Monday, December 26, 2011

Romeo and Juliet - Adults vs kids

Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty (or Twenty-Eight)
Adults versus Kids in Romeo and Juliet

I think Shakespeare should have stuck with his original plan and written Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, saving Juliet for a play more worthy of her. Oh, yeah, that's right, Ethel and her pirate dad are just pretend. But Juliet would probably have been better off with a pirate for a father. He couldn't have been meaner than old Pa Capulet.

I have trouble with this play. While reading it I kept saying, “But why didn't...?” and “But they could have just...” Etc.

Juliet does have some really powerful lines. While Romeo tends to succumb to “drippy passion” (Dromgoole p. 56), Juliet's eloquence soars, whether she is longing for Romeo (“Come, gentle night; come loving, black-browed night, Give me my Romeo”, Act 2.3), putting him in his place (“What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” Act 2.1), raging at his murder of Tybalt (“Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!” Act 3.2) or fearful of the friar's potion (“What if it it be a poison which the friar/ Subtly have ministered to me to have me dead...?” Act 4.3). In short, Juliet is magnificent, while the play is...not as good as she is.

What Shakespeare really has succeeded in doing is showing how painfully young these two kids are. And how cruelly they are treated by the adults. Romeo's parents aren't so bad but Juliet's are real tyrants, the father being among the worst of Shakespeare's dreadful dads. Being called “green-sickness carrion”, “baggage”, “tallow-face”, being told that she is, as an only child, one child too many, and being threatened with being thrown out on the street to “hang, beg, starve, die” (Act 3.5) is startling even for us who know how rotten Shakespeare's fathers tend to be. And her mother, at the ripe old age of twenty-seven or twenty-eight, isn't much better. She does protest her husband's raging, but only lamely and when Juliet begs for comfort and support she only says:

Talk not to me, for I'll not speak a word.
Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee (Act 3.5)
and sweeps from the room.

A couple of parents more in need of parental guidance would be hard to find.

But what I find harder to accept are the two supposedly nice adults, the Nurse and the Friar. The Nurse is usually played for laughs and is actually called “one of the most entertaining characters”, “endearing” and “affectionate” in Soliloquy's advice on how to play the role (Early and Keil, p. 129-130). This seems to be the prevailing interpretation of the Nurse. Harold Bloom points out that she is an “audience favorite” (p. 89).

She's not mine. The Nurse troubles me from the start. In her first appearance in the play, in Act 1.3, in what seems to be interpreted by most as evidence of a deep affection for Juliet in her long speech about how old the girl is, I find it hard to ignore her meanness. She laughs about weaning baby Juliet by smearing her nipples with bitter tasting wormwood. But even worse, she repeatedly tells the story of how her husband had mocked and ridiculed the little Juliet when she fell and hurt herself quite seriously. Entertaining? The Nurse apparently thinks so.

Still she is funny and bawdy and affectionate and all that and she does go to a lot of trouble to help the young lovers meet. But why? She knows from the beginning that Juliet is to marry Paris. This is not a society in which a thirteen-year-old girl is allowed to have a romantic fling before marriage. There's nothing really wrong with Paris. He's young, wealthy and usually played by a good-looking actor so why shouldn't Juliet marry him? OK, I'm not a dimwit or a total anti-romance curmudgeon. Juliet falls in love with Romeo. But why did the Nurse so actively encourage it and, in fact, manipulate the situation? I really don't know.

But she does. She helps arrange the marriage and despite her grief over the death of Tybalt and anger with Romeo for killing him, she actually arranges for Romeo to come to Juliet to consummate the marriage. Why? Juliet is only thirteen, Romeo not much older. What adult in his or her right mind would encourage and maneuver and meddle and push a marriage the day after they meet no matter how passionate the love?
But meddle she does, married they get, and consummate it they do. Then comes the big confrontation between Juliet and her parents. Juliet and the rest of us can be forgiven for expecting more help from the Nurse, right? She makes a few feeble protests against the father's rage but instead of saying, “Don't worry, dear, I've managed things so far, I'll get you to Mantua to be reunited with Romeo” she, in fact, says:

Faith, here it is: Romeo
Is banishéd...
...Then, since the case so stands as now it doth,
I think it best you married with the County.
O, he's a lovely gentleman!
Romeo's a dishclout to him...
...I think you happy in this second match,
For it excels your first; or if it did not,
Your first is dead, or 'twere as good he were
As living hence and you no use of him (Act 3.5)

What?! It's hard to say who is crueler to Juliet, Capulet or the Nurse. There's no question, however, that the Nurse's betrayal is far more unexpected and therefor by far the worse. Entertaining? Endearing? I don't think so! The Nurse is, as Prof. Bloom writes in a world-class understatement, “bad news” (p. 89). Juliet is more succinct when she stares after the Nurse in shock, seeing her as a “most wicked fiend” (Act 3.5).

