We ran a play-reading of Romeo and Juliet last Thursday. It was our first evening play-reading and that turned out not to be so good an idea. Usually we run them on a Sunday afternoon starting around 2:30pm and finishing about 4 hours later, which leaves plenty of time to chat for a bit and then go home for an evening meal. With an evening reading we couldn’t start earlier than 6:30 pm, which meant the play-reading didn’t end until 10:30 pm so conversation is cut short. So from now on, we’re going to try to stick to Saturday or Sunday afternoons.
I was pleased to land the role of Juliet, and a couple of minor roles. What an interesting character Juliet is! Of course the love scenes with Romeo are good, but I was particularly taken with her other scenes in which she reveals passion, thoughtfulness, and depth of character.
For example, in A3S2 she waits for night and her new husband Romeo to come:
Come civil night,
Thou sober-suited Matron all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Played for a pair of stainless Maidenhoods.
I had forgotten, if I ever knew, how desire and passion can enlarge the soul, perhaps particularly, as Juliet says:
… strange Love grows bold,
Think true Love acted simple modesty.
Juliet soon has to come to terms with the complications of being in love with an enemy of her family. In the same scene (A3S2), when the Nurse tells her that Romeo has killed Tybalt, her cousin, she is torn. At first she rejects Romeo ‘A damned Saint, an Honourable Villain’. But when the Nurse blames Romeo, she changes her mind:
Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?
Ah, poor my Lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I thy three-hours’ wife have mangled it.
Throughout the play, she tests herself and others: in A2S2, having just fallen in love, she says ‘I have no joy in this contract tonight; /It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden….’; in A2S6, as she marries Romeo, she gently reproves him for his extravagant rhetoric ‘Conceit more rich in matter than in words / Brags of his substance, not of ornament’; and in A4S3, preparing to drink the vial she notices of herself ‘I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins, / That almost freezes up the heat of life’. Juliet leads the examined life.
But back to her difficulties with her family. In A3S5, after saying farewell to her new husband and lover, her parents come with news that they want to marry her to Paris.But by marrying Romeo she has changed camp and left her family. At first, she hides her position by dissembling, until forced to reject Paris outright, and separating herself from her parents. And then,she is separated from her Nurse who urges her to prefer Paris – “He’s a lovely Gentleman”:
Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!
Is it more sin to wish me thus forsworn,
Or to dispraise my Lord with that same tongue
Which she hath praised him with above compare,
So many thousand times?
Rejected by her mother and unable to trust the Nurse. Juliet is left alone with only Friar Laurence to offer her support. He gives her a plan to avoid the marriage to Paris by giving her a vial which will make her appear dead for 42 hours.
In A4S3, it is time for her to drink the vial. Alone again, she reviews the possibilities: what if the potion doesn’t work? What if the Friar has given her a poison which will kill her? She thinks of the cold and frightening tomb where she plans to meet Romeo again, of the terrors of the dead and dying. Despite these fears, she has the courage, by thinking of her love, to drink the potion:
Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, here’s drink: I drink to thee.
It’s a role of passion; courage; the examined life. I loved reading it.
Does Romeo live up to Juliet? It seems to me that Romeo has passion and anger, but that Juliet is the more interesting, fully drawn, character.
The play-reading went well, though there were some difficulties:
- The First Folio doesn’t have the Prologue – ‘Two households bot alike in dignity….’ . You can make a case for saying it’s better to plunge straight into the action and fights of A1S1, but most everyone knows the Prologue, and they miss it.
- In a play-reading, some of the stage directions need to be heard: trumpets sound; knocks on doors; thunder rolls, In Romeo and Juliet, there are a couple of stage directions which are a bit difficult for a play-reading along the lines of ‘They fight’. Of course, we can call out the sounds of the fighters. It’s important to do “Ooo”s; and “Ahhh”s; etc, as the young males fighting is an important element of the play.
- One of our play-readers had problems with her technology which re-emphasised to me that it’s absolutely key that the technology has to be so easy to use that it becomes as transparent as a paper script. We’ll get there, but it will take some time.
- If the Nurse is played as a caricature, for laughs, A4S5 may become as comic as Bottom’s discovery of the dead Thisbe. In particular:
NURSE.She’s dead, deceased, she’s dead, alack the day!CAPULET WIFE.
Alack the day, she’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead..needs careful handling.
- And whilst we’re on A4S5, why is the little scene with Peter and the musicians nearly always cut? Provided the discovery of Juliet’s death has been well handled, a little bit of humour at the end of the scene provides contrast.
- Similarly, A5S3 feels far too long. When Friar Laurence said ‘I will be brief’ his player in our play-reading gave an aside of “No you won’t” and he wasn’t. Of course it was 10:30 pm-ish. It’s not the actual length of the scene, but perhaps its structure which is the problem . It’s actual length is 2,671 words in our edition, compared with the final scene in Twelfth Night of 3,372 words, and yet the last scene of Romeo and Juliet feels much longer.
Despite these few quibbles it’s a great story with some wonderful characters in it and, I think, we were well stimulated by it!
We often try to persuade you to read speeches outloud, but we’ve never given you an example of what it’s like, so hear’s a Youtube video of me reading the A4S3 soliloquy. (There’s a button in the right-hand bottom corner to make it fullscreen if you wish to see the text).
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