What If … Romeo and Juliet Was Told in Flashback?

Imagine a production of Romeo and Juliet that opens in the tomb, with both dead. Cue prologue.

One of the most common questions asked about Romeo and Juliet is why Shakespeare gives away the ending (“A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”) in the first lines. It is the very definition of a spoiler, and it is baked right into the script.

Today on the way to work I was thinking about other stories that open up three quarters of the way through. We’re in the middle of a wedding, or the good guy is being chased by a horde of bad guys, and we have just a moment to wonder, “How’d we get here?” before the scene changes, some sort of “Six months prior…” card appears on screen, and we start the real story. There’s a stake in the ground now. Instead of sitting back and thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen?” you’re left thinking, “I wonder how we’re going to get from here to there?”

That’s exactly what Shakespeare does. Granted, the modern version usually opens with the good guy in significant peril but, you know, not actually dead yet. Still, though, the point stands. You immediately open with a “Wait, what? How does that happen exactly?” moment where you find yourself thrown into the end of the story, and then suddenly the scene changes and you get to see the story from the beginning.

Don’t forget Paris!  Fine, you know this is Romeo and Juliet, you hear “pair of star-crossed lovers” and see a young man and women entwined in death, you get that.  But who the heck is the random dude on the floor? What’s his story?

Oo! I just thought of something even better. Instead of opening to the scene of them already dead, open to Romeo still alive and holding the poison. Or, I suppose, Juliet holding the dagger.  Play it on alternate nights. Really build up the suspense.  I mean, you know in your head that they both die. But with tricks like this you still have to spend the play wondering if just maybe?

2 thoughts on “What If … Romeo and Juliet Was Told in Flashback?

  1. You make some interesting points, causing me to rethink things a bit, but I've never been put off by "plot spoilers" in Shakespeare because I've been more interested in the characters and the manner in which the tale is dramatized rather than the plotting, surprises, or suspense of the tale. Even as I write that statement, I wonder if it makes sense to anyone other than me. In any case, I'm pleased to have discovered your blog, and I hope to return in the future, especially as my new blog could use the catalysts from your fine efforts. All the best from Shakespeare's Creations.

  2. There's a couple of things I wanted to add.

    – the words in the prologue 'take their life' are primarily a reference to the idea that these are children of the two warring families; and
    – the R&J story was not new, so there may have been little sense in pretending otherwise. The audience may well have, largely, known what to expect anyway!

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