It is very easy to forget that a boy actor played Juliet on Shakespeare’s stage in large part because the modern film history of Romeo and Juliet has been relentlessly heterosexual. Moreover, these film versions are often instrumental in the teaching of this popular tragedy in middle and high school. Gen Xers may recall the abundance of cod pieces and flashes of nudity in Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet– a scandal in English class! Zefferelli’s 1968 work set the tone for the rest of the century by thoroughly eroticizing the young couple. Zefferelli’s film dominated Shakespeare class until …
Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes does little to acknowledge the queerness of the Elizabethan stage despite Harold Perrineau’s flamboyant Mercutio, one of the high points of this film. Perrineau’s drag-inspired Queen Mab speech only serves to cordon off the young lovers in a safe straight space, free from the wild queerness and blackness of Mercutio who (spoiler alert) must die.
Even John Madden’s delightful realization of Stoppard and Norman’s Shakespeare in Love (1998) shies away from the question of queerness. While this fictional biopic does an excellent job of showing the practice of employing boys to represent women on the Renaissance stage, the film’s quest for “true love” demands that the boy actor who plays Juliet cede his role to Gwyneth Paltrow so that she and Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare/Romeo can perform heteronormative true love for the audience at the Rose Theatre. Judy Dench’s Queen Elizabeth declares the love on stage to be true, thereby reinforcing the notion that the best boy for the role of Juliet is a woman.
“Judy Dench’s Queen Elizabeth declares the love on stage to be true, thereby reinforcing the notion that the best boy for the role of Juliet is a woman.”
Raise your hand if you had to watch one of those films in middle or high school, or even college. You’re forgiven, then, if you forget that there was a boy actor beneath the character of Juliet because the modern cinematic performance history of this play is, by and large, straight (and white– let’s not get started on Natalie Wood as Maria in Westside Story (1961) or Claire Danes’ ambiguous Latinx identity in Romeo + Juliet).
While there exists many ways in which live stage productions have challenged and continue to challenge the dominant heteronormative through line of Romeo and Juliet in popular culture, there are few ways to bring the important artistic work of those productions into the classroom, especially when it’s so much easier for an English teacher to pop in a DVD of Romeo + Juliet, for example.
Meet the Director and Artists of Takes on Shakes: Romeo and Juliet
Enter: Takes on Shakes, a brand new on-demand video teaching tool that challenges the assumptions we inherit from mass market media and received wisdom. Each episode of the program consists of an interactive video designed for a diverse array of students and a written curriculum for teachers. The program is well suited for distance learning since it can be deployed in a virtual classroom as easily as in an in-person one. Read more about Takes on Shakes here. One of the goals of the program is to make Shakespeare more inclusive by wrestling with Shakespeare and his legacy. Available now, the first installment of Takes on Shakes offers three “takes” on the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet using diverse artists and settings for each iteration– that is, three different Juliets, three different Romeos, and three different settings.
“What’s it like to look at the play with trans people, with queer people, with no expectations of what the gender of the character is supposed to be, and ask, does the play hold up?”
Takes on Shakes: Romeo and Juliet is directed by Bay-Area gender queer drag artist, Chris Steele. Director Steele approaches the balcony scene with a kind of giddy freedom by asking, “What’s it like to look at the play with trans people, with queer people, with no expectations of what the gender of the character is supposed to be, and ask, does the play hold up?” In Steele’s’ directorial vision, the answer is yes. Steele carefully crafted takes of the balcony scene that challenge heteronormative assumptions about the work and to let students know that queer identity has always been a part of the arts and of Shakespeare. Crucial for the students who may experience this episode of Takes on Shakes is Steele’s belief that the young people at the center of Romeo and Juliet are not the problem; the problem is the world around them. Watch an interview with Steele below to learn more about their vision for an inclusive Romeo and Juliet.
“…young people at the center of Romeo and Juliet are not the problem; the problem is the world around them.”
Take One: Renaissance Contexts
After an introductory scene of a somewhat exaggerated staging of what you may typically expect the balcony scene to look like, Director Steele casts Ron Chapman as Romeo and Charlie Lavaroni as Juliet. In casting Charlie as Juliet, Steele aligns this take with the historical practice of casting boys as women on Shakespeare’s stage.
Take Two: Women in Men’s Clothing
Take Two draws inspiration from the nineteenth century, a time when famous female actors took to the stage to play male roles from Shakespeare in what feels like both a reflection and a reversal of the historical practices of Shakespeare’s stage. This take features Bidalia Albanese as Romeo and Carolina Morones as Juliet.
Take 3: Modern Contexts
In Take Three, the balcony is replaced by the smartphone, which mediates a nighttime encounter at a distance. Romeo is played by non-binary artist Akaina Ghosh, who also happens to be the director of the next episode of Takes on Shakes exploring A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And Juliet is played by Danielle Ferrer.
Joshua Waterstone plays a baseline version of Romeo … and the Nurse.
Visit the Takes on Shakes page of our website to learn more about this program. Episode 2: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is already available. We are working hard to cover school curriculum favorites. If you would like to request a play for the next episode, please leave a comment.