Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Romeo and Juliet (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Rene Weis.

Finding new critical approaches to many of Shakespeare’s plays continues to be a challenge, perhaps even more so for academic editions which usually strive for a tone beyond a basic introduction that regurgitate the essentials.  Rene Weis’s interest in this new Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet is to investigate the balance between its main protagonists and suggest that for all the masculine prominence in the billing, the play’s really about the feminine side or rather that the title should more fittingly echo the final line of the play, “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Weis argues that Juliet has a more thorough back story, that more time is spent setting up her extended family even to the point of paralleling her with a child born to the Nurse at the same time as the young Capulet who didn’t live.  Shakespeare investigates far more deeply into the girl’s passage into womanhood and she receives the greater number of speeches capturing the aggressive passion of teenage love.  Romeo’s parents are near ciphers and when Romeo does have narrative agency it’s usually in service of rounding out Juliet’s character rather than the Montague, his only real character development in shifting from platitudes to poetry with his infatuation moves away from Rosalind.

The evidence continues into the section about  how Shakespeare’s utilises time, the play structuring itself carefully across four days.  Glance at the included chronology and we can see just how many of the scenes, especially in the latter half of the play are about Juliet dealing with this secret love, outside the gaze of her parents, of Paris being foisted upon her.  The parallels with A Midsummer Night’s Dream are worthwhile in comparing how a similar situation, which also includes the application of potions is resolved in a resolutely comedic fashion rather than the realistic, chaotic worlds of Verona which ends in tragedy.

From here Weis delves into the dating of the play which, thanks to the play's rich contemporary allusion, the editor puts at late summer to the early autumn 1596, within thirty years of the play’s primary source Brooke’s poem, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.  Shakespeare’s genius is often brought into question because of these borrowings, but as Weis explains, Shakespeare’s genius was in taking these sometimes mundane works and transforming them into plays which stand the test of time; how many similar poems and stories remain obscure because the playwright wasn’t interested?

With so much to cram in, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the production history isn’t as detailed as in some Ardens, but expresses its worth in concentrating on adaptation over more traditional productions, from Garrick’s interpolations to Berlioz’s symphonie dramatique through Prokofiev’s ballet and Tchaikovsky.  The closest analysis is of the modern film versions, of West Side Story, of Zeferelli’s 1968 film and of Baz Lurhmann’s in 1996 which Weis bravely brands, “the greatest Shakespeare film ever”.  My personal taste would still put Branagh’s Hamlet above it, but it’s difficult to argue with that assessment in terms of popular appeal.

At page ninety-four, such criticism gives way to the text and textual analysis.  Like Hamlet, R+J exists primarily in an oddball first Quarto, more authoritative Q2 and of course F1 and like Hamlet the relationship between them is hotly contested.  R+J’s Q1 is about eight hundred lines shorter than its later sister work, with some sections omitted and others rewritten and the argument has generally shifted away from memorial reconstruction to a players edition produced either by a printer or Shakespeare himself for playing in the sticks.  It was certainly considered useful enough to be glanced at during the type setting of Q2 for textual confirmations.

Arden published Hamlet’s Q1 in a separate volume with F1, properly edited.  For Romeo & Juliet a facsimile of the British Library’s copy has been included as an appendix, some of the margin notes included, slightly abbreviated.  Part of me wishes that this too had instead been a properly edited version, but given the academic timescales and that its already been thirty years since the last Arden edition, it's understandable that Weis should concentrate on the play as it's best known with a few interpolations.  Plus facsimiles allow us to glimpse the text as it was originally seen by the Elizabethan public, without four hundred years of further editorial intervention.

Romeo and Juliet (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Rene Weis. Methuen Drama. 2012. RRP: £8.99. ISBN: 9781903436912. Review copy supplied.

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