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Romeo and Juliet: A Story of Shakespearean Love or Modern Day Hate?

Posted by on Monday, March 13, 2017 in 1010 blog posts, Blog posts.

 

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet remains one of the famous playwright’s most popular works, retaining an enduring influence of the life of modern day Americans. Few of the students entering Neely Auditorium at Vanderbilt University on Saturday, February 25 to enjoy the Actors from the London Stage’s production of the show were unfamiliar with this tragic tale of star-crossed lovers. Required reading in high school English classes, poorly performed community productions, the catchy—though inaccurate—music of Taylor Swift, and popular modern renditions of the story, including Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, have kept “the greatest love story of all time” in the minds and hearts of people across the world since Shakespeare originally penned the play in 1595.

As I sat in Neely Auditorium, perusing the program with my mother, I found myself questioning the impact of this four hundred year old play. What was it about this particular play that continuously brought people together for hundreds of years? My mother and I both walked into the show with different expectations and experiences. My mom is familiar with the play through modern day references and high school study, as most Americans likely are. While she does not necessarily enjoy or understand Shakespeare, she has always been supportive of my love of theatre and willingly joined me at Neely Auditorium during her weekend trip to Nashville. My relationship with Romeo and Juliet began in high school, when I studied the play in depth during my freshman English class. Senior year, my high school theatre department gave me the opportunity to perform in a production of Romeo and Juliet was a member of the ensemble and the apothecary. Despite my small roles, exploring the nuances of the play with the rest of the cast still helped me develop a better understanding of Shakespeare’s most famous work. I suspect that many of the other people in the audience have had similar experiences with Romeo and Juliet in the past. While many likely attended the performance due to a class obligation, all had a prior connection to the story, regardless of whether or not they loved it as I did.

Romeo and Juliet is constantly misunderstood. While it is often referred to as the greatest love story of all time, to the modern audience, it does not seem to be a love story at all. Many have spoken to the sheer ridiculous nature of the plot. Two teenagers, aged thirteen and eighteen years old, meet at a dance, fall in love, and get married. Through the course of their supposed “love story,” six characters are killed. Tybalt, Mercutio, Paris, Lady Montague, Romeo, and Juliet’s deaths are all the direct result of the relationship between Romeo and Juliet, though many of the characters are not even aware that it exists. The plot does not ring true to modern audiences today, and can easily feel foreign. As Susannah Clapp explained in her critique of a recent London production, “…it [the production] can easily go wrong. The plot is slapdash; the coincidences preposterous; the main characters not interestingly conflicted, just doomed. The play must be ardently spoken and bewitchingly choreographed. If not, it ends up looking less like a tragedy and more like an accident” (Clapp, 2016). Unlike the production seen by Ms. Clapp, The Actors from the London Stage succeeded in bringing this play to life for a modern audience. As most good productions of Romeo and Juliet do, the actors did not focus on the so-called “love” of these two young teenagers. They instead focused on the hate of the Capulets and Montagues and the devastating consequences brought about by this prejudice.

Crisis caused by prejudice and hate has been a part of society since the beginning of time, and continues to this day. Currently, America is in a state of political turmoil. As our country is further divided across political lines, more and more people enter into a state of hatred. Stepping across the aisle, once an important aspect of negotiation and successful politics, has turned into government shut downs, aggressive tweets, and political commentary by sources such as Tomi Lahren and Trevor Noah. Facebook and other social media websites, as well as news networks such as FOX News and CNN enable people to participate in confirmation bias, reading only the news they find especially important, while ignoring alternate points of view. All of this has bred an atmosphere of hatred and a fear of the other. Democrats consistently defriend Republican friends on Facebook, refusing to spend time with certain family members during major holidays. Republicans shout for the deportation of “illegal” immigrants and criticize young, liberal college students as “special snowflakes,” while ignoring their own fears and biases. I have watched as friends have condemned new friendships the minute they discovered one’s political affiliations. It is difficult to see an end to the political crisis facing our country if we continue to function on hate, rather than mutual love and understanding.

