One of the most thumbed plays in the Bodleian’s copy of the first folio, which can now be found online, is Romeo and Juliet. But what is it about this tragedy that continues to resonate so powerfully across the centuries? Typically seen as an all consuming romance, the play concludes with the deaths of two star crossed lovers, who could see no future that involved themselves without the other by their side. It has undoubtedly cast a shadow over popular ides of romance since its first showing, with many of its key themes surviving in popular romantic culture today. From Jane Austen’s tales of confusion being righted in marriage to the appropriate person to nearly every Hollywood rom-com with it’s happily ever after.
However surely this is missing the key part, the tragedy that made this one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The multiple deaths and suicides from Romeo and Juliet seem to have fallen by the wayside with most romances now ending with the wedding itself, cutting off the flow of blood before it has even begun. If you puncture the surface of Romeo and Juliet you can see the darkness lurking beneath. Even before you get to the high mortality rate of its characters the play throws up troubling questions about the difference between Elizabethan society and our own.
Starting with the question of age. It is repeated throughout the play that Juliet will shortly be 14 when her parents think she is ready to marry, but no age is ever given for either of Juliet’s potential suitors, Paris and Romeo. It is perfectly conceivable that they were older than her, possible even in their twenties or thirties, which shines a slightly different light on our star-crossed lovers. This is rounded off by the fact that Romeo and Juliet do not actually see each other properly until they are married. When they first meet they are wearing masks, then it is by moonlight for the infamous balcony scene, and then Juliet is hidden behind a veil as they marry. However when you then consider how little time they spend with each other during the play, this is perhaps less surprising.
The only modern production that I have seen that brought the darkness to light and juxtaposed it beautifully with the central love theme was Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, performed by the Iraqi Theatre Company at the RSC last year. This version had an aging Paris as would-be suitor and although this Romeo knew his Juliet (and had certainly seen her before) the innocence is retained. They are not physically intimate, and rely on the language of passion and elevating of objects – a silken scarf that passes between them – to illustrate their feelings for each other.
Set in a background of a family feud in war-torn Baghdad, Romeo and Juliet’s delicate love story is heightened by the sharp contrast of the insecure, dangerous setting. This is further emphasized by the use of real gun shots which shook the audience out of their preconceptions and made one really aware of the danger lurking beneath if these two were to pursue their love affair. There is no elopement and suicide for this pair of star-crossed lovers, but instead a deadly bomb blast. They die together having been unable to live together, and this ending, perhaps more than most, highlights that their fate is out of their hands, that there could be no happy ever after for Romeo and Juliet.