“These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.” Romeo and Juliet, II.vi.9-11
So, I had never previously been much of a Romeo and Juliet fan. I thought it was some kind of whiny, sappy romance where everyone dies, foolishly, at the end. Ew.
It was only later in college that I realized that this tragedy is so much more than that the sappy play I considered it to be. Romeo and Juliet was one of the two plays I researched for my distinction thesis on last year for my English degree. (The other was A Midsummer Nights Dream — the comedic foil to Romeo, but more on that later!)
Honestly, this play is just beautiful. As we all know, it’s about two young “star-cross’d lovers” whose deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. But it explores themes of fate versus free will, mortality, youth, gender…Shakespeare included it all. And I’ve come to appreciate it much more since studying it in college.
[But for the record… Romeo, in my opinion, is just dumb. And annoying. I still think that, even after spending a year of research on this play. If he came walking my way tomorrow, all “my bounty is as boundless as the sea” and whatnot, my butt would run. The other way.]
Anyways, for my thesis, it’s therefore not surprising that what interested me most about Romeo and Juliet was the role of Juliet (haha…not Romeo). This play, written in 1595, was one of the first Shakespeare plays with a female lead. And then all of the sudden, Shakespeare keeps writing prominent female leads. What gives???
Did he have some sort of feminist, intellectual revolution? Just some sort of change of heart? #girlsrule??
I wish, but that’s not the case. The answer lies not with a desire to break some sort of societal norm with female roles; rather, it had everything to do with the business of theater in Elizabethan England.
That’s right, business — I think a lot of us sometimes forget (myself included) that’s Shakespeare was, above everything else, a playwright, commissioned by Lord Chamberlain (AKA Royal fam) to put on these performances. He was a businessman, and this aspect does come through in his plays. Not only did he have to continue to write captivating, dramatic, humorous, relatable theater; he also had to cater to his audience, his commissioners, and most importantly, the actors he had at his disposal and the skills they could bring to each role.
So to return to the question of Juliet: Shakespeare wrote this role in particular because he needed one of his younger, teenage boy actors to learn how to play lead roles (reminder: no women allowed onstage back then).
This need might sound kinda technical, but hear me out. Plays back in the day weren’t cast like our plays and films are cast now — it wasn’t the kind of situation where George Clooney’s the lead in one movie and Brad Pitt in another. Shakespeare had the SAME actors for EVERY play he put on, so for most of his plays, he used the same leading man (Richard Burbage) for all of his main roles. This one dude played Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo, and so on…he was truly Shakespeare’s shining star.
But around the time when Midsummer and Romeo were written, Burbage was getting…ya know…kinda… old. And probably would retire soon. And then Shakespeare is like, oh, sh*t! I need a new leading man. But the problem is, there was no time to “train” younger actors to play the lead — the time between when one performance ended and another began was nonexistent. Shakespeare would have to write new plays while in the midst of putting one on at the Globe, and his actors would have to practice the next play during the performance season of another. This is mainly due to the fact that Elizabethan society would get bored too quickly if they weren’t pretty much constantly entertained, and Shakespeare would lose $$$. (Elizabethan society was a DEMANDING bunch of folks, to say the least).
So, what better way to have an actor learn how to lead a performance than to take one of his younger, teenage boys (who typically played all the female roles), to play a LEAD female role. The role of Juliet was written to allow one of these young boys the chance to learn, in real time, how to challenge Burbage onstage. This young boy couldn’t play a lead male role because, you know…he doesn’t look like a full grown man yet (hahah). So he’s stuck with the lady roles. And here we are.
It really gives the role of Juliet a whole new perspective. (But that still doesn’t undermine the fact that she’s a total badass lady who can DO BETTER than Romeo. That’s just my humble and probably way-too-invested opinion).
Want to learn more about “metatheatre?” Check out a few of the sources I consulted for my thesis (they’re fascinating!):
–Mansour, Wisam. “The Taming of Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.” The Explicator, Washington, vol. 66, iss. 4, 2008, pp. 206-208.
–Newman, Harry. “Reading Metatheatre.” Shakespeare Bulletin, vo. 36, no. 1, 2018, pp. 89-110. Project Muse.
–Seymour, Matt. “The Rise, Fall and Misfortune of Romeo and Juliet: A Lesson in Moral Complexity.” CEA Critic, vo. 78, no. 3, 2016, pp. 375-383. Projuct MUSE.