Audience Responses to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and Lope de Vega's "Castelvines y Monteses"


In his noted book The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate concludes his review of the current interest of his preferred author by wondering whether there might be any challenger worthy of comparison to the great Elizabethan, and concludes that there is only one of sufficient standing: Shakespeare's Spanish contemporary, Lope de Vega. Usually such comparisons seem arbitrary, because there is no basic continuity of context or content justifying critical juxtaposition, but Lope (1562-1635) was a contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616) and wrote similar plays for popular audiences performed in theatres like that surviving in Almagro, which are almost identical in configuration to such Elizabethan theatres as the Fortune. Moreover, the aesthetics of the two oeuvres have much in common, and their practices and capacities can the better be identified and contrasted in that, once at least, they dealt with the same story, with similar characters and setting, treating the theme we know in English under the title of Romeo and Juliet, which Lope de Vega staged as Castelvines y Monteses.

Of the popularity of Shakespeare's version there can be no question, not only in its own guise as a script (exceeded in hits on our website about Shakespearean performance by only two others: A Midsummer Night's Dream, in many ways the author's own commentary on sentimental tragedy; and King Lear). Its influence reverberates in other media, as in Zeffirelli's film, scarcely replaced as an object of adoration to youthful admirers by more recent versions, not to mention such analogues as the musical, West Side Story. By contrast Lope's version is relatively neglected (though available to English readers in two current translations, one by Cynthia Rodriguez-Badendyck, and the other by Dakin Matthews). A reading was staged by Cynthia Rodriguez-Badendyck in 1996 at Unison Arts & Learning Center in New Paltz, New York (repeated a year later), and it has recently been performed outdoors (directed by Heather Davies) at the Dell, Stratford-on-Avon, by the Capitol Centre, as part of the fringe activities to the RSC Complete Works season in 2006; but it has hardly achieved lasting public recognition despite Susan Fischer's essay listed above. So the triumph of Shakespeare on this ground seems total.

Nevertheless, there appear to be recurrent doubts about the Shakespeare play, outlined by Frank Kermode in opening his introduction to the Riverside edition:

Romeo and Juliet, though it has always enjoyed popular esteem, has not often been ranked by professional critics with the tragic masterpieces that followed it. A certain unease about the dramatist's intention, some suspicion that, in the early moments of the play at any rate, he lacks that rhetorical control which marks his great period, and—above all—a conviction that he offends against his own criteria for tragedy by allowing mere chance to determine the destiny of the hero and heroine—all these have conspired to limit the critical prestige of Romeo and Juliet. It has been admired for its pathetic rather than its tragic power.
(Riverside, 1055)

This critical judgment ignores the most important aspect of the play—the question of its overall success in performance. I once had the pleasure of working with the California Shakespeare Festival at Visalia in a season of two plays performed on two versions of the same set: a glowing Medieval version for the Verona of Romeo and Juliet and a dilapidated modern version for a Padua of the Mussolini era for The Taming of the Shrew. There was no doubt which of the two plays was more successful: after performing Romeo and Juliet the actors were utterly depressed to the point of insomnia, partly because of the poor audience reaction to its end. By contrast, after Taming the same cast happily left behind delighted audiences. The participants' negative reaction to Romeo and Juliet receives some justification in Kent Cartwright's comments in Shakespearan Tragedy and its Double: "The ending provides no emotional recognition of the lovers' grandness or their tragedy; indeed, neither their historian nor even Romeo and Juliet themselves have comprehended it fully. . . . Most disturbing, Romeo never 'recognizes' Juliet, either her tragic stature or the alternative comic ending for which she stands. Nor does the play's closure illuminate that darkness. The ending leaves the spectator, walking out of the theater, with the nagging suspicion that the characters have concluded the narrative but missed the point" (87). Such censure of Romeo encouraged me to explore my own students' reaction to the play, which proved to be close to pathological in that some females confessed when younger to having met regularly to play over the videotape of Zeffirelli's film in order to precipitate self-indulgent floods of weeping, like Romeo "with his own tears made drunk" (3.3.83). In his introduction to the play, David Bevington explains this obsessional kind of momentary high emotion: "The beauty of a love that is so threatened and fragile is intensified by the brevity of the experience. A tragic outcome therefore affirms the uniqueness and pristine quality of youthful ecstasy" (Complete Works, 977). Yet when we staged the play ourselves at UC Berkeley the cast, like that in Visalia, became so frustrated with the script that Romeo's suicidal tirades were treated with extreme contempt: in one performance our Nurse (actually a professional nurse) contemptuously kicked her fellow actor playing Romeo when he was groveling on the ground in Friar Laurence's cell after killing Tybalt.

