Where, and Who, Are the Mothers In Shakespeare?

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly muses on maternal absences in Romeo & Juliet and other Shakespeare plays—an update on this blog she wrote last summer.

Nurse, Mother, Juliet 2009

Catherine Castellanos (Nurse), Julie Eccles (Lady Capulet), and Sarah Nealis (Juliet) in our 2009 production of R&J; photo by Kevin Berne.

In Renaissance times the mother was the family member principally involved with her children’s education and upbringing. Yet in Renaissance drama older women were rarely represented on stage in what would obviously be one of their more sympathetic roles: that of the loving and nurturing mother. This lack is partly explained by the fact that women were not allowed to perform on the English stage: All of the female roles were played by young boys before their voices broke, so that a younger character part was obviously a better physical and vocal match. The lack of mothers in Shakespeare is notorious:  We have the three sisters in King Lear, Marina in Pericles, Miranda in The Tempest, Portia and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, Ophelia in Hamlet, Desdemona in Othello, Isabella in Measure for Measure, and Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, all of whom are deprived of mothers. Moreover, almost all of the older women Shakespeare does represent on stage offer negative images of motherhood: Volumnia in Coriolanus and Gertrude in Hamlet, and then Lady Macbeth as well, who says that she would have been a terrible mother if she had had the chance to be one. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet of course has a mother, but not one who will protect her: Lady Capulet, anywhere from age 26 to her mid-thirties (Juliet could have been born first or, perhaps, after a long line of children), is thoroughly subjected to her husband’s will. We can infer that Lady Capulet is significantly younger than her husband (who talks of his younger days: “tis gone, tis gone, tis gone…”), and a fairly distant mother. Her relationship to Juliet, and to the whole subject of marriage, seems perfunctory, accentuated, for example, in the stiff rhyming couplets in which she describes the bookish “joys” of an upcoming marriage:

This precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover.
So shall you share all that he doth possess,
By having him, making yourself no less.

For a surrogate mother, Juliet has the garrulous old Nurse, possessor of four teeth in her head and purveyor of bawdy jokes.

Prospero and Miranda, 2012

Michael Winters (Prospero) and Emily Kitchens (Miranda) in our 2012 production of THE TEMPEST; photo by Kevin Berne.

Why does Shakespeare exploit this idea of the older woman as an unsympathetic figure (except for those few rare mothers who, like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and Thaisa in Pericles, are effectively buried alive, losing their children either forever or for most of the play)? We might hypothesize about the playwright’s own life—married, as he was, to a woman eight years older than himself who reached middle age well before he did. We know that William Shakespeare spent most of his married life living in London, while Anne Hathaway lived in Stratford with their children. We also know that Shakespeare’s plays were written in an extremely patriarchal period. But we can also see how useful a mother might be to a girl as, at a very young age, she comes face-to-face with the complexities of love and life. And this is where there emerges a structural and thematic reason for the absence of mothers in Shakespeare. Aside from helping to solve the difficulty of finding boys who could play the parts of mature women, this lack allowed Shakespeare to create an important dramatic pretext: By taking away the mother (either, as in Romeo and Juliet, as a figure of real guidance, or, as in many of his plays, as a presence on stage at all) Shakespeare creates a gap in the young female characters’ lives, compelling them to develop that extraordinary independence and character that makes them so attractive. It is Juliet, after all, who changes Romeo, urging him onward to transform himself from an idle young man “in love with love” to a passionate and committed lover.

Shana Cooper’s production of Romeo & Juliet plays July 3-28 at the stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA.

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Dispatch #2 from the R&J Rehearsal Hall: Repurposing, Re-creating

Cal Shakes Blogging Fellow Peter Selawsky continues to blog from inside the Romeo & Juliet rehearsal room.

In my last post, I summarized the main points raised by director Shana Cooper as she discussed her upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet with Cal Shakes staff. Today, I want to take a closer look at how her general vision for the play is being reflected in the details of the production’s set design. We were lucky enough to recently hear from set designer Dan Ostling (Cal Shakes’ productions of The Verona Project, Macbeth, and Much Ado About Nothing) who shared some of his general thoughts about the play, and how they might relate to the specific needs of this production.

