I consider much of my childhood of very classical one, raised listening to Swan Lake, watching Masterpiece Theatre, being told fairy tales and operas by my mother. I knew the story of Aida at 4, my earliest idol was Cleopatra. I came to identify with the female character who chose death over disgrace. Possibly not the greatest role models for a young girl, and my feminist ideals are forever at odds with my adoration for tragic courtly love, the writings of Tennyson and art of the Pre-Raphalites, the Antigones, Aidas, Juliets taking their lives within the dim confines of a crypt.
We all have those films that made an impact on us as a child. I had those from the sci-fi classics that many of my friends grew up with, Star Trek, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, however some of the most influential films for me were the costumed dramas of the 1940s, 50s, & 60s. I remember watching the Taylor and Burton version of Cleopatra with my mother. Gone with the Wind, Camelot, but the film that always stood out the most to me was Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.
Before the days of the play being the popular thing to hate on by thirty somethings who totally unabashedly loved the Luhrmann version when they were 12, or high schoolers forced to read it in ninth grade English, my mother introduced me to Romeo and Juliet. There was something about the vaguely claustrophobic nature of the play, the quiet isolation, two people thrown into a world of chaos and hatred finding sanctuary in one another.
I used to know the entire play line for line. I still know every line in the Zeffirelli film, which was dramatically cut. So when people want to repost memes about how it wasn’t a love story, it was about two teenagers who caused the deaths of seven people, signed anyone who read the play, keep posting your bitterness because it was assigned reading in high school English and you didn’t understand the language so you thought it would be cool later in life to deride it.
But they were two teenagers who killed themselves over a crush.
Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet as fated to be together, destined to fall in love despite all odds and to die in order to end the strife between their families. Whether or not their love was ‘true’ by conventional means is irrelevant. Like many stories and myths of love, it was something that was out of their control. So ‘love at first sight’ doesn’t exist. Then all the writings of the poets should be similarly derided. This one gets hated on because people think it makes them edgy, and we all love mocking teenagers, right, much like the older generation loves mocking Millennials.
It also gets rather victim blame-y, which makes me want to give all of the side-eye. Really? Let’s blame a pair of teenagers for a feud that the adults around them keep fueling.
All too often I see people want to place the blame on Romeo, as if he were single handedly responsible for the tragedy when all he ever wanted was to love and be loved in return. Perhaps it’s a fanciful aspiration, but in a world where there is so much hate, to want above all else to love, how can one belittle or demonize that?
He fucks up. Majorly. He is still only a teenager, rash and emotionally driven. And in those moments of irrationality and blind rage becomes an unwitting participant in the hatred already threatening to consume the love and peace he desires.
He has become the very thing that he detests.
We see a boy, who mere hours before was joyously in love, wishing for death. He accepts that his actions are unforgivable, and that in killing Tybalt he has effectively killed their future and any happiness they might have had together.
Only when he is assured that there is still hope to be found does he accept that there is reason yet to live.
He goes into exile with the promise that he will see Juliet again, that it will all work out for them in the end, that they need to wait, to be patient. No matter how implausible of a notion that might be, it is enough.
We’re witnessing someone who already was right on the cusp of despair loose everything that made life worth living in the span of mere days. The hopelessness of his existence, a boy in love, exiled from his home, haunted by the deaths of his dearest friend and his new wife’s cousin, brought from the brink of suicide by the faint hope that one day he might be able to openly love Juliet as his wife. And within moments the light of that hope is gone, and there is nothing but darkness.
There is no hesitation. No great soliloquy, only the resolve that he will go to her grave and die.
His method is one that is swift, easy. A quiet end. He does not choose a death that would be glorified, he is no Antony dying on his sword, or Tristan dying for the sake of his beloved, but rather one befitting someone tired, weary of the strife and misery that has stolen all of his hope.
It is once again claustrophobic, private, voyeuristic.
As a feminist don’t you think Juliet’s suicide is off-putting?
Juliet is a type of feminist. She is a girl who takes her fate into her own hands, she sees an unappealing future with a man twice her age, life as a countess, and wife to Paris, and says no. Juliet sees a boy who cares not for the wealth she is born into, and suddenly she has a way out, a say in her future, and instigates the idea of marriage. While Romeo pursues her initially, she is the driving force behind their relationship, the one calling the shots, setting the boundaries.
Juliet is written as the most mature, collected, and strongest of all the play’s characters. She is cunning, driven. Her undoing is when all her carefully calculated plans, her risks, her strength is for naught. She is not yet 14, widowed, her options are to leave and become a nun as there is no place for her left in this world, or to die. And while that in itself is very problematic, one must remember that this a girl living in the Renaissance, she has very little voice of her own, her role in society is to be pretty and talented and witty and demure, a lady of refinement with little agency. In the play her husband is dead and her unwanted betrothed has been killed. And so Juliet takes her own life.
It has always been telling to me that Shakespeare gave Juliet the ‘noble death’. Of all the play’s characters, Juliet dies a classical death. As the play’s bravest character, it is only befitting that her death is one that classically would have been considered the most honourable.
But the play romanticizes suicide.
I never saw their deaths as something to be envied. They were senseless, and avoidable. Something that could have been prevented if any of the adults around them had taken the time to have the same courage, compassion, or clarity that Juliet possessed. Throughout the play they are failed by those who they should have been able to rely on. Juliet’s Nurse betrays her trust the moment she fears she might be implicated in her involvement. Happy to play a role in their tryst until it became complicated. The same can be said of Friar Laurence abandoning Juliet in the crypt, unwilling to answer for his part once their plans were undone.
