DELIGHTING IN DESPAIR

FROM ROMEO AND JULIET TO OTHELLO, SHAKESPEARE’S TRAGEDIES ARE SEDUCTIVE DESPITE THEIR DARKNESS. OR PERHAPS, BECAUSE OF IT.

BY ANDY MCLEAN

Vendettas. Villainy. Violence. Broken hearts. And death. At first glance, Shakespeare’s tragedies don’t sound much like entertainment. Yet we flock to theatres around the world to witness the torment and devastation wreaked upon naïve lovers and noble warriors (not to mention less savoury characters).

We adore watching Romeo And Juliet, a tale of young lives cut short. Our eyes are helplessly glued to Othello as Iago betrays his friend. (No wonder that, during a 19th Century production starring William Macready, at the moment Othello seized Iago by the throat, a gentleman in the audience cried out, “Choke the devil! Choke him!”)

For this is what tragedy does. It makes you want to choke the devil; to intervene; to halt the turning of this miserable globe and to put everyone and everything back to rights.

And yet, at the same time, we delight in the drama. We can’t look away.

Try averting your eyes as Romeo and Juliet’s dreams turn to dust, or while Othello and Desdemona’s love is snuffed out. Our hearts break too when both sets of lovers die, lying side by side. Like the dead lovers, in Shakespearean tragedy hope and despair share the same bed.

THE FIRM HAND OF FATE
One thing is for sure: We can’t say we weren’t warned. The full title of the plays in the First Folio, published in 1623, were The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet and The Tragedie of Othello, the Moore of Venice. Their titles alone made it abundantly clear that things would not end well.

Then, just in case anyone was left in any doubt, at the start of Romeo And Juliet, Shakespeare had his Chorus tell us that “the two hours’ traffic of our stage” will only head in one direction:

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life,
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

In a way, Romeo and Juliet are already dead before we even meet them, says Oxford scholar Emma Smith in her Approaching Shakespeare podcast: “We know the pain is coming. It’s inexorable, unstoppable. There’s something mechanical about it.”

Yet in a strange way there is something comforting about that for audiences. Knowing the destiny of our heroes removes some of the anxiety for us, according to Smith. While we may want to intervene (and ‘Choke the devil!’) we are forced, in a sense, to enjoy the ride. “We just have to sit back and relax; there is nothing anyone can do. It’s a foregone conclusion. In a way, it’s less stressful to watch a tragedy where the fate of the characters is already sealed.”

CALAMITY OVERKILL?
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie, Romeo + Juliet elected to put the aforementioned words of the Chorus into the mouth of a TV newscaster. Entirely appropriate, given that TV news reports upon events that have already taken place, and can often seem like a litany of tragedies. Luhrmann’s approach underlines how we are still drawn to tragedy in modern society.

“In the 21st Century, the television, newspapers and internet all report tragedy after tragedy,” says Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber. “It has become the staple of our media diet. We hear of accidental tragedy, and purposeful tragedy. We hear bad news, we hear about people dying, people suffering, people losing things and so forth.”

Actor Damien Strouthos, who is playing Mercutio in Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 Romeo And Juliet, agrees: “All you have to do is look on the internet at what the top stories are, and they’re always tragic ones”.

Through modern media our exposure to real-life tragedy is, in some ways, just as great as it was as in Shakespeare’s day, when bear baiting and public executions attracted huge crowds of onlookers. But if we see tragedy every day in the media, why do we want to watch it on stage too?

“It’s a very good question and a hard one to answer,” says Strouthos. “I think it’s cathartic for us to watch the characters suffer and figure it out. When we see someone else experience it and figure problems out, it makes us feel that it will all be okay for us, or that it will all work itself out.”

Garber says Shakespeare provides audiences with a safe zone in which to witness extreme circumstances: “Tragedy is something that happens for us so that it doesn’t have to happen to us. We can enjoy the tragic experience because it is happening to someone else who we identify with but nevertheless whose separation we are able to maintain. So we survive, but they may die.”

Peter Evans is directing Romeo And Juliet and Othello for Bell Shakespeare in 2016. He says tragedy allows us to explore the darker reaches of our imaginations, though we would never want to go there in real life: “We all have those fantasies about the worst case scenarios in our own lives. In tragedy we can experience this with a group of people in a controlled environment. Society needs pressure valves and places where we can experience these things without actually having to do them. In the making of art, where somebody expresses something for you – even about something horrific – it is ironically quite an uplifting experience.”

