Wednesday, June 21, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare: Introduction and Romeo and Juliet

Let’s start a new series!

I have two podcasts, but I’ve been tempted to start a third, because I’ve wanted to do a watch-through podcast for the BBC Complete Works of Shakespeare that aired from 1978 to 1985, possibly with a Shakespeare scholar of my acquaintance. But ultimately, I decided that three podcasts is just too many, and I would really be using the podcast as an excuse to watch all of them myself, but I need no such excuse. So, I figured, why not just watch them all and write a blog post about each one?

These plays are long (they’re mostly full text, so almost three hours each) so it’ll take much more than 37 days to get through these 37 days. The current plan is to post episodes every Monday, Wednesday or Friday unless I have something else to post like a podcast episode, in which case I’ll post only two Shakespeare write-ups that week.

So starting today, and continuing for the next several weeks, I’ll examine the complete works of Shakespeare, how the BBC did adapting them, and what writers can learn from them.

Note: I had a hard time deciding in what order to do the plays. Nobody knows for sure what order the plays were written but there are several guesses. Ultimately I decided to do them in the order the BBC presented them, figuring that wiser heads at the Beeb should be trusted to have chosen a lively order. Besides, that way the history plays would be in chronological sequence (but spread out over the course of the series), and I certainly didn’t want to begin this series with Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3, which may have been Shakespeare’s first three plays. So let’s begin with the series’ first season premiere: Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet, first broadcast December 3rd, 1978
  • Possibly written: 1594-1595. Scholar E. K. Chambers puts it 10th in his chronology of the plays.
  • What’s it about? Two teenagers from rival families fall in love, which leads to the death of six people, including each other.
  • Most famous dialogue: Too many to count! Let’s go with “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
  • Source: Based on an Italian tale written by Matteo Bandello and translated into verse as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562, then retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567.
  • Interesting fact about the play: It’s a myth that the balcony was a later addition to the play. Shakespeare himself included no description of how to stage the scene, of course (he never did), but in Shakespeare’s sources, Romeo was climbing up to Juliet’s window, and it would have made sense to replicate that on the stage. The word balcony was coined after Shakespeare’s death, but he was probably picturing something similar to how it’s currently staged.
  • Best insult: Juliet’s dad says to her, “Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage! You tallow-face!”
  • Best word: Behooffull
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I saw an all-black production in Marcus Garvey park in Harlem that was excellent.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Alan Rickman as Tybalt, John Gielgud as chorus (just a brief cameo), Anthony Andrews (Brideshead Revisited) as Mercutio
How’s the cast?
  • The only way to play it is to have both Romeo and Juliet be almost comically overwrought in their emotions, but the stars sell their emotions admirably and keep us rooting for them, even as we lament their foolishness. Patrick Ryecart as Romeo looks and sometimes acts like a British Michael Cera, so it’s as if Scott Pilgrim turned a little more bloodthirsty. Rebecca Saire as Juliet is really fourteen (in the play the character is on the eve of her fourteenth birthday) and looks it, which shuts down any attempt to sexualize the character and makes it clear what a tragedy this is, caused by the fact that everybody wants to sexualize this young girl, and then she gets wrapped up in that herself. Andrews is great as always and Rickman is already going full Snape at this very young age.
How’s the direction by Alan Rakoff?
  • I thought it was an excellent introduction to the series. It would have been nice to haul the cast over to Italy for some actual outdoor shooting, but this is the Beeb, so it’s all shot indoors in London. But there’s a variety of good-but-minimalist sets that “open up” the material and give a sense of Verona as a full city. The occasionally-mobile video camera keeps it from feeling too stagy. This is one of Shakespeare’s most emotional plays, and those fiery emotions are not smothered by the BBC classiness.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Have Them Have Another Plan That Gets Upset By the New Opportunity

We’ll start with a tip that made it into my latest book: Romeo doesn’t go to the party looking for a new girl, he goes to win his old girlfriend back. Scenes are always stronger if one or both of the scene partners have something else they’re rather be doing, then get wrenched in a new direction by the events of this scene. We prefer heroes who want something passionately to those who are aimless or passive, even if they want the wrong things and we can see they want it for all the wrong reasons.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Heroes Should Be Volatile

We want volatile heroes. In actor David Garrick’s 18th century staging of the play, he took out Rosaline because including her made Romeo look fickle and reckless. But that’s the whole point. Romeo isn’t in love with Rosaline or Juliet, he’s just in love with love itself, or rather the thrill of obsession. One can only imagine how quickly he would have thrown over Juliet if he had actually attained her for a longer period of time, probably staying with her just long enough to leave her pregnant before losing interest. His volatile mania, which dangerously resonates with Juliet’s violent rejection of her forced betrothal to Paris, is the heart of the play.

I like the play even though I find neither hero nor heroine remotely sympathetic. Instead, I find them compelling as anti-heroes, Bonnie and Clyde-type psychopaths that are thrilling to watch as they self-destruct and cause the deaths of many around them. The most sympathy I felt in the play was for Juliet’s family when they find her supposedly dead in the morning after she takes poison to simulate death. The cruelty of subjecting her family to that in pursuit of a dude is chilling. Romeo and Juliet are both bad news.

Okay, folks, that’s Day 1! Let me know what you think and come back in two days for Richard II!


Hans Meyer said...

Yes! I’m so excited for this series! I don’t think I’ve seen any of the BBC productions in question, so I’m very interested to hear your take. I would expect BBC in those days to produce very stuffy, stilted Shakespeare, but from your write-up it seems so far so good. Keep ‘em coming! Also, hot tip: the Henry VI plays are rip-roaring, at least on the page.

Matt Bird said...

Hans Meyer! You show up at the oddest times in my life! So glad you're excited for the series. I should have pointed out before now that anyone who wants to watch along with me can see all the productions by subscribing to BritBox: https://www.britbox.com/us/list/30813. One of the reasons I'm doing this is to see all the Shakespeare I haven't seen (16 of the 37 plays) and the Henry VI plays are top of that list, given that I know all of the other histories. I just didn't want to start with a three-parter.