The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.2023  Saturday, 4 November 2000.

From:           Pervez Rizvi <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Thursday, 2 Nov 2000 21:47:11 -0000
Subject: 11.2009 Howard/Catholic Universities' Romeo and Juliet
Comment:        RE: SHK 11.2009 Howard/Catholic Universities' Romeo and Juliet

A week or two ago I was musing on the way Romeo and Juliet is performed
these days. I successfully counted to ten that time but Hardy's post
today prompts me to express a number of mixed feelings.

It now seems almost de rigueur in Britain for R&J to be cast with a
white Juliet and a black Romeo, or, less frequently, the reverse. This
has the effect, whether intended or not, of showing a tragedy that has
its roots in racial hatred. While the words spoken are about two
families with an ancient grudge, what the people in the audience see is
more likely to elicit thoughts of the modern world outside, with its
complicated racial problems.  (In saying this I am thinking of western
audiences.) In one way, this is good because, as they say, it makes the
play more 'relevant' and prompts the audience to reflect on the effects
of racial hatred today. But it is also limiting. To the extent that the
theoretical (as opposed to the practical) battle against racism has been
won and most decent people today consider racism to be wrong, the
deliberate different-race casting of R&J gives the audience an easy
option and avoids challenging them. Everyone can just sympathise with
the two young lovers because the desires to see love flourish and racism
rejected are shown as, happily, compatible.

More generally, the problem plays such as Measure for Measure are
perhaps not problematic enough for western audiences. The obsession with
female virginity in these plays may seem quaint or funny in western
societies where, as Philip Larkin wrote, sexual intercourse has been
going on since 1963. But in eastern societies, a woman's losing her
virginity before she marries is a matter for deep shame and dishonour,
so they are less liable to take a simplistic view of the situations
Shakespeare dramatises. In eastern societies, a marriage is still a
union of two families rather than two people; in the west, the concept
of family honour faded away long ago. (I make no judgement here whether
these are good things.) So the questions (a) "Do R&J have a duty to
accept their parents' wishes in their choice of marriage partner?" and
(b) "Is Isabella right to refuse to sacrifice her virginity to save her
brother?" are likely to trigger a more complex, and potentially more
enlightening, debate in the minds of an average eastern audience than an
average western one, which might give a straightforward 'No' to both

There is a lot to be said for making Shakespeare's plays 'relevant'
(though I personally don't subscribe to that argument, on the ground
that everything is relevant to me). But there is no shortage of relevant
contemporary literature. One of the uses of literature, and especially
old literature, is that it gives us an insight into lives and cultures
different to our own and the act of trying to sympathise with characters
in literature helps us to gain a perspective on views that we otherwise
might never question. So perhaps western audiences are not working hard
enough to understand the complexity of Shakespeare's characters'
dilemmas and perhaps they are being unwittingly cushioned in this by
well-meaning theatre professionals.

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