Since the publication of THE MASTER OF VERONA, this site has been reached every single day by someone Googling the terms "Capulet-Montague Feud." I want the piece to be easy to find, so I'm reposting it here. Enjoy!
Early in 1999 I was directing Romeo & Juliet at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (a great space that to my everlasting regret has since become a church). It was my fourth or fifth encounter with the play, but my first as director.
Getting ready to direct Shakespeare for the first time became an event. I read and re-read the script, watched other productions, even visited Verona as a lark – not that Shakespeare ever went there, but for the past hundred years or so the city has become, at least partially, an industry town for the play.
As an actor, you focus on your role and leave the overall play to the director. But as a novice director, I was forced to explore the play as a whole for the first time since ninth grade English class. I looked at all the questions, including the perennial ‘What caused the feud?’
The cause is never actually mentioned in the play, and it’s not vital to either an actor’s or audience’s understanding of the show. At the top of Act One, the ‘ancient grudge’ is already an established fact. But still, I pondered it for a time, then set it aside for more immediate concerns.
Today when I direct, cutting a script is my least favorite chore. Back then it was murder – what to take out, what to keep? In Shakespeare there are many seeming repetitions, but it was impossible not to hear each one in my head as the best expression of a certain thought.
At last I made it to the final scene – Paris is slain, Romeo and Juliet are both dead, we’re firmly into the denouement. It was then that a line jumped out at me. Capulet and his wife find their daughter's bleeding body. Romeo’s father, Lord Montague, enters to tomb, and the Prince addresses him: ‘Come, Montague, for thou art early up / To see thy son and heir now early down.’
Alas, my liege, my wife is dead tonight;
Grief of my son’s exile hath stopped her breath.
What further woe conspires against my age?
These lines baffled me. Realize, I’d been looking at the show for days thinking about actors entering and exiting, who I could double-cast and so forth. I clearly didn’t need Lady Montague for the final scene – her husband just told us she’s dead. I flipped back to find her last scene. She’s listed as entering in Act Three, Scene Four, when Mercutio and Tybalt both buy it – but she’s strangely quiet in that scene. Lord Capulet, too, but at least people talk to him. No one addresses Romeo’s mom, even when her son is banished. In fact, looking at it harder, Lady Montague hasn't been heard from since Act One, Scene One, in which she uttered a mere two lines!
So this was my quandary – do I cut Montague’s lines at the end of the show? Why not? Here we are, the play is basically over. We’ve just watched the two romantic leads die pitiably, and young, kind, noble Paris just croaked it as well. Why do we care if some woman we barely remember is dead?
But it continued to bother me. There had to be a reason she was dead.
Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, there was a very good reason. The actor who played Lady Montague was probably needed in another role – the exigencies of the stage. Or it could be simple balance in numbers - with her death, each family has lost two members (unless you keep Benvolio's death from the bad quarto...).
Even realizing this, I couldn't let go of the line. My wife is dead tonight. The rules of dramatic structure nagged at me. An off-stage death like that is supposed to be symbolic. But of what? Clueless, I left the line in, hoping my actors could figure it out.
In the event, they didn’t have to. I was going about my business later that week when it hit me – the feud! The thing that gets closure at the end of the show is the feud! Montague and Capulet bury the hatchet. ‘Brother Montague,’ Capulet calls him. They're even going to build statues to honor their dead kids.
Could Lady Montague’s death be symbolic of the end of the feud? The only way that could work would be –
If she were the cause of the feud.
I remember a heart-stopping moment as the idea formed – a love triangle a generation earlier, between the parents! Romeo’s mother, engaged to a young Capulet, runs off with a young Montague instead. That’s certainly cause for a feud, especially if young Capulet and Montague were friends. Best friends, childhood friends, torn apart by their love for a woman. A feud, born of love, dies with love.
This explains so much in the play – Lord Capulet, Juliet's doting father, suddenly threatening to kill her for refusing to marry the man he’s chosen for her. He tells her to ‘hang, beg, starve, die in the streets’ – this from a man who has called her ‘the hopeful lady of my earth.’ His fury seems to come out of nowhere and is brutally excessive. But if his own bride-to-be had jilted him and run off with his best friend instead, of course Juliet’s similar behavior would press his buttons.
This notion also goes on to inform much of Capulet's relationship with his wife – a younger wife, we know from the script, not well content in her match, married to a man who thinks she is ‘marred.’ It hints, in turn, at her relationship with Tybalt. In fact, the behavior of both families is wonderfully colored by this single, simple idea. Romeo’s mom jilted Juliet’s dad.
Oddly enough, all this doesn’t affect the actual performance of the show overmuch. It’s fun for the actors to play, and there are moments when it can be very clear, but the play stands, as it always has, on its action and language. The backstory ends up being superfluous.
But it was an idea that had its hooks in me and wouldn’t let go. Especially when I found that Dante mentions both families in Purgatorio, a work he wrote while living in Verona, under the protection of Verona's prince, the great Cangrande della Scala. Della Scala, which in Latin would be Escalus... Oh, the wheels that started turning!
So I wrote a book.
THE MASTER OF VERONA explores the origin of the feud, while tying together several other Shakespeare plays and characters, along with the history of pre-Renaissance Italy - the warriors, the artists, the poets, and the villains. I hope it's as much fun to read as it was to write.
For more about the novels, check out www.davidblixt.com. For more of my musings on the plays, poke around here for a bit, or drop me a line in the comments.