Of youthful passion and star-crossed lovers on Shakespeare's birthday

While the Globe is streaming free its second dramatic production Romeo and Juliet, today is 23rd April, the day William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is believed to have been born and died.

One would seldom find a more spontaneous and intense expression of youthful love than in Shakespeare. When he treats the theme of love he turns lyrical and poetry flows even from prose lines his characters speak.  Romeo has sneaked in with a friend at the feast the Capulet family has held. At the first sight of Juliet without knowing her he whispers, “It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night!” After a while he adds, “I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” Simple words coming from heart, so poetic! Shakespeare was not yet 30 and Romeo, from the rival Montague family, is in his teens. The playwright’s idiom and images change later with experience.

In Antony and Cleopatra, lust is to replace love and it is going to be said of Cleopatra, “Other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies.” Teenage lovers Romeo and Juliet – Juliet in fact is not yet fourteen – are just at the threshold of a lasting experience of love. It is also described as calf love. As much at the threshold of youth as of love, this girl defines love the way the beautiful queen of Egypt is not capable of. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” Juliet tells Romeo from the balcony (Act 2, Scene ii), “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.”

The happenings taking place in the play at the speed of lightning are ordinary. From them spring a story involving perhaps the youngest lovers in the literary history of the world. The noblest human sentiment we call love gets elevated to a level it becomes an ideal for all lovers their age anywhere in the world anytime. Till their first memorably romantic meeting in the balcony with Romeo’s words in the orchard, “Soft, what light through yonder window breaks!” they were ordinary kids. After it they assume independent identity, when Juliet utters those famous words, “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, / That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”

In the midst of unnatural enmity between the two families, emerges a flame of love that before it steadied is led to a tragic end. The two young lovers are not known to have tainted their honour. Immaturity so natural at their age, haste again not unnatural and accidental happenings make the tragedy inevitable. Wisdom dawns on the two warring families when it is too late. They swear to commemorate their children’s memory. The Capulets would raise a statue of Romeo made of pure gold and the Montagues would raise one of Juliet made of gold! There is reconciliation between the two families following ironically the sacrifice the two immortal young lovers have made.

All this could be the focus of interest for theatre lovers. Romeo and Juliet has been one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays all over the world. It has invited students’ and scholars’ attention to the language of the play with reference to the playwright’s evolution, its imagery particularly of light and dark, religious allusions in it and the role destiny plays in the tragic end of the young lovers and their love not finding fruition. There is a long history of critical studies and observations on the play. There have been dramatic productions of the play in languages other than English too and films and musicals have been made.

A 2009 production directed by Dominic Dromgoole is on YouTube till May 2 with Ellie Kendrick as Juliet and Adetomiwa Edun as Romeo.

Viewers who would like to have a feel of the Globe alongside the play can watch this relatively recent version, not one of the best. A few excerpts can guide their decision. Alternatively, if they wish to feel the youthful passion and the tragic end of the tale of ‘star-crossed lovers’, here is the link to a 1996 film adaptation of the play on YouTube :

Better still, with a little patience, watch this 1968 classic directed by Franco Zeffirelli with Olivia Hussey as Juliet and  Leonard Whiting as Romeo, both the characters’ age he discovered following his search across countries.

Franco Zeffirelli
Franco Zeffirelli on the set of his 1968 classic ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Image Credit : Hollywood Reporter

See how the much-acclaimed Italian film-maker who has directed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, gives shape to the characters of Romeo and Juliet as also to Friar, fast flowing situations and to the ambience of renaissance in general.

 

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