In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare invented the idea of the teenager in love. Many of his characters – the thin and anguished Hamlet, the fat a jolly Falstaff, the sexy Cleopatra, the aged King Lear – have associations even for people who have never seen or read his plays, but none more so than Romeo and Juliet. All around the world, the paring of the names is synonymous with the idea of being young and in love. “Juliet’s Balcony” has long been a tourist destination in Verona, even though she is a fictional character and there is no balcony in Shakespeare’s play (in the original text she appears at her “window”; it was only in the theater of David Garrick a century and a half after the play was written that the balcony was introduced as part of the set design). Innumerable allusions in popular culture and song attest to the couple’s statues as archetypes of young love – “We were both young with I first saw you…. I’m standing there / On a balcony in summer air” (Taylor Swift, “Love Story”). When this song’s music video was released it had couples in 18th century costumes re-enacting the ball from Romeo and Juliet, including the sequence in which the lovers link hands. In, the song a handsome Romeo appears in front of Ms. Swift, the answer to every teenage girl’s dream. “Teenager” – a word that didn’t exist until after WWII, before that you went from childhood to adolescence, a time spanning 12 odd years, 13-21 or 25 (depending on if you were female or male.) This dates back to ancient times, where the youth were prone to “sexual indulgence, riot and high spirits.” Even Shakespeare did not like the adolescent years, as he has many quotes in his plays about the youth: “there is nothing but… wronging the ancientry, stealing and fighting.”
Tragedy is traditionally focused on the undoing of heros of extreme masculinity or on powerful rulers who climb to the top of Fortune’s wheel, then tumble to catastrophe. There was a long tradition of poetry about doomed lovers, but to make a pair of adolescents into tragic heroes in a stage play was an extraordinary innovation on Shakespeare’s part.
The Irish poet W.B. Yeats remarked in a letter that only two subjects can be of any lasting interest to a serious and studious mind: sex and the dead. He was not thinking of Romeo and Juliet at the time, but the play is both seriously and playfully interested in the connection between the drive whose end is the creation of new life and the confrontation that ends in the extinction of life.
Shakespeare often thought in pairs. Give him an idea and he is equally interested in it’s opposite. Sometimes he will handle similar material in successive works, trying it out as comedy in one case and tragedy in the other. In 1593-94, the theaters were closed due to a severe outbreak of plague in London. During this time, Shakespeare wrote a pair of narrative poems on the subjects of desire: the playful Venus and Adonis and the mournful Rape of Lucrece. Both were based on stories by the Roman poet Ovid, Shakespeare’s prime precursor in the art of quick changes and sudden contradictions.
Within a year or so of the theaters reopening, he wrote his most Ovidian play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that wonder-filled anatomy of love in which “quick bright things come to confusion” and “everything seems double,” until out of the dream and illusion there grows “something of great constancy.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream turns on comedy’s ancient plot of young people finding true love in the face of parental opposition. In the final act, the opposite ending of the same story in invoked. Bottom and his friends perform Ovid’s story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a pair of lovers from rival households who lose their lives in a tragedy of bad timing and misapprehension. Though played in the style of parody, the “very tragical mirth” of Pyramus and Thisbe is a reminder that, in the matter of love, all does not necessarily end well.
So it is that, like Venus and Lucrece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet are companion pieces (very fitting for our last and current season actors and audience, getting to see both with in a year). As A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy darkened by something of the night, so Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy that keeps surprising us with flashes of comedy. The shock of Juliet’s apparent death is heightened by the proximity to the cheerful bustle of the wedding preparations and the comic dialogue of Clown and Musicians. Equally, Shakespeare takes character types from the comic tradition – the tyrannical father, the bawdy servant, the meddling friar, the witty and cynical friend – and transforms them into such complex, many-layered beings as Old Capulet, the Nurse, and Mercutio.
The spirit of the play is fundamentally Ovidian, although the story is closely based on a different source, an Italian Renaissance novella that was mediated to Shakespeare via a drearily written poem called The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. As in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “violent delights have violent ends”: intense passions lead to dramatic transformations, the bright flame of young love is swiftly and cruelly snuffed out, but something of constancy endures at the close. Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe meet by an ancient tomb outside the city. They fall to earth in death, but their love is symbolically remembered in the ripening of the blood-dark mulberry. A couplet of Friar Laurence’s neatly sums up the structure of feeling that underlies this and so many other of Ovid’s transformations: “The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb: / What is her burying grave, that it her womb.” Taken as a whole, the Friar’s soliloquy cuts to the quick of Shakespeare’s double vision. It is structured around the rhetorical figure of oxymoron, the paradox whereby opposites are held together. Not only womb and tomb, but also day and night, herbs and flowers that are simultaneously poisonous and medicinal, virtue and vice: “such opposed kings emcamp them still / In man as well as herbs.”
It will be exciting to play with this opposites and create our reverse of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Romeo and Juliet this spring.