Ponytail Shakespeare read-through. Romeo and Juliet: Prologue
As a trainee, I remember ‘inheriting’ R&J from the usual teacher on placements. Twice. And I vividly remember teaching the Prologue to a top set of smart, welcoming, wonderful students.
This was the class that christened Romeo the ‘pervy monkey boy‘ after watching Zeffirelli‘s interpretation of the balcony scene. Thanks, Hannah – I will never forget that. They’re also the bunch that did the ‘Mean Girls‘ recreation of Act III, scene v. They made ‘fetch’ happen! So much for ‘Two households, both alike in dignity‘ …
Despite the brilliant memories, I wonder if it’s significant that I have never, since, opted to teach the play, now that I am largely in charge of my own destiny? And for PTS purposes, what can we, can I, pull out of these fourteen lines that hasn’t been said before over the last 400-years?
But that would never stop me from trying.
Two, maybe three, things strike me, as I touch on the play again for the first time in several years …
Firstly, Italy. It’s almost tempting to ascribe Shakespeare’s fondness for exotic overseas locations to the rampant xenophobia that typified the era. But I’m uncomfortable with labelling Shakespeare a racist, or labelling him anything, when he is so comprehensively unknowable. A Marxist contextual view (are you watching, Y12s?) has to acknowledge Shakespeare a product of his time, right enough. In an age of exploration, and in a job where his primary motive was enrichment via bums on seats, who wouldn’t grasp that topical interest? After all, he does describe it as ‘fair‘ Verona, when any other monosyllabic adjective, such as ‘old‘ would work equally well without disrupting the metre. I’ll go a bit further – if we can accept the premise that Shakespeare used the History plays as allegorical canvases to explore contemporary issues that wouldn’t otherwise get past the censor. It surely makes sense to do the same by setting plays overseas where he could expose the foibles of Elizabethan society under the guise of ‘funny/nasty things those Catholics get up to’. Almost heading into ‘Carry On‘ film territory … with Sid James as Lord Capulet, and Jim Dale as Romeo. Barbara Windsor might make an interesting Nurse, and perhaps Kenneth Williams could channel Friar Laurence? I’ll have to justify that later in the read-through – challenge on. For those not in the know, you really need to watch this:
So, Carry On Tinder – althought they forgot to include a happy ending. Perhaps I need to revisit soe of the comedies I haven’t enjoyed so much, with this hat on?
Next, the spoilers: something I vividly remember discussing from the old ‘pervy monkey’ days. It’s not dissimilar to the dumb show that precedes ‘The Mousetrap’ in Hamlet. Why tell you a story in reasonable detail before the action starts, I asked? Shrugs. Hands up who has seen the film Titanic, I asked. Lots of hands. “I’ve never seen it,” I said. “Why would I bother? I know what happens at the end!” … silence, broken by the tinkle of a few pennies dropping, and a few ‘But’s, as students began to struggle to articulate the answer. I like the premonitory aspect that the Prologue creates – it intensifies the idea of the ‘star-crossed lovers‘, doomed before they even knew it, and there are several similarly prophetic moments in the play.
Finally let’s talk about the metatheatricality:
‘the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.'[a]
I was a reader for many years before the play became ‘the thing’. When I read Stephen King‘s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (1999) there was a bit – I can’t readily lay my hands on – which roughly described those moments when you came out of the story, became aware that you were reading. It was something like ‘Hey, Ma, look at me, I’m a WRITER!‘ That breaking of the wall, the sudden obliteration of the sense of disbelief, used to annoy the hell out of me. In Shakespeare, I see it another way: I recognise and enjoy his passion for the emerging Early Modern Drama, and his fondness for the amateur. I think he’s affectionate, not judgemental, with the Dream‘s rude mechanicals and even Hamlet’s prissy instructions to the players. University also taught me the power of the soliloquy, the fun in a playwright/author’s self-effacing humour, the amazing thrill and bite (which I hadn’t been able to articulate until then) of dramatic irony.
Maybe it’s the almost deliberately mischievous Carry On reference, but suddenly I’m looking forward to Romeo and Juliet more than I thought I would ….