Such observations encouraged me to review the play's factual plot content, as compared to the emotional aura created by its characters' sentimental attitudes about fatality. After all, even Aristotle asserted that plot surpasses character in tragic significance, and many modern actors still give precedence to telling a factual story, despite stress on characters' subjective feelings in modern Method acting. After objectively studying the play's action, I decided to try a little experiment on my large Shakespeare lecture course, which usually required some challenges to hold their attention, so I sprang the following indictment upon them without warning:


I will begin by rehearsing the details of a classic case with whose circumstances you are all familiar because it remains a very current one in popular interest. I am referring to a well-known young man of prominent family who got a girlfriend into such serious trouble that her death and his own mother's resulted. Let me stress that he had in fact a prior binding commitment to another woman before switching to his victim. Also there are other painful details that should be rehearsed. As a result of naïve and clumsy intervention in a frivolous brawl this same young man precipitated the killing of one of his own best friends, and then hastily took revenge on the murderer without recourse to law and due process, in specific violation of a government edict. At the same time as all this, he was secretly seducing a fourteen-year-old girl; but he abandoned her shortly thereafter to become an outlaw, took up the purchase of illegal drugs (which ultimately occasioned his own death) and finally, while caught in the act of desecrating a tomb, murdered another excellent young man who had properly sought to apprehend him in the execution of an assault on private property verging on sacrilege, not to say necrophilia. Inevitably, he then committed suicide, setting a bad example to the inexperienced girl whom he had seduced, which she incontinently followed. I calculate that this wild youth was directly or indirectly responsible for six deaths and untold suffering to all those who sought to befriend him: one well-meaning cleric who tried to reform him was even arrested and blamed for the young reprobate's misconduct. And yet, members of the jury, I must regretfully remind you that this same serial murderer is praised by many in this country of ours; held up to you and your children by actors, film directors, nay by teachers and professors everywhere as charismatic and even to be emulated. Nay, our very writers and composers evoke him as the model for Western love stories: not to be a victim of his hideous fate is to be damned as prosaic—for survival implies mediocrity. Is it therefore surprising that violence, extremism, drug addiction, and suicidal emotionalism have raged like a plague across our land, leaving behind exhausted survivors of a new, emotional Black Death? Can we seriously doubt that such a dreadful career as this could have been recapitulated by any serious author with an intention other than that of presenting a shocking example of talent and idealism fearfully misused, memorably revealing that "lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds"? I trust, but I am by no means sure, that you have recognized the accused to be no other than Romeo.

The results were astonishing (at least in Berkeley before the late sixties): there was something like an uprising in the classroom and the campus was so scandalized that my department head called me in to explain the campus-wide disturbance which I had precipitated. Moreover, the notoriety spread nationwide and I found myself denounced by Richard Levin in New Readings of Elizabethan Drama because he could not imagine a serious scholar could sink to such iconoclasm, even tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, many of the erstwhile female empathizers with Romeo's misery confessed they now repudiated their adolescent sentimental indulgence in Romeo-fixation. Perhaps it is fair to say that this cathartic outcome is nearer to Shakespeare's intention than the misreading of the text as an endorsement of the morbid feelings of the immature lovers, which Shakespeare makes initially vivid but only with the ultimate intention of inviting their purgation. However, he has shown the fascination of the addiction too well for many to repudiate it, despite the Friar's warning:

Thy wit, that ornament to shape and love,
Misshapen in the conduct of them both,
Like powder in a silly soldier's flask,
Is set alight by thine own ignorance,
And thou dismemb'red by thine own defence.

