If you wanted to throw my whole theory about the cause of the feud out of whack, you could point out to me that Lady Montague does not, in fact, have the final death in the play.
I would answer with a nod, a sigh, a smile, saying, “I know. Benvolio does.”
The first legitimate publication of Shakespeare’s plays was the First Folio. Put together by his actors after he died in a wonderfully mercenary attempt to raise cash, it sets down in print together for the first time the Bard’s most famous plays.
But there are discrepancies. Because of the expense involved in copying out a play, only the prompter or stage manager would have had a full text. Actors had their cues, their lines, and their stage directions, usually worked into the text. So when Condell and Heminges tried to put together 36 plays, there were several missing. Some they reconstructed by memory, or got lucky and the actors had held onto their rolls of ink-stained parchment (where we get the word ‘role’). For some they had complete texts, thanks to a fastidious stage-manager.
And some were taken from the Quartos.
In publishing terms, a Quarto is the result when four leaves of a book are created from a standard size sheet of paper. Each leaf is usually printed on both sides, leaving eight printed pages in total. In Shakespeare’s time this was true, but there was another wonderful connotation – bootleg.
Today when a movie comes out there are always some jerks in the audience with video cameras, and a shaky version of the film shows up the next day on the internet. This happened during Shakespeare’s heyday, too. Pretend you’re an Elizabethan going to see, say, Measure For Measure. You’re rich, so you’ve got a seat in the balcony. Down the row from you some shifty-looking patron is sitting with a quill and inkpot, scribbling in a fast shorthand every word the actors below are saying. A week later you see advertised at a different theatre a play called, astonishingly, Measure For Measure. There are no copyright laws, no redress or remuneration for the playwright. That’s just the way it goes.
Sometimes a Quarto would be published by the author himself, but far more often a Quarto of some play would appear having been ‘stolen’ as it were from a live performance. These Quartos sometimes have wild differences from the Folio versions, as bootleggers often could not write as fast as actors spoke. There were gaps that had to be filled in. If there are lots of these gaps, caulked in with low verse and poor rhymes, you get what is known as a ‘bad’ Quarto.
What has all this got to do with Benvolio? Because in the First Quarto (the ‘bad’ Quarto, the ‘eeevil’ Quarto) of Romeo & Juliet, printed by Thomas Crede for Cuthbert Burby in 1599, Benvolio dies.
What? you cry aloud. How? Why?
Alas, we don’t know. Montague brings us news that his wife is dead. Then he adds, as if in after-thought, ‘And young Benvolio is deceased as well.’ No word of how or why. All we know is that no one makes it out of this play alive.
I actually like this line. Several times now I’ve contrived ways to kill Benvolio in the latter part of the play. My favorite is to have him meet a girl at the Capulet party. Later, after Juliet has drunk her potion but before she’s found, Benvolio meets this girl for an assignation. They embrace, but she recoils at once. His sword-hilt is jabbing her. Sexily, she either removes his sword belt or unsheathes the weapon and lays it aside.
Just then, unseen by Benvolio, the two louts from the opening scene, Gregory and Sampson, creep up. Benvolio senses them, however, and puts up a desperate fight. But he’s unarmed and is quickly killed. It’s a nice parallel to the light-hearted melee at the top of the show. Then – ah-ha! – Lady Capulet arrives to pay off her three servants, who then remove the body.
Lady Capulet? Well, she’s already told Juliet that she’s planning to send a poison to Mantua and have Romeo done in. And she blames Benvolio for spinning a web of lies around the death of Tybalt, despite the fact that he spoke true. Would she let him, ‘a kinsman to the Montague,’ live? I think not!
So there’s a peek at how my mind works, filling in gaps much like the bootleggers of Shakespeare’s time.
I could refute the claim that Benvolio gets the final death by saying that maybe he died days ago, while Lady Montague died this very night. Maybe she sensed her son’s passing. Maybe she killed herself for her part in the feud. Maybe she did in fact die of grief. Or maybe she and Benvolio had a sexual-suicide pact and leapt naked off of one of Verona’s forty-eight towers.
The world may never know.