Romeo and Juliet Blog #4 – A Class-Conscious Throwback

Social status in Elizabethan England did not conform to the simple hierarchical structure that some might imagine. At that time, England was still a society where legal and social status was fixed to the possession of land; however, an undeniably growing segment of the population was acquiring wealth and power through non-land-associated skills. Sir Thomas Smith wrote at the time that “we in England divide our men commonly into foure sortes, gentlemen, citizens and yeomen artificers, and laborers.” Obviously describing the vast groups of lower class Englishmen all as “laborers” is an extreme oversimplification, and this wording is indicative of a society that generally glossed over commoners who were not considered part of any relevant political class.

Some might assume that plays were not analyzed with an emphasis on class prior to Marx, or at very least, that there was a lack of emphasis on materialist analysis in the plays themselves. After all, tragedy in the strict classical sense always centers on the woes of the upper class. Such classical tragedies imply that the deadly actions of the powerful will create a ripple effect that hurts those with less power than them. But in the cases of those classical tragedies, they often evoke an abstract horror that the audience is meant to feel at future tragic consequences, and they typically invite the audience to view and grow sympathetic toward the plight of the wealthy. However, a reading of Shakespeare that ignores class as a factor in the text would be an insult to the complexity of the plays, and the inclusion of the servant characters in Romeo and Juliet in any real sense speaks against such a reading, too.

While the servant scene of Romeo and Juliet 1.2 may seem to exist purely for humor at expense of the illiterate underclass, later scenes– such as 4.5’s discussion between the musicians and 5.1’s exchange between the Apothecary and Romeo — certainly complicate this simplistic reading. In particular, the scene with the working-class musicians in 4.5 is often removed due to the way it jarringly cuts against the immediate somber aftermath of Juliet’s feigned suicide. Our production chose to keep the scene in part, as it exists as a counterpoint to the idea of wealthy tragedy as something that most of the lower classes will view with horror; most of the time, the deaths of the wealthy and powerful are not something the impoverished have the incentive or even have the energy to care about. Sharp viewers of this production’s final week will note the interactions and attitudes of the marginalized serving class as they are depicted throughout the play.

On a more macro level, the play can also be read as the struggle of the new type of human of the Renaissance against the feudal order. Here, this struggle takes the form of a demand for freedom in love and opposition to antiquated moral traditions. The type of hereditary family feud exemplified by the Montagues and Capulets can be read as dating from feudal blood feuds, and the deaths of Romeo and Juliet can be read as the tragic growing pains of that old order forming into the slightly-more-meritocratic Renaissance social structure. Here the play is read not as a work of total class enlightenment, but as more of step in the right direction. The struggle of the lovers against their social environment is the struggle of bourgeois humanism against feudalism, the Renaissance against the Middle Ages.

Enjoy the final weekend!

Gabriel Kokoszka

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Romeo and Juliet Blog #3 – A Prolonged Discussion on Representation

With Romeo and Juliet now having completed its opening weekend, let’s look ahead to other bright spots on the horizon. Audience members will notice that gender as a concept is of particular importance to this production, both in our casting and as a binary social construct that is critiqued across the arc of the play. This year’s McElroy, an annual event combining Shakespearean performance with a pertinent academic lecture, will be held in conjunction with our production of Romeo and Juliet and will address gender and other aspects of identity and representation in a wider sense.

This year’s lecture is called “‘This Borrow’d Likeness’: Race, Gender, Ethnicity, and Representation in Casting Shakespeare,” and our guest lecturer and dramaturg on the subject will be Dr. Janna Segal of the University of Louisville. Dr. Segal will provide the theoretical and historical context for a range of aspects of inclusive casting and introduce illustrative scenes from our production of Romeo and Juliet. Audience members who find themselves intrigued and full of questions about this aspect of our production are encouraged to come out on Tuesday, April 11th, at 7:30pm, and have their thirst for knowledge satiated! In the meantime, we’ll see you all at the performances!

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Romeo and Juliet Blog #2 – I See Queen Mab Hath Been with You…

When you take the Balcony Scene out of the running, it’s difficult to think of a moment in Romeo and Juliet with lines more iconic than Act 1 Scene 4. Here, Romeo is unwillingly dragged to the Capulet ball by his cohorts, who seek to get him to stop pining for Roseline. Along the way, Mercutio begins his iconic rhapsodizing on Queen Mab and her mischief involving love and dreams:

“O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep…” (1.4.57-62).

While this is Queen Mab’s first explicit appearance in any written work, a strong candidate for a literary source exists in the Irish folk-figure Queen Medb. Medb exists in Irish literature as a warrior-queen who survives several different husbands, and is most well-known as a primary character in the Ulster-cycle epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge. As someone who enjoys literature from this era, I highly recommend giving it a read.

Wherever Queen Medb or Mab began, Shakespeare’s work is certainly not where she ends. Further writings on her span the works of Ben Jonson, Michael Drayton, J.M. Barrie, and a chapter title in Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick, to name a few. In more contemporary works, some visual artists have used depictions of Queen Mab to explore female sexuality and power. This is quite source-appropriate; central to Medb’s character in Irish texts is the power she asserts in the face of patriarchy, as well as her unrestricted sexuality. Working with this textual root of Medb’s character and the ways that Shakespeare’s depiction lends itself to our message, the imagery of Queen Mab is central to our production’s exploration of the limits of a gender binary in relation to creativity, authority, and power—onstage and off.

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