Teaching Shakespeare!

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Litmus Test for Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and frequently performed of Shakespeare’s plays, but even if an audience doesn’t already know the story, Shakespeare gives the ending away in the prologue.  So if people aren’t going to see the play to experience the plot for the first time, what is it they hope to see when they go to see a production of Romeo and Juliet?   What makes a production of this familiar story a great one?

I determined my personal litmus test for a great production of Romeo and Juliet a number of years ago when I accompanied a group of high school students to see a touring company at a nearby college.  The actors playing Romeo and Juliet were so engaging and the language was so real that I forgot about the fate that awaited the lovers as I lost myself in the balcony scene.  Just as they were about to part, the truth reasserted itself—they were going to die.  I was torn between my admiration for the language and the remarkable actors and my sadness over the inevitable outcome.  Ever since then, my litmus test for a good production of Romeo and Juliet is whether or not the beauty of the balcony scene can help me forget—for the moment—Act 5.

Today five friends and I set out on a road trip to see the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of R and J, and I thought I’d see how they might respond to the question.  “Before you see the play,” I asked, even as the van began to pull away from the curb, “I have a little survey I want to take.  What is your litmus test for a good production of Romeo and Juliet?”

The answers were varied:

“I look for some unexpected moments.”

“I want to understand something I didn’t understand before.”

“I don’t want them to mangle the language.”

“I want to see some scenes that are usually cut, scenes that tell a story of their own, like the scene with the musicians when everyone thinks Juliet is dead, and I want a strong Juliet, one who can convey the range of emotions she experiences in Act 4.”

And from the resident optimist…..“I wait for a different ending….”

On the way home, I asked them if they felt the production had passed their tests, and the answers were, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive.  The only exceptions were that the musicians had been cut yet again, and that, alas, the ending was still tragic.

And my litmus test?  How did the production fare for me?  Well, I was lost in the play before the balcony scene this time.  The play passed muster in one of the most beautiful and original stagings of the ball scene I’ve ever seen.  I’d go back to see the play again just to see Act 1, Scene 5, one more time.

But what about you?  What is your litmus test for a great production of Romeo and Juliet?

– Sue Biondo-Hench


  • I hadn’t really thought about a litmus test for a production. I usually go to see a Shakespeare play, or any play for that matter, with some expectation — I like an actor’s work and look forward to seeing him/her in ther role, for example, but not looking for any particular moment or emotional response to take place in order for me to conclude that it was a great performance. Still, I do look forward to something happening, and it’s usually unexpected. So, I guess I’m like one of Sue’s friends, whose litmus test is, “I look for something unexpected.” Sue, you’re going to make me think about this litmus test the next time I go to the theater. I’ll have to let you know if that turns out to be a good thing or not, but thanks for raising the question. Bob

  • When the Friar, Benvolio, Lord/Lady Capulets, Lord/Lady Montegues, are as close to as interesting as the Nurse and Mercutio.

  • I agree with you; the lovers have to be so hot for each other and in contrast to the pettiness all around them-but not the heat, that we forget what is coming. Mercutio has to be outstanding in that regard as well; his presence helps us prepare for the tragic joke of the gods that is the play’s driving action. The co-mingling of passions from square one—both love and hate— must drive the story forward with such momentum we cannot resist being drawn into the heat of Verona- both kinds. It needs to be steamy.

  • My litmus test for OTHELLO is that Iago make me feel complicit. If he is compelling and charming enough to make me root for his success at some level, then the tragedy in Act V becomes that much more devastating.

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