to bother me. There had to be a reason she was dead.

Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, there was a very good reason. The actor who played Lady Montague was probably needed in another role — the exigencies of the stage. Even realizing this, though, I couldn’t let go of the line. My wife is dead tonight. The rules of dramatic structure nagged at me. A death like that is supposed to be symbolic. But of what? Clueless, I shrugged and finished the cuts. I left the line in, hoping my actors could figure it out.

In the event, they didn’t have to. I was going about my business later that week when it hit me — the Feud! The thing that gets closure at the end of the show is the feud. Montague and Capulet bury the hatchet. They’re even going to build statues to honor their dead kids.

Could Lady Montague’s death be symbolic of the end of the feud? The only way that could work would be…


If she were the cause of the feud.


I remember stopping dead in my tracks as the idea took form: a love triangle a generation earlier, between the parents! Romeo’s mother, engaged to a young Capulet, runs off with a young Montague instead. That’s certainly cause for a feud, especially if young Capulet and Montague were friends. Best friends, childhood friends, torn apart by their love for a woman.

This explained so much in the play — Lord Capulet, Juliet’s doting father, suddenly threatening to kill her for refusing to marry the man he’s chosen for her. He tells her to “hang, beg, starve, die in the streets” — this from a man who has called her “the hopeful lady of my earth.” His fury seems to come out of nowhere and is brutally excessive. But if his own bride-to-be had jilted him and run off with his best friend instead, of course Juliet’s similar behavior would press his buttons.

This notion also goes on to inform much of Capulet’s relationship with his wife — a younger wife, we know from the script, not well contented in her match, married to a man who doesn’t love her. It hints at her relationship, in turn, with Tybalt. In fact, the behavior of both families is wonderfully colored by this single, simple idea: Romeo’s mom jilted Juliet’s dad. Whoa.

This idea doesn’t interfere the actual performance of the show. The reason we are still doing Shakespeare four hundred years later is not his plots, which are stolen and often dippy. It’s his language. And Romeo and Juliet stands, as it always has, on its language and its near-perfect structure. Any back-story ends up being superfluous.

Yes, there are moments when it can be very clear, but contrary to popular opinion, the core of the play isn’t the feud. That’s what frustrates me when I see people set the play between rival ethnic groups and think they’re making a statement. The feud is simply the setting, the circumstance. It’s not the heart of the show.

The heart of the show is youthful love, which is doomed because it burns so hot. Which is why I like this origin to the feud.

A feud born of love, dies with love.


Tracing the sources of Shakespeare’s plays to their roots is fun, though sometimes vexing. Do you work backwards, or try to trace the evolution from ancient texts to his eventual recreation?

Chronologically, the most obvious inspiration for this tale is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which includes the tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, a story Shakespeare clearly knew well. So well, in fact, he parodied his own success with R&J by having Bottom and the Mechanicals (a band name if I ever heard one) utterly butcher the source material.

(Aside: Shakespeare was hilariously self-referential in subtle ways. He let us know how he felt about contemporary productions of his works and the actors who played in them, peppering his work with inside jokes. Hamlet’s advice to the players is too spot-on, his ridicule of Bottom’s scenery-chewing too knowing. He had to be making fun of his fellows – and himself.)

The next relative of this story is certainly a distant one: the Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the fifth century CE. The lovers Anthia and Habrocomes are on their way to Egypt when they are taken by pirates. Sold into slavery, they are separated, undergoing several rather lusty adventures. At one point Anthia is shipwrecked with her new owners and kidnapped by robbers. She’s about to be sacrificed to Ares when she’s rescued by a local magistrate called Periaus, who declares his right to marry her. Faithful to her husband, she obtains a potion from a doctor which she thinks is lethal but (as in Cymbeline) is merely a sleeping potion. She awakens in a tomb and, due to the consistency of her luck, is carried off by tomb-robbers to further adventures (it totally gives off that Perils of Pauline vibe).

Leaping ahead nearly a thousand years, we reach the first of the stories recognizable as direct antecedents of R&J: Masuccio Salernitano’s thirty-third novel from Il Novellino. Set in Sienna, this work stars Mariotto and Gianozza as the lovers and involves secret marriages, deaths of kinsmen, and a young groom fleeing to Alexandria. The bride is then forced to marry against her will, but is given a draught by the Friar that makes her appear dead. Alas, the Friar’s message detailing the plan is waylaid by pirates (shades of Shakespeare in Love!). The story plays out the same as R&J, except Gianozza flees to a convent, where she dies. Pregnant, if I recall correctly.

Next comes the first version to name the lovers Romeo and Giulietta in probably the most important of Shakespeare’s sources (though he himself may never have seen it). This was written by Luigi da Porto somewhere around 1524, though published posthumously in 1535.

A native of Vicenza, da Porto set the action in nearby Verona, rooting the story very firmly in the reign of Bartolomeo della Scala, 1301-1304. He dedicated his story to “the most beautiful and graceful Lady Lucina Savorgnano.” This version is completely recognizable, starting with the establishment of the Cappelletti-Montecchi feud. Romeo Montecchio goes to the Cappelletti ball to see one lady, but upon sight of Giulietta Cappelletti, he falls madly in love. She does the same, and while she’s dancing he holds one of her hands (her other hand is held by a suitor named Maruccio who, we are told, is noble and handsome. But she doesn’t like him because “in July and in January, his hands were always freezing.”).

The two begin to meet in secret, “sometimes in the church, at others from the windows.” Then we get the Balcony Scene, with these lines:



What brings you hither and alone at this hour?



The power of love.



And know you not that being discovered here would mean instantaneous death?



Alas, dear lady, I know only too well, and certain it is I shall surely die unless you take pity on me. But, as I must die in some place, Heaven grant that I may die near you, who are the goddess of my idolatry and with whom life would seem paradise, would you and Heaven only consent to give ear to my love.


Enlisting the aid of Friar Lorenzo, Giulietta’s confessor, they wed in secret. But there’s a brawl in the street between the feuding families, and in the massive fighting, Romeo kills Tebaldo Cappelletto. Exiled, Romeo says farewell to his wife in the friar’s confessional, then flees to Mantua.

Lord and Lady Cappelletti, misconstruing their daughter’s distress, decide to marry her to the cold-handed Maruccio. Hearing her absolute refusal, her father loses his temper and “threatened her with his bitterest hatred if she dared oppose his wishes.” Desperate, Giulietta sends her servant Pietro to Romeo in Mantua. Romeo sends word back that she must be faithful to him, and instructs her to go to the friar, as the holy man “was capable of working miracles.”

She does, and Lorenzo gives her a potion “which you will drink, after which you will, for a space for forty-eight hours, more or less, fall into a profound sleep that no man, however great a physician he may be, cannot choose but pronounce you dead.” He’ll be there when she wakes and conduct her to her husband in Mantua.

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