Ultimate endorsement of such less sympathetic views by many of my students may be more fully explained by my subsequent more balanced lectures on the topic of suicidal passion, which generally opened with a few newspaper clippings of recent death-pacts by youthful lovers, followed by a citation from Euripides, in which the Chorus in his Hippolytus repudiates sexual obsession in dealing with the morbid sexuality of Phaedra. These precedents were reinforced by allusion to Denis de Rougement's Love in the Western World, which shows how deadly high passion can be. Its fatality can be further reinforced by the ideal love celebrated by Plato and explored by Anders Nygren's definitions in Eros and Agape. Nygren censures the temptation by the Platonic eros to flight from the material world to one of inhumane perfection (as in the supposed suicide of Empedocles), which is reversed in agape's rueful reconciliation to human fallibility, as professed in the New Testament. The fear of youthful, self-destructive sentimentality is all too explicit in Shakespeare's source, Brooke's Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, but the dramatist is wise enough to avoid choric didacticism. He leaves the point latent in the ambivalent imagery of the play so regrettably misdescribed by Caroline Spurgeon, who fails to see how the play's imagery of light and fire coordinates with such destructive forces as lightning and explosions:

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.

Romeo's death-wish in the face of harsh reality is evident from early on in the relationship, when he admits to Friar Laurence that attainment of perfection is fatal:

Come what sorrow can,
It cannot countervail the exchange of joy
That one short minute gives me in her sight:
Do thou but close our hands with holy words,
Then love-devouring death do what he dare;
It is enough I may but call her mine.

Even on his first glimpse of Juliet he decides she is too good to live:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.

And Juliet shares the suicidal drives of such passion: "My grave is like to be my wedding bed" (1.5.135). She is well aware of its murderous potentiality, fearing the risk for Romeo that "I should kill thee with much cherishing" (2.2.183). It is scarcely surprising that Romeo is finally happy to kill himself:

How often when men are at their point of death
Have they been merry, which their keepers call
A lightning before death.

The theatrical problem with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is that, after the death of Mercutio, it ceases to temper the attractions of passion with humor—or, put less brutally, the later parts of the script are unrelieved by changes of tone allowing our detachment from the characters' self-indulgent negative feelings. The later scenes become a monotonous series of lamentations, diversified only by misguided confrontations, what David Bevington calls "a welter of mistakes and animosities" (979). The few moderately successful versions of the play which I have seen on stage deal with this tedium in the only possible way, if the audience and performers are not to be made uneasy and miserable as at Visalia: by cutting the later scenes drastically, so that the violence of the duel almost alone holds attention, until the final resolution of the feud offers some consolation to the weary participants. However, such is the modern negative temper of the intelligentsia that when I worked with one director at Ashland during the Vietnam war, he cut the families' final cathartic reconciliation, saying that American audiences did not deserve such a positive experience and must be made to leave the theatre in a thoroughly distressed state. He was later fired by another company I worked with, who perceived the dangers of this kind of grim moralism.

This is not to say that the lyric soliloquies of the late scenes cannot be read with interest on the printed page, but they are too protracted on stage to meet the audience criteria of constant variety and suspense specified by Lope de Vega in The New Art of Writing Plays. This failure in diversity invites us to see how Lope manages to meet these specifications more successfully in dealing with the plot. For one thing he writes more economically: many of Shakespeare's scripts are sufficiently prolix for them almost never to be performed in full. By contrast, Lope starts the action just before the ball, making the Monteses' incursion the occasion for establishing its risks in their debate about whether it is wise to intrude on their enemies' gathering. The motives are dexterously mixed: the youths' desire to flirt with pretty women, their delight in provocative misbehavior while in disguise, but also a desire to undercut the power of the feud to inhibit civilized behavior. Roselo appears immediately as an agreeably lively young man with some understanding of both the risks and potentialities of their escapade:

