Teens out of control : Romeo & Juliet

It’s amusing that in the face of frequent moral panics about teen behaviour over the past half century or more, parents are quite happy to have their children read and watch this tale of teenagers disobeying their elders, having sex and indulging in gang violence before eventually killing themselves. Indeed, it’s actually considered respectable.

It’s also amusing that the BBC decided to put John Gielgud on the cover of this DVD rather than Patrick Ryecart, who plays Romeo. Sure, he’s a famous face, but he’s only on screen for about two minutes (as the Chorus) and you would think the star-cross’d lovers of the title would warrant being put front and centre, like they are in every other version:

This was the play that the BBC decided to start their series with and there’s no doubt that it’s one of Shakespeare’s best known works, if not the most famous of them all. This is the first mega hit that Will Shakespeare wrote, at least from a modern perspective. In his own time, the histories were the most popular works, especially Richard III and Henry IV, Part One. But these days, Romeo and Juliet trails only the next play I’ll be looking at, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when it comes to the number of productions, which is a fair indicator of popularity. Interestingly, the play’s popularity particularly resides in America and it’s considerably less popular elsewhere in the world. So what is it that the Americans are so attracted to in this play? Let’s recap the story…

It’s a bad scene in Verona: violence stalks the streets and Prince Escalus, despite standing on a law and order platform and promising a zero tolerance approach to gang activity, just can’t seem to bring the Montagues and the Capulets to heel. It’s a pretty exciting start to the play, with Shakespeare delivering a string of double-entendres to get the audience revved up before unleashing a pretty good fight early on. What’s not to like?

Well, Romeo brings things down somewhat. He’s your classic lovelorn teen, moaning about how the girl he loves just doesn’t appreciate how awesome he is. It would be more believeable if they ever cast someone with pimples as Romeo, but that will never fly. The twist, of course, is that despite the Chorus giving away the whole story of the play before it begins, the girl he’s in love with is not Juliet (he hasn’t met her yet), but Rosaline. Now that’s certainly believeable, that a teenage boy will be wholeheartedly in love with someone and five minutes later find a new object for his affection that he is even more in love with.

The bit that’s actually a bit disturbing, though, is that Juliet is only thirteen years old (“she hath not seen the change of fourteen years”). And what’s more, her parents want her to get married to this other guy, Paris, who’s fine and all, but still wants to marry a 13-year-old (ick) and even says, “Younger than she are happy mothers made.” Not only married, but a mother at twelve? What’s wrong with these people? Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, says she was a mother at Juliet’s age, which makes her all of 26, considerably younger than she’s usually played as. It also maybe explains why she’s full of so much bad advice for her daughter.

Anyway, the Capulets are having a party and everyone’s invited! Except obviously for the Montagues, but Romeo’s best friend Mercutio has an invitation and he decides to sneak in a few of his Montague mates, because he’s a bit of a rule-breaker and basically does not give a s***. Romeo’s cousin Benvolio thinks that Romeo will get over Rosaline if he just checks out all the other beautiful women at the party, at which Romeo scoffs and says there’s no way that will happen, his love for Rosaline is absolute and eternal and, wait, who’s that attractive 13-year-old over there?

The bit that I like most about Romeo and Juliet falling in love at the party is that Shakespeare, who’s also pretty well known for some sonnets that he wrote, does some virtuoso writing here and actually embeds a sonnet in their dialogue:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

How about that? 14 lines, standard Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme and rhyming couplet to finish and all?

So we get a balcony scene and everything after this and Romeo gets all carried away with his imagery (again believeable for a teenage boy), like with this bit:

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven, 
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head? 
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp. Her eyes in heaven 
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.

