I read the play for the first time in 7th grade. It was. . .tedious. Sure there were portions that enchanted me, but I mostly remember my English teacher emphasizing how Juliet wanted to get married before being with Romeo, without explaining what he meant by “being with Romeo.”
Since that inauspicious introduction I have seen many film and TV versions, along with countless interpretations, snippets and spoofs of the story. In each of these productions it was the love story that got all the glory—that romantic balcony scene, and the morning after scene, and the tragic ending. Sure there was a feud, and it was depicted with more or less emphasis, but in each case it was a side story. What mattered, I was told, was Romeo and Juliet’s undying love.
The Yale Rep’s production opened my eyes. This is a story set one sweltering summer, in a city steeped in violence. Teenage boys roam the streets and brawl. Older people are accosted and harassed. And among the feuding number is a lovesick boy called Romeo, lovesick for Rosalind.
We never meet Rosalind, of course, because Romeo’s compatriots convince him to crash a party of the opposing gang/family, and there he runs into Juliet. And like many fickle teenagers, he forgets his pledge to Rosalind and gives it to Juliet.
She’s 13. This is her first love. And she’s as immature and starry-eyed as every 13-year old that’s ever fallen in love. The balcony scene—oh that scene!—is about a child trying to understand love. The effects are physical, to the core, and both Romeo and Juliet are overwhelmed.
The play never lets us forget the constant violence that surrounds them. Raging hormones abound. Boys will not let other boys be, while sexual tension suffuses the action. Mercutio embodies all of this, and so much more. He is witty, clever, full of bravado, the promise of a wonderful future. And when he dies in the third Act, the horror of what’s going on sinks in. Youth are killing youth. I mourned his loss.
The hero in this story is the lowly Friar Laurence. He recognizes the fickleness of Romeo, the starry-eyed unreality that Juliet lives in, but he sees hope. Maybe, in this unending swirl of violence, some measure of peace might come from their union. And when everything goes wrong, he takes full blame for the tragedy.
The ending has always been unsatisfying. How can this level of violence stop so quickly--with one family pledging to honor the other? The production, although faithful to the text, lets that question hang. Can you really control gangs of youth raised in such violence? The answer isn't clear. Either then or now.