How Juliet became a badass when I wasn’t paying attention

Ben McFadden as the Nurse, Carolyn Marie Monroe as Juliet and Damian Peterson as Romeo in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 2011 touring production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by John Ulman.

Ben McFadden as the Nurse, Carolyn Marie Monroe as Juliet and Damian Peterson as Romeo in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 2011 touring production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo by John Ulman.

I have a (not so secret) confession to make: I love Shakespeare. I love the drama, the language, the costumes. I love discovering new things every time I see a production. I especially like seeing Shakespeare in a theatre, and getting to share that experience with others.

Recently, I had the chance to take a group of my students to see Seattle Shakespeare Company‘s touring production of Romeo and Juliet. This production is deigned for young audiences, often as their introduction to the world of Shakespeare on stage.  It clocks in at a crisp 90 minutes with 6 actors playing all the roles. This is achieved through some judicious cutting and some wildly clever double casting.

This is at the very least an hour shorter and maybe 1/3 the cast of a usual production. Double casting is common for productions of Shakespeare, because there are multiple characters who appear for few lines in a single scene. These tiny roles would have been double cast in Shakespeare’s day, and regularly are now, but this goes way beyond that.

In this production, many scenes and characters are cut. Some of these cuts are necessitated by both the double casting and by the time constraints. If the same actor plays the Nurse and Mercutio, clearly the scene in which Mercutio sasses the Nurse in the square is out. And if the actor playing Paris is already in the sepulchre as Romeo’s page, he cannot die there as Paris, so those cuts are easy.

However, some of the double casting sheds new light on the text itself. A particularly strong choice is having Tybalt and Friar Lawrence played by the same actor, literally embodying both war and peace.  We see neither Lord nor Lady Montague, so Benvolio is all of Romeo’s family in this production. Lady Capulet likewise is both mother and father to Juliet and gets some magnificent moments.  

Something of particular interest to me that emerges out of all this double casting and streamlining of the text is a very strong Juliet. I’ve often thought of Juliet as sort of the original ingenue (well, maybe that honor goes to Iphigenia or Helen, but Juliet is certainly up there). Juliet is sometimes more of a cipher than an independent or interesting character. Romeo and Juliet are the archetype of young star-crossed lovers. They’ve become a symbol, something we evoke when we want a kind of dramatic short hand, but we don’t see them as discrete characters. Juliet is the girl on the balcony, another face that launches the proverbial thousand ships.

And here is the problem with love at first sight: it is based on the superficial. Romeo (and the audience) falls in love with Juliet based on her face, the way she dances, how prettily she places her hand on her cheek and sighs. What do you remember about Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet? That she is lovely and achingly young and sweet and nothing else?  This production’s Juliet is a firecracker, not content to be  just a pretty face. Maybe Juliet’s strength has always been there, and eliminating some of the chaff just makes it easier to see.

Juliet, even more so than Romeo, is fundamentally a child. She’s not even 14 at the beginning of the play, yet she knows her mind, her faith, and her boundaries. Romeo begins the wooing, but Juliet takes control by the end of their second meeting. She tells him from her balcony that she is not in this thing to mess around. She’ll marry him, but she will not be a flirt. Romeo, who up until this night has been in love with another girl, Rosalind (who’s taken a vow of chastity) jumps into this new relationship full force. While this kind of suddenness is alarming to a modern audience, in Shakespeare’s day arranged marriages were the norm and people in love matches would probably have know each other exactly as well as our Romeo and Juliet do at this point. So, not at all.

In secret, Juliet marries her Romeo and consummates her relationship. Even more importantly, she gets to be a virtuous woman who enjoys sex, which is kind of a big deal.  When Romeo’s sense of honor and then revenge gets him exiled, Juliet takes action. When her mother decrees that she can marry Paris or be turned out on the street, Juliet’s nurse and confidant suggests that she can take the easy way out and marry Paris as her first marriage is secret.  But Juliet refuses to do this, deciding that she would in fact rather die than break with her faith and dishonor the vows she and Romeo made before God with Friar Lawrence.  Juliet more than anyone is guided by a very particular set of morals, guided by her faith. Even Friar Lawrence, an actual man of god, plays fast and loose with things, while Juliet remains steadfast.

Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris is pretty huge in the context of a woman’s experience in her time. Women did not get to make their own choices, and were entirely dependent on the men in their lives for survival. So for Juliet to defy her family’s wishes is fairly likely to end with her dying in a gutter; it is not a course to be taken lightly. For modern teenagers, going against your parents wishes is a regular Tuesday. For Juliet, its a huge show of strength and moral fiber.

And in the end (as we all know how this ends) when Romeo poisons himself, Juliet takes the brave, painful death, “O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die.” (Romeo and Juliet V, iii, 169-170). Interestingly, Juliet’s escape plan only fails where it relies on men: Friar Lawrence and Romeo. Juliet has agency. She is in a terrible position with not a lot of options available to her, but she decides what she can and cannot accept, and makes her life happen accordingly. I think somehow amidst a pile of flashier characters, like aggressive Tybalt, lovelorn Romeo, and wordsmith Mercutio, Juliet’s quiet faithfulness and steadiness gets overshadowed. Throughout the play Romeo and Juliet act in counterpoint to each other. Romeo acts rashly. He is fickle in love, he brawls in the town square, he repeatedly puts himself in danger in enemy territory, and even impulsively kills Tybalt to revenge Mercutio, when the law would do this for him. Juliet’s bravery is quieter, but also more steadfast. While she might not be one wielding a sword in the town square, she is in her own way quite the force to be reckoned with.

There are as many ways to interpret this play as there are productions of it. To a certain extent, I think that trying to attach any 21st-century morality to it is super problematic. But we are teaching it and performing it in schools, and that leads to the need to do some meaning making with it. Ultimately our teenagers can benefit from seeing the different ways a young woman can be brave and strong, and this Juliet encapsulates them beautifully.

Sometimes even something that you think you know the shape of can surprise you, and that was the case for me with this production. And what a pleasant surprise this Juliet was. So “go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days.

Production information:

Director: Kelly Kitchens

Romeo: Conner Nedderson
Juliet: Anastasia Higham
Mercutio/Nurse: Noah Greene
Benvolio/Paris: Brandon Felker
Lady Capulet: Nikki Vissel
Tybalt/Friar: Trevor Marston

Set: Craig Wollam
Fight Choreographer: Casey Brown

 

Charlotte can always be counted on to giggle at all of the dick jokes in Shakespeare.

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