Home > Acting and Performance > Shakespeare, Without Wailing or Gesticulating

Shakespeare, Without Wailing or Gesticulating

Romeo and Juliet, at the Chicago Shakespeare TheatreLast week, I saw the Chicago Shakespeare Company’s newest staging of Romeo and Juliet. It reminded me that It’s been about ten years or so since I saw a staging of R&J featuring actual chemistry between the two leads. I’m still on the lookout for it.

Shakespeare, like any long-lived, evolving phenomenon, is subject to trends. They keep things interesting. For example, as the director cited in the program, Romeo and Juliet was used as a female star vehicle throughout the late 20th century. As a result, the role of Juliet would be played by actresses inappropriately old for the role.

The director also notes that in the last 20 years or so, Shakespeare stagings have re-emphasized the bawdy humor. The plays have always contained sex jokes, included originally to appeal to the cheap-ticket audience. Until recently this humor was downplayed or cut out entirely. Now it’s played up so much that I must have counted five or six pantomimed pelvic thrusts at this most recent performance.

Trends are good. It’s important to look at classics in new, interesting ways. This most recent staging, interesting though it was, signaled to me that it’s time for the trend to shift again.


William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Image via Wikipedia


I don’t want to rip this production completely apart. Chicago Shakespeare is one of the most reputable Shakespeare companies in the world. And this production featured a very compelling forced-perspective set, a beautiful and unobtrusive musical score, swashbuckling swordfights, inventive modern costuming, and I could go on. But the interesting things that I remember from the show were all technical.

I can’t say that I was emotionally involved with any of the performances. I can’t remember the last performance of Romeo and Juliet I saw where I was. Each actor had some good individual moments, but there was nothing interesting going on between actors.  This interpretation was identical to every R&J interpretation I’ve seen in the last ten or fifteen years. Better executed, of course, but with identical fundamental choices and on-the-nose interpretations.

Let me give you an example. When Romeo first approaches Juliet at the Capulet party, he begins his sonnet like this:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

I have only ever seen this approach delivered one way: naive, earnest ass-kissing.

Once, just once, I’d like to see Romeo approach Juliet with a little flirtation. Actors, by and large, are tremendous flirts. They just forget how to do it if someone gives them lines in iambic pentameter.


Jeff Lillico and Joy Farmer-Clary, Romeo and Juliet from the Chicago Shakespeare production

Jeff Lillico and Joy Farmer-Clary, Romeo and Juliet from the Chicago Shakespeare production


Can you imagine how great that approach would be if Romeo approach with some mojo going? Maybe he’s a little cocky. Maybe he’s grinning when he says this. Are you telling me he lives his life as a romantic, but still picks up women like a total wussbag? Who says it always has to be so damn sappy and sentimental!

You may fundamentally disagree with that choice, but at least it’s interesting and authentic. I think it’s less believable to interpret these opening lines as if you instantly know you’ve found the love of your life. It’s more authentic to have that realization build over the course of the scene.

I’m not talking about giving Shakespeare unjustified interpretations. I’m talking about getting out of actor-laziness and letting some interpersonal chemistry show through. Actors and directors think people hate Shakespeare because they don’t understand it. That’s bullshit. In this day and age, they understand it just fine. People hate Shakespeare because no one portrays it with emotional honesty, and therefore it feels like a pompous exercise in wailing and gesticulating.

The first problem is that the playing spaces are too big. If I had to put a Shakespeare company together, I’d do it as an intimate-space production, and let the story play out subtly on the actors’ faces. That way any bad habits of grandiosity, fakery, ignorance of the meaning of the lines, over-emoting and whatnot would stick out like a sore thumb and be quickly dispensed with.

Having exhausted all creativity in interpretation, modern Shakespearean actors and directors get coached in verse, which means basing your interpretation on the timing implied by the rhythm and punctuation of the poetry. They then differentiate with technical skill: awesome sets, lighting, sound, fights and costumes. That’s been the trend for the past ten or fifteen years.

If you are reading this and you have anything to do with Shakespeare, help swing the trend in a different direction: Naturalism, subtlety, double-meanings, chemistry, banter, fun, and all the things you would naturally include if you were doing anything other than Shakespeare.