How does the state of modern politics relate to Romeo and Juliet? Replace Capulet with Democrat and Montague with Republican, or Capulet with Christian and Montague with Muslim, and the story feels eerily familiar. Romeo and Juliet continues to thrive because our world is constantly overrun by hate, leading to violence and tragic death. Even the innocent, pure love of Romeo and Juliet is unable to exist in such a world. “Romeo and Juliet is a picture of love and its pitiable fate in a world whose atmosphere is too sharp for this, the tenderest blossom of human life (Bates, 1906).” Romeo and Juliet is not a warning against spontaneous young love, but against the hate of their elders, which ultimately leads to their destruction.

The Actors from the London Stage were able to bring the modern, timeless feel of the play to light through the simplicity of the production. Only one day after the closing of Vanderbilt University Theatre’s Gnit, Neely Auditorium was transformed from a whimsical Scandinavian village to a simple black box theatre. The five actors were able to portray the many characters of Romeo and Juliet with simple switches of costume pieces, rather than donning the heavy skirts and make-up of traditional Shakespearean wear. Modern music replaced the string quartets that were likely used during Shakespeare’s time. All of these elements contributed to the timeless feel of the play. Rather than placing us into Shakespearean time, the show’s setting is non-descript. The Actors from the London Stage are certainly not the first company to place Shakespeare into a new time. Even if one were to only examine productions of Romeo and Juliet, it is easy to see other modern productions of the show. Baz Luhrmann’s movie, Romeo + Juliet, takes the play to modern day Las Vegas, where swords are replaced with guns and Romeo is played by a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Though the dialogue remains the same, the change in setting transforms the story for viewers. Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story similarly places Romeo and Juliet on the streets of modern New York. Unlike Luhrmann, Sondheim changes the script, adding songs and new plot points. However, the basic story remains the same. The Actors from the London Stage differed from these two great productions in the aforementioned timeless quality of their production. The audience cannot tell whether or not the play is meant to take place in sixteenth century England or twenty-first century America. The timeless quality of the production reflects the timeless quality of the play itself. Insert Romeo and Juliet into any time period, and the message still rings true: hate, when allowed to exist and prosper, can destroy even the greatest love.

Romeo and Juliet is a play that will continue to be performed for years to come. The Actors from the London Stage will continue to tour with this production, exposing college campuses across America to one of Shakespeare’s greatest works. Ultimately, it is a play that needs to be seen and discussed by all people, to recognize the hatred inside of all of us. Recognizing our own prejudice and hate is the first step in turning our backs from the culture of hate that continues to thrive in society today, something we need now more than ever.

 

References:

Clapp, S. (2016). Romeo and Juliet review: Branagh’s star-crossed lovers fail to soar. The Observer. From https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/may/29/romeo-and-juliet-garrick-branagh-review-lily-james-james-madden

Bates, A. (Ed.). (1906). The Drama: Its History, Literature, and Influence on Civilization, 6-13. London: Historical Publishing Company. From http://www.theatrehistory.com/british/romeoandjuliet001.html

 


4 Comments on “Romeo and Juliet: A Story of Shakespearean Love or Modern Day Hate?”

I agree with you that Actors from the London Stage’s Romeo and Juliet is very much relevant to today’s audience. Through production elements like costumes, Actors from the London Stage ingeniously reveals the resemblance between Romeo and Juliet and today’s political climate. In your post, you discuss how the simplicity of costumes reduces the play’s remoteness for the audience. I would further argue that the design of costumes actually reflects today’s divisive political environment. I am especially intrigued by how a simple flip of the hat means that an actor is switching from a character in the Capulet family to one in the Montague family. Capulet and Montague can only be differentiated through the hat. This reflects how much similarities Capulet and Montague share. If we look at today’s political situation, Republicans and Democrats are so occupied with fighting each other that they neglect the amount of common ground they share. In the end, the parties share myriad belief, such as a commitment to more prosperous economy and a more affordable health care system. Capulet and Montague’s blinding hatred against each other gives a warning to today’s political parties: there is a need to shift attention from differences to similarities. In addition to the costumes, the production also features a group dance, where all actors and actresses create a beat by clapping hands, stomping or dabbing boots. On one hand, such a modern form of dance appeals to the audience’s taste. On the other hand, seeing actors harmoniously dancing together informs the audience of a life when conflicts are resolved. In today’s society, I agree that Romeo and Juliet is less about romantic love but more about deep-seated hatred between groups. By subtly portraying the conflict between the two families, Actors from the London Stage alludes to today’s divisive political environment and poses a challenge to the audience: how could we go about ameliorating the sense of grudge between Republicans and Democrats and promote collaboration?

