In Comes Romeo, he’s moaning…

(Bonus points if you get the reference in the title.  If not, click here).

I think by now we all know I’m a Shakespeare fan – I’m not a true Shakespeare nerd, because I haven’t read and seen them all, but I am a fan.  And one of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Romeo & Juliet … at least in theory.

I say “at least in theory” because I have so rarely seen a performance of the play that even came close to doing it justice.  Romeo & Juliet isn’t a Harlequin Romance Novel or Disney Princess Movie that incongruously ends with everyone dead.  It’s a tragedy, and a far more brutal tragedy than MacBeth or Hamlet, because the violence doesn’t just kill people, it kills love and hope.  It ends, not with a sword fight, but with a suicide.  It consumes the city of Verona with a hatred so deep it becomes unconscious and dehumanizing.

The opening conversation between (Act I, Scene i) two Capulet servants is often omitted or cut to little more than an issued challenge, but it is by far the most telling and important conversation in the play.  I’ve quoted the most relevant part below.  You can find the whole script here.

SAMPSON A dog of the house of Montague moves me.

GREGORY To move is to stir; and to be valiant is to stand: therefore, if thou art moved, thou runn’st away.

SAMPSON A dog of that house shall move me to stand: I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.

GREGORY That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes to the wall.

SAMPSON True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids
to the wall.

GREGORY The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

SAMPSON ‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads.

GREGORY The heads of the maids?

SAMPSON Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt.

GREGORY They must take it in sense that feel it.

SAMPSON Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

So they’re standing around talking smack about the Montagues, Gregory’s egging Sampson on by questioning his courage.  Sampson is bragging about how he will kill the Montague men and then rape and/or kill the Montague women.  “Maidenhead,” as you know, is Elizabethan-era slang for the hymen in particular and virginity in general.  This is basically two guys out on the street talking smack … glorifying the rape and murder of the Montagues.  Gregory and Sampson aren’t actually Capulets; they’re servants of the Capulets.  They barely even have any stake in this feud, but the generational feud has generated such an atmosphere of hatred that this is what they talk about when they’re not working: rape and murder.

The premise of Romeo & Juliet isn’t that love conquers all: it most assuredly does not.  The moral is that an unwillingness to forgive will destroy everything that you love, leaving nothing but guilt and grief behind, and that the cycle of hate and destruction will not end until both sides have suffered enough to learn to forgive.  Considering the 20th century’s history of ethnic cleansing and genocide, Shakespeare’s ending may have actually been overly optimistic.

It drives me straight up the wall to see this play watered down, presented like a love story, stripped of all the violence and ugliness of the vendetta.  I’ve seen the Royal Shakespearean company do this (I almost thought they’d just misprinted the programs, and I was really watching Much Ado About Nothing until the end, when everyone died), I’ve seen Hollywood do this (more than once, though I’ll admit that Gnomeo and Juliet won me over, despite it all).

The only version I’ve ever seen that captured the violence and ugliness was Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, which kept the Shakespearean script but used modern-day settings, clothes, etc.  The Sampson and Gregory dialogue was replaced by a fairly brutal, extended fight that conveyed the same information to audiences who might not know what “maidenhead” meant or get the significance of pushing people “to the wall” or “off the walls.”

A lot of people criticize this film for using modern sets and costumes, but ironically, it’s the only production of the play I have ever seen that is actually faithful to the script.

Luhrmann’s film to emphasize the feud’s engrained violence, the privilege of nobility, and the crushing atmosphere this provided, creating an atmosphere so full of hate and vengeance that love may well have been the ultimate rebellion.

So… you may be asking, what has this got to do with anything?

Well, the message of Romeo & Juliet is a powerfully moral one, one that we can all learn from: if we cannot learn to forgive, we will destroy everything we love.  But that message cannot shine out if  someone, for whatever reason, blunts the darkness and ugliness.  Without that darkness and ugliness, Romeo and Juliet’s love becomes just another love story, not a singular point of light in a violent, hateful, ugly city of darkness.  Without that darkness and ugliness, the destruction of their love seems just like a bummer, and ending that doesn’t make sense, something Shakespeare should have revised.  Or worse, their deaths seem romantic, like the end of Wuthering Heights, and the entire point is lost.

You all know I’ve been wrestling with my writing – harsh language, the darkness of the subject matter, the violence itself (especially in my Blood Oath trilogy).  And thinking about Romeo & Juliet has made me reconsider another angle.  I can’t self-censor to the point that the most important part of the story gets lost, muddled in a respectable, slightly dim haze.  If I have any light to share, I must show it as truthfully as possible, even if that means going into a dark, violent, ugly place.  And I won’t feel ashamed about it, either.

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