[Editor’s note, 10/14/10 – This is my first blog post ever to make the front page of the WordPress “Freshly Pressed” section. I’m really excited! Thank you all for coming and reading People-triggers. If you like this kind of information, please help spread the word by sharing using one of the links below!]

  1. October 14, 2010 at 10:02 AM

    I pictured it in my head as I read your post, and I see Romeo with mischievous eyes and a slight smile as he calls out to her. Great post!

  2. October 14, 2010 at 10:03 AM

    I wonder if you have watched the Canadian series “Slings and Arrows”. Glorious. There is a terrific bit in the second season, I believe, where the newly-installed artistic director of a theater that clearly is meant to represent the Stratford Festival, has his Romeo and Juliet run around the theater until they are exhausted and out of breath before they play the love scenes.

    Also, for great sex appeal and theatricality (especially Petrucchio–this guy knows how to flirt!), watch this:


  3. October 14, 2010 at 10:11 AM

    I must say I do agree!


  4. SynLar
    October 14, 2010 at 10:18 AM

    I think you’re on to something!

  5. Syrup
    October 14, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    I never realised this until you pointed it out, but you’re spot on about Romeo’s first line only ever delivered one way. Like a lot of people, I’d be reluctant to see another R&J production becuase it feels like ‘you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’. I’ve seen it work for other Shakespeare productions, in terms of being able to approach the play on a different emotional levels. Let’s just hope that R&J can break out of the cookie-cutter mould some time soon.
    Great post!

  6. October 14, 2010 at 10:29 AM

    Very good suggestions. Your ideas in regards to more intimate space, timing and mood remind me of how well known conductors interpret musical messages in a body of music. They become well known simply because they have the ability to direct not just the technical aspects of a symphony, they also have a way of relating small nuances from the player to the group as a whole. This allows the listener to understand there is more to what they are hearing than just black dots on a page.
    The same goes with Shakespeare or any other playwright for that matter.


  7. October 14, 2010 at 10:29 AM

    Mischievous, flirtatious Romeo would be amazing and fitting to his actions. Personally, I’d love to see it. I studied theatre in college and so spent a lot of time with and studying the Bard in various classes and one of the things I observed (especially in non-theatre specific classes) was that because his work has become so hallowed in the academic setting people seem to have lost sight of that to Shakespeare they were plays he wrote for a paycheck.

    One drama literature class I took was taught by an English professor and I remember arguing with him in class over the gravediggers scene in Hamlet. He was certain that there was some deeply philosophical point about class structure that Shakespeare was trying to make with the scene, not that he was just trying to get a laugh from the audience (and relieve some of the tension inherent in the dramas). I doubt I persuaded him to my perspective, but it’s situations/classes like his that I think solidify this problem of ‘Romeo must be played this way’ in the minds of students and in turn those they work with in the future.

  8. October 14, 2010 at 10:52 AM

    I love your ideas. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a stage performance of Shakespeare that was worth much. I do like what Kenneth Branaugh has done in film with a of the Bard’s best.


  9. October 14, 2010 at 11:11 AM

    I think to say people hate Shakespeare is a bit over the top.
    People, I think, are more uninterested due to bad and/or boring interpretations.
    That is,of course, if they have been properly introduced to him in the first place.
    Your post is great and I hope that plenty of notice is taken of it. Thank you

  10. October 14, 2010 at 11:12 AM

    @alainarkraus. Just because Shakespeare wrote them for the pay check doesn’t mean he didn’t imbue the plays with meaning. Some people can not simply create junk just because you have to get a product out. You and your professor might have both been right to different degrees.

    Great post! There is always a different way to interpret classic lines.

  11. October 14, 2010 at 11:19 AM

    alainarkraus :

    One drama literature class I took was taught by an English professor and I remember arguing with him in class over the gravediggers scene in Hamlet. He was certain that there was some deeply philosophical point about class structure that Shakespeare was trying to make with the scene, not that he was just trying to get a laugh from the audience

    I couldn’t agree more. So many Eng.Lit. tutors try to make so much out of what was meant to be just a passing comment or a little light relief, that they kill it for their pupils. Turning it into a trial rather than a pleasure.

