Art Thou A Man of Wax?

I may have mentioned, my daughter is studying Romeo and Juliet. Her teacher knows about our history and knowledge of the subject.  So the other day at dinner my daughter tells me, “Oh!  My teacher told me to call you a man of wax, and see how you react.”

They are referring to Nurse’s opinion of County Paris:

The valiant Paris seeks you for his love.

A man, young lady! lady, such a man
As all the world–why, he’s a man of wax.

My other daughter asked what man of wax means, so my oldest explained that it means perfect, like a sculpture.  I think it’s the wax that throws people off.  If she’d said “he’s like a bronze sculpture” or “he looks like he was carved out of granite” I think it would be more obvious, but it would also imply that Paris is some sort of imposing physique, and that’s not the case here.  He’s not solid like a rock, he’s shiny like wax.

I took it as insulting. I’ve always understood the term to have an implication of “all looks, no substance, empty inside.”  I explained this and my daughter said, “Well, yes, but we haven’t read that far yet, we don’t know anything about Paris’ character.”

County Paris, Man of WaxWhich I thought was a good point.  I’m interpreting it with the knowledge of the audience, that Paris while looks good “on paper,” he’s ultimately not her true love.  But Nurse obviously means it in the more superficial “I like what I see” sense. It’s really about how Juliet takes it.  She’s not really in the market for a man of wax.

No real groundbreaking revelation here, just one of those moments where you have to separate how you the audience interpret something from how the actual speaker means it, and how it is taken.

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What Makes or Breaks a Romeo and Juliet?

I can’t believe it’s taken this long, but this week my oldest is finally seeing an actual live Shakespeare production as part of her studies (i.e. not because I made it happen).  The production in this case is Romeo and Juliet (why is it always Romeo and Juliet?) and I’ve already told her that my assumption is she already knows moRomeo and Julietre about the play going in than anybody else in her class.

Since she’s already seen and read the play on her own, plot and character and all that stuff are out of the way (as has always been the plan).  So what I’d like to do is give her some suggestions to watch out for that will make this particular interpretation different.  In other words, it’s a great opportunity to discuss how everybody gets the same script, but every production is different.

What do you suggest?  For instance, I’m a big fan of watching the minor characters. I think they can really fill out the play when you give them a chance.  How’s Friar Laurence?  Is he just an incompetent adult, or should we see him as more of a villain who brings about all the tragedy because he is overly zealous in his desire to be the one who ends the feud?

Similarly consider Lord Capulet.  Which face is the right one? The one that says Juliet must decide for herself to marry Paris? Or the one that says do what I tell you or get out of my house?  I’ve always thought of him as a bad guy. But I’ve had people defend him, saying he’s merely a man with a temper who doesn’t mean what he says.

Another question I like to ask is how violent is the conflict between the two families in this version?  I don’t like the overly violent interpretation where both sides are always this close to killing each other. I prefer to believe that the grudge is dying out. Both sides now are all talk and bluster but neither is really serious about doing injury to the other. That way, Mercutio’s death is an accident. Even Tybalt is surprised – which makes Romeo’s revenge darker because while Tybalt accidentally killed Mercutio, Romeo deliberately killed Tybalt.

See what I’m talking about? When you see Romeo and Juliet for the umpteenth time, what are you paying close attention to?

Oh,When I Shall *Die*! Now I Get It!

Rosenbaum’s Shakespeare Wars continues to be the most serendipitous book I’ve ever read.  By that I mean that I’m never quite sure when I’ll turn the page into a new chapter and he’ll be talking about something I was just talking about two days ago. In this case it’s the “When I shall die” line (as opposed to “When he shall die”) that we talked about last month.  Certainly it’s supposed to be “Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die, cut him out in little stars….” rather than the version Luhrman gives us, “When I shall die, cut him out in little stars….” After all, if he’s not dead, why are you cutting him up?  Oddly, though, my googling showed that most Shakespeare versions do in fact have it as I, not he. Rosenbaum gets to this near the end of his book, speaking of a trip to Bermuda. He even points out that most editors do indeed go with the “he” version (which is apparently Fourth Quarto) because the “I” version makes no sense. And what Rosenbaum offers (not his own hypothesis, but rather one he heard, though I do not have the book handy to quote the original author) immediately makes sense to me, I’m just not sure if I love or hate it.  He goes back to the more bawdy version of “die”, namely “orgasm”.  He says that Juliet, a mere 13 yrs old and not married, is to put it bluntly thinking about wedding sex, and how good it’s going to be.  You have to admit, if you make that little word translation, it still fits.  Now you’ve got an anxious young girl, in love but also certainly in lust, waiting for that big moment when … ummm….hmm, how can we say this and keep it clean?  Shall we say, when she gets to consummate her marriage?  It’s going to be so good, she tells herself, that all she’ll see are stars, and her Romeo.  (I’m not sure when all the rest of the world comes into it, though?) I love it because it works, pretty much.  It’s somewhat crude, it’s the sort of thing you don’t talk about when you talk about the story like it’s the greatest love story ever told, but sex is certainly a part of that type of love, and it’s certainly believable that a virginal bride-to-be is contemplating what it will be like.  (Now that I’ve seen that interpretation, other parts begin to fall into place –  “I have bought the mansion of a love, but not possessed it, and though I am sold, not yet enjoyed”???) I hate it because it destroys what I consider to be one of the most romantic lines in the entire play.  It’s an opportunity for Juliet to explain how much Romeo means to her.  Normally it’s the guy spouting all the poetry and the “You’re my world” stuff.  Sometimes it’s nice to hear it back the other way.  What would Juliet do without Romeo?  She would repaint the heavens in his image, and the rest of world would say, “Wow, yeah, we like that better.  Who is that guy?”  🙂   Thoughts?  Nobody mentioned the sex interpretation the first time we discussed that line, so I’m curious if it is a popular interpretation.

Romeo and Juliet : How old is Romeo?

There’s a simple question. How old is Romeo? Sure, we all know that Juliet is 13, the Nurse comes right out and tells us. And often I think that we then make the leap and assume that Romeo is 13 as well.

But that’s hardly true, is it? Would that imply that Mercutio, Tybalt and Paris are also all about 13? Surely it was the case that men simply chose younger wives (Capulet is much older than his wife, is he not?), and actually we can assume that Romeo and the others are what, maybe late teens, early 20’s?

How old is Romeo?It wouldn’t stage well these days to point out that age difference, of course. I can just imagine R&J being closed down because it promotes pedophilia or something. But honestly I’m cool with it (the age difference, not the pedophilia!)  The more I read the play, the more I appreciate that Juliet is the most mature person in it. That she’s 13, surrounded by people generations older than her, is quite impressive. I don’t need to make her older to justify anything, and I don’t need to make Romeo younger to get it to balance out.

Romeo can be older and still be rash and impetuous. Juliet can be young and be the smart one. Better than trying to imagine 13yr old Tybalt saying, “I hate the word as I hate Hell….”


While looking at the trivia for Luhrman’s movie, I learned something interesting. Apparently Natalie Portman auditioned for the role of Juliet. But because of her small frame, in her words, “Leonardo looked like he was molesting me.”  The director said the same thing I said above, only backwards — “Leonardo was 21, but could look 18 – and she made him look 21.” In other words he looked too old, not that she looked too young.  So that certainly backs up the idea that you have to cast R&J of roughly equivalent ages to avoid squicking out your audience.


Understanding Shakespeare : Romeo and Juliet

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.
Romeo and Juliet Act I, Scene i
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.