Very well then. It's widely known that heaven has portioned out two things to these two factions: to ours, to the house of Montés, it has given valiant men, men of as high reputation as any in history; and to the Castelvins women of such beauty, as if nature had plundered heaven for the mold of the seraphim. I think if these two houses were joined in marriage, and the violent excesses of their hatred were to be put by, all Italy would have reason to envy the men of Verona.

This speech attributes to Roselo a positive appreciation of the possibilities of their intrusion (unlike Romeo's negativism)—a termination of the feud, which is attributed to Friar Laurence alone by Shakespeare. Lope's audience is encouraged from the start to be aware of a happy option for the resolution of the plot, even though Roselo does ominously savor the risks: "Dangers in the tasting stimulate the appetite" (135).

Lope's ball scene itself is akin to Shakespeare's (though there is certainly no direct relationship between the scripts). Romeo is recognized by Teobaldo, now the brother of Julia's father, Antonio, whom he unexpectedly urges to take a positive view of Roselo's rash abandonment of his disguise, which Teobaldo sees as "a simple and noble directness. He is young, and being young, he's without the enmity that is the nature of his breed" (193-6). He warns Antonio not to "cry havoc and revive the feud again" just because Roselo has come to flirt with "some pretty lovebirds" (216). Unfortunately, as with Romeo, passion reverses Roselo's positive state of mind. On seeing Julia he describes her as "my death" (224) and exclaims "Let me gaze upon that celestial angel, and let whatever ill they have in mind befall me. For it is necessary to forfeit life on earth for a man to enter heaven" (233-9). The fatal potentiality of this attitude is clearly marked.

At this point Lope creates a scene worthy of Shakespeare at his most ingenious; two Monteses, Roselo and his friend Anselmo, approach two Castelvin girl cousins: Julia and her cousin Dorotea (daughter of Teobaldo), who are both attracted to the two Monteses, even while Dorotea's brother is trying to court Julia. Roselo excuses himself for his tactless intrusion by accusing Julia:

Yet, lady, you must pardon me; you are yourself to blame, and to absolve your fault you cannot then blame me. It was your rare beauty, from you, my boldness was born. That beauty beckoned me with a light divine and pure, and like a moth I came to circle near the fire. . . . Your blazing heaven burns me, and to die beside you is sweeter to me, more precious than to live in the lonely cold.

The ominous imagery is worthy of Shakespeare's Romeo, but Julia cleverly handles the tricky situation resulting from the rival Otavio's resentful presence, by what has become a notorious stage example of female duplicity: while seeming to address gracious remarks to Otavio she ensures by secretly holding Roselo's hand that he understands that her flirtation is really directed at him. Vaughan Jacob (who played Roselo for Heather Davies) admitted he found this scene incredibly difficult: "Roselo has to convince Julia of his sincere love and not be seen by the person she is talking to, Otavio." The solution adopted in this production was that each of the lovers pretended to be talking to someone else while flirting with each other, resulting in hilarious effects in the bewilderment of the two other, deceived participants in the conversation. Otavio observes: "I have the curious sense that I hear my answers echoed" (436-7). If Roselo initiates the dialogue, it is the psychological ingenuity of Julia that sustains it, and even allows the lovers openly to plan a rendezvous. Thus Julia begins to emerge as the dominant and effective figure in the relationship (like the Rosalind of As You Like It) in a way Shakespeare's Juliet does not, with consequently divergent outcomes. Julia tells her maid: "I've made myself the gallant, I wooed so boldly" (482-3). However, the tragic complication is that both of Julia's lovers now believe they have a commitment.