THE MORAL OF THE STORIES
Othello and Romeo And Juliet teach some cruel lessons to their characters. All too late, Othello learns the error (and agonising cost) of his ways, just as the Capulet and Montague parents do. Watching the plays can be enlightening for audiences too, according to Anjna Chouhan from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: “In 1595, the poet Sir Philip Sidney argued that tragedy ‘openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue.’ So tragedy, Sidney argued, should be revealing. It should strip away all the decadence and superficiality, [and] plumb down to the depths of what makes us truly human.

“Sidney also said that tragedy ‘teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilded roofs are builded’. In other words, tragedy is not simply a lesson for the characters. It’s actually a cautionary and instructive tale for the audiences, as well.”

For example, Othello and Romeo And Juliet are rife with the same bigotry and prejudice that we still witness in many places across the world today. In the gut-wrenching finales of both plays, the consequences of these attitudes are laid bare for us to consider within the context of our own societies.

SUFFERING TOGETHER
So Shakespeare forces us to confront our own values and search within ourselves for the answers. Is Romeo’s slaying of Tybalt justified, given that he is avenging the death of his friend Mercutio? Does Iago deserve to die for his crimes? And the real kicker: How should we feel about Othello – a man who is the innocent victim of manipulation and racism, but also the perpetrator of horrific domestic violence?

Shakespeare makes these dilemmas all the more difficult because we grow to love his characters. As 20th Century English scholar A.C. Bradley wrote: “Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies Othello is the most painfully exciting and the most terrible. From the moment when the temptation of the hero begins, the reader’s heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation.”

Anjna Chouhan points out that Othello has to suffer for the audience to feel any kind of sympathy or disgust for his plight. “Something important has to be at stake in order for the loss of it to seem truly horrific,” she says. “[Othello] follows the linear trajectory of a tragic hero who starts out in an exalted position as General of the Venetian army. He endures suffering, largely of the psychological kind, destroys the thing that he loves most, and ends the play by dying. If we didn’t care about Othello in some way, his downfall wouldn’t seem remotely tragic.”

So our emotional investment in the heroes ties us to them, and means that we suffer with them. We are their silent witness.

Peter Evans says Shakespeare is skilled at putting the audience “on the same side” as his characters: “In Romeo And Juliet, for example, we have the voyeuristic experience of the soliloquies. We feel we are a part of what’s happening. In the balcony scene, Romeo invites us to look at Juliet and be part of his fantasy for her, and then she invites us into her thoughts about him. We’re with him and we’re with her. At that point, she doesn’t know that he’s present but we do. Then, when she does realise he is there, we experience a shared joy that she is catching up and we’re now all together. It’s an astonishing series of progressions to make us feel part of their love.”

The passion we feel for the characters is what makes us hope against hope that, somehow, our heroes can escape their own destruction. Shakespeare teases us throughout Romeo And Juliet with ‘if only’ moments, where opportunities for a happy ending are dangled in front of us – and then snatched away: The Friar sends a letter to Romeo, explaining that Juliet’s apparent death has, in fact, been faked – but the letter never reaches the young hero. A grief-stricken Romeo dashes back to Verona, finds Juliet lying apparently dead, poisons himself and dies – just moments before his young wife awakens. For the audience, it makes for compulsive viewing.

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL?
Our support of Romeo and Juliet feels well placed, given that they are largely the victims of the piece. But in Othello, Shakespeare plays a devious little trick, making us relish the villain’s antics too. “Othello is much more troubling because of that,” says Peter Evans. “Iago has enormous charm and the audience actually wills him along. That’s part of the skill of Shakespeare. The audience wants Iago to keep poking the other characters. He keeps getting away with it and I think the audience delights in that.”

So at what point do we then decide, as an audience, that Iago has gone too far? “I think it’s the death of Rodrigo,” says Evans. “Iago pretends to look after Rodrigo but instead kills him. My instinct is that the audience thinks, ‘We’ve loved watching you mess with that naïve guy’ but the moment Rodrigo is stabbed and realises he’s been had, I think the audience then feels enough is enough. At that point, the story is unraveling on Iago. Then the play slows right down and Shakespeare takes us through this tortuous horror show that leads to the death of Desdemona. The more I work on the play, the more painful I think it is – and yet it’s undeniably popular.”

