Mafia Tropes in “Richard III”

Last month, I took a short vacation to Las Vegas, where, as some of you know, I went to Area 15 and the Omega Mart Exhibit. I also visited the Las Vegas Mob Museum. I’ve been fascinated by the mob for years. The Mob (AKA The Outfit), has within its many threads a potent combination of corruption, seduction vice, and violence all hidden behind the veneer of honorable men who do what they feel they have to to protect their families and their communities.

Not surprisingly, while at the museum, I saw parallels between the history of organized crime and Shakespeare, specifically his most popular history play about a powerful family that takes over the crown of England in a brutal turf war, and then one of its most feared soldiers bribes, intimidates, and murders his way to the top; Richard III.

A Protection Racket: Feudalism vs. La Cosa Nostra

The structure of the mafia paralleled the feudal system. In a world where a police force didn’t offer much protection for marginalized communities, the mafia thrived by offering protection for these communities, (especially to immigrants and people of color in the 19th and early 20th century).

Much earlier than that, the feudal system of the middle ages, which started to crumble after Richard’s reign ended, was designed specifically so poor peasants could get protection from wealthy landowners after the fall of the Roman Empire. These lords offered the protection of their knights to these peasants i. Return for labor and a percentage of their income working the field. Like the mafia, these peasants paid tributes to their lords and these lords demanded loyalty. In the museum, there’s an interactive video where you can become a ‘made man,’ which means become an official member of a mafia crew. Like a king knighting a lord, this ceremony meant pledging your life to your superiors, and being at their beck and call no matter what. In addition, like medieval knights, mafiosos were not allowed to murder other made men without permission from their capo or boss.

However benevolent they might appear, In both cases the Dons and the medieval lords were extorting their underclass. Failing to pay tribute to their lords would cause the peasants to lose their lands, and any disloyalty to the mafia would be severely punished. These powerful, violent thugs used their private armies to intimidate the weak into giving them what they wanted.

Part II: The Two Families

To thoroughly explain the parallels between the Wars of the Roses and the mob, I need to make clear that Richard iii is more than just the story of one man’s rise to power, although there are also mafia stories that fit this mold such as Scarface, White Heat, and the real-life story of Al Capone.

As this hilarious “weather report” from “Horrible Histories,” makes clear, during the Wars of the Roses two powerful families, (each with a claim to the English crown) fought each other in a brutal turf war. As Shakespeare characterizes in his play Henry VI, Part III, the battles between the houses of York and Lancaster shook England like a mighty storm, and for a while it was hard to tell who would prevail:

Henry VI. This battle fares like to the morning's war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,1105
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind:1110
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered:
So is the equal of this fell war.
Henry VI, Act II, Scene i

During the Wars of the Roses, it was King Henry’s incompetence and mental illness that gave the Yorkists the ability to challenge the House of Lancaster for the crown. In the 1920s, the passage of the 18th amendment, (which made alcohol illegal, and thus a profitable commodity for organized crime), that allowed the mob to rise to unheard-of power through illegally buying, distributing, and selling alcohol. As the photo and subsequent video shows, Prohibition largely led to the rise in organized crime in America, especially in Chicago. During Prohibition, the Italian Sough-side Gang fought for control of Chicago’s bootlegging trade and subsequently destroyed their competition from the Irish gangs through corruption, intimidation, and violence.

The Don rises- Richard Vs. Al Capone

Opening Scene from Ian Mckellen’s 1995 movie of Richard III.

Like the Italian and Irish gangs In Prohibition-era Chicago, the Yorkist and Lancastrian armies battled for the English throne. As Ian McKellen’s excellent movie (set in the 1930s) shows, Richard was instrumental in destroying the leading Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury, including Prince Edward and King Henry.

In Chicago, the most feared mobster soldier was Al Capone, who many scholars believe was responsible for killing off high ranking members of the Irish gang during the infamous St. Valentines Day Massacre, where the gang members were ‘arrested’ by South Side gangsters disguised as cops. As the Irish stood against the wall with their hands behind their heads, the phony cops pulled out Tommy guns from their coats and let out a hail of bullets on their unsuspecting quarry.

