The Scholarship, Criticism & Performance of the works of William Shakespeare


South island Christchurch New Zealand


The remarkable thing about Romeo and Juliet is that it is almost never produced as a tragedy. Instead, it is produced as a romantic comedy with a tragic ending. Audiences are encouraged to identify with the two young lovers, the better to get out the hankies at the end.

Tragedy, however, is a little different from that. True tragedy calls on the audience not only to admire tragic protagonists but also to judge them: to note where they go wrong, where their hamartia lies. Tragedy challenges us to see, with open eyes, essentially wonderful people choose wrong and suffer destruction. Fate will help, of course. The catastrophe is never the sole doing of the protagonist. There's always a pinch of the not-to-be-expected-or-controlled.

The hope is to rouse observers to an exalted ambivalence. They will feel compassion, because they have connected with the protagonist and recognized his or her passions as versions of their own, and terror, because fate is inexorable and destructive error familiar in human life.

Yet this process is seldom followed in productions of Romeo and Juliet. We're allowed--indeed, encouraged--to become close to the lovers, to share their passion to the fullest. To be sure, tragic distance is somewhat tricky with this play. The very youth of the lovers raises the question of whether they can know enough about the world to be fully responsible for their fates. But, as the play demonstrates, they know plenty--plenty about the danger of their world, the pinch of responsibility, the tight bonds of family.

The South Island's Shakespeare Festival's production attempts to make this "most excellent and lamentable tragedy" truly a tragedy. Doing that means doing the unthinkable: distancing the audience a little from Romeo and Juliet. Craig Clarke's Romeo is jejune and headlong. With nary a thought, he lurches from obsession with Rosaline to permanent fealty to Juliet--in a way that is worrisome and not wholly beckoning. His attraction to Juliet is instant, oblivious, and completely sexual. He swears his cosmic vows, but somehow it's clear that these are vows based on little more than wishes. This production had the courage to present him as truly immature.

As for Juliet--portrayed wonderfully by Karen Flanders--her character is cemented in her first words, the "How now? Who calls?" of 1.3. She shouts in the way no parent loves to hear--with the impatience of the teen kicking at the traces, petulant, willful. For her, sexuality is new and all-engrossing; she has given in to it already, before any man is involved. She is exactly the sort to make a terrible mistake.

Juliet's family appears to be part of the problem. Her father is a roaring bear of a man who alternately browbeats and ignores her mother. In turn, Lady Capulet has illicit encounters behind the curtain during the ball. Though she tries to counsel Juliet several times, this mother tries too hard and fails at intimacy. Each of the people in the Capulet household thinks only of his or her own interests, and while each tries to keep the others in order, all are borne apart by centrifugal concerns.

Brian. Michael's direction took special care with the Nurse, Friar Laurence, and Mercutio. Michael reveals a fascinating connection between the first two: each is an enabler of another's passion (the Nurse of Juliet's, the Friar of Romeo's). The Nurse, often played as a sort of clown, is humorous enough (and portrayed with sweet foolishness by Christine Wallace), but her efforts to aid Juliet are shown to be pathetic forms of thrill-seeking, attempts to recover a former life of love and dalliance. Friar Laurence is motivated not only by friendship but also by pride in his powers. Like Romeo, who defies the stars, for a while Friar Laurence convinces himself he can beat fate, only to suffer in learning the truth. His is a minor echo of Romeo's tragedy, and it's a shame it gets edited out so often in production. Here it is given major play.

Mercutio is a study in how you can take things too far. This Mercutio seems intensely focused even in his funniest moments, as if, yes, you can turn everything into a joke, but this process is always fundamentally a serious business, the business of asserting your mind and body at every turn. His destruction is fate's first ineluctable appearance--and, as the harbinger of Romeo's own fate, Mercutio shows initial surprise, then turns his own death into a jest.

The production's masterful set is traditionally gorgeous, with a high Italian Renaissance staircase bisecting the dramatic space diagonally. That allows the cast to create various spaces within the space. Mercutio and the Romeo gang can swagger and herd downstage, play hide and seek around the pillars and staircase, eavesdrop and skulk. Clever use of curtains instantly turns nighttime exteriors into sumptuous interiors. That easy exchange of exterior and interior is arguing a point: that private (the staircases of the Capulets and Montagues) and public (the streets and great houses of Verona) intersaturate throughout the play. The two lovers try to deny or ignore it. They believe they are alone in 2.2, but their privacy is endangered: there has just been a ball; the gang is staggering all over town; it's really just a balcony of a house; and people keep interrupting, to Juliet's unattractive annoyance. Their deluded notion that they have private lives is a first indication of their tragic error.

With Flanders' performance and Michael's direction, Juliet eclipses Romeo in the middle of the play. While there is plenty of "romance" to her motivation (she's nothing if not sincere), we see without escape that she is mistaking sexual attraction for love. "Therefore pardon me," she says to Romeo, "And not impute this yielding to light love," yet there is something about it that is light, as light as it is intense. Her soliloquies in 2.4 and 3.2 are torqued with frustration. Her "Oh, God, she comes" when Nurse finally appears in 2.4 is uttered with a kind of preorgasmic breathlessness.

So there is ever something a little fearsome in Juliet's precipitate ardor, just as there is in the heedless heroism of Romeo's defiance of fate. These kids, we feel, are making a terrible mistake. They ought to know better, but, being themselves, they can't. Neither Juliet nor Romeo understands what death really is, either, as their awful looks of surprise at the end of the play remind us. Friar Laurence realizes the extent of his own foolishness, and his agonized line to Juliet in 5.3--"A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents"--is delivered more to his understanding self than to the less capable Juliet.

The Montagues and Capulets, too, are shown their shortcomings as parents. In fact, the social and religious systems of Verona all are shown as shot through with infirmity. There were plenty of sniffles and wet handkerchiefs at the end of this play, but there was also a sharpened understanding of its world. That's one benefit of being invited to keep our distance from two of the best-loved lovers in the history of drama.