Okay, so I get the eyes like stars metaphor (she’s got nice eyes and stars are nice), but it’s actually a bit macabre when you think through the details of it: what if you plucked out Juliet’s eyeballs and replaced them with two luminous spheres of plasma? Well, her head would melt for one thing, I would have thought, but no, Romeo says the stars wouldn’t even look bright compared to her cheeks. What the hell is going on with her cheeks, then? I think she needs to see a doctor if they’re glowing that much. Meanwhile, those eyeballs that we plucked out are now apparently orbiting the Earth or something, and they are so bright that there’s no longer any nighttime, which pretty much screws up everything for the nocturnal animals and will lead to some kind of environmental disaster. But anyway, the point is that Romeo thinks Juliet has nice eyes (and cheeks) and so he’s decided to marry her. If that’s not the basis for a good marriage with someone you met ten minutes ago, I don’t know what is.

Juliet’s eyes (or equivalent)

The other classic move that Romeo goes for is to imagine that he’s some object that will be able to make physical contact with Juliet, so:

See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!

Now it’s important to realise that this is a move that can go very wrong. While it’s acceptable to wish that you were a glove on someone’s hand, wishing that you were some other item is likely to expose you to some ridicule. Just ask Prince Charles.

While Romeo is geting all worked up, Juliet is musing on names in a more philosophical way, in one of the most famous passages from the play:

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, 
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name. 
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose 
By any other name would smell as sweet
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, 
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, 
And for that name, which is no part of thee, 
Take all myself.

But is it really true that Romeo would still be the supposedly perfect being that he is if he had a different name? The whole point of the play is that the names Montague and Capulet hold an enormous amount of power and lead the people who bear them to destruction. The name Romeo has come to have the meaning of young lover (“He’s a real Romeo…”), so maybe there’s something in his first name as well. And psychology suggests that maybe a rose wouldn’t actually smell as sweet if it was called something different (like, say, a “dung flower”).

One last couplet that I like from this iconic exchange is:

Love goes towards love, as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.

I think it’s kind of endearing that young Romeo likens his attitude towards Juliet to a reversal of his attitude towards school. This is the way he makes sense of his urges: the speed and enthusiasm with which he runs away from his study is like the way he wants to run towards Juliet, and the dread with which he approaches school approximates the dread he has of parting from Juliet. Maybe if he was a better student things would have turned out okay…

Because, of course, it’s about time that things started going wrong. Friar Laurence marries the two kids, thinking that this is an opportunity to end the feud between their two families. Friar Laurence is another character in this play that’s full of irresponsible advice. His meddling is pretty disastrous.

Meanwhile, we see Shakespeare anticipating one of the major problems with climate change, with it leading to conflict: “for now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.” Mercutio is spoiling for a fight and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt is more than happy to give him one. It ends with Mercutio dead, stabbed under Romeo’s arm as the latter tries to end the fight. Mercutio can’t stop with the wisecracks even as he’s dying: “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” Romeo does what you’d expect and kills Tybalt in a rage and gets himself banished from Verona in a show of obscene favouritism from the Prince who had promised to execute anyone caught fighting in the streets.

Romeo and Juliet at least get to consumate their marriage secretly before Romeo takes off for Mantua. Quite why Juliet didn’t just sneak off with him isn’t really clear. That was the thought that Thom Yorke had when he wrote Exit Music (For a Film) for Baz Luhrmann’s film version:

The problem is that Juliet’s parents still want her to marry Paris and she’s not quite up to telling them that she’s already married, to the guy who killed her cousin no less. The Nurse, who apparently doesn’t have a problem with bigamy, tells her that she should just go ahead and marry Paris. Friar Laurence, however, has a cunning plan involving a drug that makes her appear dead. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for one thing, they might have performed an autopsy, or had her cremated. That would have been unfortunate.

Of course, as it turns out, all that happens is that Romeo doesn’t get the news about the whole fake death thing and thinks she’s really dead, turns up at the crypt, kills Paris and then kills himself, all for someone that he’s essentially just had a one night stand with. Friar Laurence turns up and recognises what a mess he’s made of things. His solution now is to dispose of Juliet into a convent and then he runs away and leaves her alone. Nice work, Larry. This means that Juliet wakes up and sees dead Romeo next to her. She shows that she’s just as impulsive as he is (but remember, she is just thirteen) and kills herself as well.