In Shakespeare’s play, the only Lancastrian to survive the war is Queen Margaret, wife to the murdered King Henry, and mother to the slaughtered Prince Edward. In this scene from Al Pacino’s “Looking For Richard,” she curses Richard for his cruel slaughters. It’s not surprising that Pacino was so drawn to Richard II that he starred in and directed this film. After all, Pacino is famous for playing mafia characters who slaughter their way to the top.

Once Capone killed the competition, he ruled a multimillion-dollar empire of bootleggers and maintained that empire through corruption, intimidation, and by constantly playing innocent, just like Richard himself.

Hypocrisy, Corruption and hidden violence

“Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see, but few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion.”

Niccolo Machiavelli

Both Richard III and mobsters are masters of double-speak, that is, seeming to say one thing and meaning something else. Look at this passage where Richard talks about killing his nephew, then denies it:

Las Vegas: The town that bedded and abetted the mob.

After Al Capone’s demise and the repeal of Prohibition, the mafia found another vice to capitalize on: gambling. As the video below indicates, using their connections with the Teamsters Union and midwestern bookmakers, the mob in the midwest financed, built, and run almost every casino in Las Vegas, including The StarDust and the Hassienda. Once the casinos were built, the mob extorted millions of dollars from the casinos every month!

The profits from the casinos bought the mob even more power and influence, but this skim depended on making sure the bosses controlled their underlings, and defended their casinos from cheaters and snitches, which is why they defended their casinos through intimidation and violence.

Murders in The White tower and the city of sin.

A series of quotes from Las Vegas Mobsters

“Simple, plain, Clarence. I do love thee so, that I shall shortly send thy soul to Heaven.”

—Richard III, Act I, Scene i

When Richard of Gloucester starts his quest to become king, he begins by convincing his brother King Edward to execute his other brother George. Richard bribes the murderers to kill George before the king can reverse the death sentence. Richard has thus eliminated another obstacle in his way, and gained two loyal followers who will do anything for his gold.

Richard hires two murderers to kill the duke of Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne).

The mafia dealt the same way with traitors, stool pigeons, and anyone who tried to challenge the bosses. Look at this tour of the Mafia museum, where the grandson of the gangster Meyer Lansky starts by reminiscing about the glamourous lifestyle of Las Vegas mobsters, but the tour quickly takes a dark turn as Lansky II talks about how his grandfather ordered brutal executions for anyone who crossed The Las Vegas Outfit.

The Mafia Museum, Las Vegas
Exterior of the Mafia Museum

It was an enormously interesting trip going to the Mafia Museum, and if you can get out to Las Vegas, be sure to visit, (don’t forget the password to visit the speakeasy bar in the basement!) It was eye-opening for me how prevalent the sort of corrupt protection racket that started in the middle ages and continued into most of the 20th century helped define The Wars of the Roses and the mafia. As long as the strong prey on the weak and the law can’t protect everyone equally, these kinds of violent thugs will be lurking in the shadows, waiting for a shot at the crown.

Richard the Third and Toxic Masculinity

This past month, there was a free production of Richard III in New York’s Shakespeare In the Park, starring Danai Gurira as the title character. I have not seen this production, though I wish I had. I enjoyed the actress Ms. Gurrira in such films as “Black Panther,” and would love to see her do Shakespeare. What is more, the concept intrigues me. This project explores themes of toxic masculinity, racial identity, inferiority, and misogyny.

Unsurprisingly, with so many heady topics in the production, this Richard III is still somewhat controversial. Some right-wing critics dismissed the whole production as a piece of ‘woke propaganda,’ but I feel this is unfair.

When Danai Gurira of Marvel’s “Black Panther” first takes the stage in the title role, the actress has no perceivable hunchback or arm trouble. And yet the dialogue suggesting Richard suffers from a lifelong physical issue (“rudely stamped”) has been kept in. Perhaps we are to use our imaginations. Who knows? We are certainly tempted to close our eyes.

By Johnny Oleksinski

I will not judge this production based on the acting because I haven’t been able to see it. What I will do is take a stance on the validity of the concept. Specifically, I want to ask if this play is a good examination of toxic masculinity and if it would it be worthwhile to see it portrayed by a black woman, as opposed to a white man. The short answer is an emphatical “Yes.”