  12. October 14, 2010 at 11:25 AM

    Romeo and Juliette has never been my favorite Shakespeare and maybe that’s the reason why. Maybe it’s because I continually want it to be an edgy romance and what I get is utter sap. I can imagine the version you describe and I wish I had the money to produce it.

    Wonderful post…deserving of Freshly Pressed!

  13. October 14, 2010 at 11:43 AM

    This is why I think that the Meisner method (reacting off of the other actor’s actions instead of what you’ve preconceived of as a reaction)is such a good method — it eliminates the lack of chemistry, because it forces the entire production to rely on chemistry. Personally, I strongly dislike both sentimentality and Romeo and Juliet, but I think that more chemistry (or even, as you mentioned, a tiny bit of snark) would push me more in its favor.

  14. October 14, 2010 at 11:49 AM

    Well made points that I definitely agree with. I’ve worked with this company before and they seem to hold your same values when it comes to performing Shakespeare. http://www.americanshakespearecenter.com/

  15. October 14, 2010 at 11:53 AM

    If you want to see Shakespeare in a different way, see something by the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

    When I was in London about ten years ago, I saw their three man act – The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged), and it was absolutely hilarious. It made me think about Shakespeare in a whole different way (their website is here – http://www.reducedshakespeare.com/wp/?page_id=254)

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  16. October 14, 2010 at 11:57 AM

    This is such a wonderful post, you’re right, the way we’re used to experiencing Shakespear is tired, I would much rather see your version of R$J

  17. October 14, 2010 at 12:26 PM

    Olivia Hussey send the standard as Juliet. In my humble opinion she can never be topped — just sayin’

  18. Tee
    October 14, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    Congrats on your post! I can’t imagine Shakespeare writing his play with anything else in mind other than the attitude you described. :-) I’m just an English teacher in a rural Southern Tennessee town. Are productions to Shakespeare are limited to well-worn PBS videotapes from the school library. But I think we Romantics who aren’t so lucky to see a live version “see” this lively flirtation play out in our own minds. You are so right when you describe stale versions as “pompous exercise in wailing and gesticulating.” No wonder our students just don’t get it. :-)

    Keep up the fantabulous writing. :-}

  19. Tee
    October 14, 2010 at 12:59 PM

    Our productions…OUR productions — sheesh. I teach English, but I don’t type it so well. Sorry.

  20. October 14, 2010 at 1:32 PM

    Great post! Right on!

  21. October 14, 2010 at 1:53 PM

    Excellent points. It made me think of Baz Luhrmann’s production – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_y9Vd4tGPi0

    The level of flirtation is probably not what you were thinking about, but maybe a little less “naive, earnest ass-kissing”. I also think that this movie was on the cusp of a resurgence of giving the sexual innuendos more prevalence, but I could be wrong.

  22. October 14, 2010 at 2:11 PM

    I think you are spot on about “wailing and gesticulating,” and Shakespeare agrees. Speak the speech trippingly on the tongue, Hamlet tells his players, and do not saw the air too much with your hand. Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 2. The Bard had seen some bad direction, evidently, even then.

  23. October 14, 2010 at 2:12 PM

    I think I know which Romeo and Juliet performance you are talking about and I would have to agree with you that is is the only one I have ever seen where the two main characters actually had any chemistry. I am sadly not a huge fan of Shakespeare, but I don’t think this is really my fault. I think it is because almost all the productions I see of it are terribly trite and boring. I also refuse to like something because it is well known or famous. That London production of Julius Ceasar was god awful and I left. No one would leave with me, not even Kevin, he felt we should stay and honor the production by seeing it through to the end. Bull. It was crap and it deserved my leaving it. People think Shakespeare is good because it is Shakespeare, but really it is only good because the people performing it are using raw and true emotions to provoke a certain feeling from their audience. What works on some audience members may not work on other. A lot of people thought Othello(the one we saw in London) was terrible, but something about it really made me weep, whereas Midsummer (almost everyone’s fave Shakespeare play) was just a so-so affair because it felt contrived and phoned in… All in all, I guess what I am trying to say is that the script is only half the battle. Thanks for letting me vent.

