Almost everyone knows Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet may have the most famous line in all of Shakespeare—“To be, or not to be”—but Romeo and Juliet has the most familiar story. It’s the first of his plays that many of us encounter in middle school, and it’s one of the most frequently performed and adapted plays in the world.
So, when Mine is Yours first started to discuss doing Romeo and Juliet, the questions we had to answer for ourselves were: why this play? And why gender-reverse it?
Why this play?
It’s very easy to consider Romeo and Juliet to be, for lack of a better word, ninnies. Reckless, immature teenagers who kill themselves over an adolescent infatuation. There are artists and scholars whom I greatly respect who think of them that way.
But that description does not match the person who says this:
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.
That, to me, is perhaps the wisest encapsulation of love that exists in the English language. That love, in its truest form, is about what you give to the other person, not what you get, and that the depth and limitlessness of that love is stunning to the person experiencing it. So I think this play is (among other things, because Shakespeare’s plays are never just one thing) the story of how Juliet’s discovery of love brings her to life, and of how Romeo grows from a boy into a man who is worthy of her (Fascinatingly, I think that’s also the story of Much Ado About Nothing, told through mature lovers—but that’s for another post). And that’s a story worth exploring. The process of growing and maturing into love is a pretty relevant subject at any age, and particularly for people (like us) in their 20s and 30s. We were also fascinated by this play’s flip from comedy to tragedy. Dramatic conventions of Shakespeare’s time said that comedies ended in weddings, tragedies ended in death. Shakespeare, as ever, chose to experiment with and subvert those conventions. In this play, we get a wedding—and in the next scene, death (Love’s Labour’s Lost has a similar subversion, since a death at the very end of the play halts the imminent weddings). The first half of the play is a comedy—set in a world teetering on the edge of explosive violence, sure, but violence that seems like it could be abated by the pure love of these two scions of rival families. Mercutio is bawdily hilarious, the Nurse is a torrent of amusing words, and Romeo and Juliet are by turns charming and deeply poignant in their discovery of each other. There are fascinating hints of darkness, especially in Mercutio, but the play seems on a trajectory towards the triumph of love over hatred. And then, in a split second, all of that is destroyed, and we’re set on a path towards inexorable doom. One enticing challenge of this play, to us, was to tell the story while inhabiting each moment fully—i.e., to not know at the beginning of the play that we were in a tragedy.
A corollary to the “Why this play?” question might be “Why Shakespeare? Shakespeare is done so frequently—what’s interesting about yet another production?” Well, first off—our company absolutely wants to engage with a huge variety of authors, both classical and contemporary, established and new. But Mine is Yours was created partly because its founders desired more opportunities to work on Shakespeare’s plays, and that’s because there is no playwright who can teach us more about human nature. I may disagree with the critic Harold Bloom on several things, but he was correct when he credited Shakespeare with “The invention of the human.”
Anyone who’s spent time around me when I’m tipsy knows that I’m a Renaissance history nerd (give me alcohol, I start reeling off historical trivia. Why don’t I get invited to more parties? It’s a mystery.), and part of what’s always drawn me to that period is that it feels like the time during which awareness of the individual began to emerge—the idea that we weren’t just part of a town or country or religion, but individual people with unique thoughts and needs and wants—and Shakespeare was the first writer to capture that. He was the first writer to hold up a mirror and show us ourselves in our entirety. Ancient Greek playwrights gave us magnificent embodiments of elemental emotions and desires: rage, grief, lust, etc. Some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, such as Marlowe and Middleton, wrote very compelling plays filled with vitally fascinating characters. But Shakespeare wrote people. His plays are still viscerally shocking to me in how much they feel like being a fly on the wall of someone’s brain. Everything that we are as humans, all the dozens of different emotions that lie behind any one action—he captures that. You can never get to the bottom of Shakespeare’s characters because you can never get to the bottom of real people. That’s why his plays can be done a million times in a million different ways, and audiences will find new facets of his characters. As well as I know my parents and my friends, I can’t know everything about them, and all deep relationships are ones of continual discovery. As we get older, our perceptions change, and our relationships to Shakespeare’s characters change too. Reading Romeo and Juliet at thirteen is very different from encountering it at twenty-five. There is always going to be more to know about Romeo and Juliet and Mercutio and the Nurse, and I want to discover as much about them as I can. We—the company of R&J—want to discover more about this play, and we want the audience to discover alongside us.
Why gender-reverse it?
Part of our purpose in founding our company was to create more opportunities for women—both for ourselves and others. But we didn’t want to tack a gender-reversal onto the play if it was just going to be a gimmick that didn’t serve the text. The fascinating thing is that, when we started reading through Romeo and Juliet together, we realized that gender is a theme that sweeps across the whole play. The lovers themselves completely subvert conventional gender roles: Romeo possesses many traditionally feminine characteristics, and Juliet many masculine ones. Juliet, though sometimes dismissed as a flibbertigibbet, the “embodiment of girlishness”, is actually eminently practical. While Romeo is still caught up in the kind of courtly love rituals he engaged in with Rosaline, Juliet gets down to brass tacks: she’s the one who brings up marriage, and in the midst of her supreme ecstasy she thinks to ask Romeo the very pragmatic question of what time she should send him a messenger. Also, she shows no traditionally feminine demureness when it comes to romance: she asks Romeo straight out, “Dost thou love me?” Romeo, on the other hand, demonstrates characteristics that Elizabethans associated with women: moodiness, flightiness, fickleness. Their embodiment of counterintuitive gender qualities is even shown in their respective deaths. Romeo takes the relatively easy path of poison, and that’s after a long speech—he has matured into love, but he’s still fond of drama. Juliet stabs herself—no easy task, and she does it with minimal words and fuss. Shakespeare very clearly wrote these characters this way intentionally: with his line “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”, he is consciously associating Juliet with a normally masculine symbol. Romeo, on the other hand, swears by the moon—a symbol traditionally associated with femininity.
By placing Romeo’s words in a woman’s mouth and placing Juliet’s words in a man’s mouth (so they become Romea and Julian), we hope to highlight these surprising facets of these characters. With Mercutio (Mercutia), Nurse, Capulet, Capulet’s Wife (Now Capulet’s Husband), Tybalt, Sister Laurence, and all the other characters, we are so fascinated to see how the audience hears the language differently through this gender-reversal, and to see if some audience members discover this story anew. We have been stunned and elated in rehearsal at how the gender reversal simultaneously works so well with the text (which we have only changed as necessary to accommodate the gender switches) and constantly reveals new aspects of this play to us. And we are so excited to share these discoveries with our audience.