Richard’s Toxic Masculity

Richard III is definately an example of toxic masculinity. He is violent, full of hatred, vengeance, and mysogeny. He is constantly insulting women from Lady Anne, Jane Shore, Queen Elizabeth, and even his own mother. In fact, the source of Richard’s toxic attitude is that he blames his mother for his disability and deformity:

Well, say there is no kingdom then for Richard;1635
What other pleasure can the world afford?
I'll make my heaven in a lady's lap,
And deck my body in gay ornaments,
And witch sweet ladies with my words and looks.
O miserable thought! and more unlikely1640
Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns!
Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;1645
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlick'd bear-whelp1650
That carries no impression like the dam.
And am I then a man to be beloved?
O monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought!. 3H6, Act III, Scene i, lines 1635-1653.

Now I should clarify the difference between deformity and disability, which are characteristics that Richard III has as part of his character makeup. According to the Americans With Disabilities Act, a disability is defined as: “A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This could include paralysis, autism, or any number of congenital or acquired conditions. Richard’s disability is primarily his limp (caused by his unequally shaped limbs), and his withered arm. What’s interesting in this production is that while the title role is played by an able-bodied woman, most of the rest of the cast have actual disabilites. Watch this clip of the famous courtship scene between Richard and Lady Anne, who plays her role in a wheel-chair.

While a disability is a legal term that is recognized by lawyers and governments alike, the term “deformity” is more subjective; it generally refers to any kind of cosmetic imperfection. In Richard III, this applies to Richard’s hump and withered arm. 

The Elizabethans thought that deformity was a sign of disfavor from God, and that deformed people were constantly at odds with God and nature, as Francis Bacon puts it in his essay, “On Deformity.”

As deformed people are physically impaired by nature; they, in turn, devoid themselves of ‘natural affection’ by being unmerciful and lacking emotions for others. By doing so, they get their revenge on nature and hence achieve stability.

Richard III has this drive for revenge in spades and I believe it manifests itself as a particularly terrible form of toxic masculinity. Richard definitely wants the crown to make up for his lack of ‘natural affection,’ but he is also especially malevolent towards women.

I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days

Seeing a woman play this kind of misogynist dialogue forces the audience to take it out of context and question Richard’s point of view. We see casual misogyny every day, and seeing a woman deliver it is quite illuminating.

Richard’s deformity and Blackness

Another provocative choice by Danai Gurira’s portrayal of Richard is the fact that she plays the role of Richard without the hump or withered arm. She herself explains that for her production, Richard’s perceived deformity, is actually represented by her being a black woman:

He’s dealing with the otherness compared to his family, in terms of not being Caucasian and fair like them.” The word ‘fair’, is used a lot in the play.

Danai Gurira’s

Shakespeare writes Richard as constantly striving to compensate for his deformities by being clever, violent, and eventually, by becoming king. As I wrote before in my review of Othello, for centuries black people have been portrayed as inferior; aberrations of the ‘ideal fair-skinned form’. So, to the Elizabethans, blackness itself was a form of deformity, and the rawness of addressing this uncomfortable fact in this production should be commended.

English people are already trained—and we have scholars like Anthony Barthelemy has talked about this in his book Black Face, Maligned Race, where the image of blackness, as associated with sin, with the devil, all of these things, makes it quite easy to map onto then Black people these kinds of characteristics. Then, those kinds of characteristics allow for the argument that these people are fit to be enslaved. – Dr. Ambereen Dadabhoy, Race and Blackness in Elizabethan England Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 168

So while I can’t speak to the production’s acting or staging, I will emphatically defend the notion that this production’s concept is valid. Richard III is an example of toxic masculinity through his self-hatred, violence, misogyny, and narcissism. In addition, as I’ve written before, in the Early Modern Period, blackness was considered an aberration or deformity, and seeing it in the person of Richard, with the implicit understanding that black people still face this kind of prejudice today, opens a much-needed dialogue that any production of Shakespeare shouldn’t be afraid to open.

In short, by re-contextualizing Richard’s deformity and disabilities, this production gets to the heart of the play’s moral for our times. The early modern period’s toxic attitudes towards deformity and disability created the Renaissance monster of Richard III. We in the 21st century must examine our own societal prejudices and toxic attitudes so this monster does not come to haunt us in real life.

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (2021)

Trailer for Globe Theater’s 2021 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

What do you think of when you think of “Shakespeare?” What do you think of when you think of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream?” 

    Ruffs and Tights?

    Mostly white dudes?

    Elizabethan music?

