In our third episode we meet Romeo & Juliet, played by podcast host Nic Moore and Dale Leonheart.

We learn a bit about what drew Dale and Nic to acting, a little of their process… and their passion for Shakespeare; Romeo + Juliet in particular.

And we get a sneak–preview from Act I, Scene 5 — Romeo and Juliet meeting for the first time.

One of the best known sentences in Shakespeare, indeed in all of literature, is Mercutio’s curse as he dies at Tybalt’s hand: “A plague on both your houses”.

And one of the major reasons for the deaths of both Romeo and Juliet is the failure of Friar Laurence to let Romeo know the details of his plan. Some time after Romeo was due to meet Juliet at the tomb, Friar John, a fellow Franciscan, explains that on his way to take the message to Romeo he was prevented from reaching Mantua where Romeo was holed up:

… the searchers of the town

Suspecting that we both were in a house

Where the infectious pestilence did reign,

Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth

So that my speed to Mantua there was stayed. (R&J  5,2,8-12)


And when Laurence asks who took the letter to Romeo, John gives the answer which is the literal key to the ultimate suicides of the lovers:

I could not send it – here it is again –

Nor get a messenger to bring it thee,

So fearful were they of infection. (R&J 5,2,1-16)


Apart from these two references the plague does not appear on the surface of Romeo and Juliet. Yet it was a threatening shadow throughout Shakespeare’s life and bubbles to the surface of his work with regularity. In the year of his birth the town of Stratford-upon-Avon recorded his baptism and the death by plague of a young apprentice, and in the margins of the latter was written hic incipit pestis, or here begins the pestilence.

Not much was known about the plague at the time. It came without warning. No one knew what caused it or how to treat it other than through the instinct to stay away from people with the symptoms: fever and chills to start with, weakness and vomiting, bleeding from everywhere, and swollen lymph nodes in the armpits and groin (buboes – thus ‘bubonic’). Death was agonizing. 

People lived with the plague in the way we never quite managed to live with our own pestilence, Covid-19. They took all manner of folk precautions, like burning herbs. That was not an unreasonable thing to do, of course. And some of those habits found their way through to the literature of the time.

It is hard to know how Shakespeare and his fellow theatre people dealt personally with the constant threat of plague. Public places including theatres were closed for long periods of time during outbreaks, and as a shareholder whose living depended largely (if not completely) on his earning, Shakespeare would have found the plague deeply threatening and frustrating. And between the closures we know they were constantly aware of it, and although Shakespeare did not make a central issue of it others did. I remember falling in love with a poem, “A Litany in Time of Plague”, by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Thomas Nashe, a relatively unsung poet and dramatist. He wrote the poem in 1593 after London had been ravaged by plague. It contains a line that has haunted me since I first read the poem some 50 years ago..This is an excerpt: 

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
  Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
  Lord, have mercy on us!

The plague turns up regularly in Shakespeare’s plays as the vehicle of a simile or metaphor. “Thou art a boil,” Lear tells his daughter Goneril, “A plague-sore, or embossed carbuncle / In my corrupted blood.” “Be as a planetary plague,” says Timon in Timon of Athens, “when Jove / Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison / In the sick air.” And in Coriolanus the eponymous general shouts at the plebeians: “All the contagion of the south light on you / You shames of Rome, … You herd of—Boils and plagues / Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorred / Farther than seen, and one infect another / Against the wind a mile.”And the plague gives us a tour de force in Twelfth Night when Olivia equates it with love, or vice versa:

Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes. (Twelfth Night, 1,5, 265-8)

And in Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice uses this pestilent vehicle wittily to make fun of Benedick. In the opening scene of the play beatrice asks the messenger where Benedick is, and he replies that Benedick “is most in the company of the right noble Claudio”, to which Beatrice replies:

O Lord! He will hang upon him like a disease. He is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad. God help the noble Claudio. If he have caught the Benedick it will cost him a thousand pound ere he be cured. (Much Ado, 1,1,120-4)

While the plague in name bubbles irregularly through the surface of the plays, all of Shakespeare’s work develops its characters and relationships in the context of deep and widespread social disruption. The Shakespeare historian Stephen Greenblatt points us toward Macbeth, which was written during one of the most intense periods of the plague. When Macduff asks Ross how Scotland is faring under Macbeth, Ross answers

Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be called our mother, but our grave, where nothing
But who knows nothing is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not marked; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy. The dead man’s knell
Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.  (Macbeth 4,3,189-198)

In Elizabethan English, as Greenblatt says, the word “modern” meant something like trivial, as when a character in All’s Well That Ends Well says “They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.” “Ecstasy” meant any extreme degree of feeling, the state of being beside oneself. The upshot then is that the violence of emotion, the affliction of countless deaths, has become the way of life for people for whom the plague was a situation that, as far as anyone knew, had no end. Shakespeare’s genius, not just here but throughout his work, was to make a metaphoric comparison between the effect of the plague on society and everyday life, and the effect of tyrannical government.

