Doctor Cleveland's picture

    Not the Real Shakespeare

    Flavia has a post that makes me laugh. She recently went to see a Shakespeare comedy produced by a regional theater company, who staged it in modern dress, worked to keep the piece "accessible and appealing," and used some good, old-fashioned slapstick. In short, the production was straight out of the standard Shakespearean-performance playbook: faithful to the text but using costumes and set as an interpretive gloss. At the end of the evening Flavia overheard a number of other playgoers who had enjoyed themselves enormously but were under the impression that they'd seen an adaptation, rather than Shakespeare's play. After all, how could it be the "Real Shakespeare" if it's accessible and fun?

    I've run into this many times over the years with modern-dress Shakespeare, which some people view as Not Shakespeare even when the language is unchanged and the story choices are enormously traditional. What I enjoy best about this misapprehension is the how people feel free to respond honestly to the play when they don't think it's Shakespeare's original, and become willing to talk about the parts they dislike. This can be especially hilarious when it comes from professional reviewers who haven't read the play for a long time. My favorite in that genre came from a reviewer who was absolutely furious that a director at the Goodman in Chicago had "added" a scene full of wise-cracking musicians to Romeo and Juliet, especially when it was "added" at such an inappropriate moment, just after Juliet has taken the potion that fakes her death! What was the director thinking? The answer, of course, can be found in any edition of the play, because it wasn't the director's addition: a glance at, say, a Pelican paperback of R&J would have cleared it up.

    Years ago, after the credits for Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet had finished crawling by, one of the friends I'd seen it with stood up in disgust. "I really hated what they did to Juliet's family," she said. "They're so much worse than Romeo's family."

    "But that's how it is in the play," I said.

    "That much worse?" my friend replied.

    The answer, although I didn't voice it, is "yeah." Romeo's mother is barely in the play, with fewer lines than it takes Mercutio to clear his throat. And since Romeo's parents never actually come face to face with their son, they don't get to enjoy the kind of quality time that the Capulets spend forcing their daughter into an arranged marriage and threatening her with beatings. But the point isn't whether my friend was right or wrong; it's that she only felt free to express herself when she thought the storytelling choices belonged to someone else. My friend thought that Shakespeare's development of those characters was lame, and maybe she's right. But it was only okay to say it when she had someone else to blame.

    The Real Shakespeare turns out to be an extraordinarily slippery cat. When something in his scripts rubs the audience the wrong way, somebody must have changed things without permission, because the Real Shakespeare never makes mistakes. (The actors have screwed it up again!) But on the other hand, if you enjoy yourself too much in the audience, like Flavia's new friends did, that can't be the Real Shakespeare either. How could the Greatest Poet Ever be so damned silly? I guess the obvious conclusion is that the Real Shakespeare was artistically infallible, but also sucked. It's up to those rascally actors to spoil everything, and play his comedies for laughs.


    You think the Capulets are that bad, really?  I'll grant you that Lord Capulet goes a bit nuts when his daughter refuses to marry Paris.  The very fact that the Montagues have a boy, not a girl, means that such a scene would never have occurred for them even if they spent the whole play in his company.

    But it is Capulet who says, "And 'tis not hard for men as old as we to keep the peace."

    It is Capulet who acknowledges that Romeo has crashed his party and, rather than having a duel as Tybalt wants, tells Tybalt to shut up and stop ruining the party.

    In the brawl during the opening scene, is it not Montague that shows up with sword in hand?  Capulet came unarmed ("A crutch! Why call you for a sword!" / "Old Montague is come and flourishes his blade in spite of me!")

    And what of Tybalt?  Mercutio started the fight.  So were they just playing around, going through the motions, until Tybalt accidentally takes it too far? Or were they really trying to kill each other from the beginning?  well, that depends on whose interpretation you prefer.  The '68 Zeffirelli was more the former, the DiCaprio of .. 96? (I feel like I'm reviewing bottles of wine...) was clearly the latter.


    Thanks for posting, ShakespeareGeek. And great username!

    The answer to whether Tybalt and Mercutio were playing or serious is that there is no answer. The text doesn't say, so actors are free to play it however they think it works best. I usually admit that I prefer to see the Mercutio/Tybalt bout played as reckless screwing around that goes wrong, and the resulting Romeo and Tybalt fight as deadly serious from the start. That sudden turn, and the playfulness interrupted by horrible events, fits nicely with other aspects of the play. But on the other hand, if that move became standard, and became so traditional that it was treated as part of the text, then I would want to see it changed around, because that would be a

    In the same way, I don't focus myself on whether Capulet as a "bad" or "good," because the text is all there is. My friend used "good" and "bad" to object to the difference in the way that the two sets of parents treat their children, a difference that really is in the text. But I don't think much about whether he's a good person or not.

    It is true that Capulet has some sympathetic lines in places, to go along with his paternal rage and his threats to beat his daughter and disown him. But it's no good trying to talk about whether the appealing lines or the appalling one represent the "real" Capulet, because there is no real Capulet. There are only those lines, and both the good and bad are there. One of the pleasures of Shakespeare is the way he's willing to let his characters be unpredictable and "inconsistent" in much the way that actual people are. Capulet sometimes speaks warmly, genially, and even sentimentally. Other times he speaks with intemperate, violent rage. At one point, he even does both in the same speech, threatening his nephew while jollying along his party guests.

    As for the fact that the Montagues would never mistreat a son the way that Juliet is mistreated ... well, of course. But instead of focusing on the fact that Montague and Capulet aren't being held to the same standard, let's notice the play focusing on the double standard toward the kids. The Capulets are on stage a lot because Juliet isn't allowed to go anyplace. ("...her means much less/To meet her new beloved anywhere.) The only time she leaves the Capulet's property is to go to confession, where she surely can't get into any trouble (heh). Meanwhile, Romeo, as a male youth, is allowed to roam around the streets and get in trouble. He never returns to his parents' house; they never see him alive in the play. And he spends a huge amount of his time sneaking into wherever Juliet is: craching her father's party, climbing into her garden at night, slipping into her bedroom. The last scene of the play fulfills the pattern: she's locked up in the family tomb and he, of course, is breaking into it.


    Anyway, thanks again for the comment.

    Latest Comments