I watched Ron West and Phil Swann’s 2010 play The People vs Friar Laurence, The Man Who Killed Romeo & Juliet with my esteemed Shakespeare 400 colleague Casey Caldwell, whose review on its tragic violence appeared last week. Admittedly, Romeo and Juliet isn’t my favorite Shakespeare play, due in part to Act 1, scene 5’s unlikely love-at-first-sight scene. However, this staged reading convincingly met this and other difficulties by changing the characters’ secret motivations. For instance, to frustrate their strict parents and experience sensuality, Juliet and Romeo mutually (and musically) agree at the Capulet’s Masquerade Ball cum Fourth of July party to “USE EACH OTHER TONIGHT.” More reasonably, they become infatuated after conversing further and singing several duets.
As hilarious of a dark comedy as this staged reading proved to be, the ideological takeaway felt extremely bleak. While West and Swann’s play comically addressed many long-standing frustrations with Shakespeare’s play, it also as a production provoked the following extremely grave questions of its audience: What does a society look like in which lovers commit suicide? Or that effectively destroys its own future, along with any possibility of happiness, fertility, and dynastic continuity?
Much like our own, as it turns out. In The People vs Friar Laurence, the things that divide, define, not those that unify. Lest the audience conclude that the rivalries between the two families and the political situation in the Prince’s Venice has nothing whatsoever to do with our city of Chicago in the twenty-first century, the actors were outfitted at the start of the first scene in Cubs, White Sox, Bears, and (to my utter disgust) Packers sportswear. These are minor indications of deeper rifts to come between the families, the most notable of which occurring when Tybalt stabs Mercutio to death. Mercutio expires, groaning, “A plague o’ both your houses!” (Act 3, Scene 1)
Especially given its constant insistence on anachronistically transposing American culture and nationalism onto early modern Venice to Friar Laurence’s bemusement and vain protests, The People vs Friar Laurence speaks to current social issues in the US. Highlighted issues include street violence, hatred of the “other,” failing family structures, abusive patriarchy, greed, and debauchery. A major reason for the constant violence erupting between the Houses of Montague and Capulet is extreme boredom and affluence, as the cast explains in the first song, “It’s a Beautiful Day in Verona”:
I’VE GOT TICKETS FOR THE CARNIVAL
JUST LIKE THE ONE IN FLORENCE.
IT’LL BENEFIT THE UNDERPRIV’LEGED
KIDS HERE IN VERONA.
PARDON US IF WE DON’T CARE…
ALL BUT FRIAR LAURENCE
WE’RE YOUNG AND RICH AND BORED AND
PRE-DISPOSED TO BEING JERKS!
WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE POOR
OR DOING VOLUNTEER WORK!
Despite Friar Laurence’s own unabashed shenanigans with Lady Capulet, the Nurse, and most of Venice, his hapless struggles to unite two young people in love provokes sympathy, especially considering the Friar’s cynical perspective on a corrupt society in which alcoholism, prostitution, and drug abuse are rampant: “I’VE NOT BEEN TO HELL, BUT I SURE KNOW THE WAY!” When Lord and Lady Capulet aren’t hurling invectives at each other or their daughter, they bully, drink feverishly, and copulate with underlings. Romeo’s Apothecary deals in “poisonous” drugs—of the heroin, hashish, and methamphetamine variety in addition to arsenic, morphine, and cyanide—and seems oblivious to the fact that his customer will actually go through with his expressed intention to commit suicide. There is no mercy or understanding in this world, much less true love.
Throughout Shakespeare’s life he witnessed deadly conflicts between Protestants and Roman Catholics, English, Irish, and Spanish. In the midst of religious and racial conflict, a plague decimated London in 1592, causing upwards of 17,000 deaths, closing theaters, churches, and paralyzing trade. Scholars believe Romeo and Juliet was first staged after the theaters re-opened in 1594 or 1595, the first being the year in which Jewish doctor Roderigo Lopez was executed for the dubious charge of attempting to poison his patient, Queen Elizabeth I, while the latter is that in which Robert Southwell was hanged, drawn, and quartered for the crime of being a Roman Catholic, an execution that provoked much debate. When Shakespeare’s Mercutio threatens a plague on warring houses, the playwright knowingly has his character condemn and abandon an entire civilization—the arts, friends, and all—to utter devastation, because its only produce is vindictive, endless death like his own.
Though both the Montague and Capulet families occupy the same city, their inherited hate, stemming from a mysterious originary cause, destroys the public peace and disturbs Prince Escalus’s political machinations; hence the scapegoating of the Friar. The lovers’ deaths can’t possibly be the state’s fault, since this conclusion would necessitate change and repentance as occurs in the last scene of Romeo and Juliet. No one repents in West and Swann’s play. God (a character who never directly appears in Shakespeare’s pantheon) pardons Friar Laurence just prior to his hanging, but politely declines to bring back the dead. Supplementing the “gaps” in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and “updating” the story, West and Swann’s additions indicate the startling degree to which Shakespeare’s own play-text emphasizes the dangers of polarization, blind hatred based on difference, rigidly defined self-identity, and a corrupt society’s inability to correct its own trajectory until far too late.
Lydia Craig is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in Victorian studies, with an additional focus on early modern drama. She holds an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in English and history from the University of Georgia. Read more about Lydia…