You know what drives me consistently crazy? The preconceptions people have about Romeo & Juliet. So often after a student matinee a teacher or a parent will complain: “Why did you add all those sex jokes?” When we explain that we did not add them, they assure us we did. “I know Romeo & Juliet, and that’s not in there!” When we take them through the script line by line, they’re shocked. And then they tell us we shouldn’t have performed it the way Shakespeare wrote it.
I guess it’s important that students read Shakespeare, just so long as they don’t understand it.
We have to remember that Shakespeare knew that sex and violence puts butts in the seats. It worked for the ancient Greeks and Romans, worked for Shakespeare, works today. There are very few Shakespeare plays entirely devoid of dirty jokes (hell, it's what the Porter in Mac exists for). But R&J may be the most jam-packed with both sex and violence.
But that's not the way the show is perceived. There are so many preconceptions about this show. And one of the biggest is the Balcony Scene. People speak of it as one of the ‘greatest romantic scenes in literature.’ This is because of the trap this show has become. It’s called ‘the greatest love story every told’ (I’ve even used that tagline in selling The Master Of Verona). But it’s a lie. In a great love story, they’d live.
So, if the Balcony Scene isn't about pure romance at its finest, what is the scene about, then? It’s about how wonderfully stupid teenagers in love are.
It’s also where I think Romeo redeems himself from the lovesick fool he was in the whole first Act. Because Romeo has fallen for the ideal of Romantic Love, of Chivalric Love. Love from afar. He loves Rosaline not for herself, but because he’s enjoying his anguish:
Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vex’d a sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears:
What is it else? a madness most discreet,
A choking gall and a preserving sweet.
He’s not in love with Rosaline. He’s in love with love.
This was the fashion, starting with the French tales of Lancelot and Guinevere, continuing through Dante’s passion for his Beatrice, right through Petrarch’s love for his unobtainable Laura. Mercutio mocks him relentlessly for this:
Alas poor Romeo! he is already dead; stabbed with a
white wench’s black eye; shot through the ear with a
love-song; the very pin of his heart cleft with the
blind bow-boy’s butt-shaft.
Here comes Romeo, here comes Romeo.
Without his roe, like a dried herring: flesh, flesh,
how art thou fishified! Now is he for the numbers
that Petrarch flowed in: Laura to his lady was but a
kitchen-wench; marry, she had a better love to
be-rhyme her; Dido a dowdy; Cleopatra a gipsy;
Helen and Hero hildings and harlots; Thisbe a grey
eye or so, but not to the purpose. Signior
Romeo, bon jour! there’s a French salutation
to your French slop.
It’s tempting to read French slop as a reference to Romeo’s mode of attire. But in this case I think Mercutio means this ridiculous notion of Courtly Love, made famous by French poets, where one aspires to love only from afar. In both MoV and Fortune’s Fool I reference a book by Andreas Capellanus entitled De Amore, which lists the 31 rules of Courtly Love:
- Marriage should not be a deterrent to love.
- Love cannot exist in the individual who cannot be jealous.
- A double love cannot obligate an individual.
- Love constantly waxes and wanes.
- That which is not given freely by the object of one’s love loses its savor.
- It is necessary for a male to reach the age of maturity in order to love.
- A lover must observe a two-year widowhood after his beloved’s death.
- Only the most urgent circumstances should deprive one of love.
- Only the insistence of love can motivate one to love.
- Love cannot coexist with avarice.
- A lover should not love anyone who would be an embarrassing marriage choice.
- True love excludes all from its embrace but the beloved.
- Public revelation of love is deadly to love in most instances.
- The value of love is commensurate with its difficulty of attainment.
- The presence of one’s beloved causes palpitation of the heart.
- The sight of one’s beloved causes palpitations of the heart.
- A new love brings an old one to a finish.
- Good character is the one real requirement for worthiness of love.
- When love grows faint its demise is usually certain.
- Apprehension is the constant companion of true love.
- Love is reinforced by jealousy.
- Suspicion of the beloved generates jealousy and therefore intensifies love.
- Eating and sleeping diminish greatly when one is aggravated by love.
- The lover’s every deed is performed with the thought of his beloved in mind.
- Unless it please his beloved, no act or thought is worthy to the lover.
- Love is powerless to hold anything from love.