Juliet’s death is, among other things, a supreme act of rebellion.

As a teenage undergraduate I had to read all of Shakespeare’s plays and write essays about themes and characterization, philosophy and structure. I recall an essay I wrote about female characters and rebellion: I was dreamily in love with an actress I had seen as Cordelia and Juliet in the same year, on stage. I was also in rebellion against my rather military and right-wing father, so these two characters seemed like soul mates. In fact, they still do, joined by Portia. It is only very recently that I have come to place the ‘shrew’ Kate in the same stable. At the same time I was reading Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millet, Angela Davis, Juliet Mitchell and Monique Wittig, writers who established the intellectual framework of feminism for the second half of the twentieth century. What struck me way back then, and strikes me now, is that these daughters in Shakespeare rebel against a patriarchal structure that has changed far less than we would like to think. Their rebellion engenders anger and fear in their fathers and other men in authority, leading ultimately to narratives of revenge and control.

In 2016 I was in London visiting my (also rebellious) daughters and sat in on a lecture at the British Library by Kim Ballard, a teacher at a sixth form college in England and the author of a number of books on language. She was talking about language and Shakespeare, and about the language of strong female characters. She introduced a debate about daughters in Shakespeare that I found very thought-provoking. The British Library published her essay about the topic on its website, in the section on Renaissance literature. I thought readers of these blogs would like to be thought-provoked too.

Kim Ballard, Daughters in Shakespeare: dreams, duty and defiance, British Library, 2016

A number of Shakespeare’s plays show daughters negotiating the demands of their fathers, often trying to reconcile duty with a desire for independence. Kim Ballard considers five of Shakespeare’s most memorable literary daughters: Juliet, Desdemona, Portia, Katherina and Cordelia.

When we consider that Shakespeare lived in an age when all actors were male and the subject matter of serious drama focused heavily on the exploits of men, it’s hardly surprising that female characters are in a minority in his plays. And yet Shakespeare created many complex and engaging female roles for his young male actors to perform. Parent-child relationships feature heavily, and a significant number of these involve fathers and daughters. Interestingly, mothers are often absent from the drama, throwing the daughter/father relationship into sharp relief. A father of two daughters himself, Shakespeare’s dramatic daughters make a formidable line-up of young women, most of them at a transitional stage between the protection of their childhood home and an adult life beyond it. The transition is rarely a smooth one: in both comedies and tragedies, tension rises as daughters go in search of love, adventure and independence. Here are just a few of their stories.

Juliet: ‘yet a stranger in the world’

Romeo and Juliet may be a love story, but a daughter/father relationship lies at the heart of the play’s events. Juliet is not yet 14 when the young nobleman Paris approaches her father Capulet for permission to woo his daughter. At first, Capulet seems protective of Juliet, his only surviving child, and proposes that ‘two more summers’ should pass before ‘we may think her ripe to be a bride’ (1.2.10–11). But Paris is a good prospect, a relative of the Prince of Verona, so Capulet agrees to Paris’s request, inviting him to a family feast that very evening which Juliet will be attending.

In Shakespeare’s time, daughters of respectable families, like Juliet, could expect their fathers to have a significant involvement in choosing their future husband. This reflected the subordinate position of women in a patriarchal society, and particularly the traditional view that daughters were a commodity and could be used in marriage to forge useful alliances. Paternal involvement in husband selection provided fertile material for Shakespeare in many of his plays, and he makes considerable dramatic use of the resulting family clashes. Initially, Capulet is seemingly kinder than many fathers in allowing Juliet some say over her future husband: ‘But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart, / My will to her consent is but a part…’ (1.2.16–17).

Later in the play, however, when the family is in shock after their kinsman Tybalt has been murdered, Capulet leaps ahead and sets an early date for the wedding without consulting his daughter first. ‘I think she will be rul’d / In all respects by me’ (3.4.13–14) he comments, clearly expecting Juliet to be compliant.

The obedient way young women of the 16th century were meant to behave towards their parents was not only reflected in religious teaching but also well documented in publications known as ‘conduct books’. At the beginning of the play, Lady Capulet – sent to speak to Juliet by her husband – tells Juliet about Paris’s interest in her, and encourages her to consider him. Juliet’s reply exemplifies the behaviour expected of her:

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.

Unfortunately, Juliet’s dutiful words are soon forgotten when, overcome by her ‘warm youthful blood’, she falls in love with Romeo (the son of her father’s enemy) and marries him in secret. Inevitably then, she must disobey her father later in the play by refusing to marry Paris. Capulet is furious. Despite Juliet’s attempts to remain respectful towards him, ‘Good father, I beseech you on my knees / Hear me with patience but to speak a word’ (3.5.158–59), he threatens to disown her if she doesn’t comply with his wishes: ‘And you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend, / And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets’ (3.5.191–92).

