Generations ago, an evening of friends might have included chamber music, telling of stories, recitation of poems, or reading passages from plays. Our nation’s founders could probably recite passages from their favorite plays by Shakespeare. Now, that practice appears to be relegated to reading Romeo and Juliet during freshman year in high school. And, all those wherefores and foresoothes do not carry the punch of a string of explitives that pepper us like buckshot in most of today’s movies. If you should read a script today, whether for a play or movie, besides the pedestrian dialogue, you will note many stage directions for entrances and exits, left or right blocking, light, sound, and special effect cues, set design etc. Sometime the text appears secondary to the action. In contrast, seeing a well done production of one of Shakespeare’s plays can make the language come alive. Scripts five hundred years ago contained few staging cues. But, the dialogue provided many cues, from which a careful study by the actors could tell the story in word and action. We recently saw a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Blackfriar Theatre in Staunton, VA, that plucked the crystal beams of the stars from the night sky (try to read that and not be overtake by the imagery)!
Some images are easy to find and follow. In the opening scene, the servants of the Capulet family insult the servants of the Montague family, “I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them if they bear it”. Pretty obvious that he bites his thumb. The rest is downhill to the Capulet’s family vault where bodies will lay in various states of death and decay by Act V.
Or, in the festival scene at which Romeo and Juliet meet, and Romeo seduces a kiss:
R: This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this, My lips, two blushing pilgrims touch with a tender kiss.
J: Good pilgrim, you do wrong, your hand too much, Which mannerly devotion shows in this; For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, And palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss.
J: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
R: O, then, dear saint let lips do what hand’s do; They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
J: Saints do not move, though grant for prayer’s sake.
R: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin in purg’d. [Kissing her]
J: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
R: Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d! Give me sin again.
J: You kiss by the book.
Beyond the one stage direction for Romeo (Dylan Paul) to kiss Juliet (Traci Thomason), this passage gives cues for Juliet to put up a cautioning hand to match Romeo’s, forming the praying hands of the pilgrim, and for Romeo to move his hand to touch her lips, while he talks of lips touching as their palms have. When Juliet states that, “You kiss by the book” the actress has the decision of whether Juliet moves away or pursues another kiss. In this production Juliet lays a juicey layer of affection that nearly topples Romeo before the Nurse interrupts them.
I will admit that Romeo and Juliet is not a play that I would usually seek out. A couple of hours to hormonally imbalanced teens running amuck, insulting, sulking, fighting, kissing and telling, keeping secrets, and killing each other off, hardly seems like a morally redeeming evening. However, with family visiting and a niece but a year older than the stated age of Juliet, we were relieved to find such a well-read production as this by the American Shakespeare Center. I should not need to devote any more text to outline such a familiar plot. But, let me describe how the cast read and then portrayed various sections of the play.
In the opening scene, initiated by the thumb biting insult, various members of the Capulet and Montague families brawl. Benvolio (Chris Johnston), Romeo’s cousin, receives a cut on his arm. While he relates the events which he saw, Lady Montague (Emily Brown) wraps a red scarf around his wound, representing the blood that would be shed later as well as the color of that family (Capulets wore blue, Montagues red, and the Prince of Verona’s family purple). Shortly thereafter, Romeo talks with Benvolio, “O, me! What fray was here”, he exclaims as he sees and touches the scarf. Romeo directs the word “fray” at the laceration, though it could be directed to the general disruption of the street scene.
A few lines later, Benvolio and Romeo discourse on Romeo’s infatuation with Rosaline. Benvolio tries to persuade Romeo to forget about her, as she is an unobtainable quest.
R: She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow Do I live dead that live to tell in now.
B: Be rul’d by me, forget to think of her.
R: O, teach me how I should forget to think.
B: By giving liberty unto thine eyes; Examine other beauties.
While reciting these lines, Benvolio pushes Romeo to the front of the stage and gestures at various women in the front rows, giving them a nod and wink. Of course, Romeo dismisses them.
R: ‘Tis the way To call hers, exquisite, in question more; These happy masks that kiss fair ladies’ brows, Being black, put us in mind they hide the fair; He that is strucken blind cannot forget The precious treasures of his eyesight lost: Show me a mistress that is passing fair, What doth her beauty serve but as a note Where I may read who pass’d that passing fair?
And, Benvolio is left to gesture apologizes to the women of the front row whom he attempted to offer as eye candy to Romeo.
Tragic plays would be unbearable except for the clowns and fools which Shakespeare adds here and there. Some of these roles are brief relief, such as when Capulet (Rene Thornton, Jr.) instructs one of his servants (John Innerst) to deliver invitations to the festival.
C: Go, sirrah, trudge about Through fair Verona; find those persons out Whose names are written there [gives a paper], and to them say, My house and welcome on their pleasure stay. [Exeunt Capulet and Paris]
S: Find them out whose names are written here! It is written that the shoemaker should meddle with his yard, and the tailor with his last, the fisher with his pencil, and the painter with his nets; but I am sent to find those person whose names are here writ, and can never find what names the writing person hath here writ. I must to the learned: — in good time.
Of course, the servant cannot read. Romeo and Benvolio happen to pass by. The servant entreats them to read the names on the invitation. After some foolery, Romeo admits that he can reads. As he reads off each name, the servant memorizes the names and places each card in a different pocket, thereby to recall to whom they belong. When he runs out of pockets and hands, he has Romeo place cards under his arms pits, but one last card remains, for which the servants lips are the only receptical. The stage directions only report that they pass the papers back and forth. The actors take the chance to make a hilarious statement about how the literate and illiterate carry out their charges.
