On Saturday night, I attended a performance of R&J, put on through Shakespeare in the Park and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Reading any play is nothing like seeing it performed and I would recommend going to a play to enhance your understanding of it. I know many people struggle with the Early Modern English that Shakespeare's plays are written in, but when seen in a good performance, their meaning becomes clear without a word by word dissection. I think the first Shakespearean play I ever attended was Hamlet while I was in high school (it may even have been performed in French, as part of my studies of that language, my memory is hazy) and I have been entranced by the Bard ever since. As I listened to the actors last night, I realized how many common phrases from these plays are still heard in speech today. For instance: Star crossed lovers; What’s in a name?; Parting is such sweet sorrow; a plague on both your houses. And I had to laugh when I heard a servant invite Romeo to come to the banquet and “crush a cup of wine”—I was put in mind of a London-born friend of mine who frequently says that she could “murder a cup of tea.”
It really struck me during the performance how much this play is about what in the 1960’s was called the Generation Gap. Many people see only the love story or the tragedy, but it is the difference between old and young that grabbed my attention and held it. The older folks have forgotten what it is to be young—they have aged and mellowed. Although the older men don’t fight in the streets any more, the young men simply cannot be restrained from it. It brought to mind some sociological data that I read claiming that countries with large populations of unemployed young men are much more likely to go to war—their restless young men need something to do.
The play also took me back to the pains of first love—who among us cannot remember the first person that we agonized over, how to speak to them, what to do, how to convey our feelings to them? And who has not awaited a visit from a new lover with impatience, crying as Juliette does, “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds!” [Although we may have used slightly different phrasing].
I also remembered of the lifespans of people of the Elizabethan age. Making it to 40 was an accomplishment. Shakespeare himself only lived to 52 (which, egad, I will be this autumn!). As Juliette’s parents are quick to point out to the 13 year old girl, many other young women of her age in the city are already mothers. Life moved quickly in those days.
I attended the play with a female friend and we looked at one another during Juliette’s father’s tirade about doing his will and being married to Paris or being disowned. I think neither of us before realized how extreme his reaction was, although it was probably realistic for the time. (On the other hand, I remember similar frustration in my own parents when my youngest sister at 19 insisted on marrying an unsuitable man). At the play’s end, Friar Lawrence rebukes Capulet’s theatrical mourning, saying, “The most you sought was her promotion, For ‘twas your heaven she should be advanced.” Children were pawns to improve one’s own life, regardless of their feelings in the matter. Rather ironic, coming from the friar who is earlier told by Romeo, “Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel.”
It’s easy as an adult to look back on adolescence with condescension, discounting those passionate declarations of love as mere hormones. The emotions remain real to those experiencing them. We need to take our young people more seriously, even if we believe, as Friar Lawrence does, that “She’s not well married that lives married long.”
I think that Shakespeare’s great talent was taking stories which were floating about in Elizabethan times and to make great plays out of them. Having consulted my Riverside Shakespeare tome, I learned that the basics of the R&J story was circulating in several different forms during the 1500s—but whose version of it do we remember?