One of Shakespeare’s earliest revenge tragedies is Romeo and Juliet. I’m a big fan of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation, and was looking forward to seeing if Sir Kenneth Branagh could top it with his most recent stage production. I saw the play as-live through Kenneth Branagh Theatre Live, and was really pleased with the way it was adapted to the setting of 1950’s Italy, complete with monumental hand gestures and Sophia Loren looks. The cast included the timeless Sir Derek Jacobi as the oldest performing Mercutio on record, Lily James continuing her ingénue streak as Juliet, and Richard Madden, formerly Game of Thrones’ Robb Stark, performing on a twisted ankle as the simultaneously bright-and-teary-eyed Romeo.
On top of the exciting casting of the main characters, I was extra impressed to see that women were cast as traditionally male characters, like the thugs Sampson and Gregory, and a servant of the Capulets, named Peter. Peter delivers one of my favourite lines in the play. Unaware that she is speaking to the enemy of her master, she tells Romeo of a party being held by Capulet: “If you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray, come and crush a cup of wine.” I love the imagery of that line: the violence of the crushing, the bloody splatter of squished grapes, and the destroyed cup, discarded and forgotten in the festive ruckus of the masquerade. Despite the violence of this image and the invitation’s deliberate exclusion of the Montagues, Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to be violent towards Romeo when he appears at the party and ogles Juliet. Capulet admonishes Tybalt:
Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone;
He bears him like a portly gentleman;
And, to say truth, Verona brags of him
To be a virtuous and well-govern’d youth:
I would not for the wealth of all the town
Here in my house do him disparagement:
Therefore be patient, take no note of him:
It is my will, the which if thou respect,
Show a fair presence and put off these frowns,
And ill-beseeming semblance for a feast.
Despite the fact that the Montagues are his enemy, Capulet refuses to “here in my house do him disparagement”: he forbids violence against a guest in his home, no matter who that guest is. Capulet escalates in rage not at Romeo’s attendance, but at the insult of Tybalt’s intended violence. Capulet’s response immediately brings to mind the concept of “Guest Right,” which entitles any guest who shares the bread and salt of their host to their host’s protection while under that roof. This is a topic that keeps coming up in my favourite show: Game of Thrones. Like any living, breathing person right now, I’m pretty obsessed with it. This season, the show’s violence has escalated to Shakespearean proportions. In order to avoid ruining it for those of us who aren’t caught up, I’d like to talk about Shakespearean resonances with a revenge scene from much earlier in the show: The Red Wedding.
SPOILER ALERT: Stop now if you don’t know what The Red Wedding is and don’t want to read spoilers!
The Wedding between Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey is meant to consolidate the treaty between House Stark (represented by the King in the North) and House Frey, who control an tactically-important river crossing in the fictional setting of Westeros. The Wedding was meant to be between Walder Frey’s daughter and the King in the North, but King Robb meets someone young and beautiful during the War of Five Kings (the book and show marry him to two different characters), and can no longer fulfill his promise to Frey. Father of the bride-to-be Walder pretends to forgive Robb for his breach in their agreement, and feeds the King the bread and salt that signify the Freys’ protection.
Frey, however, is fed up with not being taken seriously by his allies, and forges an unholy alliance with the enemy Lannister faction, as well as a trusted soldier from within Robb’s own ranks. After the most important members of Stark’s army are seated around Walder’s table and are listening to the cacophonous wedding music performed by disguised members of House Frey, the “musicians” pull their weapons out from the instruments and bloodshed ensues. Robb dies. His mother dies. His pet direwolf dies. Many loyal members of his army die. They trusted Walder Frey because of Guest Right, and died for it.
So how does this tie back to Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet? Because Richard Madden plays Robb Stark and Romeo. By considering the “creative casting” behind Branagh’s production, we can think more deeply about the topic of revenge: when is revenge just and what constitutes a low blow? Who deserves revenge and when is an avenger in the wrong? Richard Madden may change his accent and cut his hair, but both of his characters fall in love with women that they shouldn’t. Their impulsive marriages come at the cost of their lives, and the lives of those they love. Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to “make a mutiny among my guests” at the feast, but Tybalt finds another opportunity to attack Romeo, leaving behind the bodies of Mercutio, Tybalt himself, and Lady Montague, who dies of her grief when her son is banished from Verona.
Tragedy is defined by the number of dead bodies onstage at the end of a play. Revenge is the impulse to kill, and revenge tragedy is when the impulse to kill ultimately kills the killer, as well. By thinking about revenge on TV today, we can reflect on those beautiful little details that Shakespeare left behind for us. By reflecting upon the issues that Shakespeare brought up in his revenge tragedies, we can gain a greater appropriation for the politics and drama that we continue to consume today.