Ahem. I told you so.

There is, of course, a reasonable explanation. The Nurse is not an independent character. She seems to have a lot of leeway in the Capulet home but in fact she is a hired servant. She has already – amazingly – gone against her boss, Capulet, and one could say that she suddenly realizes that she has put herself in danger. Thus her abrupt about face. Advocating bigamy is evidently less dangerous.

Friar Laurence, the other nice adult, is not in that kind of position. He's independent, he's respected, he's knowledgeable. Both Juliet and Romeo trust him and turn to him with their passions and problems, indicating that he's been a positive force in their lives previously.

And he does have a plausible reason for helping them. By uniting them in holy matrimony in spite of his wise advice of moderation in love, he hopes to end the violent feud between the two clans. The objection could be raised that children should not be exploited that way, but OK, his intentions are good.

So then why in the name of all that is sensible doesn't he simply help Juliet go with Romeo when he leaves? Failing that, why in the world doesn't he smuggle Juliet off to Mantua when the threat of marriage to Paris becomes an imminent reality? Why this ridiculous rigamarole of the knockout potion which anyone can see will backfire? And to top it all off he turns chicken in the tomb because of hearing some noise and abandons the newly bereaved Juliet with her dead husband and a lot of other corpses.

No. I won't have it. There's something here I'm not getting. Nobody's ever accused Shakespeare of being consistent or unfailingly logical but his characterization is usually flawless. Not the people themselves, of course, but the flawlessness of the credibility of their flawed characters.

But for me the Nurse and the Friar don't work. I'm missing something here. This time Shakespeare has me stumped.

November 2011
December 2011

Works cited:

  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
  • Dromgoole, Dominic. Will & Me. 2007.
  • Early, Michael and Philippa Keil, editors. Soliloquy – The Shakespeare Monologues, The Women. 1988.

Films seen:

