April is a fabulous month for all sorts of reasons: the sun is brighter, the temperature is higher, the flowers are blooming… And this month has a lot to do with Shakespeare. If you haven’t already noticed, we at the ‘Notes are big fans of the Bard, and April gives us even more excuses to talk about him than usual. Not only was our main man born on April 26th (1564), but he died on April 23rd (1616)—that’s two days this month that we get to think all about Shakespeare! And if that isn’t reason enough (and it usually is), this particular year is a special one as it marks Shakespeare’s 400th death-aversary. While the prospect of celebrating someone’s death may strike you as grim, we choose not to think of it that way and rather consider the fact that even four hundred years after his death, the modern world still looks to Shakespeare’s work both for entertainment and as a classic guide to writing, and that’s pretty astounding.
Let’s start things off with a little history…
These days, when we think of actors (and actresses, though they didn’t exist in England back then), we think of the rich and famous celebrities that grace the covers of tabloids with their gorgeous faces and lavish lifestyles. But back in Shakespeare’s day, that wasn’t quite the case. In fact, before the Elizabethan Era, actors were looked down upon as rogues and vagabonds—poor people who carried the plague. As it turned out, however, Queen Elizabeth I was a big fan of the theater, and it was her reign that began the shift of the poor player to the movie star we know and love to sometimes hate. While the Queen enjoyed the theater and watching performances, there was still risk in inviting potential rogues/plague-riddled lowlifes into her castles, and as a result, the system of “troupes” was born. These troupes were essentially owned by members of the aristocracy who would pay for travel licenses and wages.
A reasonably common question students have relates to what a “troupe” is, and, further, which one Shakespeare was a part of. Well, it turns out he was actually a member of multiple troupes and lived under the influence of multiple members of the aristocracy, despite having amassed a modest fortune of his own. Though Shakespeare went through a “lost period” from 1585 to 1592 (in other words, no one has any idea what the man was up to), he eventually emerged on the London stage thanks to his being documented as a member of a troupe managed by Lord Strange. Yep, Lord Strange.
Okay, now that we have that one out of the way, we can move on to one of Shakespeare’s most loved works, Romeo and Juliet.
Okay, so is it really fate, or are these kids a little too incorrigible?
The more romantically inclined people of this world would look at that question and shake their fists—of course Romeo and Juliet is a story about star-crossed lovers! Of course it’s fate that made them fall in love and die for one another. But while that truly may be what Shakespeare intended, these days it’s possible to read a lot more into it. (For starters, back in the day it might not have been strange for a thirteen-year-old and a sixteen-year-old to marry, but in the 21st century? No, in this age, we look at that as bad judgment on someone’s part.)
If we are to look at this play and think about it with the semi-creepy perspective that these kids were really just kids, we have to look into the possibility that there was some failure in the realm of adult supervision. And who was the adult in this situation? Well, there were a few of note: Juliet’s nurse, Romeo’s parents, Juliet’s parents, and Friar Laurence. It is arguable that the path of Romeo and Juliet’s love was carved less by fate and more by the meddling of this supposedly responsible adult.
Why did the Friar do what he did?
Friar Laurence wasn’t a bad guy; the man was dealt a difficult hand, and it seems that he made the most of what he had. Sure, he made a marriage between two (essentially) kids, but he talks to himself about how a marriage between Romeo and Juliet could serve to end the feud between their families (“For this alliance may so happy prove / To turn your households’ rancor to pure love,” Act II, Scene III).
And then, yes, he does help Juliet fake her own death. There are a lot of risks that could be associated with pretending to be dead and being sealed into a tomb, but when someone comes to you and says that they would kill themselves without your help—what are you to do? (“If you would rather kill yourself than marry Paris, then you must have the willpower to do something similar to death,” Act IV, Scene I).
Could Friar Laurence have handled this situation a little bit better? Probably, yes. But without a whole lot of time to make considerations, the Friar did what he could to keep the two happy, even if it all ended in tragedy.
Friar Laurence played his part, sure, but he did seem to believe the two were in love…
This is another tricky one: the nature of love vs. infatuation vs. lust. So much of this play is written with the interpretable aim of depicting what it feels like to be in love and how it is different for everyone. Maybe that sounds a little corny, but think about it: on the one hand, we have Romeo, who opens the play by professing love for Rosaline but only moments later is head-over-heels in love with a girl he’s just met—sounds a little fishy. Then on the other hand, there’s Juliet, whose love for Romeo appears more philosophical; she appears to fall in love with Romeo primarily for who he is as a person. So maybe, Romeo and Juliet isn’t based on the flowery image of inspirational love, but is instead meant to show the audience the true nature of love and what it means to experience it.
Whatever the reason, the two still died in the end…
Hopefully there’s no one reading this right now unfamiliar with the ending to Romeo and Juliet, because if so—major belated spoiler alert.
It’s difficult to say for sure, because as simplistic as it sounds to say “times have changed,” it is true that interpretations of this play may be completely different today than they were at the time of its writing because, really, times have changed. Back in the 16th century (and even later), it was relatively common for people to get married as young as twelve or thirteen, particularly members of the upper class. The fact that Romeo and Juliet married as young teens might not have been a matter of huge importance to the story in Shakespeare’s time, but today it really makes a difference. If these characters were in their twenties or thirties, we wouldn’t be questioning the learnedness of their decisions, but as it is, we have to ask: who was watching these kids? Even the adult figures in the story either stood aside and let the craziness unfold, or else assisted in making it happen.
So in the end, who’s really responsible for the death of Romeo and Juliet? Certainly, the two played a role in their own downfall, but if we’re to look at these characters like the kids they were, we have to wonder if there was something that could have been done to stop the madness before it started.
That’s a little heavy
Not all of the play is as dark as the death of two young and infatuated teens. In fact, Shakespeare had a habit of throwing a little humor even into the darkest of stories.
Shakespeare tends to look to the characters, rather than purely to literary devices, to create his comic relief. In Romeo and Juliet we can give particular attention to the Nurse and Mercutio as sources of amusement, primarily for the audience, but for the characters as well. Juliet’s nurse is a little bit raunchy and tends to make off-the-cuff comments that in the Elizabethan Era must have been quite scandalous, but in these days mostly are good for an “lol” or two. Mercutio is so witty that it gets him into trouble, but at least he’s a fan favorite with his puns and snarky humor.
Why is Shakespeare still such a big deal, anyway?
Shakespeare is tough; his manner of speech is difficult to follow and some elements of his plays are no longer prevalent in modern life. So why do we still spend so much time learning about him as a person and analyzing his work in class? Well, sometimes the most obvious answer is the best one: Shakespeare remains relevant four hundred years after his death because he really is that good. Not only was his work eloquent, entertaining, and beautiful, but his plays and poems managed to capture elements of human nature and the human condition more aptly and wonderfully than any other author before or since.
In addition to the inherently identifiable nature of Shakespeare’s work, his very words (i.e. of his own invention) have made their way into our day-to-day vocabulary. Given that a lot of the words on that list are incredibly common, it’s interesting to consider a world without Shakespeare—how did people describe their bedrooms without the word “bedroom”? Although, maybe in those days people didn’t really talk about their bedrooms for fear of sounding scandalous.
There have been many amazing authors and artists throughout history, but without a doubt, William Shakespeare was one of the best. He set a standard that all writers to follow would aspire to, and hopefully enjoy.