Ponytail Shakespeare read-through: Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene i
Regular readers will understand my complex relationship with the notion of ‘England’.
The catchy simplicity of Three Lions (It’s Coming Home) turned from pleasantly nostalgic ‘earworm‘ – I well remember the song’s release for Euro ’96 – to a cankerous ‘worm ‘i the bud‘ [a] long before Wednesday’s almost inevitable defeat to Croatia. The entire nation, it seemed, had been reduced to a vocabulary of just three words – a mantra which was unchallengeable, a self-evident truth destroyed in just 120 minutes (if only Brexit could fall as quickly.) As I watched people (including several students) spill out of The Sun – opposite where I was drinking – in a numbed state of shock after the match, I was glad I wouldn’t hear it for a while. Having ‘sat like Patience’ I was now, almost, ‘smiling at grief’. To no avail: by 11am the next day – no lie – I was hearing “World Cup 2022: It’s Coming Home” in the corridors of ‘C’ Block … sigh.
Has this anything to do with Romeo and Juliet? Of course.
Jonathan Bate, as I have mentioned before, suggests comedy is tragedy narrowly averted. I’ll develop that a bit further: this play, more than any of the other tragedies, reverses that idea – tragedy is a joke that is no longer funny … perhaps a little like a song you have heard too many times?
As the England football legend Jimmy Greaves might say, Romeo and Juliet is a ‘game of two halves’.
My favourite productions have demonstrated this sentiment perfectly: both been live ones which I photographed: the 2013 production I shot for the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, and the student production by the University of Chester the previous year. In both, you might almost have mistaken the play for a comedy – until Mercutio’s death, when the audience mood fell off a cliff.
So, the play’s opening is far more like a comic medieval football game than – a brawl where no-one is injured. Samson and Gregory’s opening laddish banter captures that teenage bravado well: people may well bristle at Samson’s contention that he will take:
‘the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads’ (I.i24) [b]
and I’ve not been able to find the source, but I’m almost certain I read, ages ago, that these lines had been redacted somewhere for their rapy-ness. I prefer to laugh at his assertion:
’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh’ (I.i.27-28]
and imagine that he is protesting too much about the size of his penis, as lads might and do. In this, I love David Crystal‘s secondary definition of pretty as ‘childish, trifling, naive’ [c] My response is, almost inevitably:
Away, you three-inch fool!
This, like JB Priestley‘s ‘An Inspector Calls‘ (which I teach at GCSE, and myself studied at O Level over 30 years ago), screams for a series of Pie Charts of Responsibility. And by the end of scene i do you know who I mostly blame for what happened?
Let’s put my Marxist class warrior specs on a moment. René Weis glosses his name as ‘possibly punning on ‘scales of justice” [d] but he’s about as effective a judge as Henry VI when he plucks a rose whilst arguing that it’s colour is irrelevant. So Escalus delivers an ‘awful’ judgement (perhaps he should have consulted VAR?), and then demonstrates an unwitting partisanship that can only stoke the fires:
‘You, Capulet, shall go along with me;
And Montague, come you this afternoon’ (I.i.95-96)
Of course he’s going to favour the Capulets – his kinsman Paris is in the frame to marry Juliet and inherit the Capulet portfolio. But does he have to make it so obvious? It’s a good job that ‘the fiery’ Tybalt isn’t a Montague, or things might have immediately kicked off at this perceived snub. Yet another idiot promoted beyond his abilities, Escalus …
And that leaves us with our vicarious introduction to our tragic hero, as is usual in the Tragedies. People readily label Hamlet as some kind of ’emo’ but what about the limp rag that is Romeo?
Whilst I fully understand that he is displaying the accepted, indeed desired, symptoms of deep love, he is simply NOT son-in-law material. I mean:
‘tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew,
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs’ (I.i.128-129)
‘Away from light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,
And makes himself an artificial night.’ (I.i.133-136)
Stay there, for God’s sake: I’m already beginning to increase your share of the pie chart of responsibility.
My sense of his overall wetness is only increased by his pathetic, aphoristic unburdening to Benvolio. ‘Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs‘ II.i.186) indeed. It’s all very well to talk about Cupid, but actually, his main complaint seems to be that she’s:
‘in strong proof of chastity well armed’ (I.i.206)
.. and in that I salute Rosaline’s common sense. The randy little git.
Let’s finish the scene on a slightly less scornful note. When I read lines like:
‘From love’s weak childish bow she lives unharm’d.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide th’ encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies, with beauty dies her store.’ (I.i.207-212)
BENVOLIO: Then she hath sworn that she will still live chaste?
ROMEO: She hath, and in that sparing makes huge waste,
For beauty starved with her severity
Cuts beauty off from all posterity.
I can’t be the only one who thinks, not just of the sonnets, but of the cult of courtly love for Elizabeth I?
The whistle’s blown, and in the first five minutes the two teams are bumbling around like a bunch of sunday league over-40s. Not just that, but the striker’s moaning the fact that he can’t score. Oh, and the referee has already made a dodgy decision …
[a] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night: www.opensourceshakespeare.org All further references to plays other than Romeo and Juliet are taken from this source.
[b] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (ed. Jill L. Levenson, Oxford World’s Classics), (Oxford University Press; Oxford, 2000). Further references to the play’s text are to this edition
[d] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (ed. René Weis, Arden third edition), (Methuen Drama: London, 2012)