3 April 1594
Dear Mr. Shakespeare,
Thank you for sending Juliet and me the script of your new play. As you know, we have acted our roles as doomed young lovers for over thirty years and have played versions in Italian and French as well as English. Nevertheless, far from growing weary of our parts, we view each new staging as an opportunity to stretch and explore fresh aspects of our characters. May we therefore offer some input on script development?
You state your play is based on Arthur Brooke’s poem, “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet,” printed in 1562. In that rendition, the plot spanned nine months. Juliet and I were married for several weeks before my duel with Tybalt caused me to be banished to Mantua. More months passed while she pined in my absence and her parents arranged her marriage to the County Paris.
In your retelling, all the action is condensed into a mere five days. Less than twenty-four hours elapse between our meeting and our marriage. We then rush from one subterfuge to another without pausing to consider the consequences. While this does create an exciting pace, I am concerned it makes us appear rash and impetuous. Is an audience likely to empathize with characters they believe to be acting foolishly?
Similarly, would we really end our lives for someone we’ve known for less than a week? On my receiving news in Mantua of Juliet’s death, you have me hasten to an apothecary’s shop for poison (see Act V, Scene I). Thus, even before confirming the report, it seems my course is set. Yet how could Juliet, in this short period of time, have had such an impact on my life? It’s not as though we had been married for years, grown dependent on one another, and could not imagine living alone.
I hope you aren’t offended by my comments. Over the years Juliet and I have had the pleasure of working with many talented writers, producers and directors, and this exposure has sharpened our understanding of the elements that contribute to a successful play. We are definitely interested in your project, and our agent will be in touch shortly to discuss contract terms, box office percentages, promotion schedule, etc.
P.S. – Juliet will send her comments soon. I think she is already getting into character.
15 April 1594
Thanks for the thoughts on my play. Your lines caught up with me here at my weekend retreat. By the way, call me Will. You wouldn’t believe the way the press mangles Shakespeare. They’ve printed so many variations, I sometimes forget how to spell it myself.
Now let me cue you in on the condensed time/suicide concepts. Our audiences in London are very sophisticated theatergoers. They’ve seen Kyd, Marlowe, Greene. So I have to hook ‘em and hook ‘em fast. You’ll notice that by line 70 of the very first act I serve up a sword fight between the servants of the opposing houses. By line 80 it’s a full-blown brawl involving Tybalt, Benvolio, old Capulet and Montague, the crowd and the police. Personally, I deplore violence in the theater, but that’s what it takes to sell tickets these days.
Anyway, once the audience is snared I have to keep the plot moving. As for your motivation: sex, Romeo baby, that’s the key. It makes people go crazy. One minute you’re moping over an unrequited love for Rosaline, next minute you’re hot for Juliet. I want to see those teenage hormones rage. Not that this is some grade B script starring a couple of juvenile delinquents. Sure you’re young, but marriage to Juliet gives you a new maturity. See Act III, Scene I, where you even go out of your way to humor Tybalt. After the duel and your sentence of banishment, you’re in emotional turmoil. You feel responsible for Mercutio’s death. You’ve skewered your bride’s cousin on the way home from your wedding. When you hear the news Juliet is dead, suicide seems the only answer.
Juliet is no nymphet either. When we first meet her she’s shy and respectful to her parents. Once she’s in love with you, this girl takes off. She’s bold, daring, resourceful, willing to face danger and death to claim her man. When she awakes in the tomb to find you dead and her plan gone awry, she plunges your dagger into her breast. Is this a great part for an actress or what?
Anyway, I’m counting on you kids to make this show SRO. So breathe deep, find your centers. Promo plans call for a preview performance for Liz and the court, followed by an opening night gala and cast party. My PR people will fill your agent in on the details.
When you get to London, let’s do lunch.
P.S. – Will Juliet do frontals?
23 April 1594
Hast thou given me affections and warm youthful blood? Hast thou given me strength and a tongue to speak my mind? Hast thou given me cunning to deceive parents, nurse, kin, in the execution of desperate measures? Hast thou given me all this—and denied me a brain???
Yea, so methinks, for look you, sir, at the folly of my scripted acts. This reckless charade you would have me play of seeming death and living interment is fraught with danger. What if the friar’s potion be poison indeed, subtly ministered to have me dead, his own complicity concealed? Or how if I wake too soon in the vault, before Romeo doth come to redeem me? Shall I not be stifled, strangled, or grow mad with the terror of the place? All these fears and objections you yourself have penned (seest thou Act IV, Scene III), and a faint cold fear thrills through my veins to recall them. Yet one more I add. Should I, by this stratagem, lure my beloved Romeo back to Verona to flout the sentence of exile and imperil himself for my sake?
Nay, never! For I do spy a simple resolution to our difficulties. How be it if, on learning of my father’s decree that I must wed the County Paris, I hie me quickly to Mantua and thence to Romeo? You give me leave to travel freely to Friar Laurence’s cell. Now take my feet farther, past Verona’s gate, and ‘tis but a short journey to that neighboring city wherein my love dwells.
What evil could befall me in broad day upon the road? Haply some kind farmer will bear me in his cart. Or if ‘twould arouse suspicion to see a maid alone in such circumstance, lend me my prattling, faithful nurse for company and clothe us both in peasant disguise. But seek out Romeo I must, for even from my balcony I promised him so: All my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay, and follow thee my lord throughout the world (seest thou Act II, Scene II, Lines 147-148).