Tianhan Liu on March 16th, 2017 at 10:38 pm

Both Sarah and Tianhan brought up interesting points about the use of props and stage in this particular production of Romeo and Juliet. In my opinion, the Actors from the London Stage did a phenomenal job in transitioning between characters and locations in a matter of seconds. The black box set up and simple costumes offered a minimalistic approach to this classic tale. In many productions of Romeo and Juliet (at least the ones I’ve seen before), the story is aided with elaborate scenery and attire. However, in this performance, the lack of both pointed the audience’s attention elsewhere. The minimal distraction by the physical aspects of the show allowed each viewer to focus on the grander themes and questions offered in the dialogue and the relationships between the characters. As both authors mentioned, the present staging of Romeo and Juliet seems to be a commentary on the current political atmosphere of American government. In fact, the Actors from the London Stage came all the way “across the pond” to perform here, in America. However, then the question must be asked: why Vanderbilt? Why of all places did this theatre company decide to make a stop in Tennessee to perform in front of a group of uninterested college students? Why is it important that Romeo and Juliet make its appearance at Vandy now? There are many potential explanations worth exploring, but perhaps it is a criticism of our own binary atmosphere. In so many aspects, our campus is divided, be it in racial, religious, or sexual spheres. Romeo and Juliet serves as the perfect outlet for Vanderbilt students to reflect on ways in which hatred is displayed here on campus. Where is the divide present in our everyday, university lives?

Erin Montgomery on March 21st, 2017 at 11:13 am

Sarah I loved your insight into the plot of the play and you unique perspective and personal connection that you have from having performed in the play. I think that brought a unique aspect of analysis to your criticism. I found the analysis of current events by both Sarah and Tianhan very interesting as well. I certainly agree that Romeo and Juliet directly mirrors the way political parties align themselves staunchly against one another for seemingly no apparent reason. I think that Shakespeare wrote this as an intentional metaphor and a warning to his audiences–a warning that far too few have heeded since his death. He told a story of “two houses both alike in dignity,” two families that shared many things, like social status, wealth, possibly even beliefs. But they disagreed for some reason that it is not clear any of them even remember. It has gotten to the point that they simply hate each other because that is what they think they are supposed to do. This is something that I have seen a lot recently in American politics, especially from the Republican party, though both parties are guilty of this offense. Bipartisan collaboration seems to be a thing of the past since the Republican party has made themselves the enemy of the Democratic party rather than an ally that disagrees on certain points. It seems like anything any democrat suggests must be wrong simply because they were the one who said it, no one is thinking freely anymore. That is one of the themes that Shakespeare was hinting at in Romeo and Juliet, that we are prone to becoming blind to our true desires and will sometimes just follow those around us, even if it is more destructive for both parties in the end. It took the deaths of two young, star-crossed lovers to bring the families together and make them see that they really aren’t that different, and things will be better if they work together.

Stephen Robinson on March 21st, 2017 at 3:25 pm

After reading everyone’s comments, I understand that this production emphasizes the dangers of the intense hatred between the families. But I still have a lingering question: what does Romeo and Juliet’s love affair mean for the audience? They seem to represent the desire to connect, to bridge the gap between both the polarized families in the play and the polarized factions within our society. However, the families’ hatred for each other dooms the possibility of a happily-ever-after connection. Indeed, the play is very pessimistic that a clean connection between the families can happen. Perhaps we can view Romeo and Juliet’s relationship, then, as a tragic but necessary sacrifice for the families to be able see the senselessness of their hatred. Thus, the only hope that the play gives is for a bittersweet future, in which innocent and well-meaning lovers need to die for meaningful change to happen. The performance ends with both families by picking up the flowers that border the stage and placing them on the dead bodies of Romeo and Juliet – an act of reconciliation between the families and of memorializing the lovers for their sacrifice. Who are Romeo and Juliet in our divided society? Hopefully, their fates are less tragic than the play suggests they will be.

Scott Szewczyk on March 21st, 2017 at 10:13 pm

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