It’s part of Juliet’s tragedy that she’s unable to tell her authoritarian father about her marriage to Romeo, even though she could express her love with an eloquence that could overcome anger and hatred. Capulet is determined to ‘give’ her to Paris (a father’s prerogative, even enshrined in the marriage ceremony) and she feels she has little option but to agree to Friar Laurence’s drastic plan to fake her own death in order to extricate herself from this situation – a plan that is doomed to go horribly wrong.

Desdemona: maker of a ‘gross revolt’

Juliet is just one of several daughters in Shakespeare who make their own choice of husband, even at the risk or expense of displeasing their fathers and finding themselves torn between conflicting loyalties. The tragedy of Othello begins with the news that Desdemona, the daughter of the respected Venetian senator Brabantio, has not only secretly eloped, but has chosen a man of a different race – Othello, a Moor (and actually her father’s friend) – for her husband. On discovering this, Brabantio is outraged:

BRABANTIO Now, Roderigo,
Where didst thou see her? – O unhappy girl! –
With the Moor, say’st thou? – Who would be a father! –
How didst thou know ’twas she? – O, she deceives me
Past thought! – What said she to you? – Get more tapers;
Raise all my kindred. – Are they married, think you?

RODERIGO Truly, I think they are.

BRABANTIO O heaven! how got she out? O treason of the blood!
Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ minds
By what you see them act.

Brabantio sees Desdemona’s actions as nothing less than treachery. He can hardly believe she managed to ‘escape’ from the house, let alone deceive him in this way. In fact, he finds her actions so uncharacteristic of his quiet and diffident daughter, he takes some convincing that Othello hasn’t drugged her ‘with some mixtures pow’rful o’er the blood’ (1.3.104). However, Othello explains how he won Desdemona’s love and how, when he visited Brabantio, she would hurry through the ‘house affairs’ for which she was responsible in order to listen to his exciting tales of travel and adventure. She even expressed envy of Othello’s experiences, wishing that ‘heaven had made her such a man’ (1.3.163). A picture emerges of a dutiful but stifled daughter looking for a life beyond the confines of her family home

Unlike Juliet, Desdemona at least manages to give an account of her position to her father. She may have married without Brabantio’s consent, but she acknowledges her ‘divided duty’ between him and her husband, while making clear what her new situation demands:

My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband;
And so much duty as my mother show’d
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor, my lord.

Perhaps softened by this declaration, Brabantio relents and (in another echo of the marriage ceremony) says to Othello:

I here do give thee that with all my heart
Which but thou hast already, with all my heart
I would keep from thee…

Before taking leave of the couple, however, he warns Othello about his new wife:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see;
She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee.

There’s an irony to this warning: Desdemona remains utterly faithful to her husband, but Othello’s willingness to believe she has indeed deceived him drives the play to its tragic conclusion.

Portia: ‘a lady richly left’

In his comedies too, Shakespeare exploits the dynamics of daughter/father relationships. While Juliet and Desdemona find themselves in direct confrontation with their fathers over their choice of husbands, Portia in The Merchant of Venice is ‘curb’d by the will’ of her deceased father (1.2.25). Thanks to her inheritance, she enjoys a degree of independence, but lacks the freedom to choose her husband. Instead, her suitors must undergo a test involving caskets of gold, silver and lead: the successful suitor – who cannot be refused – will be the one who finds her portrait within his chosen casket. Portia seems indignant at the imposition of this ‘lottery’, but her maid, Nerissa, reminds her that her father was ‘ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations’ (1.2.27–28). Needless to say, it’s Portia’s hoped-for husband, Bassanio, who correctly opts for the casket of lead.

Having secured the man of her dreams by complying with her father’s wishes, Portia later takes on a role in which she acts independently of both her father and her new husband. Disguising herself as the highly capable lawyer Balthazar, she wins a legal case brought against her husband’s friend Antonio by Shylock the Jew. In a letter of introduction, Bellario (a lawyer who has sent Balthazar/Portia to act on his behalf) describes him in glowing terms:

He is furnish’d with my opinion, which better’d with his own learning, the greatness whereof I cannot enough commend, comes with him, at my importunity, to fill up your Grace’s request in my stead. I beseech you let his lack of years be no impediment to let him lack a reverend estimation, for I never knew so young a body with so old a head. (4.1.157–64)

In her scene as Balthazar, Portia certainly shows herself to be a highly educated woman. Although most daughters of the time were expected to occupy themselves primarily with domestic concerns (as Desdemona did), the tide was slowly turning against traditional patriarchal values and in favour of women’s education. The humanist scholar Juan Luis Vives, for example, who had tutored Elizabeth I’s half-sister Mary (Elizabeth’s predecessor as monarch), had written an influential conduct book on The Education of a Christian Woman (1524). By the reign of Elizabeth I – herself a highly educated woman, firm in her belief she could reign without marrying – a significant number of women from more privileged backgrounds were starting to enjoy a greater degree of freedom and learning. Portia may have submitted to the will of her father at the beginning of the play, but the ‘ring’ trick she plays on Bassanio at the end suggests she expects independence and equality within her marriage.


