The first Shakespearean play I ever saw was The Taming of the Shrew. Well, technically it is/isn’t: the first musical I saw was Kiss Me Kate, a show about staging The Taming of the Shrew. So really, that was my first introduction to Shakespeare.
But the first play I ever saw and read by Shakespeare was Romeo and Juliet. And from the moment I finished reading, I just felt a connection not only to the play but Shakespeare as a playwright too. This, among many other reasons, is why it’s my favourite tragedy.
And yes, one of those reasons is Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation featuring Leonardo DiCaprio.
When I’ve said that this is my favourite play, quite a few have given me funny looks. I can understand that: it is the first Shakespearean text most kids are introduced to at school, and some seem to think of it as just a love story and an underage, quickie, ‘death mark’d’ one at that! But it’s so much more. Society vs. individual, sickness both moral and physical, and symmetry or a lack thereof in certain plot points. And the characterisation! The ‘fiery Tybalt’, this ‘King of Cats’, this ‘courageous captain of compliments’. I just want to write an essay on him. And Benvolio. Screw the main characters, those two I find fascinating.
Sure, at its heart it’s about a pair of ‘star cross’d lovers’ and their love, but Shakespeare isn’t even necessarily advocating that kind of love. Just look at how this ‘lust of the blood’ (Othello) is described throughout the play:
Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,
Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!
…O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
Is love a tender thing? it is too rough,
Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.
Which brings me onto another reason why I love this play: the language. ‘My only love sprung from my only hate’, ‘What’s in a name?’, ‘What light through yonder window breaks?’, ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ It’s so quotable. The lines themselves transcend time: they share a wisdom far beyond these children’s years, and a passion which is still understood centuries later:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
And the pacing of the language is just incredible. In the beginning we have so many lines which are quick paced, rhythmic, almost like a tennis match! Back and forths come quick and fast, from the ‘Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?’ speech to Benvolio and Romeo’s discussion:
What sadness lengthens Romeo’s hours?
Not having that, which, having, makes them short.
Out of her favour, where I am in love.
And this continues in the lovers’ first meeting, creating a melodic, harmonious union of speech:
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do…
But then as we go on the rhyming lessens, and is replaced with longer, heavier speeches. Less interactive, more separated. And Juliet’s speech at the lovers’ literal separation, I mean, it’s genuinely a terrifying image seeing these words leave a thirteen year old’s lips: ‘I long to die’.
So that’s why it’s my favourite tragedy and play by Shakespeare: exquisite language and characters.
That and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet being perfection.