Authors: Jackie French
THE THEATRE AND ITS PLAYERS (ACTORS)
Theatres weren’t allowed in the actual city of London because they encouraged people to gather and might spread the plague. The theatres and taverns where Shakespeare worked were all south of the river, in a rough area where other activities not allowed in the city also took place. We don’t know when
Romeo and Juliet
was first performed, but it wouldn’t have been at the famous Globe Theatre, because it wasn’t built until 1599.
The Globe was built specifically to put on plays, instead of the actors having to use a pub’s forecourt for a stage and audience area. The Globe’s earliest stage was open to the sky; if it rained, there was no performance.
Women were not permitted to be actors. Until
Romeo and Juliet
, most women’s parts were small, with older, experienced actors taking the main (male) roles. The first Juliet may have been played by John Heminges, an apprentice actor of about thirteen years old, his voice not yet broken. Another suggestion is the actor Robert Goffe (little else is known of him), who might or might not be the actor Robert Goughe, who died in 1624 and began his career as a boy player in about 1585, when the company was known as the Admiral’s Men. Shakespeare was an actor as well as a theatre manager and playwright. He must have admired the ability of whoever was the first young actor to play Juliet to write him such a crucial part.
The leading players trained apprentices, but very little else is known about how acting was taught, or what sort of acting styles were in fashion. We do know that some actors specialised in tragic roles, and others were well known as fools or clowns. The leading players shared both the profits and costs of the company, but the minor players were paid a fee for each performance. If rain, or plague, meant no performance, no one made any money.
Romeo and Juliet
was written when Shakespeare’s company was known as Lord Hunsdon’s Men. An actor in those days needed to be taken on as part of a lord’s household, or he could be arrested as a vagrant.
This didn’t mean the actors worked for Lord Hunsdon, just that they had been offered his protection and owed allegiance to his house.
The ‘groundlings’ were people who bought the cheap tickets to the theatre and stood on the ground in front of the stage where there were no seats, though some patrons may have brought their own stools to sit on. A more expensive ticket gave you a seat in the covered areas, sheltered from wind and rain. When new theatres provided a covered stage, the groundlings — and the actors — could stay dry. The roof also allowed the players to use harnesses for tricks, like making the sprite Ariel in
When the play opens, Juliet is two weeks from her fourteenth birthday. Despite Lady Capulet saying that girls Juliet’s age were commonly married, this wasn’t the case. Shakespeare’s original audience would have known that thirteen was a very young age indeed to be married, or to have to make choices about marriage. Like us,
they would have been shocked — but only slightly, as marriage at twelve was legal. But it was still unusual.
Although those of high rank, like royalty, or those who would inherit large fortunes, were married, or at least betrothed, when they were very young to cement alliances between families and countries, an eighteen-year-old woman was still considered young to be married. The best age for a woman to be wed was considered to be in her early twenties. Commoners married at an average age of twenty-two; noblewomen at an average age of about sixteen.
This was because most men weren’t financially in a position to marry till they’d finished their apprenticeship and journeyman years and become a master of their trade, or had inherited family land to support a family — so were usually in their mid-twenties and often older. Women had to be old enough and experienced enough to manage a household.
So why did Shakespeare make his heroine so young? Juliet’s youth meant she had less experience of the world outside her home than an older girl would have had. In Juliet’s day, upper-class girls were kept within the seclusion of their family’s home and under constant supervision until they were old enough to take part in formal social occasions. An older Juliet would have been less impulsive and better able to see other choices she might make, like life after Romeo’s death.
Juliet was an heiress. Her marriage to Paris would have been a strategic alliance, between an aristocratic family (Paris is the Prince’s cousin) and a wealthy house like the Capulets, who presumably were merchants as that was the main source of great wealth at the time. Other wealth came from the land: the nobility owned massive estates, which were worked by tenant farmers who paid rent and a share of the crops they grew to their lord.