Katherina: ‘Renown’d in Padua for her scolding tongue’

Another comic heroine, Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, is the very opposite of the meek and dutiful daughter, a thorn in the side of her long-suffering father, Baptista. Modelled on the popular stereotype of the scolding woman, her behaviour appears particularly shrewish in contrast with her seemingly compliant younger sister Bianca. Wondering how he will ever marry off his older daughter, Baptista has decreed that Bianca will not be allowed to marry until a husband has been found for Kate. When Petruchio steps up to the challenge of taking her on, Baptista has to warn him to expect ‘some unhappy words’. Having met Petruchio, Kate even scolds her father for trying to organise a husband for her:

Call you me daughter? Now I promise you
You have show’d a tender fatherly regard,
To wish me wed to one half lunatic,
A madcap ruffian and a swearing Jack.

Against her will, however, Katherina is married to Petruchio who, wearing her down through hunger and exhaustion, succeeds in taming her, much to Baptista’s amazement.

Modern audiences can find qualities to admire in daughters like Juliet, Desdemona and Portia, who know their own minds and seek freedom from certain parental and social constraints. But Katherina presents us with a difficulty, changing as she does from independence to obedience. Here is an extract from her closing speech:

I am asham’d that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.

Many critics have grappled with the problem of Kate’s taming, not least because they find it hard to believe that Shakespeare could be so apparently sexist. They argue instead that the final twist is completely ironic, or that Shakespeare was really attacking those fathers and husbands who expected women to submit to them. Either way, The Taming of the Shrew contributes some thought-provoking material to any consideration of daughters in Shakespeare in terms of the wives they have become by the end of the play. However, in the last play included here, it is the daughter/father relationship that remains central to the drama to the very end.

Cordelia: ‘this unpriz’d precious maid’

The tragedy of King Lear is a play about the love between a father and his youngest and favourite daughter, Cordelia, the one he hopes will look after him in his old age. At the play’s opening, Lear has devised a game of flattery in order to divide the kingdom he no longer wishes to rule between Cordelia and her two older sisters, Goneril and Regan. Refusing to compete with the ‘glib and oily art’ (1.1.224) of their speeches, and pressed by Lear to say something more than ‘nothing’, Cordelia opts for simplicity and honesty in expressing her affection for him:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me. I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all?


Unlike other daughters in Shakespeare, Cordelia’s defiance of her father is not about marriage, but about a principle. Lear’s disappointment with her speech earns her not land, but banishment.

Cordelia doesn’t reappear until the closing stages of the play, when she returns to Britain to rescue her father from madness and the cruel neglect meted out by her older sisters. In a moving reconciliation scene, Lear admits he was wrong to treat Cordelia as he did:

LEAR If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have (as I do remember) done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

CORDELIA No cause, no cause.

In his final speech to her, after Cordelia’s forces have been defeated, he imagines the closing years of his life with the daughter he loves:

Come let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage;
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies.

Lear is not alone among Shakespearean fathers in regretting the rash and foolish way he has treated his daughter. From a psychological point of view, the tyrannical behaviour of fathers seems to stem from their fears of facing old age alone, as well as from the hopes and strong feelings they have for their daughters. Some commentators have even found an incestuous element at work in the unfolding of the plot of King Lear. Despite Lear’s earlier treatment of her, Cordelia’s kindness towards him and her willingness to risk her life in order to save his, is testament to the unbroken bond that exists between this particular father and daughter.


Shakespeare set about thirteen of his plays wholly or partly in Italy. An incomplete list includes: The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado about Nothing, Two Gentlemen of Verona, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and of course Romeo and Juliet

We don’t know for sure what drew Shakespeare to Italy, but it is not hard to find probable reasons. To start with, Italy was attractive because it gave birth to a lot of the literary traditions that Shakespeare draws from, including courtly love, the troubadours, and the sonnet whose earliest form was established by Dante and Petrarch. We know that Shakespeare read translations of Italian work, not just what we now call literature but formative non-fiction as well: Macchiavelli’s The Prince and Castiglione’s The Courtier. It’s also possible that Shakespeare had a relationship with Emilia Lanier (née Bassano), whose father was born in Venice and was a leading court musician to Queen Elizabeth. 

