Student Collaborators: Makenzie Mettler ‘21, Libni Rivera ‘24, Katsuto Sakogashira ‘21, Aly Tu ‘22, Alanna & Keela Daniels
As the pace of the story increases and leads inexorably to its tragic conclusion, the pace of our listening increased as well; the audio performance of Acts 4 and 5 were under an hour long taken together. The speed of events and radical tone shifts led the students to realize how important it is to understand how time works in the play, and identify how many days the story takes place over.
Libni was struck by the discordances in tone while listening to Scene 5 of Act 4, when upbeat music played underneath the discovery of Juliet’s body. Alanna interpreted this jarring juxtaposition as intentional. Shakespeare makes a point of showing us the bustling preparations for the wedding. The music, recorded to sound distanced, reminds us that no one outside Juliet’s chamber knows about the tragedy that has just taken place, and that they continue their celebratory preparations unaware.
Makenzie pointed out the entertaining exchanges between the musicians and Peter that end Act 4 as further indication that life goes on for everyone outside the immediate circle of the tragedy, and as a moment of comic relief to break up the heaviness of events. Sako wondered if the juxtaposition of lightheartedness and serious tragedy might have been less jarring for Elizabethan audiences at the Globe than it is for us- especially when we consider that the tragic conclusion to the play is forgone. In any case, what is Shakespeare trying to tell us with this closing exchange?
Another question we pondered was whether Paris’ private mourning at Juliet’s tomb seemed surprising. This sparked an energetic debate over Paris as a character. Sako was taken with a version of Paris he had seen performed that was naively well-intentioned, and how this interpretation of him increased the tragedy of his death. Libni saw Paris as demonstrably more level-headed and mature than Romeo: Paris follows protocol to woo Juliet and treats her courteously by many standards when the two encounter each other at Friar Lawrence’s cell. As Romeo’s rival for Juliet’s hand, establishing Paris’ character is critical to our perception of other characters. Our understanding of Juliet’s desperation to avoid a life with Paris and the soundness of the Nurse’s eventual advice to wed him are both colored by our perception of Paris himself.
Makenzie posed another question regarding Paris: after Romeo fights him and mortally wounds him, why does he agree to lay Paris next to Juliet? Aly pointed out that Romeo does not immediately know that it is Paris he has slain, and when he does finally recognize him he ironically seems to know very little about his rival. Furthermore, how does the presence of not only Paris’ body, but Tybalt's as well, visually impact the final minutes of the play?
Yet another question that came up was: Why the apothecary? This is far from the only example of Shakespeare introducing improbably convenient characters as a plot device (see: pirates rescuing Hamlet) but the character is not as random as it might first seem. Aly made the connection between the poison Romeo drinks and the potion Juliet uses to fake her death. Both the Friar and apothecary use their knowledge of natural medicines, one for good and one for ill. This harkens way back to our first encounter with the Friar Act 2, Scene 3, when expounds on the ability of nature to provide so many virtuous gifts, and that these gifts can also be used for vice.
The Friar is, however, not quite so easily categorized as entirely virtuous. Despite his good intentions throughout the play, he abandons Juliet in her tomb at a critical moment, and provides her with just enough time to take her own life and collapse next to Romeo. Ironically, the Friar’s goal of laying the feud between the houses of Capulet and Montague to rest is fulfilled through Romeo and Juliet’s union... just not the one he intended.
All of this, of course, might have been prevented had Romeo received Friar Lawrence’s letter explaining his plan for Juliet and Romeo to be reunited. It is eerie to read this play in 2020 and contemplate that Friar John can not deliver the letter because he is forcibly quarantined after being potentially exposed to plague. Mercutio’s parting curse- a plague on both your houses! - is made manifest.
Considering this play today, in the United States in September of 2020, there are perhaps two catastrophic plagues we see at work in Romeo and Juliet: a literal disease, and a metaphorical disease of discord and rage running rampant in a society divided into two bitter factions.