The comic scenes continue as we first meet Juliet’s Nurse, performed in drag by Benjamin Curns. Nurse and her mother, Lady Capulet (Lee Fitzpatrick), dote on Juliet and her coming of age. Nurse recalls when she was Juliet’s wet-nurse and the day on which Juliet weaned form her breast. Seamlessly, she goes from falsetto to a booming bass voice, as she recalls her husband’s account of that day.
N: For then she could stand alone; nay, by the rood She could have run and waddled all about; For even the day before, she broke her brow: And then my husband, — God be with his soul! ‘A was a merry man, — took up the child: Yea, quoth he, does thou fall upon thy face? Thou wilt fall backward when though has more wit; Wilt thou not, Jule? and, by my holidame, The pretty wretch left crying, and said Ay:
Four times Nurse says Ay, each time Nurse sticks her thumb in her mouth imitating Juliet suckling on her nipple, then pulling away.
The joviality continues in the next scene between Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio (Gregory Jon Phelps) Romeo’s friend and the Prince’s kinsman. They have decided to crash the Capulet’s party, because Romeo read Rosaline’s name among the guests’ invitations a few scenes earlier. Mercutio taunts Romeo about his obsession, and needing to lighten up.
M: Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.
R: Not I, believe me: you have dancing shoes, With nimble soles;
At which Mercutio and Benvolio do a quick jig. Yet, Romeo expresses foreboding about the risks of going to the masked festival because of a dream. Mercutio cuts him off with his own dream. For a couple dozen lines, he rants.
M: O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife; and she come In shape not bigger than an agate-stone On the forefinger of an alderman, Drawn with a team of little atomies Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep:
With each descriptive image, Mercutio gestures, large and small to act out this dream of riddicule, until Romeo cuts him off.
R: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace Thou talk’st of nothing.
M: True, I talk of dreams, which are the children of an idle brain Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.
Of course, in this line, Mercutio has belittled Romeo’s infatuation with Rosaline, and soon to be discarding of her for Juliet, yet another fantasy of Romeo’s eye. But, this is a play about adolescent attitudes and actions.
They will slip into the festival, wearing their super hero masks. Romeo will see Juliet, and forget swiftly his beloved Rosaline, dance with Juliet, doing the kissing scene, and then slip out into the gardens for the famous balcony scene. The staging style for the American Shakespeare Center is to use the full auditorium under general lighting. Also, there are half a dozen stools on either side of the stage, on which audience members may sit. Romeo climbs on the railing behind these stools, making his way around the auditorium, as he expounds on his fantasy of Juliet, and then when she comes to the the balcony. Eventually they talk to each other in the dark.
J: How cam’st thou hither, tell me, and wherefore? The orchard walls are high and hard to climb;
As opposed to other productions of Romeo and Juliet that I have seen, this one did not have the two looking at each other. Rather, in very adolescent manner, Juliet is often talking to one side of the stage, while Romeo is standing in the dark on the other side.
J: I would not for the world they saw thee.
R: I have the night’s cloak to hide me from their sight;
While they are referring to Romeo remaining hidden from Juliet’s family, they also play this as two adolescents who are more focused on their dreams than the reality that they cannot see in the dark.
The brawling that began the play will eventually return and send the secret love to his mistimed end. Tybalt (John Harrell) is the Capulet who pushes this grudge to Mercutio’s and his own death. Beyond their usual excellent sword play, Tybalt wears a glove fashioned with claws on his left hand. Rather than the rapier and dagger, he fights with his sword in his right and and this clawed glove. Several lines at various locations in the text give rise to this image.
B: Why, what is Tybalt?
M: More than prince of cats, I can tell you.
After sparring verbally, Mercutio draws his sword on Tybalt.
M: Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
Romeo steps between them, trying to disperse them, but thereby, he allows Tybalt to reach out with his clawed glove across Mercutio’s abdomine.
M: I am hurt; —
A plague o’ both your houses! — I am sped. —
Is he gone, and hath nothing?
B: What, art thou hurt?
M: Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch; marry ‘tis enough. —
Before dying, he reiterates the cat’s claws imagery.
M: Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death!
Romeo will use Tybalt’s claws against Tybalt when they fight later in the scene.
Tybalt’s seplucar will become Romeo and Juliet’s death bed, in a couple more acts.
J: Delay this marriage for a month, a week; Of, if you do not, make the bridal bed In that dim monument where Tybalt lies.
Meanwhile, Juliet and Romeo slip off to Friar Lawrence’s (Allison Glenzer) cell to be married. And, after Romeo is banished for Tybalt’s death, Juliet obtains a sleeping poison from the Friar.
J: Or, if I live, is it not very like The horrible conceit of death and night, Together with the terror of the place, — As in a vault, an ancient receptacle, Where, for these many hundred years, the bones Of all my buried ancestors are pack’d; Where bloody Tybalt, yet but green in earth Lies festering in his shroud;
Nurse finds Juliet appearing dead in her bed. The alarm and lamentations begin. Juliet is taken to the vault where Tybalt lies. Soon enough Paris will come, seeking his expected bride. He will fight with and lose to Romeo, who has also come. Romeo will take a poison and die. Juliet will awake from her sleeping poison, find Romeo, kiss him once again hoping to extract poison to kill herself, but then have to fall upon his dagger.