I’m convinced that Shakespeare’s work can be downright entertaining if it can be understood. I think that the emphasis on “Memorize first, and never see the movie” really ruins it. Understanding Shakespeare is all about getting the story across. Shakespeare wrote real people in real situations, and if you can point this out to the audience and hook them at that level, the language comes easily.
So in the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, let’s talk about Romeo and Juliet. For the moment just the first scene, since obviously I can’t cover the whole play in one blog post.
Two men, Sampson and Gregory, enter. They’re “Capulet”, meaning that they are probably some servant of the house. If you want to think in West Side Story terms, imagine them as all members of the same gang. They banter back and forth, making some fairly ancient jokes that you’re unlikely to get but might be able to figure out if you were to see it performed. Let’s just say that by the time Sampson gets to the line about “thrusting Montague’s maidens to the wall” and being cruel when he cuts off their maidenheads, you can take a pretty good guess at what he’s talking about.
The real fun comes when Balthazar and Abraham, who are Montagues, wander into the picture. Now thus far Sampson and Gregory have just been full of talk. Sure they’ve been saying some pretty big things about what they’ll do to the Montague men (before doing it to their women), but now here are two of them right in front of them. How do the Capulet men react? Sampson “bites his thumb” at them as they pass by. This isn’t really the same obscene gesture now that it was then, so feel free to insert “flips his middle finger.” Gets the same point across. He tries to lure the Montagues into starting something.
The next exchange I have seen played for comedy, where both sides are just big talkers, but it’s also often played with some serious violence, screamed at the top of lungs. Whatever floats your boat. Either there’s some major tension where you just know somebody’s about to get hurt, or you come to realize that this has happened dozens of times in the past and both sides are really just acting out their parts.
The Montagues come over and ask, “Did you just bite your thumb at us?”
“I did bite my thumb, ” says Sampson.
“Did you bite your thumb at us,” asks Abraham again.
Sampson turns to Gregory and asks, “Is the law on my side if I say aye?” Here’s the crucial moment. Both want to say that the other started it, neither wants to be the first to draw (or use) a weapon. Gregory correctly answers, “No.” If you bit your thumb at him, then you started the fight. Sampson backpeddles, “I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I do bite my thumb, sir!” How snide is that response? “Nope, I was just sitting here with my middle finger up in the air. Wasn’t directing at you, I just like to stick it up there and wave it around…”
Gregory steps up and asks of the Montagues, “Do you quarrel?” In other words, “Are you looking to start something?” Is Gregory here actually trying to get the Montagues to walk on by? Not really. You’ll see…
“Me?” replies Abraham, “No, not me, I’m not looking at start anything.” The Montagues actually come off well, here, and quite possibly would have walked away.
Sampson makes what is ultimately the losing move when he says, “I’m just saying that if you want to start something, I’m standing right here. I serve as good a man as you.”
Abraham has him now. “No better?”
Sampson thought he was saying the proper thing in defending the honor of his house, and Abraham has trapped him. If he says “Better”, in other words yes, I think that my master Capulet is better than your master Montague, then the fight is on – and Sampson will have started it. But if he says no, Montague is not better than Capulet, then he dishonors his house.
Gregory saves him when he spots some more Capulets coming. “Say better!” he says, knowing that the odds are in their favor. See, I told you that Gregory wasn’t trying to avoid the fight. He was just waiting for it to be an unfair fight.
Sampson needs no more prompting. “Yes, better!” he says, and the fight is on.
Enter more representatives from both sides, Benvolio of the Montagues (sort of), and Tybalt of the Capulets. That’s a mismatch. Benvolio is the peacemaker, trying to beat down the swords of both sides. Tybalt, on the other hand, sees the fight as a great opportunity and tries to help his side win it. Tybalt, as we quickly learn, is pretty single minded in his hatred of the Montagues. “What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word, As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee: Have at thee, coward!” Those are some pretty strong words given that he just walked in on this argument 3 seconds ago.
Anyway, the fight does not go on long as now the crowds are beginning to gather and the heads of both houses come running out to see what’s going on. The Prince provides the law and order here, and gives us our major plot point — if he catches anybody from either side fighting in the streets again, then they’re dead men. (“If ever you disturb our streets again, our lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.”) Don’t forget this, it’s going to become a major problem for our hero Romeo right around Act III, Scene i.
So that’s my version of the first scene. It’s actually quite entertaining when you see it performed. I highly recommend checking out one of the movies to see it for yourself. The Zeffirelli version is considered the classic, but I say if the Leonardo DiCaprio version is more what floats your boat (lots of screaming in this one, and guns), then go for it and don’t pay any attention to the critics.