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Killing Joys: Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet


By Courtney Lehmann

 “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.” act 5, scene 3

In his eulogy for Shakespeare, Ben Johnson made the prescient observation that Shakespeare was “not for an age, but for all time.” The same could be said of Romeo & Juliet. In fact, long before Romeo & Juliet was a play by Shakespeare, it was a legend that hearkened back to the sixth canto of Dante’s Purgatory (c. 1308–1320), where the poet makes passing reference to political factions known as the Montecchi and the Cappelletti, who represented opposing sides in the battle to control Lombardy from 1249–1266. Dante’s cryptic reference to the evils of civil discord spawned a swirl of commentary and fictional embellishments in Italian popular culture that would culminate nearly three hundred years later in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.

“For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.” act 3, scene 1

Revivals of Romeo & Juliet always strike us as timely because in many respects Shakespeare takes youth culture for theme. The play speaks to younger audiences, representing not only the vicissitudes of teenage angst but also adolescent idealism and fantasies of revolt against the older generation’s more socially conservative ways. Rebels with a cause, Romeo and Juliet are conscientious objectors to their parents’ war as well as to the feudal institution of arranged marriage. For the nobility, marriage was purely a business transaction designed to optimize prestige and profit. Romeo and Juliet’s decision to elope against their families’ wishes is a rejection of the couple’s rights to their lineage, land and lucrative patrimony as well as an act of defiance against the strictures of social class. After all, only the poor could choose their own partners and marry for love, and Romeo and Juliet, in denying their fathers and refusing their names, enter into willful poverty as dreamers intent on occupying a more just society. Romeo’s easily overlooked speech to the impoverished apothecary is a powerful example of the political outrage that Shakespeare’s play at once harbors and incites. Resonating with the youth-galvanizing sentiments of the Bernie Sanders campaign, Romeo rejects money as society’s central organizing principle:

There is thy gold, worse poison to men’s souls
Doing more murder in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell. act 5, scene 1

Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 blockbuster film, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet—popularly known as the “MTV Romeo & Juliet”—translates feudal values into corporate ventures, as the Montagues and the Capulets are reimagined as rival business moguls. Shot in Mexico City against a skyline populated with high-rise buildings and imposing Jesus and Mary statues, Luhrmann’s film seamlessly transposes Shakespeare’s play into a corporate endgame in which greed, commodities, mergers and acquisitions redefine the ancient grudge through the lens of global capitalism and its human casualties.

Prior to Lurhmann’s adaptation, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet was the most successful Shakespeare film ever made, engaging the largest youth demographic of all time. Released intentionally at the peak of the Vietnam War in 1968, the film introduced Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, then the youngest principals ever to play the leading roles on screen (Whiting was seventeen, Hussey was fifteen). In this so-called “Flower child Romeo & Juliet,” the director famously required all of the actors to grow their hair long, in keeping not only with Renaissance fashions but also with the hippie subculture and anti-war movements of the sixties. Appropriately, Whiting’s Romeo enters the film carrying a lone flower, which he dashes violently to the ground when he discovers the latest casualties of the war. “Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love,” Romeo exclaims, a phrase which, in Zeffirelli’s film—as in Shakespeare’s play—identifies him as a peacenik in a dangerous world. Equally attuned to the more sexually permissive zeitgeist of the sixties, the film highlights heavy petting and heaving bosoms, with a particular focus on Olivia Hussey’s cleavage as she becomes frequently breathless with fits of passion. Fittingly, this more “liberated” approach resonates with an earlier Italian source of the Romeo and Juliet legend—Matteo Bandello’s 1554 novella—which contains the first sexually explicit description of the consummation scene, as the introduction of a rope ladder becomes an accessory to the lovers’ “unspeakable delights.”

“[Al]though I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract tonight.” act 2, scene 2

As her use of contractual language suggests, Shakespeare’s Juliet has the business sense in the relationship. With 541 lines to Romeo’s 615, she is one of Shakespeare’s earliest and most outspoken heroines, and she appeals, therefore, to contemporary society’s more progressive attitudes toward women. Juliet is a significantly more rational character than Romeo. Whereas Romeo’s language is laden with metaphor (to the extent that Juliet begs him three times in the balcony scene, “Do not swear”), her relationship to language is more cynical. Indeed, Juliet recognizes the often arbitrary ways in which words construct social reality; she is inclined toward a deconstructionist approach to language, famously observing that the word “Montague” is “nor hand, nor foot, / Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part / Belonging to a man.”  Adding a measure of bawdiness to her rationale, Juliet’s allusion to an un-namable “part” of the male anatomy suggests her sexual awareness. Juliet is also remarkably bold with her parents. Before she even meets Romeo, she professes her general aversion to marriage, confessing to her mother: “It is an honor that I dream not of.”  It is one thing to be headstrong, but it is another thing altogether to disgrace the family name. Responding to her father’s decision to marry her off to Paris at St. Peter’s Church, Juliet actually swears against her parents rather than being forsworn to Romeo: “Now, by Saint Peter’s Church and Peter too, / He shall not make me there a joyful bride.”  Despite her wildly iconoclastic behavior, Shakespeare’s Juliet had a potential sympathizer in the Queen, for much of Elizabeth I’s life as a monarch was consumed with fending off marriage proposals from foreign suitors. Some were eager to shore up Protestant alliances, while others courted the Queen hoping to weaken England’s power as a sovereign nation. Indeed, once married, or legally “covered” by her husband, the king, Elizabeth would become—like every other woman in the Renaissance—a femme covert, or “covered woman.”  With the exception of widows, who were always considered morally suspect, girls and women simply passed through the hands of their male keepers, rendered the legal property of their fathers, brothers and husbands.

It is a common misperception that women in the Renaissance married in their teens, when in fact most women wed in their twenties. At not quite fourteen years of age, Juliet’s arranged marriage to Paris at the hands of her father is closer to child trafficking. Nor can we disregard the significance of her would-be husband’s name, Paris, the character who “ravished” or “surprised” Helen—both euphemisms for rape—and stole her from Menelaus to launch the Trojan War. It is little wonder that Juliet races to Friar Lawrence’s cell and, threatening to kill herself with a raised dagger, cries: “O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris.”  Shakespeare’s contemporary, Cyril Tourneur, invokes the inimical improprieties of arranged marriage in The Atheist’s Tragedy (1611), asking: “Why what is it but a rape to force a wench / To marry, since it forces her to lie / With him she would not?”  But in the Renaissance, rape was prosecuted as a crime against male property; it was not the woman but her husband or keeper who was legally identified as the victim of the alleged “theft.”  Already a “ruined” woman, Juliet awakens in the tomb of her ancestors to find Romeo dead and immediately knows her course.  Upon hearing the approaching Watch, she is decisive, quick and fearless: “Yea, noise?  Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger, / This is thy sheath!  There rust, and let me die.”  Whereas Romeo assumes the more typically female path to suicide through poison, Juliet is granted a noble Roman death by Shakespeare. Perhaps, then, Luigi Da Porto had it right in naming his story Giulietta e Romeo.

Excerpted from full essay published in the e-book Guide to the Season Plays 2016-17, available for purchase for the Kindle or Nook. Season ticket holders receive a complimentary print copy of the Guide each season.

Courtney Lehmann is the Tully Knoles Professor of the Humanities at University of the Pacific. She is the author of Shakespeare Remains (2002), Screen Adaptations: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (2010), and co-author of Great Shakespeareans: Welles, Kurosawa, Kozintsev, and Zeffirelli (2013). She has co-edited two volumes of Shakespeare and film criticism as well as The New Kittredge Shakespeare King John and Henry VIII (2015).


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