Thursday, December 29, 2016

Romeo & Juliet (Shakespeare Re-Read #20)

So, first of all, let’s address the most common commentaries about Romeo & Juliet.  Yes, Romeo is a whiny emo kid.  Yes, Friar Lawrence and the Nurse should’ve had their own play, possibly the two of them teaming up to solve crimes, absolutely.  But where I put my foot down is the ridiculous “Juliet should’ve gone for the wittier Mercutio over Romeo” trope.  Mercutio is as long-winded as it gets, and I have to believe he’s incapable of loving any other person as much as he loves a wordy analogy.  He deserves the lack of respect shown to him by my word processor, which doesn’t recognize “Mercutio” as a legitimate word despite it being the name of a primary character from one of history’s most famous plays.  Take that, you hot-headed blabbermouth.

With that out of the way, Romeo & Juliet (a.k.a. “Rosaline Really Dodges A Bullet.”)  Even I, a hot-headed blabbermouth if there ever was one, can find little new to say about this most heavily-trod of plays.  I’ve read the play easily a half-dozen times in my life and seen it performed both on stage and screen multiple times, and while I’m more Shakespeare-ish than most, I’d reckon that basically everyone has read or seen some version of the story at least once in their lives.  It’s as inescapable as a Friar Lawrence tongue-lashing.

And yet as heralded as R&J is, it is possible that the play is a little….uh, unheralded? It sounds odd to say, but upon my latest reading (my first in at least a decade), it really struck me just how good a play this actually is.  I feel like this and Midsummer Night’s Dream are the ones generally as sort of “popcorn Shakespeare” due to their popularity and alleged simplicity, whereas heavier fare like Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, etc. are seen as the real classics.

Though really, “heavier fare” — my god, here’s a play about two teenagers killing each other out of grief.  It really is striking how the play’s tone so swiftly and entirely goes from great comedy in the first two acts to an unspeakable series of misunderstandings and tragedy in the final three, with Friar Lawrence’s line of “These violent delights have violent ends”* in Act II, Scene vi as the turning point.  The Winter’s Tale is still probably the gold standard for massive tonal shifts, but R&J is at least in the ballpark.  I’ve written before about how some Shakespeare tragedies could very easily be turned into comedies (or at least dark comedies) with broader acting and macabre humour, and while R&J maayyyyybe generally falls into that category if you turn it into “Heathers,” it really does work best as Shakespeare intended.  The first two acts build you up with joy, and the rest of the play drags you into the abyss.

* = fans of ‘Westworld’ just perked up their ears

In fact, one of the most interesting scenes of the last three acts is arguably the most superfluous.  The little coda of Peter bantering with the musicians seems totally out of place given the circumstances (the Capulets have just had to cancel the wedding upon finding out their daughter is dead), yet in a way, it serves a key thematic purpose.  It is Shakespeare giving us one sad little echo of the first two acts’ wordplay and its knack for giving even minor characters some fleshing out.

So, just throwing this out there, could Benvolio have spared everyone a lot of grief?  Could he have lied about the events of the Mercutio/Tybalt/Romeo brawl, perhaps leaving Romeo out of it entirely by just saying that Mercutio and Tybalt stabbed each other?  I guess you’d have to think there were too many other witnesses for that to work, but still, if my theory is true….wtf, Benvolio?  If everyone knows you to be so honest that they trust your account of the incident, this is where you take a page from Iago’s book and use your alleged trustworthiness to bail out your friend.  It really would’ve prevented things from escalating* out of control, and both Romeo and Juliet would still be alive and content…well, unless Romeo had tearfully confessed to her that he killed her cousin.  Which he probably would’ve, the dope.

* = The prince of Verona, who only appears when things really escalate between the two families, is named Escalus.  Even Mitch Hurwitz bows down to that level of naming punnery. 

Furthermore, the Mercutio/Tybalt tiff is written off as the final volley of the Montague/Capulet rivalry and the two families could’ve settled things right then and there.  It’s interesting to note that the elder Montagues and Capulets both seem somewhat weary of the whole dispute; consider that the elder Montague is willing to let Romeo remain at his party under the aegis of “eh, whatever, he’s supposed to be a good kid.”  Montague has the common sense that Tybalt lacks, and by extension, the elders have the greater sense of the big picture.  Tybalt, Mercutio and company were brought up in an environment where the guiding rule was just “(other rival family) is EVIL!!!” whereas the older generation is all too aware of the hell the feud hath wrought, though neither Montague nor Capulet want to risk looking weak by being the one to broker a truce.  

A word about the adaptations.  I had the pleasure of attending an outdoor production of R&J in a park in Oxford, England some years back, which is easily my favourite version of the play.  I enjoyed the Franco Zeffirelli film version from 1968 quite a bit when I saw it 20 years ago, though I’m somewhat curious to watch it again to see if my more seasoned eyes would be more critical.  The reason?  I saw the Zeffirelli version just days after watching the dumpster fire that was the Baz Luhrmann “Romeo + Juliet,” so anything would’ve seemed better by comparison.  Holy lord, was that movie ever bad.  DiCaprio had less chemistry with Danes than he did with the Revenant bear.  It seems like kind of a minor thing, but what always cracked me up about the Luhrmann version was the first names given to all the characters.  Suddenly it was Ted Montague and Dave Paris, of all things.  Mercutio never got a last (or first?) name, according to IMDB, which is a letdown.  I was fully prepared for something like “Harold Perrineau As Brad Mercutio.”  Or, since it was Perrineau in the role, maybe it should’ve been WALLLLLLLLLLLLT Mercutio.

To summarize, this play is a masterpiece.  (No duh.)  It’s worth every bit of critical ink ever spilled in praise.  It’s so good that it’s even been worth the 400 years of teenagers getting way too dramatic about relationships that it engendered.

Also, hot take: the Killers’ cover is better than the Dire Straits’ original!



20. Pericles
19. The Taming Of The Shrew
18. Antony & Cleopatra
17. Troilus & Cressida
16. Love’s Labour’s Lost
15. As You Like It
14. Titus Andronicus
13. Much Ado About Nothing
12. Timon Of Athens
11. Coriolanus
10. The Two Gentlemen Of Verona
9. The Comedy Of Errors
8. The Winter's Tale
7. A Midsummer Night's Dream
6. Julius Caesar
5. Macbeth
4. Romeo & Juliet
3. Cymbeline
2. Twelfth Night
1. Othello

My New Year's resolution for 2012 was to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays.  2012 has long since ended, but still, onward and upward.  And, since in these modern times it's impossible to undertake a personal project without blogging about it, here are a series of reviews/personal observances I'll make about the plays.  Well, 'reviews' is a bit of a stretch.  It's William freakin’ Shakespeare.  What am I going to tell you, "Don't bother reading this one, folks!  What a stinker!  Ol' Mark doesn't like it, so you should definitely believe ME over 400 years of dramatic criticism!"

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