    Dark night and moon?

This production, directed by Michelle Terry, is gleefully throwing out every preconceived notion of what A Midsummer Night’s Dream can or should be. In terms of design, casting, music, and interpretation, it breaks all the rules, while still remaining true to the text. This allows the production to appeal to not only hard-core Shakespeare fans, but first time audiences and children too!

I got to see this production thanks to the Globe’s online streaming library. My mother kindly shared me a link to this recording from the summer of 2021. You can watch it yourself on:

I would describe the concept behind the show as “Suggestive,” that is, it doesn’t belong to a literal time and place. Even though the play is set in Ancient Greece, the play refuses to be constrained by historical accuracy, which arguably, fits nicely with Shakespeare in particular, and the Globe itself; a modern building in a modern city, based on a 400-year-old building.

The music and costumes evoke a New Orleans Mardis Gras, a Pride parade, or a Spanish pinata with its bright colors, heavy use of fringes, and bright, energetic jazz music. The only people who don’t wear bright colors are the four lovers, which reflects their continuous frustration with being unable to marry the person they really want.

The show is also Color blind and gender blind, with women playing men’s parts and a cast with black, white, and mixed race actors. Terry’s direction also calls attention to the patriarchial, racist, and sexist elements of Athens which are often overlooked in other interpretations of Dream that I’ve seen or read about. Rather than being a hero, Theseus is a horny old man in a ludicrous pink uniform, looking like a cross between M. Bison and a Christmas nutcracker. To reinforce this point, the actor chose to perform one of Theseus’ most patriarchial speeches as a joke:

Theseus. What say you, Hermia? be advised fair maid:50
To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it. -Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I, Scene i.

I’ve seen this speech heavily cut and played seriously, but never till now did I see it played to ridicule the ludicrous notion that women are in any way bound to worship their fathers.

In another nod to contemporary gender politics, the actress who plays Hippolyta and Titania chose to perform her role on crutches. As far as I can tell, this was a deliberate choice and not a result of real injury. There is a precedent for this: In 1984, Sir Antony Sher performed Richard iii on crutches because it highlighted the cruelty people with disabilities often suffer.

I could be wrong, but I think that the reason the actress was on crutches was a symbolic way of confronting the way gender politics can cripple women.

Many scholars have pointed out how Hippolyta rarely speaks despite the fact that she is supposed to be the powerful Queen of the Amazons, and Theseus’ fiance besides. Shakespeare makes it clear that their marriage was arranged as a political alliance after the Amazons lost to Athens in a war:

Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;20
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph and with revelling.

With this in mind, it makes sense to have Hippolyta on crutches as a result of her injuries. Those injuries might also explain her silence; she has lost her agency now that she is essentially Theseus’ prisoner. One might think of any number of war atrocious where women have been sold to powerful men over the centuries. In short, by putting Hippolyta on crutches, we see a glimpse into her tragic story that most productions just gloss over- that she has lost a war, been separated from her people, and is now her enemies’ prisoner through marriage.

I’ve come to expect high quality acting from The Globe Theater Company and this cast did not disappoint. As we watched it together, my family concluded that this was one of the best acted productions of Dream that we’ve ever seen, which between us has to be over 30 plus productions.

The delivery is crisp and fast paced. Every actor has taken these words and made them their own. They speak them as if they were written yesterday. One thing I love about the Globe is that the directors encourage this kind of fast paced delivery; with no distracting special effects or sets, the actors have to captivate the audience with their delivery of Shakespeare’s text, without being melodramatic or self-indulgent. I’m pleased to say that this cast does a fantastic job of telling this magical story in a compelling and very modern way.

I’ve shown my recording to kids, teens, adults, and my family, and everyone has a different reaction to the show. Maybe this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but the concept is sound, the acting is high caliber, and it utilizes the Globe’s unique qualities extremely well. 

I personally didn’t care for Bottom just because I felt the actress was playing a very energetic part with too much sarcasm and tongue in cheek, but that’s mostly personal preference. I did however love Peter Quince, Snout, Snug, and the rest of the Mechanicals. Peter Quince is a rather thankless part but it’s great to see someone balance being a straight man trying to reign in Bottom’s antics. and an idiot who has no idea how to direct a company of actors, which the actress playing Quince did very well.

Where Did This Play Come From?