TO ERR IS HUMAN
Another reason Shakespearean tragedy resonates is because in all of Shakespeare’s tear-jerkers human beings are the agents of their own downfall. The idea that we are “in the hands of the Gods” might apply in Greek tragedy, but in Shakespeare it is the impulsiveness of Romeo, Tybalt and Mercutio that hastens the characters towards their deaths. And it’s the despicable antics of Iago, coupled with Othello’s flaws, that scupper any chance of a happy ending for them.

The tragedy comes from a mismatch of individuals with their situation, argues Sir Jonathan Bate. In his essay ‘What is tragedy?’ he writes: “Imagine Hamlet in Othello’s situation and Macbeth in Hamlet’s. Would Hamlet be duped by Iago’s story about the handkerchief? Of course not. He would endlessly speculate on every possibility and devise a scheme to test the evidence –perhaps he’d put on a play about adultery and watch for Desdemona’s reaction. He’d soon discover that Iago is not to be trusted, and there would be no tragedy. Now imagine Macbeth commissioned with Hamlet’s task. Would he hesitate and agonise? No, he’d go straight to Claudius and unseam him from the nave to the chops before you could say Danish bacon. Again, there would be no tragedy.”

Of course, there is also that curious quirk: the metatheatre of it all. As Garber points out: “When we sit in the audience we know the play will, in fact, be performed again the next night. So in a sense, the characters do live to see another day. Shakespeare is conscious of that. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Bottom plays Pyramus, we see him say, “Thus die I, thus, thus, thus” and then he bounces up again and he asks if we’d like an epilogue. [In theatre] the lover who dies can leap up again. Tragedy has that reparative effect upon audiences.”

So despite all the corruption, broken hearts and death that we see on the stage, we experience a shared relief at the end. As Peter Evans points out: “When the applause begins, and the actors stand facing the audience, it’s a cathartic moment for everybody. We love watching the actors in all their weeping, sweaty, snotty glory. It’s a visceral experience and part of the contract that the audience and the actors have with one another. In that moment, everyone in the room is saying ‘Let’s be together’.”

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Romeo And Juliet is being staged at the Arts Centre Melbourne until 1 May. Details at Bellshakespeare.com

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello will be performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – and tour nationally – between July and December 2016. Details at Bellshakespeare.com

Professor Marjorie Garber is the author of several books and essays about Shakespeare. Read more about her work at marjoriegarber.com

Andy McLean is a journalist, copywriter and magazine publisher.
@1andymclean

THE MERCUTIO SHOW

HOW DOES IT FEEL TO PLAY MERCUTIO, ONE OF SHAKESPEARE’S FUNNIEST AND MOST UNPREDICTABLE CHARACTERS? WE ASKED ACTOR DAMIEN STROUTHOS.

Mercutio loves nothing better than a big night out. If you were in the pub talking to a mate, how would you describe Mercutio?
Mercutio is the person in the pub who is standing on the table, drinking more than anybody else! He’s the loudest one in the room and the centre of attention at all times. He’s that mate you have who cracks all the jokes and who is a bit of a smart aleck – but also the one who will start the fight in the bar as well. He’s the first person to throw a punch because he’s always looking for an escape from normal, banal everyday life.

Put it this way: In the play Romeo And Juliet, Mercutio himself does not know that he is in the play Romeo And Juliet. Right up until the moment he dies, he thinks it’s The Mercutio Show.

How do you feel about playing Mercutio on stage?
I’m quite humbled because Mercutio is one of the great Shakespeare characters and I might never get the opportunity again. You could pick Mercutio up and put him in any one of Shakespeare’s plays and he’d have the same impact. He’s a vibrant and intelligent character with such a wit but at the same time he is the most bawdy and most volatile character. He’s a hugely fascinating character and I am relishing playing the part.

Are you anything like Mercutio in real life?
Honestly? I feel like I’m trying to live up to Mercutio because he’s such a fantastic creation. I feel like I have to grow myself to become him. He is the complete opposite of me in real life. I’m a pretty relaxed human being but it’s fun to play someone like Mercutio. He has such a mercurial nature.