- There is no such thing as too much of the pleasure of one’s beloved.
- Presumption on the part of the beloved causes suspicion in the lover.
- Aggravation of excessive passion does not usually afflict the true lover.
- Thought of the beloved never leaves the true lover.
- Two men may love one woman or two women one man.
It’s as though the Romeo in Act I has studied this list, and is determined to stick to it. His friends see this and lament it, missing their witty and joyful friend who has been replaced by this stick-in-the-mud who declares himself incapable of dancing:
A torch for me: let wantons light of heart
Tickle the senseless rushes with their heels,
For I am proverb’d with a grandsire phrase;
I’ll be a candle-holder, and look on.
The game was ne’er so fair, and I am done.
Though their efforts to tease him out of his ‘love’ mood fail, Benvolio’s plan to make Romeo forget Rosaline succeeds. Because the moment he sees Juliet at the ball, Romeo changes, throws off the mournful cloak of Courtly Love and suddenly understands what true love is.
We know this because he does something unthinkable to a Courtly Lover – he acts! First he grabs the girl by the hand and talks to her, even stealing two kisses. Then he leaps her wall in the middle of the night to play Peeping Tom. His love for Rosaline is all talk, whereas his love for Juliet is genuine because it moves him to action!
Which brings us at last to the Balcony Scene.
Or as I like to call it, the Window Scene.
In Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, no one says ‘balcony.’ Never. The word is not in the script. We call it the Balcony Scene because on the Globe stage there were two balconies that were used for just these kind of moments. But just because that’s the way they staged it doesn’t mean we should follow suit.
Instead, Romeo says window. ‘What light through yonder window breaks?’ Being interested in the script, this is something that’s always bothered me about this scene and, after years of snide remarks behind my hand, the last time I directed the show I finally did what I’ve long threatened: I got rid of Juliet’s balcony entirely.
I’m sure I’m not the first. And I didn’t do it to shock anybody. I wasn’t trying to be postmodern, or to bite my thumb at convention – at least, not for the sake of biting my thumb. I did it to free the scene. Both from the weight of expectation, and literally free the actors to, you know, interact.
Here’s what often happens. Romeo comes in and hides. Mercutio and the boys chase him, tease him, then leave. He comes out, then sees her in the balcony and hides again, close to the audience. But if he’s going to see her, he either has to turn his back on the audience, or he has to be entirely across the stage – he’s got lots of asides before he reveals himself. So there’s always this physical gulf between them. And it lasts through the whole damned scene – unless you have him climb up to the balcony. But if he can do that, why does he need cords to climb down a two acts later?
So I decided to scrap the balcony, and put the window Juliet’s standing in on the ground floor. And it worked, worked so very well. What I liked best about it was Juliet’s freedom, and the intimacy it allowed her to share with the audience. Juliet is a character forever put on a pedestal – by teachers, by readers, by actors, by directors, by audiences, who all think of her as the ideal young lover. Placing her high on some balcony away from the audience reinforces that, whereas I always want to undermine it.
Why undermine? Because she’s a thirteen year-old girl! She’s not some savvy, romantic ideal. She’s young, smart, funny, conflicted, bursting with too many emotions at once. She ping-pongs from thought to thought, emotion to emotion, bubbling over with more than she can express, and not all of it is demure or sweet (this leads into a discussion of the ‘Juliet Trap’ where even the most talented actresses get caught up in playing the idea of Juliet instead of the character, which is much better. For some reason it happens much more with this character than any other). It was great fun to allow Juliet to match her metal ricochets with full physical freedom.
(Note, too, that in my last production Juliet wore pajamas. Not some flowing night-gown, but what an almost-fourteen year-old wears to bed. Just like in the first Spider-Man movie, where MJ is wearing pajamas, not a negligee. That’s the way a young girl dresses!)
So, by removing the balcony, I freed both Juliet and the audience.
Now I’m the first to admit not every line is with me. Romeo has a reference to her ‘being o’er my head.’ But there are two or three other reasonable interpretations to that line. Likewise, I found ways to stage ‘One kiss and I’ll descend’ and ‘I see thee, now thou art so low, as one dead,’ both lines from the Morning-After scene, by using the window and a couple steps. And the cords the Nurse brings? We used those to help Romeo get over the wall.