Ostling’s first observation was that the world Shakespeare created for Romeo and Juliet is “not what we immediately think about… it’s not perfume and flowers, it’s brutal.” More specifically, he pointed out that Renaissance Verona had the reputation of being a fortified, violent city. He imagines Verona as a fortified city filled with fortified houses and dangerous streets, torn by internecine strife and random violence where opposing forces meet in the public square—but with internal gardens and sanctuaries such as Juliet’s balcony or the Friar’s cell. The idea that love and beauty could grow up from the very heart of hate and violence may be why the story of the children of bitter enemies falling in love was ever considered remarkable in the first place, and may be why one of Shakespeare’s best-loved works still has the capacity to move us. Like director Cooper, Ostling emphasizes that the harshness of the young lovers’ surroundings not only endangers but highlights their love.

This focus on the bleakness of the surrounding world explains why Ostling envisions a bleak set with nothing superfluous: We “start from a bare stage and build up from there.” Indeed, Ostling claims to be the rare set designer with “a distrust of scenery,” refusing to allow any elements that do not prove themselves to be necessary. The set will feature barn wood that will be torched to look like reclaimed wood and worn, aged, rusted grates on the downstage corners of the stage. Both set and costume will display an appreciation for the possibilities of repurposed things, utilizing tension and distress of materials and creating an austere, militaristic vintage aesthetic. The stage will be built in the shape of an X, creating a neutral, public focal point for the collision of equal and opposing forces.

Set Model for Romeo and Juliet

While the set will have a very minimal backdrop, Dan is interested in including (potentially) mobile spaces where actors can perch. For example, the crew has discussed various possibilities for re-creating the famous balcony scene. Seen with fresh eyes, this moment has the potential to appear as an unexpected miracle, full of tender humor and the wonder of the discovery of love.

Romeo and Juliet opens at the Bruns Ampitheater on July 3 and runs through July 28. Tickets are available on the Cal Shakes website.

Big thanks go to Jay Yamada for making this blogging fellowship possible.

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Dispatch #1 from the R&J Rehearsal Hall: Small Miracles of Joy

Hello, this is Peter Selawsky blogging from the Cal Shakes rehearsal hall. I’ve been coming to Cal Shakes productions since I was a child growing up in the East Bay, and I’m very excited for the opportunity to sit in on rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet and write about the process I’m witnessing.

On Tuesday, June 4, at the first-rehearsal Meet-and-Greet for Romeo and Juliet, director Shana Cooper shared her thoughts about her upcoming Cal Shakes production. Cooper envisions a raw Romeo and Juliet that strips away the expectations and preconceptions most of us have built up around one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works, honing in on the extremity of the elemental human passions at the heart of the play—hate and love. In Shakespeare’s Verona, the two passions are equally important, equally powerful, and equally inexplicable: Just as we can never explain the origin of love, we never learn the cause of the famous family feud that drives the play’s tension.

Dan Clegg and Rebekah Brockman as Romeo and Juliet

Dan Clegg and Rebekah Brockman as Romeo and Juliet; photo by Kevin Berne.

Love has the potential to heal the houses’ rancor, and offers an oasis or sanctuary in the very heart of a world of violence. Romeo and Juliet find love in a sea of hate, and it briefly transforms them into their best selves, giving them unexpected strength and courage. The play asks us whether or not true love can overcome a history of hate, sustaining itself against a world of violence where everything seems to conspire to push the characters towards their worst, most primal selves. Some moments in the play, such as Juliet’s willingness to be buried alive in order to remain faithful to her love, inspire great hope in the triumph of love. But in abandoning himself to his rage and killing Tybalt, Romeo perpetuates the cycle of violence that defines the world of Verona, turning a potential comedy irreversibly toward tragedy.

For all the play’s talk of star-crossed lovers and fortune’s fools, Shakespeare suggests that it is not fate, but the very basic human choice of hate over love in a moment of passion that shapes the course of these lives. As such, the production will emphasize the comedy and occasionally surprising tonal shifts of the play’s first half, creating a world where the inescapable brutality of the second half makes love all the more miraculous. Small miracles of joy and humor allow small moments of love, distracting us from the harsher surrounding reality.

