Romeo and Juliet: Is Shakespeare’s famous love story actually a play about violence?

Three men in a fight with swords
Tybalt (Rex Daugherty) duels Mercutio (Brad Koed), with Benvolio (Aaron Bliden) looking on. Romeo and Juliet, Folger Theatre, 2013. Casey Kaleba was the fight director. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Is Romeo and Juliet a play about love? Well yes, but it’s also about violence, argues Casey Kaleba, the fight director for many Folger Theatre productions (including the production of Romeo and Juliet pictured above) and one of the Washington, DC, area’s most sought-after fight coaches for stage plays. The excerpt below is from a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode in which Kaleba talked about violence in Elizabethan times and in Shakespeare’s plays.

REBECCA SHEIR (HOST): We keep talking about Romeo and Juliet, which brings me to a point I want to bring up about violence in the abstract versus violence in reality. So with Romeo and Juliet, for example, Casey, we tend to think of it as a play about love, but I know you’ve said you actually see it as a play about violence.

KALEBA: Yeah, I find very much that the love story is a subplot, and perhaps that’s because, as a fight director, I interact with the play whenever somebody picks up a sword and stops talking very beautifully. But it’s difficult not to see this shadow of violence hanging over the play, and I think Shakespeare actually gives us a whole cross-section of early modern violence.

You have, on the one hand, domestic violence with Lord Capulet and his daughter, that’s certainly either suggested or explicit. You find servants who are traveling to the market armed, expecting violence. You find this sort of middle-class teenager group of Mercutio and Benvolio and Romeo and Tybalt, who are traveling armed and talk about seeking out violence, and you find them sort of negotiating the problem of what it is to be masculine. And I think Shakespeare plays out all of these forms of violence to their logical conclusion. And if it starts somewhat comical, with a fight in which, in the play, nobody is actually injured, he plays out all of the violence to its very tragic conclusion. What you have in the play is an entire generation killed, and the last scene is their parents mourning all of the dead children, and I don’t think that’s an accident, and I think he’s using the violence to tell us a story.

SHEIR: Casey, what’s your sense then? Were people sick of men murdering each other in the streets? I mean at what point, at what point did people just start thinking, you know this is getting out of hand? Enough.

KALEBA: That’s going to take a very long time. Dueling, formal dueling, is not going to be outlawed until well into the 19th century. So this idea that men are allowed to defend their honor, and that men are allowed to define when their honor has been violated, is going to continue for a very long time, and I’m not entirely sure that we are free of it today.

One of the things I think that Shakespeare does really, really well in his plays is take that at face value and say, “All right, so this is a thing that men do.” And Shakespeare takes that at face value, and says, “All right, well, let’s just see where this goes. Let’s say ‘yes’ to everything. And if we say ‘yes’ to all of these codes of honor, if we say ‘yes’ to the skill of arms, if we say ‘yes’ to traveling in the streets with weapons and challenging anyone because their beard is too long or too short, let’s just see what happens to the individual, to the generation, to the greater population. Let’s say ‘yes’ and see what happens if we let this sort of mad, homicidal system carry on.”

And I think you see that in play after play after play, that Shakespeare’s actually largely critical of this system, that he has clowns making fun of these codes of honor. So Shakespeare takes this at face value, and says, “All right, this is crazy, right? This is… It’s not just me, right? This is crazy. Let me write a play and let’s all look at this and talk about it and at the end of this, can’t we say that this is crazy? There has to be another way to solve our problems.”