- Putting the Fun Back into Funerals: Dealing/Dallying With Death in Romeo and Juliet
For the last fifteen years or so, I have been teaching a university course at Lund University, Sweden, which combines the academic study of one of Shakespeare’s plays (through lectures, the submission of essays, and so on), with a more practical approach: the students are cast in, rehearse (with me as their director), and finally perform a slightly abridged version of the play, in English, in full period costume, before an audience. The performance constitutes the students’ “oral exam” although the grading is based on their written work. This hands-on approach is engrossing, exhausting, and enjoyable in equal measure, and surprisingly often it yields substantial food for thought. As anyone who works on Shakespeare from a practical angle knows, seeing a play through fresh young eyes almost invariably proves to be a way of discovering brave new worlds within it.
Recently, after two productions of The Winter’s Tale—surely the saddest of Shakespeare’s comedies—I felt that the logical next step had to be exploring Romeo and Juliet, the funniest and most farcical of his tragedies. Not that there is anything essentially new or original in regarding Romeo and Juliet as a play that thinks it is a comedy, of course; it is an idea that has been exploited by many directors and thoroughly analyzed by academics. But as my students studied, rehearsed, and ultimately performed Romeo and Juliet (or Four Funerals and a Wedding as it was occasionally referred to in the group), the comedy element spontaneously came to be a core part of our stage work, and on the whole, this approach originated with them (although I was very willing to go along with it). Thus, in our work, one of the main concerns somehow became how to [End Page 165] confound audience expectations and avoid playing the tragedy before it actually happens, and how to achieve an encounter with it as unprepared, perhaps, as that of a sixteenth-century penny-stinkard sneaking into the playhouse late and missing the Prologue. As a consequence, we wanted our Verona to be a comfortably ordinary place for as long as possible, and for as many sublunary citizens as possible—a place full of people busy playing the leads in their own lives rather than attendant lords in someone else’s, intent on their own joys and cares, most of the time treating the Montague/Capulet brawls as so much white noise. In the rehearsals, discussions, and analyses, we repeatedly found ourselves exploring the boundary between comedy and tragedy, our question being this: exactly when, and how, are we allowed, or even encouraged, to laugh at tragedy and death in Shakespeare’s plays—and are we able to laugh at dead bodies onstage today? I have no definite answers to offer, only the solutions we found for ourselves in our staging; and in this paper, I want to discuss them further.
Most people—be they scholars, spectators, or those involved in performance—would probably agree that the transition from comedy to tragedy happens in 3.1: the bewildering reversal comes with the almost accidental, almost incidental, stabbing of Mercutio.1 This is where Mercutio finally (in Robert Maslen’s words) attests to “the proximity between rapier wit and violence with rapiers.”2 Following Coppélia Kahn, Maslen sees the tragedy as a result of the clash between violent masculinity and heterosexual desire and claims that “the lightness with which he undertakes the quarrel stakes Mercutio’s claim to manhood.”3 There is no question that there is plenty of testosterone in this scene, of course, but to me, it seems that the main reason that Mercutio undertakes the quarrel so lightly is that it is at that point a light, almost playful fight, reminiscent of the wrestling and biting of young puppies, which nobody, least of all Mercutio, expects will have a fatal outcome—and that this is also what makes the reversal so shocking. Even Romeo, who tries to stop the fight, does so invoking not physical danger but the law (“the Prince expressly hath / Forbid this bandying in...