With a cast of only seven, the production will be marked by a fluid, guerilla theater-influenced style featuring quick changes of costumes and visible character shifts. This—along with stark, minimal scenery and a setting bound to no particular place or time—places the focus entirely on a small group of actors who will become both chorus and street performers in order to tell a universal story.

Romeo and Juliet begins previews on July 3, opening July 6. Rehearsals are now fully underway, and I will be updating this blog with periodic posts on the production’s ongoing development and rehearsal process. Look for a preview of Romeo and Juliet’s costume and set design up next.

Big thanks go to Jay Yamada for making this blogging fellowship possible.

 

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Thomas Azar on Crowd Scenes, Street Brawls, and Traffic Jams.

This is the latest in a series of actor blogs about our upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet. For this entry, Thomas Azar (who portrays Benvolio) writes about staging crowd scenes, the choreography of street brawls, and making it all work.Mounting a show is always a monumental undertaking, especially when that show is staged in an outdoor theater. Planning starts well in advance of the first day of rehearsals. When we, the actors, show up for that first day, we are greeted with design sketches and renderings detailing the set and costumes, and the director explains the overall vision for the show. This advance planning is absolutely essential to the production, because it gives the actors a (somewhat) concrete frame in which to work and experiment.

Of course, all of this planning doesn’t stop once rehearsals start. Once the actors are on their feet, things only get more complicated. Have you ever wondered how much time goes into staging big crowd scenes? Let me tell you: a whole hell of a lot. And there is no shortage of crowd scenes in Romeo and Juliet. The play starts with a melee right in the middle of the street, the “ancient grudge break[ing] to new mutiny” before the audience’s very eyes.

Dave Maier, Cal Shakes’ Resident Fight Director, worked with us for a number of hours on staging the multiple fights that happen simultaneously. What starts as an exchange between Tybalt and Benvolio erupts into an all-out brawl between the Capulets and Montagues. Discovering and rehearsing the fights takes quite a while, but placing these fights into the action of the scene takes just about as long. It’s one thing to work through the fight when the stage is empty, but add props, scenery, and (oh the horror!) other actors, and you’ve got a genuine traffic jam on your hands.

Jonathan (Moscone, the show’s director) takes what Dave has created and shapes it into the story of the play. I kid you not, much time has been spent on stuff like, “This chair needs to go here so this actor can cross to here and say this line.” It may seem like a silly waste of time, but such attention to detail is essential in crafting a tale from the chaos that begins the play. So, when you see Romeo and Juliet, please enjoy the big scenes, such as that first fight and the dance party; we’ve put a considerable amount of sweat (and perhaps a little blood, but only a few tears) into making them a lot of fun for the audience.

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Romeo and Juliet images are up!

If you pop on over to the Romeo and Juliet page of our website, you’ll see some of Raquel M. Barreto’s lovely costume sketches on display (if for some reason you don’t, just click on the “Multimedia” tab). Click on the thumbnails to see the costumes of Juliet, Friar Laurence, lady Capulet (below), and Lady Montague in greater detail.

Also on the R and J page, click on the “Photos” tab to see Kevin Berne’s fantastic publicity photos of Alex Morf and Sarah Nealis as Romeo and Juliet, respectively. There’s also this one, of the whole cast:

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Just Like Riding A Bike

When we announced our 2009 season you may have noticed that our very own Jon Moscone will be directing Romeo & Juliet. What you may not have realized is that the last time he took on Shakespeare for our stage was back in 2006 when he directed As You Like It.

That’s right folks. 2006. How does he feel about his return to the world of iambic pentameter? He’s excited. Here at the office we’re hearing him float around ideas like looking for young actors to play the title roles. And by young, I really mean age appropriate since Romeo & Juliet were teenagers after all.

Every production goes through a period of transformation while the director and designers research and explore the work. Then you cast the show and when rehearsals begin another series of transformations occur as the actors bring each character to life. So there’s no telling what the final outcome will be.

But the man isn’t artistic director of a Shakespeare theater for nothing. This should be a fun ride.

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