As the situation develops Lope diversifies the sentimental tone as does Shakespeare in his early scenes by introducing two comic supporting characters analogous to Shakespeare's Mercutio and the Nurse: Roselo's corrupt and cowardly servant Marin, and Julia's cynical maid, Celia, her youthful confidant. Both tease their superiors: Celia says of Julia's passion for Roselo: "Forget him. Your kinsmen would sooner give you in marriage to a Moor than him" (549-50); but then confesses she has fallen for Marin and will connive at the secret affair. Similarly, Marin counsels Roselo that "The best time to treat an illness is in the early stages" (773-4) but professes willingness to help in Julia's seduction: "You know me for a rash, bold man; I shall meet death at your side." The garden scene which follows shares the effects of Shakespeare's balcony scene: Romeo is extravagant, "love is most industrious in what is impossible" (994-5), while Julia affects to be skeptical: "Stop now and please don't say 'my Julia' quite so much. I'm afraid you may have the effect on me you wish to have" (964-5). She echoes Juliet almost word for word when she finally admonishes Roselo: "Don't swear; a man who swears is not to be believed" (1006-7). The redeeming feature of this relatively brief scene is that one of the key factors sealing the love affair is the possibility that it might end the family feud, a recurring positive motif in the early scenes shared by both lovers. It is with the argument against causing further strife that Roselo forces "the honest curate Aurelio" (138) to marry the lovers, not the cleric's own motive to achieve a resolution. This goal enhances our respect for Roselo.

With its use of octosyllabic lines Lope's play is consistently brisker than Shakespeare's pentameter blank verse, and it has only two intervals making three not five acts. Its second act begins abruptly with report of a quarrel between the families' women in the local church over the moving of kneeling cushions. The discourtesy to his family infuriates Teobaldo, paradoxically, since it was he who had previously counseled pacifism to his brother over Roselo's intrusion at the party. Teobaldo compulsively orders his son Otavio to revenge the slight, which he does by violently provoking his reluctant rival Roselo to a fight in which Otavio is killed. The situation is less complex in Lope's play than in Shakespeare's script, which shows Tybalt's killing of the marginal figure of Mercutio first, thus provoking his own doom at the hands of Romeo; but the effect is equally tragic. However, while Julia is caught nominally between two loyalties, she never hesitates to defend her husband (understandably, after many nights of covert marital bliss), by lying that she was present at the duel and saw Roselo's need for self-defence. This testimony ensures a penalty limited to exile, more for Roselo's safety than as a punishment, since Teobaldo vows revenge for his son's death at any price: "I shall die if I cannot revenge this pain" (2.508). This he maintains despite his daughter Dorotea's rejection of such a penalty for her brother's death.

Roselo's secret parting from Julia shares much of Romeo's extravagance: "if your cousin means more than your husband to you, then come. Don't keep both our factions suspended—take this dagger and pierce this breast" (583-6). However, Lope refuses to allow the audience to take this rhetoric seriously, by parodying it immediately with the protestations of the cowardly Marin, who concedes that Celia is free to kill herself if she rejects him. Celia responds in Falstaffian vein, saying she prefers him alive, well-knowing that such "Cowards are discreet" (2.631) and adding: "If you had been brave and valiant, you could have been killed in this brawl, and I'd get no joy of you then" (2.623-5). At no point are we allowed to dwell on Roselo's suicidal protestations.

In Lope's script the issue of Julia's threatened marriage to Paris begins more or less as in Shakespeare, but there is a drastic diminution in the tensions of the relation of Paris to Roselo, who meet in friendly fashion on the road to Ferrara, until Paris is notified by letter of her father's renewal of the abandoned commitment of Paris to marry Julia. Despite this, Paris maintains his friendship for Roselo, but Roselo, in a reversal reminiscent of Romeo's repudiation of Rosaline, denounces Julia's supposed fickleness with a bitterness matching Shakespeare's Posthumus repudiating Imogen for her reported betrayal of him with Iachimo in Cymbeline. Roselo decides to take the revenge proposed to him by Marin of marrying a Ferrarese lady, Silvia. This totally reverses the effect of the sympathy that we have for the tragic misapprehension of Romeo that Juliet has died.

