Nearly 20 years ago, I was ramping up for my first time directing Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. I had performed in it several times, but this was to be my first outing at the helm, and I was obsessively reading and re-reading the script, watching other productions, even visiting 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. Shakespeare’s Italian Disneyland.
Used to looking at a play through the eyes of a single character, this was the first time since Mr. Tobin’s ninth grade English class that I was forced to explore the play as a whole. I took a look at all the questions, including the perennial ‘What caused the feud?’ Not technically vital to either an actor’s or audience’s understanding of the show because, at the top of Act One, the feud is an established fact. But still, worth pondering.
Cutting a script is still my least favorite chore. Back then, it drove me mad. What to keep, what to lose? I was nearly done, working on the final scene — Paris is slain, Romeo and Juliet are both dead, we’re firmly into the denouement — when suddenly a line jumped out at me.
Capulet and his wife have just found their daughter’s bleeding body. Romeo’s father, Lord Montague, enters, 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 croak 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. Even realizing this, though, I couldn’t let go of the line. My wife is dead tonight. The rules of dramatic structure nagged at me. A death like that is supposed to be symbolic. But of what? Clueless, I shrugged and finished the cuts. 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. 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 stopping dead in my tracks as the idea took form — 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.
This explained 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 that doesn’t love her. It hints at her relationship, in turn, with Tybalt. In fact, the behavior of both families is wonderfully colored by this single, simple idea: Romeo’s mom jilted Juliet’s dad. Whoa.
This idea doesn’t interfere the actual performance of the show. The reason we are still doing Shakespeare four hundred years later is not his plots, which are stolen and often dippy. It’s his language. And ROMEO & JULIET stands, as it always has, on its language and its near-perfect structure. Any back-story ends up being superfluous.
Yes, there are moments when it can be very clear, but contrary to popular opinion, the core of the play isn’t the feud. That’s what frustrates me when I see people set the play between rival ethnic groups and think they’re making a statement. The feud is simply the setting, the circumstance. It’s not the heart of the show.
The heart of the show is youthful love, which is doomed because it burn so hot. Which is why I like this origin to the feud.
A feud born of love, dies with love.