And so Juliet left alone, confused and heartbroken over why the boy she has given up everything to start a new life with is now dead, the finality of being confronted with the true end of all her hope and love and dreams, abandoned by all she trusted, she accepts that she will have the final say in her fate, and chooses death.
Their deaths were less about being unable to live without one another, and more that the only thing that was left that held meaning to them was suddenly, irrevocably taken away. There is a hopelessness there that anyone can experience. There is never a moment where they decide together that death is the answer. This is more of a modern misconception that they agree to some suicide pact in order to be united in death. They do not conspire to die to be together, they conspire to live together, they dream of a future that cannot ever be and then strive until the bitter end to make it work, that perhaps fate will finally be in their favour.
While the lovers do follow the more classical traditions of choosing death over the alternative–to quote Horatio, ‘I am more Roman than Dane.’–one must remember that our lovers were likely presumed to be Catholic, which would have made the prospect of them being reunited in death a rather uncertain thing. Where Juliet’s death is a sudden rash solution to an otherwise unappealing prospect, Romeo has hours to contemplate his demise, knowing full well the supposed sin of suicide, and still finds it a better alternative to living in a world without hope. Even in the crypt, Romeo questions his decision, distraught over his wife’s continued beauty in death, he is not enamoured with the idea of death, but believes that there is nothing left that is worth living for. If he is condemned to a life without love and hope, then he would rather risk the uncertainty of death.
The resulting peace is too little far, far too late. There is no salvation, no redemption, the surviving players are left with their guilt, their grief. There is finally peace, but at too great a price.
Why this essay on Romeo and Juliet? Because this play meant a great deal to me when I was younger, and even now, nearly 32, in a stable rather nonvolatile marriage, never having experienced the melodrama of young love, I still love it as much as I ever did.
It, along with a few other films, had a huge impact on me at an early age, helping instill my love for costuming, for history, for the arts.
We all have that thing that we have some inexplicable love for. I’m the person who has seen the story performed on stage in various settings, Prokofiev’s ballet, have tickets to Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette at The Met in January. This is my Phantom of the Opera.
As such, I had been planning for years now to recreate one of Juliet’s costumes. And while there is no age limit on cosplay, where Juliet is concerned, I fear I’m getting a bit too old to accurately portray a 14 year old girl as played by a 16 year old. When I made the decision to attend DragonCon this year I was trying to figure out what costumes I wanted to make with the limited time afforded me.
While my favourite of all the costumes Olivia Hussey wore as Juliet was the one she died in, the amount of detail work that would have required made it unfeasible with the given time constraints. The obvious choice was the dress worn during the ‘balcony scene’.
Arguably the least accurate of all the costumes worn by Olivia in the film, it has always been one of my favourites. I always figured it was supposed to be a type of undergarment, a 15th century negligee, but it was exquisite in its simplicity. We had only seen Juliet prior to this bedecked in yards of velvet.
There have been some exhibitions featuring the costumes from the Zeffirelli film–many which have faded over time–I have never seen this particular costume on display. Perhaps it went the way of the infamous Princess Leia costume, lost to someone’s attic after a mishap at a fancy dress party. This made determining the colour of the dress rather difficult. Given that the scene was shot at night, the colour ranges from ivory, to a pale golden colour, to a soft peach. The material is also a bit of mystery. It seems to be obviously silk, and to me has always looked like dupioni, but again given the lighting, the age of the film, and the lack of reference photos that one cannot be for certain. I ultimately decided on a dupioni silk in buttercreme from Silk Baron.
The bodice in the film is embroidered with a gold thread. Given that I wasn’t going to be hand embroidering anything that close to DragonCon, but needing the fabric to match up, I used a gold Alencon lace overlay.
The pattern for the bodice was extremely modified from an old Renaissance Faire wench costume pattern I had stashed away. The skirt was essentially 2.5 yards of fabric gathered into cartridge pleats and stitched onto the bodice. The dress laces up the back with hand bound eyelets and cord.
I sewed the entire costume in about 4 hours one Friday night.
Wanting to match all the tiny details, I accessorized with a vintage gold chain bracelet and made a gold leather and rhinestone headband using Swarovski crystals. The wig was ordered from Wig is Fashion and the hair line was plucked to remove the widow’s peak lest I look like Morticia Addams instead.
Realizing that I had around 2.5 weeks to work on costumes now that Juliet was finished, I began plotting to make Romeo for my friend and cosplay partner, Crystal.
Who wore it better, Leonard Whiting or my cat, Baldwin?
I want to make some minor alterations and adjustments on her costume before we wear these again–Costume College 2017 is 1960’s themed–as I bought cotton velvet for it on the Saturday afternoon 6 days before I flew out for DragonCon and drafted and sewed that entire costume in a few hours. It was acceptable for DragonCon, but I want it to be perfect before Costume College.
Now if only I didn’t feel like an old hag while wearing Juliet. I never realized how gaunt I was until I wore a long straight wig for a few hours.
I’m going to end this whole costuming blog post that turned into a dissertation on the play by mentioning that my favourite character is Tybalt.
Yes, the Prince of Cats is my favourite Shakespearean character. Why? I relate to him. Most productions only portray Tybalt as the antagonist, the perpetrator of the violence that ultimately leads to everyone’s demise. However, Juliet’s Nurse refers to him as the best friend she had, so we’re only see a small aspect of his personality in the play. As someone whose default settings are either chill as all fuck or I will burn everything you love to the ground I sort of empathize with him. Maybe it’s just me. Fine.
Photography by Robby Idol Photography and Joseph Chi Lin.