Up to this point the lovers' intensity has been regularly undercut by Lope's use of the continued comic presence of Marin and Celia. Both Julia and Juliet accept the need for evasion of the forced bigamy by risking death. However, while Juliet nervously trusts Friar Laurence when he says that the soporific drug he offers her should not prove fatal, Julia and the audience receive no such promise of the safety of her sedative from its creator Aurelio (at least, not in the surviving text, which is somewhat damaged at this point). This uncertainty adds greatly to the suspense at the start of the second act. We cannot be certain how this confusion will be resolved, bearing in mind that the plot has already accommodated the death of Otavio. Lope follows this intense scene of Julia's loss of consciousness with one devoted to Roselo's obtuse courtship of his new mistress, Silvia. This is an act of revenge as a result of his hearing about the plan of Julia's family to secure her marriage to Paris, which he takes as proof of her betrayal of him. His volatility at this point diminishes his charm, and his behavior is further complicated by his refusal to blame Paris. His misunderstanding is only terminated by misleading news of Julia's supposed death, but his distress is immediately corrected by further information from Aurelio about his drug's merely temporary effect. Back in Verona, Antonio unexpectedly decides that, having lost his own daughter Julia, he will ensure his family's continuity by marrying his niece Dorotea. This new complication is distanced by the scene of Julia's awakening in the tomb, which begins by closely resembling Juliet's earlier apprehensions, but concludes with the timely arrival of a repentant Roselo. He is accompanied by a grotesquely apprehensive Marin, whose fear of the surrounding corpses undercuts the romantic mood, and it is further diminished by the lovers' practical decision to run away to a country retreat. Significantly, this crypt scene was the favorite of the actor playing Roselo in the Dell Theatre production: he found the situation "in which a determined Roselo and a reluctant Marin seek out a confused Julia is really funny. In rehearsal it was a bore: for some reason we could not get the right balance between tension and comedy, and I think we were trying too hard: as soon as the comedy is artificial it ceases to be funny. When we came to perform it in the open air, however, it was one of the most consistently satisfying scenes to act, and the audience seemed to enjoy it." The comments stress how challenging and effective the blend of intensity and comedy can be, and that the audience response teaches the actors how to achieve the playwright's intentions in presenting this synthesis.

Lope asserts that it is crucial to hold the audience's attention until the very last moment to prevent them slipping away, and in this play he certainly does so with the remaining sequence of reversals of the most startling kind. Crucially, Julia achieves another stroke of virtuosity by appearing to her father as a ghost and forcing him to accept the fact of her marriage to Roselo, so that he will be reconciled with him and the Monteses. This decision is fortunate as Roselo has been captured by her uncle Teobaldo, who now regrets the bitterness which sent his son Otavio to his death by attacking the Castelvines in the person of Roselo. Teobaldo now advises his brother to be merciful to Roselo. Antonio is so committed to this course of action after Julia's haunting that he abandons his own plans to marry his niece Dorotea and insists that Roselo seal the peace by marrying Dorotea in place of the supposedly dead Julia. This new marriage proposal provokes the hitherto concealed Julia to intervention as her live self, and the play ends with her also ensuring that Dorotea shall marry Roselo's friend Anselmo to whom she was first attracted at the party which the Castelvines gallants crashed at the start of the play. So all the complications are fully resolved in the last thirty lines of the play.

