Searching for Juliet: The Lives and Deaths of Shakespeare’s First Tragic Heroine by Sophie Duncan - review by Kirsten Tambling

Kirsten Tambling

Such Sweet Sorrow

Searching for Juliet: The Lives and Deaths of Shakespeare’s First Tragic Heroine


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In 1611, the Somerset-born traveller Thomas Coryat described an Italian architectural novelty: a ‘very pleasant little tarrasse, that jutteth or butteth out from the maine building: the edge whereof is decked with many pretty little turned pillers … to leane over’. England’s introduction to the balcony came over a decade after the first performance of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet. When it was staged in the summer of 1596, just before London’s playhouses were closed owing to a resurgence of plague, the exchange now universally known as the ‘balcony scene’ was probably transacted at a window opening onto the backstage ‘tiring house’ of the Shoreditch Theatre. The popular image of Juliet as a bright-eyed teenager in white muslin leaning over a balustrade only began to form a century and a half later, when a balcony first appeared as part of the stage set. By the late 1930s, the museum director Antonio Avena had improvised a ‘tarrasse’ from a marble sarcophagus and retrofitted it to the walls of Via Cappello 23 – putative home of the ‘historical’ Capulets in Verona. Visitors now pose on ‘Juliet’s balcony’ as part of an international pilgrimage that also includes visiting a bronze statue of Shakespeare’s heroine and rubbing her right breast for luck.

All this has little to do with Shakespeare’s play and everything to do with how his vivacious heroine has expanded and evolved in the popular imagination. ‘If Romeo and Juliet is the story we tell ourselves about what it means to be young, passionate, and doomed,’ writes Sophie Duncan, ‘Juliet’s is the story we tell about what it means to be a young woman in love.’ Searching for Juliet, a witty and illuminating account of the ‘lives and deaths of Shakespeare’s first tragic heroine’, explores how Juliet has been conceived, reworked and reimagined in Western culture from her first appearance in the 16th century to the present day. There are chapters on 19th-century bardolatry and 20th- and 21st-century journalism, as well as discussions of the major cinematic adaptations: George Cukor’s for MGM in 1936 (a ruinous flop starring Norma Shearer and Lesley Howard), Franco Zeffirelli’s in 1968, and Baz Luhrmann’s, with its frenetic kitsch, in 1996. Duncan also brings in Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’s 1957 musical West Side Story, which was inspired by Shakespeare’s play. Along the way, she offers an incisive, if often incidental, analysis of Romeo and Juliet itself as viewed through the eyes and experiences of its heroine.

As was the case with all women’s roles before 1660, the first Juliet was played by a teenage boy – almost certainly the dark, diminutive Robert Gough, who was celebrated enough to be mentioned in the list of ‘Principall Actors’ affixed to the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. Gough had probably been Shakespeare’s first Hermia (in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Rosaline (in Love’s Labour’s Lost), both characters identified in the texts as dark and short. Although Romeo and Juliet gives no equivalent clues to its heroine’s colouring, the play’s emphasis on Juliet’s youth and physical frailty makes it unlikely the actor for whom the part was written towered over Lady Capulet and the Nurse, with whom Juliet frequently shares the stage. Shakespeare’s Juliet is significantly younger than the equivalent figure in his major sources: she is sixteen in Arthur Brooke’s Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iulliet (1562) and seventeen in William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure (1567). The average 16th-century first-time bride was twenty-two. Shakespeare’s thirteen-year-old lover was therefore ‘scandalously, recklessly young’; the resulting idea that Romeo and Juliet is distinctively concerned with the experiences of adolescence is one reason the text is now frequently studied in schools. Taken as a whole, Juliet represented a spectacular opportunity for Gough, who was probably playing a character close to his age. Like Hermia, Juliet defies parental disapproval and hopes to elope; like Rosaline, she is quick-witted. However, from the first grim allusion to ‘star-cross’d lovers’ in the Prologue, there is never any doubt about her ultimate fate. The play inverts the trappings of comedy to devastating effect.

Few historical actors have performed the role exactly as it was written. In 1748, Susannah Cibber became the first Juliet to appear on a balcony, in a version of the play adapted by David Garrick, the 18th-century’s most prolific actor-manager and self-appointed high priest of Shakespeare. Garrick’s veneration of the Bard led him to tinker a great deal with his texts, chiefly in order to highlight Shakespeare’s nobility by stripping out his more regrettable crudities. Garrick gave Juliet a spectacular funeral scene, increased her age to seventeen and cut many of her wittiest and most suggestive lines. She no longer described herself as ‘sold/Not yet enjoy’d’ or chastised the Nurse for keeping her waiting. The number and nature of Garrick’s cuts, as Duncan observes, tell us ‘how exceptional, unruly, and vital’ Juliet truly is, and suggest how much the comedian Gough must have savoured the role. Although prudery was less at issue in the 20th century, Luhrmann followed Garrick in reducing the prominence of Juliet. He chose instead to focus on the play’s masculine gang violence, as did Bernstein in West Side Story. In a century scarred by two world wars, Romeo and Juliet had become a play less about love than hate.

Duncan is a genial guide and an excellent storyteller with an obvious devotion to her subject. While writing the book she had a stint as one of the so-called ‘Secretaries of Juliet’ in Verona, composing replies to the hundreds of letters seeking advice on love sent to the city’s Juliet Club every year. She covers the histories of performances and adaptations well, and often in meticulous detail, while also going in search of Shakespeare’s heroine in more unexpected places. She reports, for example, that during the 19th century, around 3,355 enslaved women were given the name Juliet by their British owners (rising to over 10,000 when allowing for variant spellings). The records of the Jamaican estate of Sir John Gordon, fifth Baronet of Earlston, for 1817 list an ‘Old Juliet’ alongside an ‘Othello’ and a ‘Polidore’, the trio having presumably been enslaved and renamed at the same time. Duncan suggests that, when used in this context, the name suggested sexual desirability, ‘romanticising the sexual exploitation [these girls and women] would very likely face’. These are early examples of Shakespeare’s deployment in the service of cultural imperialism and white supremacy, a tendency not confined to the British Empire. Antonio Avena’s renovations in 1930s Verona – which also included a reconstruction of Juliet’s tomb, complete with a ‘twelfth-century’ early Gothic window – reflected his personal and political commitment to Fascism and his desire to turn Shakespeare’s Juliet into a kind of secular Italian saint.

These stories, along with Duncan’s discussions of 18th-century funerals, tourism to Auschwitz and the history of Catholic shrines, may come as a surprise to readers expecting a book about performance history or pictorial representation. Some chapters are more tightly focused than others. However, ultimately Duncan’s verve and curiosity, combined with her intimate knowledge of Shakespeare’s play, carry the reader along. She has written a history of Juliet that is as vital and provocative as the character herself.

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