And like a symptom of some chronic disease, R and J seems to erupt every few decades. In fact, late twentieth-century manifestations of Romeo-and-Julietism often took the form of the "terminal illness narrative." If you're near my age, you might remember all those deathbed romances of the seventies, of which Love Story was the most famous. Most of these were in made-for-TV movie form, but they all involved a socially mismatched couple, a grand passion, a slow, tearful dying. I would include the lacrimal bromance Brian's Song in this group.
Frankly, that sounds nightmarish to me--but I suspect I'm in the minority.
Before Zeffirelli's game-changing film, Romeo and Juliet were nearly always played by actors who were too old for the parts. These days, we no longer tolerate middle-aged adolescents onstage. Although we're willing to admit that gender is a slippery category--all-male and all-female casts continue to perform the play--we aren't willing to allow for the same "suspension of disbelief" around the question of age. I find this really interesting. It seems paradoxical, doesn't it? I mean, how many times have I heard that "40 is the new 30," or "50 is the new 35," or some utter nonsense like that? "You're as young as you feel," women's magazines insist. Or maybe as young as you dress--if middle-aged Hollywood types are any indication. So why can't a great-looking 40-something woman play Juliet? Why can't youth be "acted" as gender is?
I'm leaving that as an open question--but I also submit for your consideration the case of Charlotte Cushman, acknowledged as one of the great tragic actresses of the mid-nineteenth century. She was also, famously, a lesbian, and a woman who played Romeo--with her sister Susan as Juliet--to rave reviews. That's Charlotte as Romeo on the right, and Charlotte and Susan on the left. This whole idea of a middle-aged woman playing a teenage boy, with her own sister as his grand passion, violates so many of our taboos and assumptions about "acceptable fictions" that it's hard to know where to even start deconstructing it.
Here's my reductive take on this "paradox of theatricality": today, we've moved the theater into the private sphere--we're the actors. While we believe ourselves to be capable of infinite masquerade and reinvention, we've decided that our fictions--our cinematic and theatrical myths/fantasies--must conform to some rigid standard of "realism." Ergo, I can get cosmetic surgery and pretend I'm 30, but I'm not going to pay to see a 40-something lesbian Romeo. Well, actually, I would pay to see that, if she were really good. But I suspect I'd be part of a very small audience.
Which is too bad, really.
And now, as Chaucer put it, I'm going to knytte up al thys feeste and make an ende.
Let's take one last look at Act 5, and see what Prince Escalus, the ineffectual Fearless Leader of Verona, has to say about the pile of dead bodies, the fugitive friar, and all the rest. In its closing moments, the story moves from the claustrophobic intimacy of the crypt back out into the public realm. Even without CNN or Twitter, the people of Verona already know there's tabloidish news involving the city's young celebs at the Capulet tomb. The Capulets and Montagues come to find out what all the uproar is about:
Capulet: What should it be that is so shrieked abroad?
Capulet's Wife: O, the people in the street cry "Romeo,"
Some "Juliet," and some "Paris," and all run
With open outcry toward our monument.
The watchman informs the Prince that Paris, Romeo, and Juliet all lie inside, "warm, and new killed." Capulet gets a glimpse of his daughter, and expresses horror--although not without some irony:
O heavens! O wife, look how our daughter bleeds!
This dagger hath mista'en, for lo, his house
Is empty on the back of Montague
And it mis-sheathed in my daughter's bosom.
Since Capulet was himself responsible for some metaphoric "mis-sheathing"--i.e. the forced marriage between Juliet and Paris--we have to see this choice of words as a bit of black comedy. Even here, the play still maintains some generic ambivalence. Lady Montague, we learn, has died of grief--because of her son's exile, not his death. This makes sense when we remember how important social standing is to the two families--an exiled son might as well be a dead one.
The Prince vows to get to the bottom of it all, and calls upon Friar Laurence, who's been found "with instruments...fit to open these dead men's tombs." Laurence is forced to tell the tale
both to impeach and purge
Myself condemned, and myself excused.
After all the facts are revealed, The Prince gets his final say--although if he'd kept better order in Verona to begin with, most of the dying could probably have been avoided. Law and order, that's what this play needs! A recall election! More police on the streets! Yep, that's what the papers would say the next day, if this improbable scenario ever occurred in real time.
The Prince realizes he's dropped the ball, too. Here's his famous condemnation of the warring families:
Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague,
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joy with love.
And I, for winking at your discords, too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.
If you'll remember, both the Zeffirelli and the Luhrmann films make a lot of that final line--"all are punish-ed." It is important, because it moves the tragedy into the social sphere--the play may have mythologized the private space of romance, but its moralizing is to be shared by everyone. That's essential to tragedy, really--that the audience feel both included and implicated in what's transpired. Pity and fear, as Aristotle said.
Capulet: O brother Montague, give me thy hand.
This is my daughter's jointure, for no more
Can I demand.
Montague: But I can give thee more,
For I will raise her statue in pure gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.
Capulet: As rich shall Romeo's by his lady's lie,
Poor sacrifices for our enmity.
At first, Capulet seems to understand what's required. Your hand is all I'll ask from you as my daughter's marriage portion, he says--but then Montague starts the whole thing going again, with his talk of gold monuments. We're meant to remember Romeo's anti-gold speech to the apothecary here--gold is a symbol of all the misplaced values that led Romeo and Juliet to reject their parents' world in the first place. So basically, no one has learned anything here--except, presumably, the audience.
In the end, the real monument is the play itself:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
In a world without vampires or elixirs of youth, stories--plays, poems, novels, personal memoirs--are the only form of immortality allowed us. At least on this ephemeral plane of existence. As a cultural monument, Romeo and Juliet has proved to be more enduring than even Will could have predicted.
So that's about it. I've pretty much exhausted all I have to say about this play. Finally. It's a new year, and time for new things. I've enjoyed writing this blog the last few months--I've learned a lot, and I think it's kept my mind from getting all cobwebby, which can happen after a certain age, for sure. I want to thank all my readers and commenters--everyone who's put up with my long-windedness and idle musings. It's been fun for me--I hope at least some of you found it interesting as well. Have a great 2010.