Poster for a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” that I worked on in 2012.

When I say that the story of Romeo and Juliet is timeless, I mean that the story’s roots go back almost to the beginnings of time. According to Sigmund Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the desire for love is inexplicably tied to the desires for creation, and destruction. These contradictory forces live deep in the human psyche, which explains why stories of doomed love have been re-interpreted throughout history. What follows is a short history of the stories that inspired Shakespeare, so you can see how this archetypal story has evolved into the one we still read today.

Ancient Sources

When Shakespeare was going to school in the late 1560s, Elizabethan boys were expected to read ancient Greek and Roman writers, who wrote many of the classical love stories listed below. We know that Shakespeare remembered of all these stories because he gives a brief homage to them in Ac II, Scene iv of Romeo and Juliet:


Now is he [Romeo] for the numbers
that Petrarch flowed in: Laura to his lady was but a
kitchen-wench; marry, she had a better love to
be-rhyme her; Dido a dowdy; Cleopatra a gipsy;
Helen and Hero hildings and harlots; Thisbe a grey
eye or so, but not to the purpose.

Mercutio’s opinion of these old love stories is that they are based on a false concept of true love, when in fact, love for Mercutio is merely lust and obsession.

Hero and Leander

Leander swimming across the Hellespont. Detail from a painting by Bernard Picart.

          • Author– Unknown (traditional Greek Myth)
          • Date Of Composition 1400- 300 BC (approx)
          • Plot– Hero, a prophetess of Aphrodite loves Leander, a young man from the other side of her temple across a river called the Hellespond. As a priestess, Hero is supposed to remain a virgin, but Leander convinces her to make love to him, and visits her several times by swimming across the Hellespond. Their affair comes to a tragic end when on one stormy night, Leander is overcome by the waves and drowns on his journey to be with his beloved Hero. Consumed with grief, Hero throws herself off the temple tower to be with him.
          • Moral– love (or at least lust), destroys and kills.

The Iliad

        • Author– Homer
        • Date Of Composition 800 BC (approx)
        • Plot– Paris, the prince of Troy abducts and ravishes Helen, the queen of Sparta in Greece, leading to a 10 year war between the Greeks and the Trojans. This war divides everyone in both countries, even the gods, leading to the question of whether love is more important to loyalty to one’s country or family.
        • Moral– Ambiguous- The Greeks fight the Trojans bravely, but only to destroy Troy. Whereas the Trojans are often more sympathetic than the Greeks, but their decision to protect Paris and Helen’s adulterous affair is very unwise. The characters in this story strive to answer the question of what is the most important thing in life- desire for power, fame, to protect one’s home, or love?

Tristan and Isolde

        • Authors– Various, including the French bards Thomas and Beroul
        • Date of Composition– somewhere around the 12th century AD.
        • Plot– Similar to the Trojan War story, but in a medieval context: a young English knight named Tristan meets the heroine, a princess from Ireland, who is engaged to his country’s king. Their passion is instant and fiery, (sometimes it is the result of a love potion they accidentally drank), but it also forces them to make a terrible choice- If Tristan carries off Isolde, he will be disobeying his king, destroying a peaceful alliance, and forcing England and Ireland to go to war. However, it is clear from the beginning that Isolde does not love the one-eyed English king, and  if she marries him, Isolde will be miserable her whole life. Tristan fights gallantly to protect both Isolde and her honor and it puts Tristan, the king, and Isolde into a torturous love triangle, which usually ends with Tristan and the king fighting to the death.
        • Morals
          1. Arranged marriages ruin everything,
          2. love is like a drug,
          3. “Bros before, [you know-what].”
        • Note– This story was also the root of the story of Lancelot in the Arthur myths. In the version created by Thomas Mallory in the 15th century, Lancelot falls in love with Queen Guineveere, and betrays King Arthur, whom he loves like a father. Lancelot’s adultery eventually destroys the fellowship of the Round Table, and allows Arthur’s wicked bastard son Mordred to kill Arthur and ruin Camelot.

Renaissance Sources

Here is a brief timeline of the narrative sources dating from 1530-1580 that Shakespeare used to create his own masterpiece. As you can see, they differ considerably from the ancient sources in plot, and overall morals.

