ROMEO AND JULIET
The central theme of Romeo and Juliet, the unpitying hand of fate punishing children for the sins of their fathers, is a theme that flows back through many cultures and all times.
The original story was not Shakespeare’s own. When he wrote Romeo and Juliet (in about 1592), he was adapting a poem by Arthur Brooke, ‘The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet’, that had been published in 1562. The poem was itself an adaptation of a story first published in Italy by Masuccio Salernitano in the mid 1400’s – more than a century year earlier.
More than 40 films, a dozen musicals, 25 operas and half a dozen ballets have drawn on Shakespeare’s adaptation of the story – and countless productions of the play itself have been staged around the world in the last four centuries.
What is it about this story that so appals and attracts us? Is it the meteor-like brilliance with which this ‘star-crossed love’ flares and dies? Is it the apparent triumph – even in death – of the innocence, generosity and optimism of youth over the selfishness, petty ambition and desperation of age? Or, does it call to something deeper in our souls – a primitive need to offer sacrifice and witness punishment?
In medieval drama, the tragedy of those who fell was seen as the hand of Fate – the spin of the Wheel of Fortune. It was argued that Fate was both inevitable and providential. Even the most coincidental of events was actually part of God’s plan. So, the character of an individual was no more important in deciding fate than the influence of the stars, since both were agents of God’s will. But with the Renaissance, this had begun to change. The medieval emphasis on allegorical representation of human “types” diminishes until, in Shakespeare’s plays, the individualized human character becomes the legitimate object for study. ‘Hamlet’, for instance, can be seen primarily as the psychological portrait of an individual man, torn by doubts, and weak because of his own vacillation.
In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare’s brilliance was to take a simple folk story – two noble lovers whose love is thwarted by a jealous fate – and to re-invent it as a domestic tragedy driven inexorably to its conclusion by the wholly human failings of the protagonists.
Shakespeare compresses the action of the play into five feverish days in the middle of July, set in a city gripped by a heatwave and riven with factional feuding. His protagonists are not mythic, noble men driven by lofty motives. The feud between Capulet and Montague was ‘bred from an airy word’. Two average, flawed men jockeying for position in a small principality have allowed and encouraged their households to transform a minor slight into a major vendetta.
There are no villains, only victims in Shakespeare’s tragedy. All of the characters are motivated by complex ambitions, desires, fears, dreams. Most mean for the best – some are driven to the worst. Shakespeare’s genius was to intuitively and compassionately understand the complexity of human nature and human motives, and to invest his plays with this understanding. There is an argument to nominate him as the first great psychologist. It seems particularly fitting to be staging Romeo and Juliet here in Vienna – the city where Sigmund Freud developed the science that underpins Shakespeare’s art.