In the play, Juliet’s mother asks her merely to consider the marriage to Paris; and her father initially objects because she’s so young. It’s only Juliet’s extreme grief after Tybalt’s death that makes them think she would be happier married. Paris is repeatedly referred to as ‘the young Paris’ so he too would have been younger than most men were at the time of marriage. His genuine grief at Juliet’s death shows he had truly fallen in love with her, or at least with what she looked like, or the wife he imagined she would be.
We’re not told how old Romeo is. At the beginning of the play he declares his love for Rosaline, then changes to Juliet; and his family evidently hadn’t yet made any marriage plans for him. He’s probably not much older than Juliet.
Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy wasn’t just that they were lovers from warring families, but that such a young girl and boy were forced to make desperate decisions for
themselves in order to escape a future being decided for them by others.
What we consider the traditional form of marriage — the bride in white, the vows at the altar — are relatively recent traditions. In Elizabethan times, a marriage could be far more informal: an agreement between two people, attested to by witnesses, with a separate sanctification by the church. While normally notice had to be given — a ‘crying the banns’ on three consecutive Sundays or ‘holy days’ in the parish church before the wedding on a Sunday, in case of objections — by Shakespeare’s time a ‘special licence’ could be bought that would allow a couple to be married at once, if they also signed and paid for a marriage bond that asserted the marriage was lawful and neither party was married or betrothed to anyone else.
Presumably Romeo paid for a ‘marriage bond’ to marry Juliet. I haven’t included it in the story, as Juliet wouldn’t have known about it. Friar Laurence, however, would have pointed out the need to Romeo and even possibly arranged it.
Shakespeare would have known exactly how quickly — and quietly — a marriage could be arranged. He was
married quickly, by marriage bond, to the pregnant and much older Anne Hathaway.
If Juliet had been formally betrothed to Paris, the marriage to Romeo may not have been legal. If the marriage to Romeo hadn’t been consummated, it could have been quickly annulled. Only Friar Laurence could testify that the marriage had taken place. And only Juliet’s nurse could testify that the marriage had been consummated. If Friar Laurence had torn up the marriage papers, there’d have been no proof that Romeo and Juliet were married. If the nurse had lied about the marriage being consummated, then Juliet’s father could have applied for an annulment of her marriage to Romeo and married her to Paris instead. Juliet would have been powerless.
What would have happened then? Paris might not have wanted a bride who’d possibly been ‘deflowered’. But the play makes the point repeatedly that Paris is young and loves Juliet, loves her so much he wants to be in her tomb. I suspect he would still have married her, hoping — expecting — that love would come with marriage and the position she would have enjoyed as his wife.
At some stage, Romeo would have been allowed to return to the city to take up his inheritance. Perhaps the enmity between the Montagues and Capulets would have got worse if Romeo saw his bride married to another. Or perhaps his love for Juliet would have been great enough
to heal the rift, even if they were unable to marry each other again.
Perhaps each of them might even have been happy with their different wife or husband and their own children. They might have kept the memory of their teenage love to gaze at in private, and then put away and continue with their fulfilled lives. Happily ever after can happen, even after tragedy, although it didn’t for Juliet and Romeo.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
Would Romeo and Juliet have been happy together if they’d lived?
Probably. Even if they’d lived in exile for a short while, both families would have eventually forgiven them. Each family had only the one child.
The Prince, as the Juliet in this book realises, would have rejoiced that the two families were joined and the brawling and warfare had stopped. His city would have become even more prosperous with the alignment of the Capulets and the Montagues.
Romeo would have been an excellent heir for the House of Capulet; in the play, even Lord Capulet states to Tybalt that Romeo was known as a sober, industrious and good lad. The combined Montague/Capulet clan would have become even more wealthy and powerful.
Romeo and Juliet had similar backgrounds, wanted similar lives, and would continue to do so.