According to its editor and translator, Lope's version is a "rejection of the eroticising of death" (48) and any preference for Lope's more upbeat version of the story is confirmed by the historical fact that Shakespeare's tragic ending has been challenged by its modification in many early productions: even Garrick tried to soften the isolated deaths of Romeo and Juliet, and Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby describes a Victorian production with Lope's kind of happier ending, with Tybalt alone left unresuscitated, as staged in the RSC's staged version of the novel. David Bevington elucidates this tendency when he judges that "Romeo and Juliet is, in some ways, more closely comparable to Shakespeare's romantic comedies and early writings . . . in the lyric vein of the sonnets, A Midsummer Night's Dream" (976). In the latter Shakespeare himself ridicules the delight in amatory tragedy by turning the previous archetype of romantic suicides, Ovid's tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, into a farce. It is also true that the device of a stressed heroine's feigned death recurs in such later Shakespearean comedies as Much Ado and All's Well, not to mention Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale—all of which approximate to Lope's specifications and practice in the popular genre of tragicomedy. In Castelvines y Monteses, Lope matches Shakespeare's preferred types of comedic characters recurring in the earlier scenes of Romeo and Juliet. Lope's cynical servant Marin resembles Bertram's untrustworthy associate Parolles in All's Well. Lope's "affectionate but ever sensible Celia" (18) has much in common with Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice and Maria in Twelfth Night. The extravagances of Romeo closely match those of the erratic young lovers in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labour's Lost—all meeting the specifications of Lope for such erratic amorists in The New Art of Writing Plays, to which Roselo's volatility also corresponds.

It may seem that, by treating Romeo and Juliet as at least potentially a tragicomedy (as Douglas Bruster already has; see Bibliography above), one forces an aberrant interpretation on it against the grain of the text, but the attempt to stress its comic elements is validated by current theatrical experience. For example, in Shakespearean Tragedy and Its Double Kent Cartwright decides "the carnivalesque of Romeo and Juliet will never quite go away. It strews like seeds the potential of Garrick's ending and James Howard's tragicomic version. The possibility of a set of meanings radically different from those of the play's official fatalists persists through all the action: in Sampson and Gregory's bravado, Mercutio's laughter, the musicians' banter, Juliet's heroism" (87). As for stage corroboration, Kate Kellaway's review of the current RSC Romeo and Juliet production, directed by Neil Bartlett, at the Theatre Royal, Brighton (The Guardian, London, October 26, 2008) includes the following observation:

There is, on the face of it, no reason why Romeo and Juliet should not start as debonair comedy. Each joke (and there are so many) is allowed its share of the limelight. But here, in this witty, comradely, jazzy atmosphere, lines are often delivered in haste, as if improvised. They pass in a blur. The approach to the text is insouciantly pedestrian, and the romance—the sense that love is a matter of life and death—is reduced. . . . What emerges most successfully continues to be the comic side, the sheer garrulity of the characters: Mercutio (played with bravado and charm by Gyuri Sarossy) is an irresistible talker. Friar Laurence—old witchdoctor that he is—is full of gas too (an entertaining James Clyde). And Julie Legrand's captivating, oddball Nurse (more chic than usual) is the most chronic chatterbox of the lot, driven by compulsive reminiscences.

The critic's conclusion about the lovers themselves is significant: "This version emphasizes their inexperience: they are touchingly green. David Dawson's Romeo is fervently gauche—more schoolboy than tragic hero." As a result "I never believed in their love as extraordinary or devastating: it seems no more than a series of childish trysts. At its weakest there is a potential buffoonery to the relationship. And their poison swigging verges on charade." Not surprisingly this production "takes death easily into its stylish stride." Such balanced effects perfectly match the mixed feelings aroused by tragicomedy.

Equally current and corroborative of the popularity of the Lope de Vega reading of the plot is the new London production of Prokoviev's ballet of Romeo and Juliet by the Mark Morris Dance Group, based on the original lost version, as described by Luke Jennings:

Prokoviev survived to see the ballet's eventual premiere in Leningrad in 1940, but by then both production and music had been substantially reworked by other hands. . . . In 2003, however, a Princeton professor of music named Simon Morrison uncovered both in a Moscow Archive, and approached Morris with a view to a staging. The original treatment, they discovered, had been configured along strictly "proletarian" lines. Shakespeare's tale had been given a happy ending, with the lovers escaping Verona's repressive, patriarchal society for a joyful Arcadia.
(London Observer, November 9, 2008)

Even for this critic doubtful about the production as a whole, the result is "an unforgettable final scene, as the two lovers circle each other in an ocean of stars. More Ovid than Shakespeare, perhaps, but beautiful." Perhaps we can see "proletarian" as the modern version of "popular."