He’s the life and soul of the party, but his feisty personality also leads him into the fatal brawl with Tybalt, which proves to be his undoing.
Yes, but I do sympathise with Mercutio. I do identify with his story a lot. For me, his story is one of the more heartbreaking ones in the play, because he never fully realises why he dies. He never finds out that Romeo is in love with Juliet. He spends the whole time thinking that Romeo is in love with Rosaline and that is what is making him [Romeo] sad. Mercutio never once meets Juliet and he never understands that his friend has found true love.

He’s neither Capulet nor Montague. So why does Mercutio step in to the fracas with Tybalt?
I think Mercutio gets involved for a number of reasons. Partly because he simply enjoys a fight but also because he wants to prove to his friend that he loves him. Mercutio spends the whole time trying to win his friend’s love back through gestures of grandeur. He wants to show Romeo that he’s worth more as a friend than a wife or girlfriend ever could be.

That’s interesting. Some people assume Mercutio is a just a headstrong, wisecracking rabble-rouser. But you really feel for him, don’t you.
His story is one of the more fascinating ones that Shakespeare wrote, mainly because it feels almost incomplete, in a sense. The audience is introduced to the character towards the end of the first act. He comes on and only after this gigantic monologue is he named. Romeo says, “Peace, peace Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.” and Mercutio says, “True, I talk of dreams”. We hardly know who this guy is and then, four scenes later he is dead – having changed the whole trajectory of the play.

Shakespeare took a translation of an old Italian poem and turned it into the Romeo And Juliet that we know today. In doing so, he amplified Mercutio’s role quite significantly. What does Mercutio add to Shakespeare’s version, do you think?
I think Shakespeare is very good at placing an idea in the same scene as the antithesis to that idea. Mercutio is an anti-hero to Romeo. Shakespeare is showing us different perspectives on the same circumstances.

Also Shakespeare was a writer for the people. He fleshed out Mercutio, I think, because he was writing this play for the queen but also for the commoners too. The most amazing thing about Shakespeare’s writing is that he can be so crass and bawdy and vulgar but he does it in such a beautifully poetic way that the queen will applaud him just as much as the commoners.

So I think Shakespeare needed a character like Mercutio to juxtapose Romeo’s beautiful poetry. He needed both sides to please the masses.

Mercutio is certainly an entertainer. The first two Acts feel like a comedy until he dies.
Oh absolutely. The play is a romantic comedy until then. Boisterous young kids who fall in and out of love, gate-crash parties and so on. Then it all changes when Mercutio is killed by Tybalt, and then Romeo kills Tybalt.

Mercutio keeps the wisecracks up until the very end doesn’t he.
Even in those final moments, Mercutio is never accepting of death. It’s a curious thing to perform on stage. He makes jokes all the way up until he is dead: “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man”. Mercutio is very self aware of the fact that the world is about to lose a great mind. He’s really quite an incredible character.

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Romeo And Juliet is being staged at the Arts Centre Melbourne (14 April – 1 May). Details at BellShakespeare.com.

Interview by Andy McLean.

JULIET IS THE SUN

JULIET IS AN EARLY EXAMPLE OF SHAKESPEARE GIVING WOMEN THE SHARPEST MINDS AND THE WITTIEST ONE-LINERS. IN FACT, BY THE END OF ROMEO AND JULIET, EVERYTHING REVOLVES AROUND HER.

By Andy McLean

As heroes go, it’s hard to think of a less likely one than Juliet Capulet: A giggly thirteen year old. Born into privilege. Living a sheltered life. Indulged by her own personal nurse. At first sight, it’s hard to believe that we are looking at one of theatre’s greatest romantic heroes.

But looks can be deceiving.

When we meet her, Juliet appears to be quite the goodie-two-shoes. She seems eager to please Lady Capulet, her mother (‘Madam, I am here, what is your will?’) and patiently listens while the Nurse and her mum have a lengthy discussion about Juliet’s past, present and future.

For most of this scene, the two older women are really talking about Juliet; not talking with her. They infantilise her, objectify her, and quickly agree that an arranged marriage to Count Paris is for the best. Juliet’s response is quietly submissive:

‘I’ll look to like if looking liking move,
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.’

BREAKING THE RULES
That early exchange is, in fact, a rather nifty manoeuvre from Shakespeare. It sets everyone’s expectations of Juliet very low, making sure that she is underestimated at every turn thereafter. Who would ever suspect that this meek young creature could smash the rules of society and family so spectacularly?

