When Parker first told me we were doing “Romeo and Juliet,” I’ll admit, I wasn’t too excited. It had been my first Shakespeare play with him in high school, I had studied it in English class, seen countless film adaptations, and several live performances. All of these were, at best, bearable learning experiences and, at worst, completely intolerable. Suffice it to say, this was my least-favorite Shakespeare play, and, in my opinion, the most overrated, over-produced, and cliché of the Bard’s works.
Huzzah, I thought, the “greatest love story ever:” a boy who is constantly in and out of unrequited lust with various girls like a stereotypical Elizabethan sonneteer, and then falls in love at first sight with a thirteen year old. They meet, they marry, and they die, all within the context of a textbook Mimetic crisis. Not only is that bad enough, but then modern pop culture makes Romeo and Juliet’s five-day love story out to be the most perfect in history. Why must my last Summer Shakespeare production be this one?!
Yeah, I wasn’t excited. In fact, there was definitely some self-pitying going on.
Then Parker told me we were going to set it in the Victorian Era. I was surprised and intrigued by the challenge–could we make it work? We’d never tried this before!–but, I still remained skeptical about the choice of play.
Nevertheless, I trust Parker, so I knew that whatever he was planning, it would probably be better than what I was currently imagining.
So when I walked into his office on the Sunday evening before class began, the last thing I expected was to leave believing in our production.
You see, Parker told me about something that American Players Theatre actor David Daniel said to him: “Romeo and Juliet” isn’t a love story–it’s a hate story.
As Parker explained to me how this had changed his own perspective on the play, I realized that I had never truly thought about the famous tale in those terms. I had only ever taken popular culture’s opinion. I had disliked the story with this interpretation, but I had assumed that it was the only option.
Parker gave me a whole new way to see the play. It was alright to reject Romeo and Juliet as the ultimate couple because Shakespeare meant for their relationship to be problematic; it isn’t the focus of the story. The point is the poisonous power of enmity to destroy love, rather than the other way around. It is a cautionary tale, rather than a celebration of “love conquers all.” The latter interpretation–the popular one–fails because it does not take into account that human sacrifice was the thing that brought reconciliation (which the play hints will not last). Young love is not the winner here, but instead the blood price of their families’ hatred.
I used to think “Romeo and Juliet” was a tragedy because of the simple, idiotic mistakes of miscommunication which brought about their deaths–that the catastrophe could have easily been avoided. It is, in fact, a tragedy because it shows how hatred inevitably erodes all good things until innocent blood is the only thing that will break the destructive cycle.
Once again, Parker has convinced me that William Shakespeare is the best storyteller in English history.
Of course, none of that would matter if the cast did not embrace the idea.
But, thankfully, they did.
By reexamining these legendary characters–and sometimes even openly rejecting common interpretations–our students made the play honest again.
I know this because, after every performance, the overwhelming opinion of the audience (whether they were familiar with the play or not) was:
“I’ve never understood this play–or even Shakespeare–before! I’ve never cared about these characters! Thank you!”
We hear similar sentiments from a few audience members every summer, but this came from nearly everyone who I talked to. Considering that we had a nearly full house for four of our five performances (most years, we average half of the house per performance), this was not just the family and friends of students who attended, but members of the community as well.
Hearing the pleased surprise in people’s remarks fully convinced me. Because of the vision for the play that Parker had instilled into the cast from the very first day, our students comprehended the play and its complex characters more deeply than they had when reading it in their freshman CA classes.
And because the actors understood the story they were telling, so did the audience.