As we have seen by comparison with these various versions, after four successful, largely comedic acts, Romeo and Juliet almost inevitably turns into something of an aberration in its ultimate failure to distance us from the negative feelings of the romantic characters, a distancing which the script established at the start. For Kermode argues that on Romeo's first appearance "in no sense are we led to think that this young man is worth our sympathy, for his first speeches are full of self-regarding conceits and affectation" (1056) as even Juliet detects: "You kiss by the book" (1.5.110). As late as his hysterical responses to the sentence of exile (3.3), Romeo must seem pathetically erratic to us, as is confirmed by the reactions of both the Nurse and the Friar. But, uncharacteristically, this kind of Shakespearean correction of a subjective perspective entirely disappears in the fifth act when Romeo is planning suicide, or is actually killing Paris and himself. We can now only feel instinctive unease, because we know that Romeo's extravagant feelings are based on the false premise of Juliet's death, so that we cannot empathize with them. This dramatic irony induces only frustration.

Moreover, in Shakespeare's conclusion, there is no self-discovery by the lovers, only by the citizenry of Verona, whose tragedy approximates to that of Lope's Teobaldo: "The resolution of the Spanish play demands that Teobaldo be reconciled with his son's murderer, give his daughter in marriage to the murderer's friend and kinsman, accept that his brother's child (but not his own) has been miraculously returned, and—most terribly—accept the finality of Otavio's death and his own culpability" (32). This "discovery" seems far more enlightening than Shakespeare's "glooming peace" (5.3.305) which completes a woeful story more pathetic than tragic. When my students asked me what the difference is between the idea of the tragic and the term "pathetic" so frequently applied to this play, I argued that tragic discovery illuminates our awareness of human complexity (as in Teobaldo's case), but pathos is simply when a brick falls on a kitten, which is rather what we see when Romeo's hectic temperament impinges on the consciousness of an immature Juliet. We are merely saddened, but we do not feel illuminated, just as the audiences and actors certainly were not in Visalia.

Shakespeare may have created a more stressful play by the time of its conclusion, but Lope's is the more affirmative and enjoyable one: "The essence of tragicomedia, as Lope illustrates it here, is that the comedic ending is earned by passage through tragedy and beyond it" (41), as in Dante's Divine Comedy. It is true that Romeo and Juliet offers a civic resolution to the feud, but this conclusion still leaves most audiences rather depressed by the failure of the lovers to achieve any positive awareness or personal resolution. In Shakespeare's own word, the end is "glooming." Another critic from the Italian Renaissance, Castelvetro, may have the last word on the discrepancy between the play's positive support by readers and its frequently negative impact in the theatre: "Plots that are terrible because they end unhappily (if it appears the spirits of the spectators abhor them) can serve for closet dramas, those that end happily [are] for the stage" (256). If Castelvetro is to be believed, and my female students also felt this, the best experience of Romeo and Juliet may well be the seductive misery of running the Zeffirelli DVD of it while reposing securely at home.


Bevington, David, ed. 2008. William Shakespeare: Complete Works. New York: Longman.

Cartwright, Kent. 1991. Shakespearean Tragedy and Its Double: The Rhythms of Audience Response. University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press.

De Rougemont, Denis. 1963. Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press.

Nygren, Anders. 1932. Agape and Eros, trans. A. G. Hebert. London.

Rodriguez-Badendyck, Cynthia, ed. and trans. 1997. Castelvins and Monteses, by Lope de Vega. Carleon Renaissance Plays in Translation 30. Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions.

Related Play: 

Please offer comments and suggestions on any aspects the site to: Director Hugh Richmond at See samples at the site Blog.

Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond.