Director & Dramaturge Notes on R&J

Director’s Notes on Romeo & Juliet

Joe Goscinski

There is no world without Verona Walls… Being banished beyond the boundaries of Verona’s walls means being parted from the woman that he truly loves. …except purgatory, torture, and hell itself. Last year when I was asked if I’d be interested in directing another show at Classic, this was the line that jumped out at me. I had been going through a boundary issue myself, a Visa issue, that was keeping someone I loved away from me, and the feeling of separation was palpable. So, I wanted to explore that separation of what exists for Romeo inside those walls, and what life is outside of them.  The play explores love in its most extreme passion.  Love is shown as an amoral thing, leading to as much destruction as to happiness. But, the love that Romeo and Juliet experience also appears so breathtakingly beautiful that few would ever want, or be able to resist its power. The central word that I played with is passion, and how it can overwhelm a person in love as powerfully as hate can. Romeo and Juliet does not make a specific moral statement about the relationships between love and society, religion, and family; but, it shows the chaos and passion of being in love. The reasons that Romeo and Juliet cannot be together are caused by two families that cannot see past their differences and hate for each other.  In the midst of this hate is our story of two people that wish to dismiss their names, and everything that those names represent, and simply be together because they love each other.  In our production we show the boundaries and walls that these two families put up, and the effect of that hate upon the world they’re coexisting in. Yes, they are both alike in dignity, but severely lacking in empathy for one another, and not seeing the possibilities of happiness by finding the commonalities and compassion that love can bring.  My hope is that our audience sees how blind hate and fear can make us, and how beautiful life can be when we find the beauty in each other. I believe that both Romeo and Juliet have the power, through their love, to open our own hearts to see the possibilities of a world without walls.

Notes on the Play

Elizabeth C. Ramírez, Ph.D.

Shakespeare & His Work

William Shakespeare (1564-April 23, 1616) is widely considered to be the greatest writer in the English language.  Shakespeare wrote at least 38 plays and over 150 short and long poems, many of which are considered to be the finest ever written in English. His works have been translated into every major living language, and some others besides (the Folger’s holdings include translations in Esperanto and Klingon), and nearly 400 years after his death, his plays continue to be performed around the world. As Ben Jonson, wrote of him, Shakespeare is “not of an age, but for all time” (Folger Shakespeare Library).

It is hard to imagine a world without Shakespeare. Since their composition four hundred years ago, Shakespeare’s play and poems have traveled the globe, inviting those who see and read his work to make them our own.  On April 23, 2016, 400 years since the day he died, people celebrated his life and work around the world (Folger Shakespeare Library).

Shakespeare entered the world of the London theatre as an actor sometime between 1585 and 1591.  Andrew Gurr points out that he probably acted for various companies before becoming a shareholder (receiving part of the company’s profits as payment) in the Chamberlain’s Men in 1594.  He remained with that company for the rest of his career, becoming a householder (part owner) in the Globe playhouse in 1598 and in the second Blackfriars playhouse in 1608.  Thus, Shakespeare was directly involved in more aspects of the theatre than any other writer of his day. (Brockett, History of the Theatre, 10th ed., 108)

While no other playwright’s work has been more fully studied, we may note some characteristics of Shakespeare’s dramatic work.  He borrowed stories from various sources, including history, mythology, legend, fiction, and other plays, but he reworked them until they became distinctively his own.  Generally, situations and characters are clearly established in the opening scenes, and the action develops logically out of this exposition.  A number of plots are interwoven, at first somewhat independently of each other but eventually coming together as the denouement or working out of the resolution approaches. His casts were large, composed of a wide range of characters, yet, he made them appear to be living individuals rather than mere stage figures.  His penetrating insights into human behavior have remained valid. (Brockett 109)

In highlighting the significance of this dramatist, the noted theatre historian, Oscar G. Brockett, writes that “Shakespeare was by far the most comprehensive, sensitive, and dramatically effective playwright of his time.  He attempted almost all of the popular dramatic types and subjects of his age, and in each instance gave them their most effective expression.  In his own day, Shakespeare’s critical reputation was lower than Ben Jonson’s or John Fletcher’s, but his fame began to grow in the late seventeenth century and reached its peak in the nineteenth century” (Brockett 109).

Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb, in The Living Theatre, call attention to the fact that the plays were written to be performed, and the practice at the time was not to publish plays in the way they are published today. Shakespeare’s complete works did not appear in printed form until 1623, seven years after his death, when two colleagues who had been fellow actors, John Hemmings and Henry Condell, edited what is known as the First Folio (165).

With regard to reliability of what we know about the playwright, and the authorship and authenticity of the work, Harold Bloom reminds us that “It is important to note that few events in the life of William Shakespeare are supported by reliable evidence and many incidents recorded by commentators of the last four centuries are either conjectural or apocryphal.”  In addition, Bloom addresses the “curious controversy” that developed in the middle of the nineteenth century “in regard to the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, some contending that Sir Francis Bacon was the actual author of the plays, others (including Mark Twain) advancing the claims of the earl of Oxford.  None of these attempts has succeeded in persuading the majority of scholars that Shakespeare himself is not the author of the plays attributed to him” (Harold Bloom, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet 11)


Shakespeare’s Words

An exceptional achievement of Shakespeare is his use of language.  Wilson and Goldfarb call our attention to the fact that “entire volumes are filled with quotations from Shakespeare, and innumerable phrases used in everyday speech (including some we are not even aware of) come from his plays.  Moreover, not only the sense of the words and their imagery and rhythm are impressive, but also their sound. The speeches, after all, were written to be spoken onstage, and to be heard by audiences. This aural aspect of Shakespeare’s language was described by George Bernard Shaw as ‘word music’” (Wilson and Goldfarb165).

In their valuable analysis of the play, Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, the editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Updated Edition of Romeo and Juliet, observe that “some of the playwright’s words are strange not because of the ‘static’ introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare uses to build a dramatic world that has its own space and time.  Romeo and Juliet, for example, builds, in its opening scenes, a location that is characterized by specific customs and conflicts.  The play creates this sense of place through references to ‘civil blood,’ to maskers, to Lammastide, to bucklers, clubs, bills, and partisans.”  The editors add that “Romeo and Juliet introduces us to a poetic language by means of which its characters shape the world.  This is the language of love poetry (spread throughout Europe in the sonnets of fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch), which we hear in references to ‘Dian’s wit,’ to Aurora, to Petrarch himself, to ‘Cupid’s arrow,’ and ‘love’s weak childish bow.’  These ‘local’ references create the Verona that Juliet, Romeo, Mercutio, and their fellows and guardians inhabit” (Mowat and Werstine, eds. Romeo and Juliet, Updated Edition, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2011, xviii)


Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic.  Two distinct kinds of wordplay are worth mentioning in examining this play, namely, puns and metaphors.  A pun is a play on words that have more than one meaning.  Mowat and Werstine indicate that “Puns are so important in this play that a section of one very crucial scene is built around very serious punning as Juliet, on the surface, expresses anger that Romeo has killed her cousin, while, with the same words, she expresses her grief at being separated from Romeo:

Juliet:  God pardon him.  I do with all my heart,

And yet no man like he doth grieve my heart.

Lady Capulet: That is because the traitor murderer lives.

Juliet:  Ay, madam, from the reach of these my hands.

Would none but I might venge my cousin’s death?

(Act 3. Scene 5. Lines 87-91)

In these lines, the word grieve, for example, is heard by her mother as meaning “incense with anger,” but it also means “afflict with longing”; the word reach is heard by her mother as meaning “grasp,” but it also means “touch.”  In all of Shakespeare’s plays, but especially in Romeo and Juliet, one must stay alert to the sounds of words and to the possibility of double meanings” (Mowat and Werstine xxiii).

The editors add that: “A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it is said to share common features.  For instance, when Romeo sees Juliet through her window and asks, “what light through yonder window breaks?” (Act 2. Scene 2. Line 2), he begins a series of metaphors in which he tries to put into words how Juliet looks to him—like the sun, like stars, like a winged messenger of heaven.  In Romeo’s metaphors of Juliet-as-saint and Juliet-as-light, he uses metaphors from the poetic tradition that attempt to express the overpowering feelings that come with being in love” (Mowat and Werstine xxiv).


About the Play

Mowat and Werstine also comment on the world that Shakespeare creates in this play, namely, “a world of violence and generational conflict in which two young people fall in love and die because of that love,” wherein “the story is rather extraordinary in that the normal problems faced by young lovers are here so very large.”  They add: “In this violent, death-filled world, the movement of the story from love at first sight to the union of the lovers in death seems almost inevitable,” indicating that “what is so striking about this play is that despite its extraordinary setting (one perhaps reflecting Elizabethan attitudes about hot-blooded Italians), it has become the quintessential story of young love.  Because most young lovers feel that they have to overcome giant obstacles in order to be together, because they feel that they would rather die than be kept apart, and especially because the language that Shakespeare gives his young lovers is so exquisite, allowing them to say to each other just what we would all say to a lover if we only knew how, it is easy to respond to this play as if it were about all young lovers rather than about a particular couple in a very unusual world.  (When the play was rewritten in the seventeenth century  as The History and Fall of Caius Marius, the violent setting became that of a particularly discordant period in classical Rome; when Leonard Bernstein and his collaborators [Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim] rewrote the play as West Side Story, they chose the violent world of New York street gangs.)” (Mowat and Werstine xiii-xvi)


The Elizabethan Stage

As Mowat and Werstine observe, “How Shakespeare produced the works that dominate the cultures of much of the world four hundred years after his death is one of life’s mysteries—and one that will continue to tease our imaginations as we continue to delight in his plays and poems” (xxxvii).

Possibly the greatest difference between dramatic performances during the time of Shakespeare and ours was that in Shakespeare’s England the roles of women were played by boys.. There were no women in the acting companies.

In attempting to understand play production during the time of Shakespeare analyzing performance through a feminist perspective may shed some light on theatrical practice of the time as well as how we may view Shakespearean production today.

In Feminism and Theatre, Sue-Ellen Case provides some of the earliest commentary by a theatre scholar on the subject of feminism and women on the stage. As Case writes, “From a feminist perspective, initial observations about the history of theatre noted the absence of women within the theatrical tradition. Within theatre practice, the clearest illustration of the division between fictional and actual ‘woman’ is in the tradition of the all-male stage.  ‘Woman’ was played by male actors in drag, while real women were banned from the stage” (Case 5-7).

Case adds that: “Boys, by virtue of their age, were cast in a social role similar to that of women—dependent on an inferior to the adult male.   Women could be represented by boys on stage because they share their social attributes.  Shakespeare played upon this Elizabethan cultural practice by foregrounding the practice of cross-gender casting in dramatic scenes of love and desire—situations his period defined as crucial to gender” (Case 22).

Case also notes that: “Unlike the Greek audience, Shakespeare’s certainly included women as well as men.”. In her examination of women in classical theatre, she views Shakespeare’s stage as “one in which the central anxieties and codes of the period concerning sexuality and the female gender were acted out.”  However, while women were invisible on the Elizabethan stage, the close of the theatres by the Puritans soon led to boys no longer representing women, and when the theatres reopened in the Restoration between 1660 and 1700, women were allowed to play the female roles.  In fact, bawdy comedies and narratives of lust began to dominate the theatres” (Case 26).


A Brief Production History

The Dates of First Performance and Publication.  Rene Weis, in his commentary in the Arden Shakespeare edition of Romeo and Juliet, tells us that “Edmond Malone trusted the title-page of the 1597 First Quarto of the play  (Q1), which announced that this play had often been ‘played publicly by the right Honourable the L. of Hunsdon his Servants’.  Q1 puts the writing and first performances of the play in a relatively narrow window between 22 July 1596 and 14 April 1597, because that was the only period during which Shakespeare’s company was named after Hunsdon.  Before that they had been the Lord Chamberlain’s Men,” and became again in 1597.  There is a “tantalizing clue about the date of the play, one which would seem to link a line of dialogue to a real-life event,” occurring when Nurse claims that Juliet was weaned ‘since the earthquake now eleven years’” (Act 1. Scene 3. Line 24). Weir also refers to a “thought-provoking essay by Julia Kristeva,” the acclaimed feminist theorist and literary critic, in which Kristeva wonders whether the death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, may not have been the catalyst for the play: “‘I might also advance the hypothesis . . . that Hamnet’s death triggered within Shakespeare the nostalgia for a couple that would have been in love.’ Kristeva detects in Romeo and Juliet an ‘idyllic tinge’ that turns it into a ‘dirge for the son’s death’ so that the play becomes the ‘father’s gift to the son’s tomb” (Weis 33-34, 37).

Sources.  Whether or not Shakespeare was familiar with any of the Italian and french sources of the love story between Romeo and Juliet of the time, Weir specifies that he would have almost certainly read the story of ‘Rhomeo and Julietta’ from William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1567), and above all he based his play on Arthur Brooke’s Tragical History of Romeo and Juliet, a poem of 3,020 lines written in 1562. One critic views Brooke as “a ‘serious-minded Protestant moralist’ who after extolling the ‘glorious triumph of the continent man upon the lusts of wanton flesh’,” affirms that Brooke “is writing his poem with a view of improving humankind morally “(Weis 45-46).

Performing Love.  The production history of Romeo and Juliet is extraordinary.  The many adaptations of the play in a wide range of genres across language and cultural barriers is unlike any other (Weis 52).  In 1819 William Hazlitt wrote in his preface for a theatrical edition of the play, ‘Of all Shakespeare’s plays, this is perhaps the one that is acted, if not the oftenest, with more pleasure to the spectator.’  The first ever production of a Shakespeare play in America was an amateur performance of Romeo and Juliet in New York in 1730.  Between 1750 and 1800 the play was performed on the London some 400 times, making it the most popular play of Shakespeare’s during that time, largely due to the popularity of David Garrick and Spranger Barry who continued to star in the role of Romeo for many years.  As Weis writes, “by common consent, the most successful Romeo of the nineteenth-century theatre was Charlotte Cushman, an American female actor who played Romeo to her sister Susan’s Juliet at the Haymarket Theatre London, in December 1845.  She had begun her runs as Romeo in America in 1837.  Women appearing in men’s dress, in what were known as breeches roles, may not seem provocative to a modern audience, but once women were allowed on stage during the Restoration in England, women on stage were strongly appealing to the men in the audience. Seeing a woman’s figure outlined in tight trousers, and getting a good idea of the shape of her legs—which were usually hidden under wide skirts—had a strong sexual fascination (Wilson 244).  While Cushman was an acclaimed female actor as reviews show, undoubtedly this added attraction to her performance garnered great appeal.  In 1869 Edwin Booth, the famous Shakespearean actor on the American stage and brother of John Willes Booth, chose Romeo and Juliet to open his magnificent new theatre in New York, playing Romeo at the age of 36 to Mary McVicker, whom he would marry that same year (Weis 60)

The play soon broadened to other genres, with Charles Gounod’s 1867 opera followed by Tchaikovsky’s 1870 symphonic poem and the 1935 ballet by Sergei Prokofiev.  John Madden’s film Shakespeare in Love (1998) aligns the life of the playwright with the story of the play, with Joseph Fiennes, an appealing Will Shakespeare, and Gwyneth Paltrow, the lovely Viola de Lesseps, doubling as Romeo and Juliet.  The screenplay brilliantly showcases fantasy and takes its place in the pantheon of films and productions inspired by the play (Weis 53). Within our own time, Romeo and Juliet continues to appear on the Broadway stage as well as on regional stages and other venues.  One recurring success can be found in the masterly musical adaptation of the play that first premiered in 1957 as West Side Story and is now being revived on Broadway with a premiere date of February 2020, and a much-anticipated new film adaptation of the original play, under the direction of Steven Spielberg, is set to premiere in December 2020.




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