Dramaturgically, Renaissance Italy was attractive as a collection of City States. Each city ruled itself, there was a complete range of social classes from the Prince to the peasants, and laws were made and enforced by the city itself. The Church was international rather than national, but in most domestic matters local friars and priests were more or less autonomous. As we know from a number of Shakespeare’s plays, he accorded friars and priests considerable power, not in a hierarchical sense but as meddlers, off-the-books players in the lives of his characters, not least in the lives of Romeo and Juliet separately and together. It is possible that Shakespeare saw in Italy a place where he could highlight dramatically the dynamics of power and love that he observed in London and the courts of Elizabeth.  

We know that R&J was based on Arthur Brooke’s Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, a long poem published in 1562 and reprinted twice by the editor of the Miscellany, Richard Tottel, in 1582 and 1587. Brookes’ poem is itself a distillation of a wide range of stories that go back to folk myth. Most good editions of the play provide excellent accounts and reading lists for anyone interested in the sources. My favorite is Dante’s invective in book 6 of The Divine Comedy, Purgatory, against an Italy that was servile to the feuds between powerful families, in which he invites the Emperor Albert – who was involved in the antipope crises of the early medieval church – to come and see the feuding families, the Montecchi and the Cappelletti (Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, 6, 76ff). 

Dante’s feuding families were not associated with Verona, which during the Medieval and Renaissance periods of Italian history was a relatively small and neutral city. The current mayor of Verona often laughs as he watches the regular influx of tourists; while they come to witness the home of two famous lovers, it is in fact the English play alone that gives the city its reputation. Entrepreneurs in the city have been canny enough to take locations and landmarks from the play and find matching locations in the city itself. Francesco da Mosto,  a Venetian writer and architect who presented the BBC series Shakespeare in Italy in 2012, had this to say about Verona:

“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene” – Verona – a wonderful city surrounded by hills arranged like banks of theatre seats – is the city in which Shakespeare’s legacy is felt strongest. There is a saying in Italy that ‘Venetians are great lords, Paduans are great doctors, people from Vicenza eat cats [during wartime, allegedly] and people from Verona are all crazy’. People from Verona are full of life, very funny and welcoming, a curious breed who love to meet visitors and appreciate new influences.

Verona was not thought of as a city of romance before Romeo and Juliet – in fact, not many people would have heard of it as it was very much in the shadow of Venice at that time. It is now regarded as one of the most romantic places in the world, and thousands of lovers visit the city each year.

The city is full of sites associated with Romeo and Juliet. The famous balcony where Romeo is said to have declared his love to Juliet is close to Verona’s main promenade – although since the balcony was apparently added to a suitably old house in 1936, it’s doubtful it is the original! There is a statue of Juliet outside and her bedroom has been recreated inside (Via Cappello 23, 00 39 045 803 43 03). The stone architecture of the building’s courtyard, entered through a little arched passageway, has kept the otherworldly atmosphere of ancient times.

My favourite site in Verona is Juliet’s tomb (Via del Pontiere 9, 00 39 045 800 03 61). It’s in a 13th-century Franciscan convent, where Juliet died in the play – the only one outside the city walls at the time when the events were supposed to have taken place. People go there to pay tribute to Juliet and Shakespeare – even Dickens visited. It really does have a very special atmosphere. It feels like one of the saddest places in the world.”


While you’re reading this article you might want to listen to an excerpt from the Fantasia-Overture of Romeo and Juliet (1880) by Peter Tchaikowsky: The performance speaks to the global presence of Romeo and Juliet. The composer was Russian, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is from Amsterdam, and the conductor, Elim Chan, is from Hong Kong. There is a beautiful intensity in the performers’ faces, and the rhapsodic music clearly brings pleasure to the conductor.

And I want to begin this article with a story. In 1997 I was on a train from London to Edinburgh when a trio of teenage girls got on and took the bench seats across the aisle from me. Their conversation was frank, personal and intense in the way of teenage girls, and it became more intense as they started discussing the film Titanic, which had just opened in UK cinemas with the 22 year old Kate Winslet (whose hand on the rear window of the car has become an erotic trope) and Leonardo de Caprio, who was 23.

“Have you seen it?” one of the girls asked.

“Of course,” said the second girl.

The third was silent, and the silence continued for a while until the first girl thrust her head forward and said, “You really haven’t seen it?”

The girl shook her head. “And I’m not going to see it, either.” 

There was a pause. “Why not?”

“Because I couldn’t bear to see him die twice.”

She was of course referring to Leonardo diCaprio, who dies as Romeo in  Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, which had come out a year earlier, and as Jack Dawson in Titanic. In R&J he dies together with the 17 year old Claire Danes in a tragedy that the world understands as a testament to passionate and rebellious young love. In Titanic, Leo (as the girls called him) plays a young Irishman who wins a seat on the doomed ship in a poker game and falls in love with a woman miles above his station, only to die in an extended feat of Arctic drowning when the ship hits an iceberg and sinks.

