One of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Romeo and Juliet is known by many as ‘the greatest love story’ ever told. The timeless tale of the young “star-crossed lovers” continues to be pertinent and romanticised today but it is also a very sexually charged play, full of innuendo, bawdy quibbles and passionately sexualised teens.
Despite being the title role I think there is less to say about our hero than one would expect. He is head over heels in love with Rosaline at the start of the play then before we know it, he is in love with Juliet. The great actor Sir Laurence Olivier called him the “teenager with an erection he can’t control” and I am inclined to agree although the argument almost kills any romance, and I do not believe that was Shakespeare’s intention.
I think, even if Romeo is just driven by a desire of pure physical lust that he can’t control or figure out, it doesn’t lessen his motives or feelings in any way. Their love is real to them even if it is partly to do with the heightened emotions and feelings that come with the loss of virginity and coming into a wider understanding of the world. It is real to them so it is real to us.
Arguably the most famous and sexually-explicit role in the play is actually the sardonic and mercurial Mercutio, the playful trouble maker.
Many people have discussed and debated whether he might be gay and although I believe it absolutely has merit in scholastic discussion, I’m not convinced either way. I think straight, bisexual or gay all work – even asexual. He’s a great enigma.
There is no doubting that he has a hot Veronese sexuality and is (I believe) very tactile with both Romeo and Benvolio but some vehemently deny the idea simply because he uses a lot of innuendo and is particularly “off” with women. One thing to bear in mind of course is that these characters are young and, like the play, are simply exploring sexuality and the nature of what it is to them.
In contrast, a vastly forgotten character is Romeo’s cousin Benvolio. We initially see him teasing Romeo with a vast amount of bawd, but once Mercutio arrives, Benvolio goes almost silent. Is this because he ‘knows his place’ within this social group? Or because of his own lack of masculine bravado? Does he feel supressed by Mercutio, or is he happy taking a side line position? Does he enjoy watching Mercutio? Does he admire him perhaps more than we expect? He certainly seems keen on over egging the pudding when talking about sex with Romeo, perhaps he is trying to prove something. Or is he just simply your archetypal teenage boy?
These boys, let us not forget, have the time to wander the streets fighting and going to parties. This, thrown in with their pubescent sexual maturing and Shakespeare’s portrayal of a Hot Italian summer, heightens more than just the intense passions and emotions of tribal, clan-like warfare but also the energetic libido of these young men.
The Juxtaposition to the Montague boys and another often overlooked character is Paris. On the surface his sexuality seems non-existent. Is he merely the ‘straight man’? The plain man happy with his lot? Or has he signed up to a patriarchal belief that his marriage is sorted through finance and therefore Juliet is “rightfully” his? Is there a sexual attraction at all or is his relationship with the Capulets more important?
Paris has been played (in more than a few productions) as possibly having an affair with Lady Capulet, opening a Pandora’s box of possibilities of the marriage with Juliet as a cover-up for the affair. As interesting as this is, I think it’s more likely that Paris is simply a teen like the others and is genuinely into Juliet – almost as if she was his high school sweetheart (but she never knew it).
He may seem more conventional than the dramatic and dangerous Romeo and can easily be made impotent by the “sexiness” that Romeo naturally and automatically exudes – the forbidden love. Without sounding pessimistic about romance, one wonders whether things might have been different had Paris been a Montague.
But this play is not about Paris and too much subtext risks putting the tragedy in the wrong place and not with Romeo where it fittingly lies. Giving Paris the Capulet affair puts his motives into question, but I believe he is driven purely through wealth, advancement, ownership & pride.
Statistical analysis shows that in Shakespeare’s works the word ‘Love’ is mentioned most in The Two Gentleman of Verona, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then in third place, Romeo and Juliet, so it’s arguably not as key a theme as one might expect. Perhaps then the play is more about sex (however missed, or ignored by our teachers) and the brutal nature of growing up.
Difference, that’s what it all boils down to. Montague, Capulet. Black, White. Protestant, Catholic. Muslim, Hindu. Gay, Straight.
Mercutio and Tybalt, essentially dead over nothing. Do we simply feel we have to fight?
Shakespeare hit on the lack of cohesion in society amongst different people, whichever group they are. These differences – inherent dislikes – spawn from no logical source but fear. Differences that are still pervading in schools today and in society as a whole. Differences of colour, religion, nationality and sexuality are still bandied about and used against people to devastating effect. Is humanity really a higher intellectual being or has the “greatest love story ever told” taught us nothing?
I have to apologise for leaving out our heroine, but frankly I couldn’t find an argument for her sexuality being other than what it is – unfortunately tied to Romeo and more about who he is. Certainly she may have explored her sexuality later in life had she lived, but the nature of the story, to me, means her sexuality is intrinsic to who Romeo is. If Romeo is played as a woman, then it brings Juliet slightly more into focus, but in essence it doesn’t matter who or what Romeo and Juliet are or aren’t because they are beyond it. That is what is so enduring about the two lovers – they rise above it all.
It’s a shame that, through their deaths, the world still seems to reject such complete acceptance. Acceptance is what we should be striving for and sometimes, just sometimes, people get horny.
– – – – – – – – –
Andrew Venning is an actor, writer and general Shakespeare aficionado based in London. He is also one half of the UK podcast duo Thespodyssey. You can find Andrew online at www.andrewvenning.co.uk or on Twitter@AndrewVenning.