Timeline Of the Narrative Sources of Romeo and Juliet:

Romeo and Giulietta

Da Porto's Novel "Newly found story of two noble lovers"-1530

        • Author– Luigi Da Porto in his novel Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti (“Newly found story of two noble lovers”
        • Date of Composition- 1530
        • Background– Da Porto was a soldier and a brilliant story writer. Some claim that he based his tale on an earlier story, while some claim he based it on his falling in love with a girl at a masked ball. In any case, Da Porto was the first to set the story in Verona, created the characters of Mercutio and Benvolio, and also the first author to change the context of the story into two warring households, rather than great empires or kingdoms. This small change helps the audience sympathize with the lovers more, since they are not guilty of treason or adultery.
        • Plot– Two noble houses, the Montecchi and the Cappelletti are at war. The hero  Romeo meets Giulietta at a Carnival ball, which makes him forget about an unrequited love he has for an unnamed girl (the name Rosalind is Shakespeare’s invention).  The two lovers have several liasons over a much longer period than in Shakespeare’s play at Guilietta’s chamber window. Also, although they are married in secret and Romeo is banished just as in Shakespeare’s version, the character he kills is not related to Guilietta. However, the plot device of the sleeping potion and  Romeo’s suicide is also consistent with Shakespeare’s version of the story.

Romeus and Juliet

Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet

        • Author– Matteo Bandello’s in his story Novelle,
          (translated into English) by Arthur Brooke in 1587.
        • Date of Composition– 1554, (translated in 1562, re-printed 1587)
        • Background– Bandello adapted Da Porto’s version of the story and developed the supporting characters, adding The Nurse, the Friar and the Apothecary, and developing Benvolio (without giving him a name).
        • Plot– This plot is almost exactly the same as Shakespeare’s play,but it does reveal some narrative details that Shakespeare omits. Bandello’s poem reveals the origin of the Capulet/ Monegue feud, as well as the ultimate fates of the surviving characters.
        • Moral– Like many other interpretations, the author (or at least the translator) seem to be struggling with the Christian taboo of premarital sex, which to some extent condemns the protagonists. In the English translation by Arthur Brooke, the Preface makes it very clear that Brooke is not condoning Romeus’ premarital sex or his blatant disregard for his parents’ authority. Brooke claims that the story is intended to show the actions of bad people being punished for their actions:

The good man’s example biddeth men to be good, and the evil man’s mischief warneth men not to be evil. To this good end serve all ill ends of ill beginnings. And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’ attaining of their wished lust – (Brooke, Romeus and Juliet )

    • On the other hand, at the end of the poem, Bandello describes Romeus and Juliet’s love (or at least Brooke’s translation), as: “so perfect, sound, and so approvéd love,” which suggests that the author at least approve of the lover’s actions. One can almost imagine Italian passion fighting with English morality in the dueling pens of Brooke and Bandello. It was up to Shakespeare to try and resolve this conflict in his own version.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet 1st Quarto.

      • Author– William Shakespeare
      • Date of Composition 1593 (approximately)
      • Plot– One of the most interesting things about Shakespeare’s play is that he develops the characters of Mercutio, the Nurse, and Friar Lawrence, but deliberately omits certain plot elements such as why the feud began between the Capulets and Montegues, and what happened to The Apothecary, Nurse, and Friar Lawrence after the Prince found out about the lovers’ suicides. This effectively makes the Capulet/Montegue feud seem pointless, which allows the audience to focus more on the lovers. On the other hand, Shakespeare also compresses the time Romeo and Juliet know each other from 9 months as in Brooke’s version to 5 days, making the love affair seem even more rash. These changes in plot make the story much less a morality tale about morally wrong love, and more about the war between creative and destructive love that play in the human psyche.
        • Moral– As we’ve seen, most interpretations of the story condemn the lovers as rash, foolish, and adulterous. Shakespeare refuses to condemn or condone. That is Shakespeare’s great gift for storytelling- he doesn’t give us clear answers because he knows life is more complicated than that. He merely provides two sides of an issue and lets the reader sort it out for themselves.

How did Shakespeare get away with ripping off material this old? You’d think that, since every English schoolboy knew this story for over 1000 years, nobody would see this play since there would be no surprises. The answer is that Shakespeare writes primarily for characters, not plot. He infuses old characters like Romeo and Juliet with a new language that makes them more complete, more modern, and more timeless. That’s why stories like R&J, which was already known to Shakespeare’s audiences, are still entertaining and compelling, even after you read it 100 times, and see hundreds of different productions.