“Juliet goes on such a journey,” says Kelly Paterniti, who is playing the part in Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 production. “She transforms in front of our eyes from this very young dutiful daughter to this mature young woman who disobeys her parents and goes for what she wants. She’s very headstrong and incredibly imaginative.”

Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber agrees: “She begins as a very obedient daughter. Then the second she catches sight of Romeo she becomes wonderfully, cleverly deceptive.”

By way of example, Garber points out that, seconds after Juliet’s first encounter with Romeo at the Capulet ball, she is desperate to know who he is. To conceal her interest, Juliet begins asking the Nurse who various other revellers are before casually pointing out Romeo.

This is the first of many occasions where Juliet chooses language to cloak her true intentions: “She is very honest,” says Paterniti. “There are a number of times where she’s talking with her father and she’s just incredibly clever at manipulating words to say one thing that isn’t a lie but has a double meaning. So she remains true to herself even though she’s saying what she thinks someone else wants to hear. If you really listen, she’s talking about something else entirely.”

Having fallen in love, Juliet’s language shifts markedly. She is capable of breathtaking rhyme and passionate blank verse or iambic pentameter. Author and feminist Germaine Greer explained the significance of this in an interview for the UK’s Hay Festival: “Juliet is a kid and what’s extraordinary about the play is that Shakespeare has put his first great heroic blank verse in the mouth of a 13-year-old girl. That’s an extraordinarily subversive thing to do. She’s not any kind of a conventional hero.”

SEIZING THE INITIATIVE
Later in Shakespeare’s career, he regularly created female characters who took control and ran rings around their male counterparts. Juliet was a precursor to those characters. “She’s every bit Romeo’s equal – in fact she is more than his equal,” says Peter Evans, who is directing the 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of the play. “She’s so bright. She has to teach Romeo how to love and how to be real.”

In the ITV documentary Shakespeare Uncovered, Oxford scholar Sir Jonathan Bate emphasised that Juliet has the initiative during the famous balcony scene: “She’s in control even to the point of planning the wedding. She’s discovering her sexuality. She’s not passive. She’s out there at her window, willing Romeo to come to her. She’s ready to give her body to him.”

Juliet’s love for Romeo can be viewed as a reaction against the establishment, according to Greer: “One thing is clear to me: Romeo is a dork, but she loves him. Why does she love him? Because she’s exercising her own right to choose under duress.”

DARING AND DEFIANCE
Greer’s assessment of Romeo might be a touch harsh, but it is his rash behaviour that ultimately dooms the two lovers. He lets the red mist descend, avenging the death of Mercutio by slaying Tybalt and, from that moment on, Juliet’s fate is sealed just as surely as Romeo’s.

Juliet responds by asserting herself even further. In an act of daring and defiance, she consummates the marriage with Romeo and pledges her allegiance to him. Then, when Romeo flees, Juliet stays behind to pick up the pieces.

“If you look at the structure of the play, when Romeo is banished, Juliet is left to orchestrate the plot,” says Garber. “Juliet says ‘My dismal scene I needs must act alone’. She’s on her own here. She abandons her mother, she abandons the Nurse, she will no longer have any of this female support group and she makes her own plans with Friar Laurence.

“Juliet’s direction of the play comes rapidly,” continues Garber. “Shakespeare puts her in the driving seat very effectively.”

By the time she fakes her own death, Juliet has developed far beyond the passive young girl we met at the beginning. Now it is her actions that propel us towards the play’s heartbreaking conclusion.

“Make no mistake: this is Juliet’s play,” says Garber. “There is no question this is Juliet’s play; both in terms of the staging, and in terms of the language. Her maturing is very rapid. The centre of the play has been hollowed out as a space for Juliet’s maturation.”

Peter Evans agrees: “Absolutely, I think it’s her play. Juliet is there with Rosalind, Cleopatra, Viola and Lady Macbeth as one of Shakespeare’s female characters with a real engine and with real agency. I think Shakespeare says it himself in the last words of the play when he actually refers to ‘…Juliet and her Romeo’. He clearly says that this has ended up being a story about Juliet.”

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Romeo And Juliet is being staged at Canberra Theatre Centre (1  – 9 April) and the Arts Centre Melbourne (14 April – 1 May). Details at  Bellshakespeare.com.au

Andy McLean is a magazine publisher and freelance writer. He tweets from @1andymclean