    • October 14, 2010 at 2:20 PM

      Yep! Totally! I remember all those productions you’re talking about. I don’t think anyone would disagree with you on Julius Caesar, although none of us had the gumption to follow our impulse like you did.
      I can’t really think of any R&J that I would hold up as a great example of raw emotion, but I remember thinking highly of Tim Hardy’s five-person troupe at Wesleyan. That would be a great illustration of the point, because they didn’t have sets or technical elements to impress with…just five chairs. So the had to get mileage through concept and interpretation.
      Hope you guys are doing well. I loved the pictures of Natalie on your blogspot page!

  24. October 14, 2010 at 2:31 PM

    I agree 100%. I’d love to stage a Macbeth where he sits down and cries during the “Out, out brief candle” scene and shows his humanity.

  25. October 14, 2010 at 2:38 PM

    “Actors and directors think people hate Shakespeare because they don’t understand it. That’s bullshit. In this day and age, they understand it just fine. People hate Shakespeare because no one portrays it with emotional honesty, and therefore it feels like a pompous exercise in wailing and gesticulating.”

    I concur. Most people who don’t like it are often people who cannot relate to the tired and unfeeling drama peice they’ve seen, and had to read, over and over again. Even the educators often don’t like it. I’ve never seen feeling in any production, just rehash and rehearsal. People liked the Mr. and Mrs. Smith movie a great deal more due to the chemistry they had on screen. I don’t believe I’ll ever see that in a Shakespearean play, which are treated as something we HAVE to do. Loved your post by the way.

  26. October 14, 2010 at 3:39 PM

    Great point. May be it’s because of bad productions that I’ve never been able to buy into the instant true love thing. But if Romeo approached Juliet in the way you described, flirtatious and cocky, then I could definitely see the attraction.

  27. dramaqueennyc
    October 14, 2010 at 4:06 PM

    I’ve seen this chemistry in productions of the gay-themed adaptation “R&J” but of course that’s a whole other ball of wax.

    Jonathan Warman

  28. October 14, 2010 at 5:09 PM

    Brilliant, this is absolutely so true. No one is going to buy some kind of instant “true love,” especially without any sense of chemistry between the actors – not the audience, not the teachers, not the directors, not even the actors themselves. If they actually found actors who could become the role in a play/film adaptation of Shakespeare instead of waving about bellowing lines, an audience might for once feel something for the play. But I see the interpretation here; if Romeo is cocky and flirtatious then Juliet has to lose the shocked “innocent doe in headlights” approach and banter back a bit. If the characters had some sort of emotion, R+J could be a different play entirely.

  29. October 14, 2010 at 6:56 PM

    This post made me want to go RUNNING back to the theatre to DO something! Great thoughts on Shakespeare. Thank you for putting this out there, and congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

  30. Melanie Killingsworth
    October 14, 2010 at 7:27 PM

    Agreed. Stage or screen, they are all quite similar, and while teens may tend to be over dramatic and moody, but also overly playful and verging on ridiculous.

    What young actors do you think would translate this well, in either medium?

  31. October 14, 2010 at 7:37 PM

    I am a high school English teacher and so many of the comments you made about the ways Shakespeare is played are the same kinds of things I talked with my students about! (Not about the specific elements of the performance you saw…in general about portrayals.) After working with my ninth graders on the play and watching two film versions it is really interesting to see how they can really dissect the acting and the wordplay and make criticisms that are relevant. Anyway, thank you for your post!

  32. Candis Jean
    October 15, 2010 at 1:04 AM

    I’m forwarding this link onto my cast mates, we’re doing Macbeth this season. I’m sure they’ll all appreciate your article as much as I did.

  33. October 15, 2010 at 3:09 AM


  34. October 15, 2010 at 3:22 AM

    I agree with you, I prefer to read Shakespeare’s plays rather than watching them because every production is the same and the actors don’t “bring their character to life.”

  35. Chiara
    October 15, 2010 at 3:47 AM

    Of course, I haven’t seen the show you refer to,but I’m interested in the argument.There’s a big problem: the modern view of classic writers. We think about their plays as a solemn, static show, and sex jokes, for example, are not so “poetic”. But I think there were many pantomime, jokes, life, irony and much more in Shakespeare’s plays. I think there is a cause if here, in Italy, people can’t stand Shakespeare or think about him only as a Romantic celestial poet. Our traditional theatre is so dead, so it’s difficult changing the boring image of classcal plays we have. As I am a theatral student I saw something about Peter Brook, a great Shakespeare director. Do you know him?