I hope this short history of the sources of Romeo and Juliet allows you to ponder the complex theories behind love and lust that authors have struggled to explain in the history of this story. Each age debates the values of love and whether it’s worth fighting or dying or killing for. Perhaps the best thing about Shakespeare’s version is that it tries to provide the most complete summary of the question, without giving us an answer, allowing us to marvel at how complex it is.

Thanks For Reading!

Shakespearean Student

Fun Posts about Friar Lawrence from our Friends at “Zounds, Alack, and By My Troth.”

I love it every time I come across some Shakespearean humor. One of the ideas I keep coming back to in “Romeo and Juliet,” is how close the play comes to being a comedy- it has two lovers, a funny nurse, a wisecracking friend, if people didn’t die it could be a sitcom. Even more ridiculous is the clichéd comic device of having people fake their own deaths, which Shakespeare does again in his comedy Much Ado About Nothing. So here is a humorous take on the old friar, and his go-to advice:

Web comic strip from “Zounds, Alack and By My Troth,” Used with permission.

Romeo and Juliet: Why Do We Have To Read This Play? (Part I of 3)

Most schools in the US and the UK study Romeo and Juliet at one time or another, so for this blog entry, I wanted to ask the question you might have asked at some point in your life:


I will answer this question in three posts, with three different responses, to try and make my answers as complete, and yet concise as possible:
Reason #1: Shakespeare Himself Is Part Of the Educational Establishment.

From the beginning of American education, Shakespeare has influenced education. What follows is a brief history that hopefully helps explain why, even though he was born in England, Shakespeare is as American as it gets.

Prologue: Life Imitates Art

The first settlements in Virginia occurred in Shakespeare’s lifetime. After all, Virginia was named after Shakespeare’s ruler, the virgin queen Elizabeth. In 1609, a voyage to repopulate the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia hit a terrible storm and was shipwrecked in an island in the Bermudas. The survivors wrote down their story in  a book called A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle Of Devils in 1610, which could have inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest. Shakespeare wasn’t ignorant of the New World; he references America in The Comedy Of Errors, so it’s not impossible that Shakespeare based his last great play on this “Brave New World.”

The Beginning Of Shakespeare In American Education

In England during the 18th and 19th centuries, Shakespeare was considered a way of educating people in the Greco-Roman tradition, since his plays were based on such Roman authors as Plautus, Seneca, Plutarch, and Ovid (Saccio). Romeo & Juliet is a perfect example of Shakespeare borrowing from the older western traditions- he took the plot and characters from an Italian Renaissance story recorded in Mateo Bandello’s Novelle (1554). The concept of forbidden love though, is much older. Like many Renaissance stories, Romeo and Juliet has roots that go all the way back to the Trojan war, which according to Greek mythology, started with a man from Troy who dared to love a woman from his city’s mortal enemy. Our founding fathers were schooled in this tradition and they helped transplant Shakespeare to the new world.

Shakespeare Comes to America:

Picture of the first ever edition of Shakespeare printed in America, the 1795 Hopkinson Edition by Bioren and Madan
Picture of the first ever edition of Shakespeare printed in America, the 1795 Hopkinson Edition by Bioren and Madan

Our country’s early settlers were Puritans and Quakers, who disapproved of theatre in general and tried to have it banned. Nevertheless, many of the founding fathers loved Shakespeare and enjoyed reading his plays ; John Adams and Thomas Jefferson took a pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s birthplace, and George Washington even staged some of his plays (Behn). Even though he was an English playwright, most early Americans were quick to adopt Shakespeare as their own .

Shakespeare In the Classroom

In the 1830s, Shakespeare first appeared in American textbooks as something called “The McGuffey Reader,” a book that contained short snippets of text ranging from old nursery rhymes, to passages from Nathanial Hawthorne. In this sample, you can see that there is one passage from Shakespeare called: “Shylock: the pound of flesh” listed in the table of contents.

At the same time, going to Shakespearean plays and owning copies of Shakespeare’s works became more and more popular in the post Civil War period. As Mark Twain mentions in The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn, productions of Shakespeare were common to early settlers, which is why Twain writes the So-called Duke and Dauphin characters, who pose as actors and perform a perfectly awful rendition of a soliloquy:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin That makes calamity of so long life; For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane, But that the fear of something after death Murders the innocent sleep, Great nature’s second course, And makes us rather sling arrows of outrageous fortune Than fly to others that we know not of . . . (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain).

