People always talk about Romeo and Juliet as if it’s a romance, as if it’s a great passionate play, the greatest love story of all time. Seen that way, I’ve always found it a little disappointing. There’s certainly a romance in it, but it’s actually much more a play about a feud between families. What’s most interesting to me is the way that the whole thing is set up like a comedy, where you can safely expect a happy ending, the lovers reunited and their families reconciled, only to see Shakespeare pull the rug from under you. Only King Lear does more of a switch, where it looks as if even the terrible events can be patched up, and then surprises us with worse.
Romeo and Juliet is truly a tragedy, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy where everyone is undone by their tragic flaw. And we’re informed of this at the beginning, so we know what we are headed for, and still, as the story goes on we want it to end differently. I like Romeo and Juliet for the narrative dissonance, and of course as always with Shakespeare, the beautiful language.
Modern audiences who have come to see a famous love story are often a bit taken aback at the beginning. Shakespeare explains it all in the prologue—this is the story of a stupid feud between two houses, and a pair of star-crossed lovers who get caught up in it, and immediately we’re into insults and swordfighting. The Montagues and the Capulets are both noble families of Verona, at feud with each other. While it’s very important to make the emotional balance of the play work that they are, as the first line states, “alike in dignity,” sometimes they’re too alike in other ways. You do want to be able to tell Montagues and Capulets apart. But Shakespeare makes them very similar, and certainly doesn’t expect us to take sides, to favor one family over the other. If we suspect the text of taking a position it’s “A plague on both your houses!”
We’re given no reason for the feud—it’s long forgotten and buried under a million lesser thumb-bites and petty swordfights in alleys. It’s like the Guelphs and the Ghibellines in Florence—yes, originally there was an insult, and there are underlying lines of vague political allegiance, but the important thing is whose retainer said he was going to push the other side into the wall. It’s stupid, and the bickering and drawn swords that open the play is all on this level, and no wonder the Prince is sick of it. It’s a feud, and it’s established up front as real and dangerous, and also petty and with one side as bad as the other.
Actual Renaissance Italy had feuds, and no doubt it had young people falling in love too. But the Italy imagined by Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights was something different to the original audience—it’s both real and distant, half-known about and half-imagined, not quite a fairytale world but not quite solid either. Italians in plays were always stabbing and poisoning, and double-crossing, and plotting, and falling in love. Italy wasn’t a country, in Shakespeare’s day, it was a patchwork of city states with dukes and princes and kings. If Shakespeare used real Venice and Verona or made up Illyria, it didn’t matter. The audience doesn’t need to know a thing about Mantua except that you can go to an apothecary and buy poison, but it would be a different play if it were set in Coventry and Romeo were exiled to Leicester. Italy had this status for Shakespeare partly because it was the most wonderful place in Europe at the time, not just full of art and treasure but also the revived heritage of antiquity. The models for plays were classical, and secular plays were revived in Italy first, new plays were first written and performed there, before they spread elsewhere in Europe. So Italy in a way owned drama, audiences were used to Italian names and Italian settings. Shakespeare drew from all sorts of traditions, including the very English mumming plays, but both the real Italy and the dramatic one had a hold on his imagination.
Romeo and Juliet is often done in other settings, modern or otherwise. I didn’t realise why this never worked for me until I was once lucky enough to see a live stage science fiction version. The text wasn’t changed at all, but the whole thing was done in a Fuller Dome, lots of it climbing around in the struts, especially the balcony scene. The Capulets were humanoid aliens with distinctive clothing and body language. The alchemist was a weird three headed ostrichoid alien. When Romeo asks “Was that my father that went hence so fast?” we hear a spaceship zoom overhead. It was great. It was also the first version of Romeo and Juliet I’d ever seen where they’d changed the setting and it had worked. The planet of Verona contained a Prince, assorted aliens, and two households, one alien, one human, but both alike in dignity.
That’s the key to Romeo and Juliet, stated right there in the first line, and all the versions I’d seen that tried to change the setting had foundered on that. This story of two lovesick teenagers and their tragic end only works when the feuding households they come from really are equal with nothing to choose between them, whether in Shakespeare’s imaginary Renaissance Italy or on another planet. You can quite easily make The Tempest into a play about colonization, but that really doesn’t work for Romeo and Juliet—the whole thing only works if the families really are equal.
The other wonderful thing in the SF version was the Capulets’ body language. They wore shiny jumpsuits, and when at rest they rotated their hands over their knees. When the nurse is teasing Juliet about Romeo and says “his leg excels all men’s” she imitates this gesture, and it’s adorable. This tiny bit of physical byplay, in a play I saw once twenty years ago, became part of my definition of what makes the play great.
The original audience would not have been as sympathetic to the lovers as we are. Shakespeare’s pretty positive about romantic love, for his period, but marriage was really supposed to be an economic relationship much more than a romantic one. Shakespeare largely avoids the adultery, cuckoldry and bed hopping that so many other period dramas find hilarious. He’s reasonably in favour of love in marriage. But his audience wouldn’t necessarily have been, and he goes out of his way to get their sympathy. The modern audience, finding any other kind of marriage horrific, needs much less of this. The first thing, almost always changed in modern productions, is how young Juliet is—not quite fourteen. This is meant to excuse her silliness. Then it’s well established early on that Romeo’s tragic flaw is a propensity to fall in love, and to let romantic love go to his head. We see this the first time we see him, mooning over Rosaline, He’s in love with being in love, the woman is just a prop. But once we get to the actual love scenes, Shakespeare goes all out to get everyone on the side of the lovers, the beautiful speeches, the whole weight of language. And it works. Even when I was twelve and delighted to see the play start with a swordfight instead of kissy stuff, I was entirely won over by the end.
My favourite character is Mercutio, then and now. Mercutio is fun and sensible, he has all the best lines, and he speaks them lightly. He teases Romeo for his idiocy. His main characteristic is how lightly he takes everything. He also has an amazing death-scene, he makes a pun when he is dying—“ask for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man.” And it is from Mercutio’s death that the tragic dominoes of the end start lining up. Mercutio’s death lead’s to Romeo killing Tybalt, which leads to Romeo’s exile, and then the fake death of Juliet, followed by the real deaths of both lovers.
The timing of their suicides and separate death speeches is wonderful, as is the fact that Romeo dies with the woman’s weapon, poison, while Juliet uses a sword. You could almost forget how contrived it is that Romeo hasn’t had the message that Juliet was only faking death. There’s never a dry eye in the house.
But this isn’t the end—this isn’t a play about them but the feud. The actual end follows their deaths and is the reconciliation of the families, brought about by the death as it could have been, we are told, by nothing else. I don’t know if anyone finds it any compensation, I never have.
This article was originally published April 20, 2015 as part of our ongoing Shakespeare on Tor.com series.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published a collection of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections and ten novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. Her most recent book is The Just City. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.