Andrew Dickson describes how the play reflects the violence and chaos of Shakespearean London – and how, more recently, directors have used it to explore conflicts of their own time.
All Shakespeare’s plays contain themes that feel universal – the father who breaks disastrously from his children, the marriage that collapses under the pressure of a husband’s jealousy.
That same year, Palestinian and Israeli theatremakers came together to create a joint production in Jerusalem, with the Montagues as Arabs and the Capulets as Jews; the balcony scene was conducted in a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew, and the brawling families threw rocks in a deliberate echo of the intifada.
story has inspired multiple versions, notably in cinema: in 1947, the year of partition, a version starring the great Indian heroine Nargis was released (the film is now unfortunately lost), while in 1992 an adaptation called (1957), which united the considerable talents of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim.
In the legal action that followed, the rioters were accused of intending to ‘robbe, steale, pill and spoile the wealthy …
and to take the sworde of auchthorytye from the magistrats and governours lawfully aucthorised’. Ever-attentive to the world around him, Shakespeare responded to this atmosphere of what Benvolio calls ‘the mad blood stirring’ (3.1.4) by putting a version of it on stage: has barely been off stage or screen since – it may well be Shakespeare’s most performed and adapted play – it takes on a particular intensity in places and periods where violence is more than a mere literary device.
In communist Czechoslovakia in 1963, Czech director Otomar Krejča directed it at the Prague National Theatre in a famous version that, drawing heavily upon its Cold War context, made it into a parable of disaffected youth versus negligent age (seeing it in Paris the following year, Peter Brook declared this ‘the best production of the tragedy he had ever seen’).
Indeed, according to some theatre historians was one of the most popular plays behind the Iron Curtain; at Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theatre in 1956, Josef Rapoport offered an image of the lovers crushed by violent social forces, an approach echoed by Tamás Major’s Hungarian production of 1971, which played the feud as an outright civil war, put down by an overbearing military regime.
London was a young city in the 1590s, and the crowds who took their chances with prostitutes and pickpockets in the entertainment districts were even younger; contemporary reports suggest audiences at the open-air theatres were predominantly male, and (unlike ‘private’ indoor playhouses, where admission cost at least six times as much) were drawn from all ranks of society.
For this youthful, restless crowd – some of whom were bunking off work to attend – the violent skirmishes between the Capulets and Montagues that dominate the action must have been a major part of the attraction, and the swordfighting skills displayed by Shakespeare’s colleagues will have been watched with a keen eye.