As this passage indicates, even people in rural towns on the Mississippi knew the basics of Shakespeare. In fact, by the mid-19thcentury, you were more likely to see a Bible and a copy of Shakespeare’s works in an American home, than any other book (Source: Lawrence Levine, “Shakespeare In America”). For another funny example of Shakespeare in this period, check out this clip from the film My Darling Clementine, where an old English Shakespearean actor performs for cowboys, which was a common practice during the gold rush.

Shakespeare Goes to Harvard

In the 1870s and 80s, Shakespeare became part of the curriculum of many colleges and universities like Harvard, since studying Shakespeare taught undergraduates the critical thinking skills they would use if they chose to study law or psychology. After the universities let Shakespeare in, high schools integrated Shakespeare into the curriculum to prepare students for college. This is why we study Shakespeare in most high schools today; according to a recent study, about 84% of American high schools are required to read Romeo and Juliet (Source: Hoffman, Jeremy The Western Canon In Today’s High Schools).

To sum up, the first reason we read this play is because it helps us broaden our minds and connect to the wisdom of the past. Also, a huge amount of our culture is inexplicably tied to Shakespeare.


  1. Behn, Richard J: “America’s Founding Dramas” (online article) Retrieved 8/1/15 from 
  2. Levine, Lawrence:”William Shakespeare in America”
    from Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Harvard University Press, 1998.
  3. Saccio, Peter. Lecture 1: “Shakespeare Then and Now.” Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. The Teaching Company, 2001. CD. Dartmouth College.
  4. Waterson, Sam (Narrator) et. all. “The Father of the Man in America: Shakespeare in Civic life and Education.” Shakespeare in American Life, (radio documentary). Produced by Richard Paul. Originally airing on Public Radio International (PRI) stations April 2007.Retrieved 21st of August, 2012 from
That’s all for now, stay tuned for later posts this week!
-Shakespeare Guru

Just in Time For Back To School: “Romeo and Juliet” Summaries For Your Viewing/ Reading Pleasure!

Well folks, it’s a new month, and that means a new play, and since August is also the beginning of the new school year, I’ve decided to make August’s Play of the Month—- Romeo and Juliet! Many of us study this play in school, a lot of us write papers, and some of us even perform in it, so I’m going to give you Romeo and Juliet commentary, artwork, analysis, and comedy ALL MONTH LONG! So to start, let me take this opportunity to help familiarize you with the plot.

Here’s a very kid-friendly summary of the play: 

Here are a few videos that sum up the story of the play:

1. Crash Course: Romeo and Juliet Summary presented by Paper Towns author, John Greene:

2. Shakespeare For Kids: Romeo and Juliet:

3. A retelling of Romeo and Juliet from my favorite children’s TV program: Wishbone!

4. Thug Notes: Romeo and Juliet (PG-13 Language ahead)

Remember, nearly everyone knows this story, and we don’t want to end up like these people:

Happy Birthday Juliet!

Hi Folks,

Not only is it the first day of this month, it’s also a Shakespearean holiday! According to this passage from “Romeo and Juliet,” today is Juliet’s Birthday!

NURSE: Even or odd, of all days in the year,
Come Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen.
Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene ii.
Lammas Eve, is a pagan holiday, also known as Lughnasa, a Celtic holiday traditionally held on August 1st, or the midway point between the summer solstice and the Equinox. It was a day celebrating harvests and the beginning of fall, and was celebrated through eating wheat, drinking wine and burning a giant wicker man in effigy, (the inspiration of the film of the same name, and the festival of Burning Man). By the way, not everyone appreciates this holiday, click here to see what I mean.
There is also another significance to Juliet’s birthday. It makes her a Leo, a star sign traditionally associated with the Sun. So, when Romeo calls her “The Sun,” there is a literal connection to her birth. Shakespeare makes many allusions to astrology in Romeo and Juliet, as a metaphor for fate.
In the next few days I’ll be talking about what these allusions mean and how they help people understand the play.
Enjoy Juliet’s Birthday everyone!
By the way, here’s a link to a fun website: Juliet’s Blog: