Director Rachel Rockwell talked with our Education team about her thoughts on her upcoming production of Short Shakespeare! Romeo and Juliet.
Coming back to the play, are you finding discoveries that now, as an adult, are surprising?
It is a relationship that is not easy for outsiders to understand. I believe that there are people who are extraordinary, and those people find one another. They create a love that people around them cannot comprehend because it is so different--especially in the period in which this play is set when economic, social and political criteria predetermined marriages. Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is based only on love. I don’t see it as petulant and immature, as I once did because it’s easy to play it that way. I do think there’s something noble in this relationship. And they have to be this age because, if they were older, they would not have jumped to those same conclusions. I don’t think it would have ended so violently. They would not have been so impulsive. I do think that these two souls find one another, and it really doesn’t matter what chronological age Romeo and Juliet are. This bond is a bond that’s already forged and so it will transcend understanding of almost everyone around them. They have to fulfill this destiny. And it ends in violence because it’s such a passionate relationship. It could not possibly contain itself in the real world.
So in a hypothetical world, had these two met ten years later…
They probably would have lived. I think they would have found a different path—and lived. I think they would have decided that exile wasn’t impossible. But when you’re young, the idea of losing the only world you know keeps you nailed to the floor; you can’t go.
Their language in a sense defies their ages.
I think that their exquisite language is a result of their relationship being fated. I think their “emotional IQ” is raised because they have experienced this relationship. I think they bring with them some of the emotional maturity that perhaps has been gained throughout multiple incarnations of this relationship that allows them to have this kind of poetic dialogue with one another. It’s almost like they’re channeling something higher than themselves. They shouldn’t be able to speak to one another in this way, but I think that there’s something about this need for each other that elevates them in a way that is incomprehensible to others. I wonder if the dialogue even sounds the same to other people. If their dialogue were overheard, would anyone else take away from it what Romeo and Juliet hear in each other’s words?
It’s really only the Friar who is in dialogue with them.
Yes, and they’re not as poetic in front of him as they are when they’re only with each other. They’re much more practical, I think, with him than they are when they’re alone.
How do you understand the relationship between them and the world that they find themselves in?
I believe that Romeo is becoming increasingly more isolated within that world. And I believe that because Juliet is reaching a marriageable age, she is on the verge of being required to be her most social self. In this way the two are in polar opposite places when they meet. Romeo’s love for Rosaline is pulling him away from his peers and family, while she’s being paraded around because she needs to be married off. I think she’s desperately looking toward her mother for a way to act and how to go about making this transition from childhood into marriage and womanhood, and her mother has nothing to offer her other except to say, ‘This is the way it was for me and must be now for you.’ And her precious relationship with the Nurse, I think, is changing from ‘Come and sit on my lap’ to ‘Now we’re going to talk about you having sex on your wedding night.’
I think both Romeo and Juliet are at the tipping point at the end of childhood. Oddly, he is at a more ‘feminine’ and emotional place, a tortured romantic, while she is much more practical, I think, about the whole thing because she doesn’t have the option to be romantic about it. She might in her own inner life, but they’re about to marry her to Paris. She doesn’t get to sit around and fantasize about what it’s going to be; it’s going to be a contractual agreement that’s imminent. I don’t think she picks up a hairbrush and sings in her bedroom. She’s been allowed that kind of teenage fantasy life. The balcony scene only happens because she met Romeo. She doesn’t fantasize in the abstract.
And the violent heritage they grow up in, can you talk about that?
I’m placing our production right at the turn of the sixteenth century as the 1500s begin--at the highest point of the Renaissance. But also at that time, Alexander VI was Pope and there was unbridled corruption in the Church. And there was a great division between Girolamo Savonarola and the Borgia family. One faction was still very religious; the other was driven by greed and power. While I don’t believe that the Montagues were as pious as the devote followers of Savonarola, I think that this historical split can serve as a basis for some of the feud, or different points of view, between the two families. I see the Montagues as being critical of the Capulets’ wealth. At the core, it is really not much different than the things that divide us politically now: money, religion, morality…
The violence. I don’t know if it ever changes. It’s always so ego-driven and always male and so immature and no one will ever win. What’s ‘winning’? I don’t see any winning. I think that both sides have grown accustomed to violence. I think violence exists in tandem with power. And I think that both these families, because of their enormous power, have been enmeshed in a lot of violence throughout their respective histories to maintain their standing in the world. It’s just assumed that there will be violence along the way. I think that had Romeo not indulged in these romantic fantasies, he too would have been in the center of his family’s violence along with the other men.
I think it would have been completely natural for him to have been with them, but I think accessing this emotional part of himself makes it harder and harder for him to follow their course of action. I think his path is a different path and he’s starting to follow that path, which makes him look at the violence in a different way than he had previously. Violence is simply an innate part of his family and culture, which he begins to pull away from. And as he does, it gives him some perspective and it starts to seem like something more abhorrent.
The real tragedy is that, in the end, the violence that has surrounded them their entire lives leads causes them to take their own lives. Violence begets violence. Once it touches you, even if you ultimately oppose it, it changes you. It opens you to violence as a course of action .
You imagine Romeo perhaps a year prior being very much part of that gang.
I do. I think that it was just an expected transition for the male members of that family and, for whatever reason, either spiritually or emotionally, as he withdraws, he looks at it all with different. And I think then, once he is forced to participate again, the belief system that has developed in that time just destroys him, the understanding of it all and the guilt. He just looks at it in a different way, and I don’t think he can ever go back to, ‘This is just what we do. These are the enemy, and you must do what you must do for us to be successful. We can’t both be successful. We have to cancel one another out. So you’re either you’re with us or you’re dead.’
Is that emotional opening beginning in him even before he meets Juliet, then, in his ‘doting’ on Rosaline?
I think so, yes. Once you start to look at the world in an emotional way, you just have to look at violence in a different way. Your perspective shifts. Before, they can’t see the Capulets as people. They must be erased or else the Montagues cannot flourish. They can’t both exist. But once he starts to find love in the world, in himself, it’s very hard to look at violence in the same way again.
Explore Short Shakespeare! Romeo and Juliet and learn more about the production