As you can imagine, the parents are all a bit sheepish about the whole situation and their role in the feud that caused a lot of the problems. Montague has had a particularly bad day as his wife has just died (of grief) as well. They decide to build a golden statue in memory of their kids, which is nice, I guess, but the Prince reckons that “never was a story of of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

This BBC production was the first in the series and first screened in December 1978. There are some very dodgy looking props that break apart conveniently during the first fight scene. The cast is pretty impressive; as well as the aforementioned Sir John Gielgud and Patrick Ryecart, Michael Hordern plays Capulet and Anthony Andrews (best known for his role as Lord Sebastian Flyte in the miniseries Brideshead Revisited) does a fine job as Mercutio. The “Queen Mab” speech is beautifully delivered, unlike in Baz Lurhmann’s version. One of the highlights for me was seeing the sadly departed Alan Rickman as a young man playing that hothead Tybalt in what was his very first screen role. As good as he is, he is almost upstaged by his dreadful haircut:

Alan Rickman’s sword is less dangerous than his haircut

Rebecca Saire does a creditable job as Juliet, especially as she was just fourteen at the time, but I was never quite convinced that she and Romeo had the hots for each other.

Romeo and Juliet has been a favourite of filmmakers for a long time. The first major version of it came in 1936, when George Cukor directed the preposterously miscast 43-year-old Leslie Howard and 34-year-old Norma Shearer in the lead roles. Amazingly, the film was nominated for four Oscars.

The next major film version was Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 production, which for many years became a staple in English classrooms, raising the excitement of some students at some brief glimpses of Olivia Hussey in the nude. Zeffirelli didn’t make the same mistake as the earlier version, casting the 15-year-old Hussey and 17-year-old Leonard Whiting as Romeo. This was Zeffirelli’s second go at Shakespeare, having made The Taming of the Shrew the previous year and as with that film, this one is full of life, with great sets and fight scenes. It’s pretty heavily cut from Shakespeare’s script and didn’t have the big name actors that The Taming of the Shrew had (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), although Michael York played Tybalt and Sir Laurence Olivier narrated the prologue. It was (rightfully) very successful and won two Oscars (for cinematography and costume design) as well as being nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.

Zeffirelli got upstaged in 1996 by Baz Luhrmann with his Romeo + Juliet, which had no time for outdated typography like the ampersand and brought the play into a shockingly vibrant twentieth century, with gun play, explosions and television news reports. He retained the language, heavily cut, of course, and the delivery of the lines by most of the actors is not great, but the overall conception of the film is, I think, brilliant. It brings out a fair amount of the humour and makes the play undeniably exciting, as I’m sure that audiences would have found it in Shakespeare’s time. There’s nothing stuffy about this film and it set a new benchmark for Shakespeare adaptations that could find a wide audience, taking in $144 million worldwide. One of the things I like most about the film is the party at the Capulet mansion. Unlike in the BBC version, this looks like a genuinely fun party to attend:

Luhrmann loves a party scene. See also his recent version of The Great Gatsby, with Leonardo DiCaprio all grown up but still hopelessly in love.

Recently, Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) inexplicably decided to rewrite the play for the 2013 film adaptation starring Hailee Steinfeld (who I loved in True Grit) and Douglas Booth. I could only manage about fifteen minutes of this execrable effort before giving up. Avoid at all costs.

Another notable film version of the play is Shakespeare in Love, which imagines a story about Shakespeare writing the play and features extensive scenes of the the play being rehearsed and performed. As you’d imagine for a film that was co-written by Tom Stoppard, it’s exceedingly witty and also has a great cast.

Romeo and Juliet isn’t one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and this viewing didn’t change that, but it does have a lot going for it. There are in fact tales of more woe that Shakespeare would go on to write himself, but this is a pretty decent effort for someone still fairly early in his career.