And they loved each other. Love at first sight exists. You can learn a lot from that first glance at someone: the subconscious recognises signals of a similar background, signs of laughter or kindness, and a hundred other signs that we may not be consciously aware of. We only know that we like, and love. I fell in love with my husband if not at first sight, then at the second, although it took a year before I cautiously accepted that this was, indeed, a love to base a lifetime on.
Love at first sight may not last. But a surprisingly large number of people do, in fact, fall in love pretty much at first sight, even if it is rash to rely on those feelings till you know more. Some people are very good at presenting a false face to the world, and you may mistake them for someone you should love. Others are good at pretending that the person in front of them is the person they
them to be, unable to see who is actually there.
Love can grow slowly, a deepening friendship. And love changes too. The love I felt for my husband a quarter of a century ago isn’t the same as the richer love I feel for him now, though the memory of that first ‘love with wings’ is still part of it.
Romeo and Juliet’s love would have changed, grown richer and more fulfilled, with children and a life together. And, yes, they would have been happy.
WHO WAS FRIAR LAURENCE?
The decades before Shakespeare’s birth had been tumultuous. King Henry VIII declared that England was no longer Roman Catholic and was now a Protestant nation. He closed down the monasteries and convents, and took their land and treasures for himself or those he favoured. His son Edward’s brief reign had also favoured Protestants. Anyone who disagreed was guilty of treason, for the King was head of the Church as well as the country. Traitors were locked in the Tower of London or other prisons, tortured, hanged, beheaded and burned. Henry’s daughter Mary I, whose reign followed Edward’s, was staunchly Roman Catholic. Those who had become Protestant during the two previous reigns now became traitors, unless they changed their religion again. Once again the Mass was said in Latin. Those who disagreed with the return to Roman Catholicism were burned at the stake, earning the Queen the name ‘Bloody Mary’.
Shakespeare grew up under the reign of Elizabeth I, who made England Protestant again. Those who remained Roman Catholic were regarded as potential traitors, and it was feared they might try to put the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s first cousin once removed, on the throne. Church services were changed to English again, not Latin. Shakespeare’s
father was at one time given the job of getting rid of all signs of what the English called ‘Popery’ in the Stratford church, including painting over the murals. But many older people, even if they were nominally members of the Church of England, would have felt comfortable with Roman Catholicism, the religion of their childhood.
England was still in transition from one form of Christianity to another, and I suspect this was the reason Shakespeare carefully didn’t include a dramatisation of the wedding in
Romeo and Juliet
. His play is neither overtly Catholic nor Protestant. At the time it was being performed, Elizabeth I hadn’t named her heir. While it was likely that King James of Scotland, a Protestant, would become King of England after Queen Elizabeth’s death, Shakespeare would have known all too well that if the next monarch were a Roman Catholic, Protestant words on paper might be enough to have him convicted of treason and executed.
So there is no wedding service in the play, nor even a priest or a vicar. But we do have Friar Laurence. He may be there because the play is ostensibly set in Verona, which was Roman Catholic. But more likely he was one of the friars who took the oath of confirmation for the Church of England. As such, he’d have been allowed to perform weddings as well as keep his old title of ‘friar’.
Juliet goes to confession, but a Protestant in the Elizabethan England of the 1590s would also have gone to confession. The difference between the Protestant and Roman Catholic practice of the time was that, for Protestants, confession was no longer a sacrament. In Shakespeare’s time, the old customs and titles still mingled with the new. But Shakespeare was very careful not to be too specific about exactly which religion his characters followed.
Modern audiences don’t see
Romeo and Juliet
as erotica. The Elizabethan words are often explicitly sexual, but modern readers mostly don’t realise what they refer to. They don’t know how truly bawdy Mercutio’s words are when he says, ‘Now will he sit under a medlar tree, and wish his mistress were that kind of fruit as maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.’ Most people probably don’t know what a medlar is, or what the fruit looks like. And I’m not going to enlighten you. You’ll have to find your own medlar tree, and sit under it when the fruit is ripe, and look up at the shape of it, then watch the fruit suddenly fall, to realise quite how rude Mercutio’s speech is.