  • BBC, 1978. Director: Alvin Rakoff. Cast: Rebecca Saire – Juliet; Patrick Ryecart – Romeo; Celia Johnson – the Nurse; Joseph O'Connor – Friar Lawrence; Alan Rickman – Tybalt; Anthony Andrews – Mercutio; Michael Hordern – Capulet; Jacqueline Hill – Lady Capulet. Rebecca Saire is young enough and earnest enough to be convincing as Juliet. Patrick Ryecart is not a likeable Romeo, not worth dying for. It's fun to see the very young Alan Rickman who does a good Tybalt: there are even signs of a budding Snape. Everyone else does an OK job but are far too old for their parts.
  • “West Side Story”, 1961. Director: Robert Wise. Cast: Natalie Wood – Maria/Juliet: Richard Beymer – Tony/Romeo; Rita Moreno – Anita/Nurse (sort of); Russ Tamblym – Riff/Mercutio; George Chakiris – Bernardo/Tybalt. I'm not exactly sure if I saw this movie before seeing Zefferelli's version. Probably. I've seen it about six or seven times but this is the first time I've actually thought about it in relation to the play. There are more parallels than I would have thought, but why doesn't Maria/Juliet die too? Not that I wish poor Maria ill or begrudge her a long and happy life but the whole point of the tragedy is that they both die. Oh well, I won't be picky. What I don't like about the movie is that Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer are hopelessly sweet and romantic. What I love about it are the gangs, the dancing and the incredibly clever lyrics in all of the songs except the love songs.
  • “William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet”, 1996. Director: Baz Luhrman. Cast: Claire Danes – Juliet; Leonardo DiCaprio – Romeo; Miriam Margolyes – the Nurse; Pete Postlethwaite – Friar Lawrence; John Leguizamo – Tybalt; Harold Perrineau – Mercutio; Paul Sorvino – Capulet; Diane Venora – Lady Capulet. My favorite version by far. The garish Catholicism, the off the wall MTV kitsch disco, the macho gang stereotypes are all so outrageous that they're just right and Danes and DiCaprio are miles ahead of all other Juliets and Romeos I've ever seen. They're funny, the adolescent, they're madly in love and completely grief stricken. And absolutely convincing. Shakespeare's words spoken by this wild cast are perfectly natural. Too bad major parts of the play were cut.
  • “Romeo and Juliet”, 1968. Director: Franco Zefferelli. Cast: Olivia Hussey – Juliet; Leonard Whiting – Romeo; Pat Heywood – the Nurse; Milo O'Shea – Friar Lawrence; Michael York – Tybalt; John McEnery – Mercutio; Paul Hardwich – Capulet; Natasha Parry – Lady Capulet. Flawed version with too much Hollywood beauty and sumptuous flowing costumes (which won both and Oscar and a Bafta, so evidently not everyone saw that as a flaw. ) Hussey starts out as a breathlessly giggly Juliet, which is annoying but still, Juliet is only thirteen years old and Hussey soon rises to the task and does a very creditable Juliet. In fact, all in all, it's a good movie. Visually pleasing, suitably dramatic and tear jerkingly tragic. A must-see actually.
  • “Romeo and Juliet”, Thames, 1976. Director: Joan Kemp-Walsh. Cast: Ann Hasson – Juliet; Christopher Neame – Romeo; Patsy Byrne – Nurse; Clive Swift – Friar Laurence; David Robb (uncredited) – Tybalt; Robin Nedwell (uncredited) – Mercutio; Laurence Payne – Capulet; Mary Kenton – Lady Capulet. This is a rather obscure version in the sense that it's hard to find information about it on the net. Oddly, some of the cast are not credited; I couldn't find anywhere who plays Benvolio. But if you have the chance to see it, do! Sadly the box it was packaged and sold in is no longer available. A pity because it could well be the best version. I still like Luhrman better but this is a close second. Hal says it might be the best film version of any Shakespeare play. I don't agree but it's certainly towards the top of the list. What's good about it? Faithful to original, minimalistic but evocative stage setting, sincere, nuanced and profound acting.
  • “Romeo and Juliet”. Ballet to Prokofiev's music, choreography by Rudolf Nureyev. Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris. 1995. Dancers: Monique Loudières – Juliet; Manuel Legris – Romeo; Annie Carbonnel – Nurse. I had been looking forward to this. Sadly I was disappointed. I'm not a fan of classical ballet but that's what this definitely was. Entirely too much tippy-toeing and leg-twitching for me. The story was changed in several totally unnecessary ways and it is way too long. It has some rather beautiful scene and costume work and the dancing was of course outstanding but I certainly would have liked to see what Pina Bausch could have done with this!
  • “8 Päivää Ensi-Iltaan”, which, in case you're not fluent in Finnish, means “8 Days to Premiere”. 2007. Directed by Perttu Leppä. Cast: Vilma (Juliet) – Laura Birn; Lauri (Romeo) – Micko Leppilampi. A lightweight but enjoyable offshoot about a professional theater company in Helsinki who is dong R&J. It's a love story (big surprise) and even has the ghosts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to help out when things get complicated. See it if you get the chance. Here's the link to a Finnish trailer:
  • “Romeo and Juliet”, no date available. Kirov Ballet. Music: Tchaikovsky. Choreography: Nataly Rizhenko and Victor Smirnov-Golovanov. Dancers: Juliet – Svetlana Semenova. Romeo – Alexander Semenchukov. Absolutely stunning! A much shorter and tighter ballet than the above-mentioned version. This too is classical ballet and very stylized but the stage setting is a mix of dark rich backgrounds and atmospheric dramatic ramparts, castle courts and seasides. The dancing is superb with the kinds of leaps and twirls one expects from Russian ballet. A big plus is the music. Tchaikovsky's R&J is much more dramatic than Prokofiev's. It helps that we're also much more familiar with it. A most worthy finale for our R&J session!

Seen on stage: Yes. A shortened outdoor version in the park at Drottningholm outside of Stockholm in about 2003. Actually the first Shakespeare play I've seen on stage. I don't remember it being tragic, I remember the cleverness of the stage setting and the zest of the characters playing multiple parts. I also remember freezing to death and stumbling through the dark back to our friend's car after the play.


  1. "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter" is from the movie "Shakespeare in Love" isn't it?

    1. Yes, that great award-winning documentary Shakespeare in Love...

  2. I would have prefered the play Ethel the Pirate's daughter! She could have abducted Romeo with the help of her father, sailed away across the ocean, living happily ever after!

  3. Hmm... this play always makes me angry... and it seems I'm not the only one!
    The play Romeo and Juliet is a very true picture of the cruel way adults treat children and teenagers, even in this day and age. The parents are stuck in their ways and refuse to even listen to their children. The way the Nurse first pretends to be the helping confidant just to later turn her back when she smells trouble for herself is a very typical response as well. The fact that it all seems very illogical makes it real and very close to reality. If the adult characters had acted in an "adult, mature and responsible" way we wouldn't have had any drama to begin with. They create trouble and spin a drama to be able to extract their own shadow character and separate from it, by placing the personified shadow with Romeo and Juliet. And that's not a nice thing to do!!

  4. btw:The weird Sisters- Macbeth- Trouble, trouble boil and bubble! Eye of newt, tongue of lizzard, one broken down lap-top and 2 tbs of apple juice.

