A few weeks ago I came across a great Buzzfeed post from Shannon Reed called “If Jane Austen got feedback from some guy in a writing workshop”, which I genuinely loved. So in honour of the 400th anniversary of his death, I decided to write my own version featuring the paragon of English literature, William Shakespeare.
During these last three workshops we have been working together on several of your texts and we have both agreed that our cooperation has led to many valuable and instructive insights; Hamlet was great (too many deaths at the end, so work on spreading it out over the play) and Macbeth was good too (but wtf happened to Fleance?). I have read your new play Romeo and Juliet. Overall, great work. Here are just some notes and thoughts that I had while reading it.
First of all, Romeo and Juliet kind of reads like a Young Adult (YA) novel. It has two quasi-intelligent teens who think they know everything about life and love. There is the romantically tormented guy (Romeo), the girl who is trapped by her emotionally abusive family (Juliet), and the weird quirky friend who takes care of the comic relief (Mercutio). All who are tragically stuck in a system that oppresses and marginalises their love, etc. etc. Was this your intention? YA is honestly not really my thing, but it’s ok if you’re into that. So if you want to go for that YA genre, I suggest that you should get rid of the historical context and focus on the elements of a contemporary YA. The story would really benefit if these characters would lie at the mercy of some narrow-minded American Mid-West high school culture. Also, Romeo and Juliet are kind of flat characters. I didn’t really get a sense of the teen free-spirited individuality that is so characteristic of YA novels. Make them quirkier. Romeo could be the Indie guy who is the only one who loves all the songs from Dexy’s Midnight Runners except Come on Eileen and whose family is the proud owner of the world’s largest collection of Kellogg’s cardboard boxes. And Juliet could be albino with an obsession for Ottoman Sultans and Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion. Something like that. Have you ever read John Green? He does this a lot too.
I really like how you have created Mercutio’s psychology. By letting him constantly mock Romeo’s fickleness and scrutinise women in love in his Queen Mab speech – seriously he even slut-shames them referring to their “foul sluttish hair” (i.4.90). Wow. – you ingeniously hint that he is secretly gay and in love with Romeo. It reminded me of A Picture of Dorian Gray (have you read anything from Oscar Wilde, the author?). I like how this homosexual dynamic between Romeo and Mercutio runs through the play. Like in the flirty comment to Romeo “I will bite thee by the ear for that jest” in ii.4.76 and the homoerotic innuendo later on, which Romeo (almost hilariously) doesn’t get;
MERCUTIO That’s as much as to say, such a case (ed. You mean this as a phallic innuendo, right?) as yours constrains a man to bow in the hams.
ROMEO Meaning, to curtsy.
MERCUTIO Thou hast most kindly hit it.
ROMEO A most courteous exposition.
MERCUTIO Nay I am the very pink of courtesy.
ROMEO Pink for flower
Brilliant. Develop this further. You let Tybalt kill Mercutio but it would be more interesting if Mercutio would kill himself because his family won’t accept him as a homosexual and he feels abandoned by his best friend because he is with Juliet. Great! This will fit in perfectly with the oppressive Mid-West high school atmosphere I talked about earlier.
This also brings me to one of my bigger issues with the text; why did you let both Romeo and Juliet die? Having read your previous work, I can tell you have the tendency of just killing people whenever the plot gets too complicated or hits an unsolvable problem. Like in Hamlet, couldn’t you really find a more creative way to make Hamlet keep Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s mouths shut? Killing characters is kind of like your escape rope when you have written yourself into a corner. It’s your deus ex machina. If you don’t know the term it’s a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. You should really read Greek plays from playwrights like Aeschylus and Aristophanes (I could send you a few if you like). For now, just kill one of them and let the other live, his/her entire life coping with the excruciatingly painful guilt over the other’s death. This is really good for character development.
Setting. Why did you decide to let the play take place in Verona? Because of the romantic cultural association? The fact that it takes place in Italy doesn’t really add anything to the play. If you really want the scene to be Italian, you should do some research to really understand the Mediterranean culture because it sounds to me that you have absolutely no knowledge about it. That is, apart from maybe the very cliché Italian stereotypes. Like the two patriarchal mob-like families who have been fighting for some unidentified reason and hate each other so much that they throw tantrums even when they pass each other on the street. No seriously, what is their problem? This is a major plot hole. Is the fundament of their hatred drug-related? Money? Have you ever seen The Sopranos? It’s a classic btw.
Romeo and Juliet’s dialogues are really romantic I guess, but sometimes the comparisons you make are incorrect. For instance, you write “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other word would smell as sweet” (ii.2.43-44). This is not true. Have you ever heard of Structuralism? Or Ferdinand de Saussure? It’s a great article btw, I’ll send you the PDF. Ok, so it basically comes down to the idea that people see the world in signs and images that are made up by culture and language. So since our world view is defined by language and the word “rose” (or signifier) is inseparably associated with the sign rose (signified), a rose would in fact not still smell as sweet by any other word. But it was a nice idea though, I’ll give you that.
Lastly, just some small notes:
- Representation. Where are the non-white characters? Your story is very whitewashed. Why don’t you write a tragedy with a black protagonist? Who has a relationship with a white character?
- Friar Laurence has two purposes in the story; marrying Romeo and Juliet and giving Juliet the pretend-to-be-death drug which he made from the herbs in his garden. It is an odd and unlikely combination of Friar Laurence being clergy and kind of like the local weed-guy.
Having read three of your tragedies so far I can see that you are falling into the same pattern of having a character with an existential crisis who makes stupid mistakes along the way and ends up dead because of it. For next time, step out of your comfort zone! Write a fantasy, a sci-fi, or a comedy. About elves and a donkey, about a wizard who is trapped on a magical island with his daughter, or about cross-dressing twins. Anything!
Good luck on your writing!