The two films share several themes that were key to the popular success of both: young love, desire and death, alienation from the society in which they live, and rebellion. As I listened to the conversation between the three girls I was interested that they did not differentiate between fiction and reality. It did not matter that Leo died twice in two separate movies with just a year between them. I also found it interesting that the girls talked about Romeo and Jack as though they were  a single character who was a real and legitimate object of their  attention and desire. Later, in the buffet car, I had a conversation with one of the girls. She talked about Romeo as the kind of boy (she said “boy”) they dreamed about but never encountered. When I suggested that Romeo’s character emerged from his responses to the more intentional and active Juliet, she sighed and said, “Yeah, girls gotta do all the work these days.” 

I asked her if she and her friends considered the two actresses, Clare Danes and Kate Winslet, as rivals for Leo’s love. 

“Oh god, no,” she said, laughing. “Those chicks are really cool.” 

Of course, I thought. “What makes them cool?” I asked.

She said, “They’re so bright, and they know what they want. And, you know, you just have to listen to them talk.”

They know what they want. They’re articulate. That girl in the buffet car didn’t know it, and nor did I at the time, but she was giving me a clue to the reason for the enduring popularity of Shakespeare’s play, to its constant attraction to artists and audiences throughout the world.

There are countless poems, plays, novels, movies and cartoons, songs and musicals, ballets and operas about young love, first desire, rebellion, dying young, romantic hope and romantic despair, sexual longing and sexual ecstasy. But the one that has them all and always stands out, that has generated countless productions and variations, is Romeo and Juliet. And I mean Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Even when we have the best variations in mind – like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or West Side Story, the Shakespeare play is always there as a reference point.

Why? What does Shakespeare’s play have that keeps it in the mind of global audiences, even of people who have never seen the play.

One thing we all know about the play, almost as surely as we know what’s going on around us, is that it is located in conflict. That’s one of the rules of dramatic writing: you have to establish and delineate the conflict, give personality to the combatants, and show how your characters find their path through it to resolution. In London around the time Shakespeare was working on R&J, there were outbreaks of violence and civil unrest. In part they might have been caused by the residual effect of the plague, which killed around 20,000 Londoners in 1593 (that was 15-20% of the population). But there was also an ongoing protest against  poverty and social conditions. In June of 1595 around 1,000 apprentices – which might realistically have included men like Samson and Gregory from the Capulet household, and Abraham and others from the Montagues – rioted in protest against living conditions in the city.

In Romeo and Juliet the conflict is longstanding, parochial and familial, and although it’s set in Verona, in Italy, it reflects the constant battle for influence and position in the court of Elizabeth I.  The Verona of Romeo and Juliet (there is a separate blog on the subject of Shakespeare and Italy) is a complacent world in which family rivalry and egocentric carelessness are evident everywhere. As the Director for this year’s Curtain performance says in his introduction to the Program, “Verona is on the verge of anarchy”. But at the beginning of the play it’s a laid-back anarchy. The boys representing each family are a bit like gang members, but not completely. Sword-fighting and verbal baiting are regular, but people let it go. No one really enforces the city’s laws. The Prince has taken a back seat and the Watch (Elizabethan England’s minimal police force, the object of ridicule in some Shakespeare plays like Much Ado) does not appear until the tragic events of the final act. The moral role of the Church is embodied in the ego of the friar, who is obsessively distracted by unsaintly pursuits and the desire to be liked. He is long on words and short on common sense. He speaks with a tone of rationality yet the logic has often lost touch with the premise.

The job of policing the moral, social and political lives of the people of Verona falls to the families themselves. Their actions tend to be passive, responsive rather than proactive, and when the situation is made urgent by the death of family members, they intervene to secure their own interests. A major responsibility of the pater familias, in this case Capulet, is to deliver their daughters into marriages advantageous to the family. One much-used book  that sets out the socially desirable conduct of women was written by Juan Luis Vives for Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.  It was translated from Latin in 1557 by Richard Hyrde under the title The Instruction of a christen woman, and made the point succinctly: “it becometh not a maid to talk, where her father and mother be in communication about her marriage.” 

Into this sleepy hurricane come our young lovers, with hope and expectation and a certain amount of wonder. Romeo is a young man who is in love with the idea of love. Based on the sexual subcurrents of his banter with Mercutio he is probably bisexual, as were many men in Renaissance England, including, if we read the evidence correctly, Shakespeare himself. He has fixed his lover’s gaze on Rosaline. He speaks of her iambic hyperbole and romantic sonnets, not unlike Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Rosaline is an ethereal mannequin on which Romeo drapes his illusions, and as a character she never materializes.

