A long time ago, when I was young and brave,* I herded about forty ninth-grade students onto a school bus and took them to San Antonio, thirty miles away, to a matinée performance of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.
The day before the event, I learned that two girls planned to skip the trip. They were going to attend school but to sit in the library while the rest of the English class sat in a theater.
I consulted the principal. He consulted the girls. The girls decided they would go to see Romeo and Juliet with the rest of us.
I hadn’t seen the movie and was surprised to learn that at least one major event–the sword fight between Romeo and Paris outside the Capulet tomb–had been omitted. Shakespeare’s plays are long, movies move more slowly than dramas at the Globe did, so something had to go.
Still, of all the deaths in the play–Mercutio’s, Tybalt’s, Paris’, Romeo’s, Juliet’s–Paris’ seems to me the saddest. Paris is the one innocent character: neither Montague nor Capulet, he has no enemies, seeks no revenge, but simply loves Juliet, and dies trying to prevent Romeo from (as he thinks) desecrating her tomb. Friar Laurence describes what he found in the churchyard when he came to wake Juliet:
But when I came, some minute ere the time
Of her awaking, here untimely lay
The noble Paris and true Romeo dead.
She wakes; and I entreated her come forth,
And bear this work of heaven with patience:
But then a noise did scare me from the tomb;
And she, too desperate, would not go with me,
But, as it seems, did violence on herself.
Three deaths in the last minutes of the play. Omitting one lessens the impact of the other two. But only for viewers already familiar with the play, I suppose. If you don’t know that much about Paris, you probably don’t miss him.
Something else surprised me, too: the unobstructed view of Romeo’s bare backside we got when he heard the lark and hopped out of bed. But in a theater packed with fourteen-year-olds, I heard not one giggle. That is my definition of success.**
And the day got even better. On our return to school, the principal came out to meet the bus. He and I were standing together, making sure students headed toward the building and not away from it, when the girls who’d threatened to boycott the play walked by.
“Well,” he said, “what did you think of it?”
One of them tossed her head and said over her shoulder, in the tone of bored superiority only a fourteen-year-old can produce, “They didn’t even show the scene where Paris died.”
That, dear reader, is my other definition of success.
Why do I write about R&J tonight? Because the Zeffirelli version is on the late movie, and I’m watching as I remember.
But now I’m going to turn off the television and make my way to bed.
Because I’ve already seen my favorite part, Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech:
then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies o’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep,
Then dreams, he of another benefice:
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she—
Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk’st of nothing.
True, I talk of dreams…
And I already know what happens later. They don’t even show the scene where Paris died.
* … and naive and amazingly stupid.
** On network TV, Romeo’s bare backside is blurry. That is my definition of turning tragedy into comedy.