  36. Mental Climax
    October 15, 2010 at 4:57 AM

    Reminds me of those days in high school when I was largely fascinated with Shakespeare, especially with his Romeo and Juliet. I played Hamlet, then Romeo, then I got a chance to watch two staging of Romeo and Juliet. Up to now, it thrills me to really be able to watch a staging that shows real chemistry. So amazing.

  37. October 15, 2010 at 5:04 AM

    As a theatre and also a literature person, I agree with you. I hated R&J for years because it was always seen as a cheesy love story, rather than a commentary on family structures and feuding, and much of it was acted poorly. I did, though, see a fantastic performance at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis last fall, which I still rave about. It was done in promenade, which gave it automatic energy; it was significantly shortened, making it only about 90 minutes (among other cuts, the mothers were totally removed, with important lines given to the fathers), and most importantly, Juliet was about 20, but looked about 15, and Romeo was early 20s, and looked about 18, making them about as young-looking as I had ever imagined them, and many of the scenes between them were indeed playful and flirty, which added a lot to their chemistry. It was overall a fantastic production, although I don’t know that I’ll ever see one so great again.

  38. awkwrdsilnce
    October 15, 2010 at 7:33 AM

    I completely agree with this idea. Romeo and Juliet is actually my least favorite of his plays, but I love seeing all of them. As far-fetched as the premise is (to me), the actors never give any credence to the idea that they were instantly madly in love despite family strife. Romeo always comes off to me as a guy looking for a rebound and sees the first hot girl at a party, and Juliet just says “Ohok, sure”.

    To see some real chemistry in their first interaction would change the play entirely. These people are going to die for one another, so they need to act like the madly in love individuals they’re portraying. Not a bunch of teenagers spouting off rhymes they don’t seem to comprehend.

  39. Steven Harris
    October 15, 2010 at 8:18 AM

    R&J productions rarely engage me emotionally – apart from when Mercutio uttes his death curses. But the technicalities can sometimes be as valid as the acting, as you seem to imply. Chemistry is so hard to fake, which is probably one of the reasons most productions fall a little short. Mind you, how much more difficult would it have been to manufacture that chemistry back in Shakespeare’s day when Juliet was a man dressed as a woman?

  40. sayitinasong
    October 16, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    I know this is a movie but I have always thought Bz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet is a genious adaptation, well, interpretation really. The cast, the visuals, the whole intensitity…you can watch it again and again.

  41. October 17, 2010 at 2:00 AM

    Nice post !! The best part is that no matter how much time changes; Shakespeare’s plays will never age, the themes still stay on though the presentation may vary.

  42. October 17, 2010 at 10:21 AM

    I totally agree with this. The scene you speak of in the beginning, Romeo’s ‘If I profane with my unworthiest hand’ was excellently played with flirtation and chemistry in Baz Luhrman’s film version. I think this kind of flirtation is in keeping with the atmosphere and themes that I notice when reading Shakespeare’s original work.

  43. October 17, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    THANK. YOU. I am probably one of the only people that loved Shakespeare in high school (and now in college), and I feel a sense of dread overcome me before the start of any Shakespeare play I see. I feel like people just try to make the poetry sound… well, poetic and pretty, and none of the actors have any idea what they are actually SAYING to each other. Oy. Now I’m just enraged. But that’s a good thing? I guess?

  44. Amanda
    October 17, 2010 at 9:38 PM

    May I use portions of this in my 9th grade English class (where we do Shakespeare) and my theatre classes when I discuss interpretations of character?

    • October 18, 2010 at 9:34 AM

      Amanda, of course you may! I’d be thrilled. :-D

  45. October 20, 2010 at 10:42 AM

    My high school students have been asking to do Romeo and Juliet for years, and I’ve always been so reluctant to do so. Much of my reluctance comes from the problems you talk about here. *If* I ever decide to stage R&J, I’ll certainly keep your thoughts in mind! I’d love to create a real, honest piece instead of the sappy love-at-first-site-I’ll-die-for-you that I’ve seen so often on stage and screen! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and congrats on being “Freshly Pressed!”

  1. October 14, 2010 at 9:57 AM
  2. October 14, 2010 at 11:04 AM

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