Whether you love or hate the double-suicide ending, whether you admire or feel contempt for the tragically young, star-cross'd lovers, there is simply no arguing that Romeo and Juliet contains the most romantic language in the history of English literature. "My bounty is as boundless as the sea /My love as deep. The more I give to thee /The more I have, for both are infinite." (Juliet, Act II, Scene II) "Eyes, look your last. /Arms, take your last embrace, and lips, O you /The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss/ A dateless bargain, to engrossing death." (Romeo, Act V, Scene III). Oh, swoon, we say, utterly without irony.
And yet, high school English teachers persist in raising the Love vs. Lust question: were Romeo and Juliet, who have known each other only hours when they declare their love for each other, actually in love? Or were they just consumed with overwhelming lust that they, being young and inexperienced, believe is love?
Doubtless the idea has raised some excellent discussions of the text in American classrooms, and we mean nothing against high school English teachers, but we would be lying if we said our own formative experience with the play wasn't just a little bit cheapened by that particular question. Juliet, especially, gets the worst of it: thanks to her tender age (she's supposed to be just shy of 14 years old), her capacity for the kind of passionate love she feels for Romeo is often called into question.
And so when we speak to Cassie Layton and Sam Valentine — two recent graduates of the UK's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art who are playing Juliet and Romeo in the Shakespeare's Globe production of Romeo and Juliet — we can't help but address that question first.
"I think it's a combination of both," Layton says. "The initial attraction is definitely lust, but as is the case with most relationships, once you get past that, something bigger happens. It does amount to real, powerful love that they feel for each other in the end."
Valentine expands on that: "Romeo's older in the play, and he's had some more experience, but he's so desperately looking for something — he wants to find love, someone to connect with and make love to and be passionate with. I think Juliet totally fulfills that. It has to be more than lust if you're willing to commit suicide."
This is something Valentine has thought long and hard about. He and Layton have spent about six weeks performing in this production, not to mention a couple of months in rehearsals, so they've delved deep into their characters' motivations and personalities. That's a daunting task, on the one hand — after all, every Shakespearean lead has had its iconic performers, who will inevitably be held up as the standards — but on the other, it's a vastly enjoyable one. "Any of the great Shakespeare roles, they're all dreams because they all hold qualities and language that no other character or play will be able to match," Valentine says. "It wasn't a specific goal of mine to play Romeo or Hamlet — just one of the archetypal roles that hold so much scope."
That's not quite the case for Layton. "I was always very keen to play Juliet," she says. "Some of the words that she says have always stuck in my mind — some of the greatest phrases in the English language come from her, [like] 'They are but beggars that can count their worth.'"
What's more, Juliet goes through a complex transformation in the course of her short-lived love affair. "I think Juliet starts off as a child, and she's a woman by the end," Layton says. And a brave one, at that. Despite her well-founded fears about drinking a poison which will make her appear dead, she does what she believes she must in order to have a future with Romeo.
This Romeo and Juliet is a touring version — the show spent a month in Spain before settling into London's iconic reproduction of the original Globe Theatre in April and will be in Charleston for the entirety of the Spoleto Festival. So it's fairly stripped down, with minimal scenery (which is actually similar to the way the Elizabethans would have done it), and a small cast of eight. This means that several actors double or triple up on roles, although Layton and Valentine, of course, do not.
In keeping with the Shakespearean tradition of reinterpreting the original Elizabethan setting, directors Dominic Dromgoole and Tim Hoare have set Romeo and Juliet in a time period that seems vaguely 1930s. The characters begin the play with very simple costumes — white shirts with beige pants, both for women and men — and add on Elizabethan touches, like a cloak or wide collar, as the action progresses. The most noticeable element of the costuming are the lavish tattoos that decorate the arms and chests of the actors. Musical numbers, which are somewhat of a Globe tradition, open and close the play.
And while some audience members might miss the lavish costumes and scenery that great Shakespearean productions usually provide, the lack of those things places the emphasis squarely on the actors and the text — and, when successful, allows the sweet simplicity that is at the heart of Romeo and Juliet to shine though. "It's a love story gone wrong," Layton says. "The relationships are real, and I think that's what makes it really human."