Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Shakespeare notebook: Romeo & Juliet

A writer on Slate goes trolling today, claiming that Romeo & Juliet "hasn't aged well" and generally trashing Shakespeare's play. Alyssa Rosenberg is motivated by the announcement that Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad will play the tragic lovers on Broadway this fall. In fairness, Rosenberg does applaud the interracial casting. But she complains that the play is "horribly depressing." Putting aside the juvenile quality of that remark, her point is that R&J has an adolescent view of romance, "full of terrible, deeply childish ideas about love."

Rosenberg's criticism might be valid if she executed a stronger reading of the play. To conclude "actors & actresses deserve richer roles than Romeo & Juliet" is to wear ignorance as a badge. Juliet, after all, is one of Shakespeare's richest female roles, maybe his first truly great role period. Romeo may be secondary to her in terms of depth, but he's got a vitality of his own. Mercutio and the Nurse are stupendous. Shakespeare's plotting may get iffy (see below) but his characterization is superlative.

Earlier, she comes off like a vapid producer or a bad dramaturg, complaining "Why are the families fighting? What's the inciting incident?" Her dull-minded complaints suggest that Rosenberg is approaching the play in a literal-minded fashion. She misses the sensibility of the setting. Blood is boiling in Verona. That's why the families are feuding & why the lovers embrace with such tragic haste. She also dismisses the themes rather than grappling with them. If passion has gripped Verona, then R&J's eruption of love is its embodiment. The whole world of the play is young, passionate, hot, sexy. From the beginning, the poetry confuses and conflates sex and death, eros & thanatos. Their suicides, in turn, purge the city of its condition. The tragedy is amplified by the missed chance to heal the city through marriage instead.

Death instead of sex: this is bush-league interpretation, Shakespeare 101, but Rosenberg doesn't even reach that level. Her criticism does have something worth noting, however. She argues that Romeo & Juliet isn't the play for our time. In Rosenberg's view, we live in an era of arrested development. So raising adolescent passion to mythic level, as Shakespeare does, isn't in our culture's best interests. It's the Platonic case against artists: R&J celebrates a bad worldview, so it deserves censure and shouldn't be staged.

The responsethat R&J purges the juvenile from its setting, fictional and realshould be obvious. But Rosenberg also sets her reading up as a claim that audiences find the show "embarrassing and unsettling" because of its mythic passions and adolescent focus. She may have read Shakespeare's play but I suspect she hasn't watched it; her complaints fall apart in the face of the play's poetry, drama, and sheer momentum. R&J is one of Shakespeare's tightest plots; its only real flaw is the contrivance of the "missed letter", which would've informed Romeo that his beloved wasn't actually dead. It's also an extraordinary crowd-pleaseraudiences aren't embarrassed or unsettled, they're engaged and thrilled by Shakespeare's near-perfect dramaturgy. That fact leaves Rosenberg looking like a scold, wagging her finger at an audience for enjoying something they shouldn't.

I love Shakespeare this side of idolatry, so I'm anticipating this high-profile production with excitement. I'll point out a further pleasure: the Off-Broadway CSC's R&J, also in Fall '13. New Yorkers will have the pleasure of comparing approaches, not just as contrasts but as reflections of one another. See you there!

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