I venture into the realm of the painfully obvious when I say that, since it was first penned somewhere around 1595, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet has become timeless. As an actor, it’s been my good fortune to perform most of the male roles in the show – Romeo, Tybalt, Lord Capulet, the Friar, Lord Montague. But the role I’ve been called back to most often, the first part I ever took up, is Mercutio. It’s through his eyes that I first started to understand the play as a whole. And over time and many, many productions I began to think that all the various directors, with all due respect, had missed the boat.
Because The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is not a Tragedy at all.
A Shakespearean Tragedy (or Aristotelian, if you’re being picky) revolves around a single strong central male figure who is a paragon of virtues, the best at everything a man can be: lover, poet, politician, warrior, philosopher – but who has one tragic flaw that leads to his ultimate destruction. With Macbeth it’s Ambition, with Othello it’s Jealousy, and so on.
That definition doesn’t apply to the leading man in R&J. At the start of the show Romeo’s locking himself in a dark room during the day, then wandering the edge of the forest at night, composing love odes to Rosaline, who is going to become a nun. Romeo is a prat.
I was in rehearsals for As You Like It, playing Oliver, when I watched the scene of Orlando running around the forest posting those god-awful poems to a different Rosalind and suddenly realized, Oh. It’s Romeo. Fortunately for us all, Romeo is much cleverer than Orlando, but the core character is the same. Romeo is not Hamlet or Macbeth or Othello. He’s Orlando, Claudio, Orsino. He’s a Comedic lover.
With that in mind, I started thinking of all the elements of a Shakespearean Comedy. I’m of the opinion the best of his Comedies is Twelfth Night. It has everything: lovesick man loving the wrong woman only to discover true love; smart, capable young woman in dire circumstances; clowns; disguises; musicians; mistimings; twins; shipwrecks; and a woman disguised as a man.
So I began comparing that list to R&J :
Lovesick fool – Romeo. Check.
Capable girl in dire circumstance – Juliet. Check.
Clowns - Mercutio, Nurse, Peter, Potpan, etc. Check.
Disguises - masked ball (though it’s only the boys who are crashing who show up in masks! It’s not a costume party, damn it!). Check.
Musicians – the oft cut but truly funny musicians who are present for the discovery of ‘dead’ Juliet. Check.
Mistimings - Tybalt kills Mercutio by accident, Friar Lawrence’s message misses Romeo, Romeo kills himself just before Juliet wakes, etc. Check.
Secret wedding – Check.
Looking at that list, I realized that the only thing this Comedy lacks are twins, shipwrecks, and Juliet dressing as a man. In fact, the very same plan the Friar employs in Much Ado (‘Let’s pretend she’s dead, and everything will be okay’) is used in R&J – except here it doesn’t work.
Oh, and R&J is missing one more element of a Comedy. A happy ending.
So Romeo & Juliet is not a Tragedy.
It’s a Comedy, gone horribly wrong.
When I talk about Romeo & Juliet, I like to compare it to the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937.
Bear with me here.
Before the film was released, the newspapers called it ‘Disney’s Folly.’ Walt was spending all his hard-earned Mickey Mouse money on a feature-length cartoon? Why, in God's name? No one would sit through something like that. Kids didn’t have the patience, and adults didn’t care about dancing trees or whatever hokum he was putting in it. Besides, all that color on the screen, you’d go blind!
But in December 1937 grown men and women left the premiere of the film weeping. The critics went nuts with praise. Every song became a top 10 hit. Fashion designers grew obsessed (Lucile Ball went to the Oscars that year in a Dopey hat). And theatre owners were forced to change seat-covers after every showing because of kids wetting themselves in terror and delight.
Why? Because no one had ever seen anything like it.
That’s what I think Romeo & Juliet was for the mid-1590s. The first half of the show is a typical Shakespearean Comedy, complete with sex jokes and idiot lovers. The show is funny. I mean, really funny. Read right, the balcony scene has a lot of truly comic elements.
In a normal show, like say Shrew, everything is revealed right after the secret wedding and everyone lives happily ever after. Here, however, the wedding is followed by the death of Mercutio, sending the play into a spiral to Hell.
The characters become trapped in an awful situation, trying to find a Comedic solution that isn’t there. It’s why the Nurse betrays Juliet’s trust. It’s why Capulet insists on a wedding. It’s not a mistake that the Friar’s plan is the exact same one that Friar Francis uses in Much Ado. It just goes horribly wrong.
At the center of this play is an oddball, the character who twists everything around and turns the play on its head – Mercutio, kinsman to the Prince. The best role Shakespeare ever wrote for a young man. All the best lines, a great psychedelic speech, a bawdy chase, a cool fight and an angry death, then backstage to drink and play cards until curtain-call.
His ‘Queen Mab’ speech is a clue. Like the play, Mab starts out nice and airy and fun. Then in the middle, for no reason at all, it twists and becomes dark, the imagery grotesquely foreboding. It’s no coincidence that this speech is delivered by the person whose death will cause the same dark turn in the play.
Today we all know the story. But four hundred years ago, no one had ever seen anything like it. Shakespeare ripped the rug out from underneath his audience.
Romeo & Juliet is not a Tragedy. It is something much worse. Because first it makes you laugh.