In short, kind sir, canst thou not with a pen stroke rewrite our unhappy fate? For I do confess I am loathe to die, so young, so new wed, so brimmed with desire for my Romeo.
P.S. – Wouldst thou have me step o’er the bounds of modesty to fulfill thy postscript request? For shame, sir!
10 May 1594
Bravo! What a performance! The West End will go wild. Love to see you and your main squeeze do some improvs or maybe a workshop with the other players if we can fit it in between rehearsals. But we have to get a move on or we’ll lose our opening date. As it is, I’m getting major hassles from the stagehands’ union. They want time and a half for Sundays plus a workers’ comp fund to cover any injuries sustained while moving your balcony. If I give in to their demands, the ushers will be next.
So let me get right to the point: if you escape to Mantua, I don’t have a play. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy is hardly new ground. Just keep one word firmly in mind: tragedy. You and Romeo must have a hand in your own downfall.
As I see it, love and passion blind you to any simple solution. What’s more, for all your fears you and Romeo believe in the invulnerability of youth. He trespasses into the orchard to see you, though you warn him the penalty is death. He comes between the drawn swords of Mercutio and Tybalt, heedless of his life. Then you both contrive a midnight meeting under your father’s roof. Each time you come through with your skin intact, it reinforces your confidence and encourages you to up the stakes. So while you voice some pretty heavy objections to downing the friar’s draught, in your heart you expect the plot to succeed.
Hope that clears up the motivation issue. Got to run.
P.S. – Forget the frontals. Can’t do it and keep our PG rating. What’s the story on cleavage?
21 May 1594
Thank you for your letter to me of 15 April and the follow-up to Juliet on 10 May. Her latest reply is attached. After several more readings of your script, I believe I’m getting your drift. Romeo (i.e., me) is suicidal, right?
As evidence, I cite the following passages:
– Act II, Scene II, Lines 77-78: I tell Juliet I’d rather be killed by her kinsmen than lack her love.
– Act III, Scene III, Line 107: In Friar Laurence’s cell I draw my dagger to kill myself on hearing the grief I’ve caused Juliet by slaying Tybalt.
– Act III, Scene V, Lines 17-18: I tell Juliet I’ll stay in Verona and welcome death if she so wills it.
Juliet also threatens suicide on a number of occasions and keeps a dagger handy. Thus, by the time we get to the tomb the behavior pattern has been established and our suicides don’t take the audience by surprise. I believe this is what you writers call “foreshadowing.”
I have one last reservation. To ensure I’m perceived as a truly tragic character and not solely as a young hotblood, shouldn’t I balance my self-destructive vows with some musings on mortality? The basic question, to be or not to be, seems so fundamental to one contemplating suicide, I can’t imagine a young man in my situation failing to address it.
Our agent advises we add a clause to the contract giving Juliet and me stand-in approval. Otherwise, the terms are agreeable, and we will arrive in London to begin rehearsals on 15 June.
Looking forward to meeting you.
P.S. – Can you recommend a good B&B?
21 May 1594
The invulnerability of youth—how I wish it were so! Yet with heavy heart do I yield to thy reasons. Die I must and by mine own hand. Dost know thy opening night will mark my 2,419th suicide since first I played this role?
Still, I thank thee for the beauteous lines thou hast given me, which I doubt not shall bring me much fame. How strange it is that dying young, fresh, like a flower new-plucked, I do achieve immortality, whereas living long in Romeo’s arms I should only wither and grow old. Perhaps ‘tis better to enjoy one night as lovers enjoined and replay forever the perfect scene. And yet must it always be so?
Shall I reveal to thee a fond, foolish hope? ‘Tis that in some future script Romeo and I may laugh and joy and live happily e’er after. Let our trials and tribulations be so cast as to delight our audiences with mirth, not mist their eyes with tears. Let Romeo tumble from the balcony. Let me spill the friar’s potion down my dress. In truth, good poet, I long to play…a comedy.
But tragedy is once again my fate. Alack, alack, that Heaven should practice stratagems upon so soft a subject as myself!
P.S. – Cleavage thou mayst have only where necessary to thy script. True and faithful Juliet must ne’er a wanton seem.
1 June 1594
Hope this catches you before you leave Verona. Everything is looking great. We’re booked for an eight-week run in London, then it’s on the road to Salisbury, Winchester and York. And tune in to this: my PR people have come up with a fantastic new concept called merchandizing. We’re going to put your faces on everything from towels to tea cups. You get a percentage, of course.
I’m impressed you two are already so deep into the script. Julie sweetheart, I understand your worries about being typecast. Will Kempe feels the same way. All I can say is that this part has your name written all over it. Do it justice and a Best Actress nomination is in the bag.
Romeo baby, great work on your part to pick up the foreshadowing. Suicidal is good, but let’s keep in mind the major theme is “star-crossed.” Mischance thwarts good intentions. The friar’s letter to you in Mantua goes undelivered. Acting on false information, you take your life. The love that should have reconciled your two houses ends in grief. Take your quill and highlight all the references to stars, sun, moon, heaven (Examples: Act III, Scene II, Lines 21-25 where Juliet talks about cutting you out in little stars; Act V, Scene I, Line 24 where you say “I defy you, stars!”) When you see the results, I think you’ll agree I’ve written a truly astronomical play—Oh, I am good!
It’s a winner, kids. Break a leg.
P.S. – Romeo, love that line “to be or not to be.” Mind if I use it sometime?
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1993)
Journal 500, December 1993