    1. Wrong page - should have been on Monday report but oh well, the quote is almost right. Should have been one broken-down laptop and a bottle of beer. But you're close enough. Here's your prize: :-)

    2. Thanks for the lovely prize! :)

  5. Great post, Ruby! Love all of it, but especially the visual-aural appendix. Ever thought of including symphonic or vocal works, say Tchaikovky's tone poem or Berlioz's dramatic symphony?

    I'm not fan of classical ballet either, but Prokofieff's score alone I rather enjoy. Have yet to hear Gounod's opera, but if it's as saccharine as his "Faust" (which resembles Goethe's by name only), we might not get along very well (despite the Frenchman's undeniable gift for ravishing melodies).

    Movie-wise, Zeffirelli is my man - R&J-wise. I enjoy both his "Hamlet" (1990) with Mel and "Shrew" (1968) with Liz and Richard, but neither even remotely as much as this "R&J". Here everything clicks just right: the cast, the sets, the costumes, even the cuts (for the most part). But I also love Luhrman's stupendous take: very original, very powerful, very provocative. I generally detest modernization procedures, have had some nightmarish experiences in the opera house with them, but here it works marvellously. That church with neon crosses! Glorious! What better symbol of religious decadence!

    I actually think that the Friar is the really guilty party. Leaving aside his preposterous advices ("Love moderately", indeed!), he should have acted for official reconcilliation between the families. Clearly the feud is quite burned out, except inside Tybalt's empty head (and Juliet's, sadly), and there is no reason why this plan wouldn't work. But the Friar is a romantic fool, and he has no excuse for he is neither young nor in love. So he went for all that fancy stuff with potions - and we all know what happened.

    For the record, I don't at all like the Nurse, either. Like Mercutio, she strikes me as one of those persons whose speech is a constant streak of obscenities in a vain attempt to hide their spiritual emptiness. Why does she help Juliet? I guess because she thinks it's a good joke, an amusing and bawdy game. Certainly she is perfectly incapable of understanding Juliet's predicament, as clearly shown when she earnestly suggests her dumping Romeo and marrying Paris. Juliet's (sarcastic?) answer couldn't be bettered: "Well, thou hast comforted me marvellous much".

    Both the Nurse and the Friar no doubt have good intentions. If they only had some common sense! The lovers are not "star-crossed" at all. It's good, old, pure human folly that leads to the tragedy. Which actually makes it far more poignant...

    1. Thank you! Glad you liked it. About the list of films etc at the end of all my play analyses, I include only those I myself have seen. Which is lucky, considering the nearly endless list it would be otherwise. Which is also why I don’t usually include musical works.

  6. Yes, of course you would include only movies you have seen yourself; it doesn't make much sense otherwise. I just thought, because of Prokofieff's inclusion, that you might be interested in classical music. But Serge seems to have wandered off and got here by sheer accident. Or did he?

    The classical music topic has an interesting spam-postscript on a national level. I have been thinking these days, and it seems that Sweden is the only Scandinavian country that doesn't have at least one internationally renowned composer. Admittedly, none of the others has more than one, who, moreover, can make claims to greatness only with some reservations. Carl Nielsen, Hamlet's compatriot, is hardly in the standard repertoire, and Edvard Grieg (Thor Heyerdahl's compatriot), though responsible for some of the most famous pieces ever (namely the Peer Gynt suites and the Piano Concerto) is a minor master from every possible point of view. Perhaps only Jean Sibelius (if Finland be a Scandinavian country) can be considered a composer from the very first rank, although his music, the later works particularly, are not easy to get along with. And all these guys taken together are not half as famous as ABBA, of course.

    You know some Swedish composer I should be aware of? Just curious.

    To get back to "Romeo and Juliet", there is at least one notable Shakespearean scholar from the twentieth century who would certainly agree with your interpretation about the cruelty of the adults. G. B. Harrison has remarked, no doubt seriously, that a fine alternative title could have been "Lesson for Fathers". He also mentioned in this respect that here Shakespeare, rather unusually, was working out a specific theme, something he ordinarily didn't do. Well, I'm not sure about that, and Mr Harrison's only justification seems to be the Chorus in the beginning. But the clash of generations certainly remains a most important aspect of the play, perhaps unjustly neglected because of the love story.

  7. I’m very interested in classical music but the Prokofiev R&J was bought for R&J not P. I’m looking forward to reading Harrison – thanks for the tip – but it will take awhile for me to get to it. Maybe I’ll find it in London this summer, or else Amazon. About Swedish classical music, you’re right ABBA is about what we have to offer internationally. We have Hugo Alvén, Wilhelm Petterson-Berger and the Berwald family but I’m not sure they’re even widely known in Sweden…