As I say, I’m sure I’m not the first to get rid of the balcony. But I went further with this idea than just putting Juliet on the ground floor. When Romeo ditches his friends, Benvolio says, He ran this way, and leapt this orchard wall.’ I thought, Romeo climbed a wall? Why not leave him up there?
Thus, for the first part of the scene, Romeo was up, and Juliet down. He descends before the initial love talk is done, well before her ‘Farewell, compliment’ speech. And suddenly it was a scene I had never seen before.
Which is to say, we’d shaken off the baggage of preconceptions, and could look at what these two people are actually saying.
The scene, of course, begins with Romeo seeing Juliet in her balcony (window). He tells us all about the stuff we can see for ourselves – she’s sighing, laying her hand upon her cheek – the same hand Romeo had held and tried to kiss during the party.
By rights, this is the moment when he should step out and proclaim his love, swearing by the stars and God in Heaven how deeply he adores her, in return for which she might give him a glove, some token to carry to the end of his days as he pines for her. That’s Courtly Love. It’s pretty stupid. But those are the rules.
Instead Romeo does something unthinkable in a Courtly Lover. He eavesdrops on her, listens to her most intimate thoughts – because they happen to be of him.
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Romeo even asks the audience if he should talk, or go on listening:
[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
He listens until he can’t contain himself any longer and leaps out of the bushes, shouting, ‘I take thee at thy word!’
At which she screams, because there’s a Peeping Tom in her garden.
Seriously, the scene can and should be as funny as it is sweet. There are plenty of moments for both. The genius of Shakespeare is his ability to so utterly inhabit each character he writes. And we all remember being those kids! We remember the awkwardness of love – does she love me, what must he think of me, did I sound stupid?
I have four favorite comedic moments in the scene. The first two come relatively early, back to back, as she’s trying to compose herself after realizing he’s overheard her give away the game. She starts talking, and can’t stop. Think of a thirteen year-old girl going through the whole gamut of emotions – embarrassment, abandon, concern, trust, more concern, hope, more concern, posturing, self-doubt, chastisement of him, and more self-doubt. Imagine, too, a boy trying to open his mouth at each piece of punctuation, trying to get a word in edgewise:
Thou know’st the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak to-night
Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny
What I have spoke: but farewell compliment!
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay,’
And I will take thy word: yet if thou swear’st,
Thou mayst prove false; at lovers’ perjuries
Then say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully:
Or if thou think’st I am too quickly won,
I’ll frown and be perverse an say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo; but else, not for the world.
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond,
And therefore thou mayst think my ‘havior light:
But trust me, gentleman, I’ll prove more true
Than those that have more cunning to be strange.
I should have been more strange, I must confess,
But that thou overheard’st, ere I was ware,
My true love’s passion: therefore pardon me,
And not impute this yielding to light love,
Which the dark night hath so discovered.
And here’s my next favorite bit of comedic timing. Belatedly, Romeo tries to play the lover, making grand oaths of love:
Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops--
O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
Romeo is confused. He knows a Lover has to swear by something.
What shall I swear by?
And Juliet says the sweetest thing:
Do not swear at all;
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee.
How beautiful is that? The only thing in the world that he could swear by is himself, because he is the only thing in the whole world that matters to her.
Being stupid, Romeo starts to do it:
If my heart’s dear love--
Well, do not swear:
Shhh. Don’t talk, pretty boy. You’ll spoil it.
That comic timing right there, coming right after the most wonderful sweetness – that is some genius hilarity. It’s like that wonderful line Mary Louise Parker had on her second episode of the West Wing: ‘Maybe not so much for you with the talking.’
Next in the comedy goldmine comes a pair of lines that need no explanation:
O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?
What satisfaction canst thou have to-night?
Self-explanitory - especially his totally innocent answer.
My final favorite moment comes towards the end of the scene, where Romeo and Juliet are in effect two teens on the phone late at night, complete with the You hang up / No, you hang up moment:
I have forgot why I did call thee back.
Let me stand here till thou remember it.
I shall forget, to have thee still stand there,
Remembering how I love thy company.
And I’ll still stay, to have thee still forget,
Forgetting any other home but this.
If played right, it is at least as funny as it is touching.
Just like the scene.
Balcony or no.