Romeo, at this point more agape than eros, notices the beautiful Juliet and falls in love with the thought of falling in love with her. His modus is the Petrarchan sonnet, a form which represents the hyperbolic titillation of the duel between ice and fire rejection and desire. It is not until he discovers that Juliet is real and that she talks back that his experience of love changes.

As the play opens Juliet is a young woman with a beauty that attracts attention and an intellect that is already sharp and self-aware. She has not yet challenged her parents, so they can talk about arranging a match between her and her kinsman Paris without considering the possibility that she might resist. Her main relationship is with her nurse – who started as her wetnurse, breast-feeding her physically as well as being her main counsel. In her opening scene in the play Juliet has just seven lines. The nurse, a gem of a character, so characteristic of the mature Shakespeare, does all the talking, until Juliet’s mother introduces the idea of marriage. “Tell me, daughter Juliet” she says, “How stands your dispositions to be married?” To which Juliet replies, in a line that introduces the young woman who is becoming – in the parlance of Gen Z – her own agent, “It is an honour that I dream not of.” I love the wit and the ironic precision that we hear in that line: of course she has thought about marriage, but she does not dream of it; it is not in the wheelhouse of her desire.

Romeo is attracted by her beauty and by something in her character that is different: he has met his match. In describing to Friar Laurence the difference between Rosaline and Juliet he says: “Her I love now / Doth grace for grace and love for love allow.” (R&J 2,3, 81-2). He does not fully understand the difference, but he knows it’s there.

To go back to when he first encounters Juliet. He thinks and speaks in the mode of a Petrarchan courtier. When he says of her “… “she doth teach the torches to burn bright, / It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night / As a rich jewel in Ethiop’s ear.” (1,5,43-4) we are reminded of Sonnet 27, which is worth quoting in full because it so closely matches the themes of light and dark, love and consciousness, that pervade Romeo and Juliet:


Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,

The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;

But then begins a journey in my head,

To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:

For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)

Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,

And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,

Looking on darkness which the blind do see:

Save that my soul’s imaginary sight

Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,

Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,

Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.

   Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,

   For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.


When Romeo first approaches Juliet after seeing her at the Capulet ball, he does so in courtly mode. He speaks first of the context, then goes straight to the pont: “My lips, two blushing pilgrims,” he tells her, are ready for a kiss. This is where we begin to see what makes this play so different from all others. In most Elizabethan literature, at least to this point, men are the ones who initiate contact and behavior, women are passive, and both social and literary convention would have required Juliet to be coy and blushing in response to Romeo’s advances (as Julia is in Two Gentlemen of Verona). Instead, she responds with a firm and resolute command, and between the two of them they create a sonnet:


If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;

They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.


Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.


Remove the characters names and we have the perfect sonnet: it’s fourteen lines, it rhymes as a Shakespearean sonnet should: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. It has the dialectical structure of a sonnet (four line thesis, four line antithesis, volta – turning point – and six line synthesis). In this way, their declaration of attraction to each other – more sexual than emotional at this point – is equal. And one of the things it tells us is that Juliet ups the ante for Romeo, who has until now been the sole player in his poetic output. Now he is matched word for word, and Juliet’s command of the poetic structure of language shows her to have a mind that is already experienced in working through the complex territory of emotion and desire.

That most famous scene in Shakespeare, possibly in the whole of theater, is the balcony scene (R&J, 2,1). It is interesting to speculate on how the first audience must have taken it. Not only does Juliet refuse to be coy and innocent of desire, but she argues eloquently to herself the complex philosophical case of naming and identity:

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,

Nor arm nor face nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O be some other name!

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet. (2,2, 38-44)

This tells us that Juliet is not caught up in the romantic impetus of her love for Romeo. She understands perfectly well, in a way the audience is not yet sure of, that her whole life will be upended by how she acts tonight; his too. As Romeo asks her how he can swear his love she warns him against poetic cliché: “O, swear not by the moon.” And then she goes on:

Well, do not swear. Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy in this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,

Too like the lightning which doth cease to be

Ere one can say it lightens … (2.2, 116-110)

It is Juliet who makes the running in this exchange between her and Romeo. She understands and knows more than anyone. As a young woman she has absorbed the reality of social and familial expectation. She knows that as a young woman she must deal with the plans other people have for her.

Following the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio and the banishment of Romeo – whom Juliet’s father previously described as “a virtuous and well-governed youth” (R&J 1,5,66) – the mechanisms of social control begin to stiffen. Juliet seeks a solution, and knowing that her family and the society around her are not her allies, she goes elsewhere. She also decides to go ahead with her marriage night. She feels the full and compelling power of sexual desire, while recognizing that instead of allowing events to drive a wedge between her and Romeo, she should seek to be with him. The defining moment of the play is the extraordinary scene in which Juliet sets out the reality of her love and desire for Romeo while grappling with the additional reality that he killed a dear family member. “Gallop apace”, she says, asking the universe to speed her journey into womanhood. And then she goes on to explore the changes she is about to witness:

Come, night, come, Romeo, come, thou day in night,

For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night

Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back.

Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,

Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

O, I have bought the mansion of a love,

But not possess’d it, and, though I am sold,

Not yet enjoy’d: so tedious is this day

As is the night before some festival

To an impatient child that hath new robes

And may not wear them. ( R&J, 3, 2, 17-25)

This speech is full of explicit physical and sexual imagery – she may be young but is not innocent or naïve – and the accelerating (“galloping”) fuel of secrecy. It shows us the transformation of Juliet from a child into a woman who has the mind and the desire to act for herself in awareness of the bigger world. Later in the scene she speaks to the nurse about the complex world in which circumstance has thrown her: “Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?”  And later still she engages in debate with her mother over Tybalt’s death and the proposed hasty marriage with Paris. Capulet is aware, albeit without much understanding, that events have unleashed a burgeoning power in his daughter and he wants to use marriage immediately as a way of containing it. She resists him, and his response is swift and clinical:

How now, how now, chop-logic! What is this?

‘Proud,’ and ‘I thank you,’ and ‘I thank you not;’

And yet ‘not proud,’ mistress minion, you,

Thank me no thankings, nor, proud me no prouds,

But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next,

To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,

Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither. (R&J 3, 5, 149-155)

Once he has calmed down a little from his anger he becomes cold and mean and sets out, succinctly and chillingly, his claim to fatherly ownership and his refusal to accept her independence:

An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;

An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,

For by my soul I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee

Not what is mine shall never do thee good. (R&J 3,5,192-195)

And it is partly with this stern reminder of patriarchal power that Juliet muses on her situation as she takes the potion the Friar has given her to simulate death. She is fully aware that this moment in her life, this departure from the familial convention her father wants her to perform, is a lonely one. She trusts none of the men who have authority over her, neither her father nor the friar:

I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins,

That almost freezes up the heat of life….

… My dismal scene I needs must act alone.

Come vial.

What if this mixture does not work at all? (R&J 4,3, 15-21)

But she knows her own mind. She knows that there is no room for equivocation, that having known the ecstasy of love she would die if forced into marriage with someone she does not want or love in the way she wants and loves Romeo. So she goes ahead and drinks the Friar’s drug and says: “Romeo, Romeo, Romeo! Here’s drink. I drink to thee.’ (4.3.58)

One of the things that makes Juliet such a powerful character is her resolution. She lives in doubt and duality when she doesn’t understand a situation or does not see a path for herself, but when she knows what she wants she is clear and determined. When she explains to the Friar that she cannot marry Paris she talks about the way she has found certainty in the frightening world she has been thrust into:

O bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,

From off the battlements of any tower,

Or walk in thievish ways, or bid me lurk

Where serpents are …

And hide me with a dead man in his shroud,

Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble,

And I will do it without fear or doubt,

To live an unstained wife to my sweet love. (R&J 4,1, 77-88)

Without fear or doubt. That’s the Juliet who emerges from this play. And in the end, when she thrusts the dagger into her belly, she makes a choice about the kind of life she will or will not live. In doing so, she also takes the plunge that will force the people of fair Verona to step out of their complacency.

 I asked Dale Leonheart,  the wonderful young actress who is playing Juliet in this production, which of the lines she speaks are her favorites. She smiled at me, and said she would think about it. Later, I revised the question slightly: which of her lines does she think most significant, most important? She did not hesitate. “Her last lines,” she said. “In the tomb. She is a woman with agency. She makes her mind up and does it.” Without fear or doubt.

…Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger!

This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die. (R&J 5,3,169-70)

And Shakespeare must have thought so too. For when the servant leads the watchman to the tomb with the dead and bleeding Juliet, he says “This is the place, there where the torch doth burn.” And so we are taken back to Romeo’s first vision of Juliet:

Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.




All quotes from Romeo and Juliet are from the third series Arden edition edited in 2012 by René Weis from University College, London.

Sonnet 27 is quoted from the third series Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets edited in 1997 by Katherine Duncan-Jones from the University of Oxford.

Our second episode; Nic Moore (Romeo) speaks with the director of Romeo + Juliet, Stephen Beecroft. In this episode, Stephen shares about what drew him to directing for The Curtain Theatre, and a bit of his thought and vision of “the perfect storm” for the tragic, and hopefully cathartic, romance of Romeo and Juliet. You’ll learn how a trip to Italy sparks the idea for Stephen to bring out the development of the other characters of the story, and the environment itself, play into the “time and chance” of the disfunctional environment the young lovers are attempting to blossom in.

Romeo and Juliet are the quiet eye of a raging hurricane; and the eventual outcome… is hope.

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