The popular image today of Juliet as a naive, wide-eyed girl is likely not how Shakespeare’s audiences would have understood her. They would have instead discerned the unmistakable figure of the Italian innamorata, with boldness, agency, and distinctive theatricality.
In her new book The Diva’s Gift to the Shakespearean Stage (Oxford UP, 2022), Pamela Allen Brown explores the considerable impact of Italian actresses on Shakespeare and other English playwrights. The excerpt below is taken from Chapter 3, “Dying to Act: From Bel-Imperia to Juliet”, used with permission.
Juliet’s artfulness is often ignored. It is common to cast her as a girlish victim of desires beyond her control, and the long tradition of playing her as wide-eyed and naive prevents us from seeing her any other way. Nonetheless, Shakespeare’s first great heroine is an extravagant foreign prodigy with a wider emotive range than that of passion-torn heroines in classical and Renaissance tragedy, while her Italianate theatricality and poetic brilliance set her apart from the more prosaic Juliets of his sources.[i]
To pull off this feat he deftly deployed theatergrams shaped by the great Italian divas abroad and the appeal of the skilled boy player at home.
Like the ardent innamorata of the Italians, Juliet is self-aware, hyper-literary, and charged with erotic will. Her quick imagination rubs against the grain of gender, subtly drawing attention to the boy’s “body beneath” as she longs for the falconer’s deep voice or likens herself to a boy toying with a bird.[ii] She imagines her herself as a tragedian and her fate as a play: “My dismal scene I needs must act alone” (4.3.19). When she blazons her desire or summons the specter of death, she can move us to pity and awe, but in comic scenes she can also draw laughter with satiric ripostes, bawdy puns, and canny equivocations. Gifted with virtuosic poetic ability, she goes from impromptu sonnetizing with Romeo to delivering exquisite rhapsodies that echo Marlowe, Boccaccio, and Ovid. As her iconic status attests, Juliet seems to have an almost boundless capacity to evoke pity and wonder in her most constant lover, the audience.
To her first spectators Juliet’s amorous precocity was an index of her Italianness. The English stereotyped Italian girls as prematurely lusty in comparison to English girls, and Italian women as prone to romantic melodrama and tragedies of passion. To their jaundiced eyes the modern notion that Juliet displays “extreme purity” and “innocent forwardness” would sound very odd.[iii] So would the reasoning of Arden editor Rene Weis, who says Shakespeare named her Juliet rather than Giulietta because it “enabled an English audience of the 1590s to perceive Juliet as one of their own, someone with whom they could have ready empathy.”[iv] In other words, if she seemed too Italian, English audiences would instantly dislike her. (Weis does not explain how the same auditors empathized with “Romeo” and “Mercutio.”) Weis’s confident assertion seems oddly wishful, since there is no evidence that Juliet’s first audiences regarded her as English and “one of their own.” Shakespeare makes Juliet’s ardor hot-blooded and violent, and thus disturbingly foreign. No mere name-change could translate this tragic prodigy into a sweet and star-crossed English girl. It took an anglocentric critical tradition and centuries of naive Juliets to domesticate the Italian innamorata accesa. Without this whitewashing, she might more closely resemble the flamboyant actresses George Sandys saw in Messina on a brief stay. He condemned the theater-loving Sicilians as impious and the women’s acting as excessive: “the parts of women are acted by women, and too naturally passionated, which they forebear not to frequent upon Sundayes.”[v] Such warnings about the raging histrionics of Italian women show up in conduct books like Brathwaite’s, who instructed Englishwomen to shun the “fearfull” passions prevalent in Italy, which led them to “Tragick Conclusions.”[vi]
Given this rooted bias, London audiences probably did judge Juliet as naturally given to “violent delights” which lead to tragic ends, as the Friar puts it. Shakespeare takes pains, however, to show Juliet is a virtuosa, not simply a distempered victim of her hot southern blood. Under pressure she displays remarkable sprezzatura, the crucial term that Thomas Hoby translated clumsily as “recklessness” or the “very art that appeareth not to be art.” Her ability to stir and express emotion requires a prodigious set of skills, which are showcased in scenes designed to show off a talented boy player.[vii] To play such a tragic role, the actor prepared by “reading a part into changeable passions.”[viii] The more quick-changing those passions, the more difficult the role, though it heightened the emotional charge of the play.[ix] Even when she seems a reckless girl in the hot grip of passion, Juliet demonstrates expertise in the art of playing, while showing an exuberant, sometimes painful self-awareness in scenes that foreground the protean instability of language, gender, and self.
From The Diva’s Gift to the Shakespearean Stage by Pamela Allen Brown. Copyright © 2022 by Pamela Allen Brown and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
[i] The improvisatory lyricism, self-aware theatricality, and frank eroticism of Shakespeare’s Juliet are missing from her counterparts in Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, Pierre Boiastuau’s “Histoire troisième de deux Amants,” Novella 2.9 in Le novelle del Bandello, and Luigi da Porto’s Istoria…di due Nobili Amanti (Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare [New York: Columbia UP, 1957] I: 269-363, and Jill L. Levenson, “Romeo and Juliet before Shakespeare,” Studies in Philology 81.3 (1984): 325-347. Passion-driven heroines in other tragic novelle, stage adaptations, and classical tragedies (e.g. Phaedra, Medea, Gismonde, and Rosmunda) lack her comic readiness and verbal wit; see Naomi Liebler, The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 201-3. Marlowe’s Dido and Kyd’s Bel-Imperia resemble Juliet in her flamboyant passion and metatheatrical flair but not her precocity or tenderness. See Pamela Allen Brown, “Dido, Boy Diva of Carthage,” in Transnational Exchange in Early Modern Theater, Volume II, ed. Robert Henke and Eric Nicholson (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2014), 113-130, and “Anatomy of an Actress: Bel-Imperia as Tragic Diva,” Shakespeare Bulletin 33.1 (2015): 49–65.
[ii] Peter Stallybrass, “Transvestitism and the ‘Body Beneath’: Speculating on the Boy Actor,” Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage. Ed. Susan Zimmerman. London and New York, NY: Routledge, 1992), 64–83.
[iii] An important study by Sasha Roberts holds that English audiences would have perceived Juliet’s erotic precocity as a function of her Italian hot-bloodedness (Romeo and Juliet [Tavistock UK: Northcote House, 1998] 52). Lyly’s Euphues and His England warns readers not to be like Italian girls, who grow lusty and marry far too early (71); also see Brathwaite’s English Gentlewoman which warns women to shun Italian-style tragic passioning (34-5). Despite this fixed habit of mind, critics persist in idealizing the lovers. Marjorie Garber call Juliet’s “innocent forwardness” appealing (“Romeo and Juliet: Patterns and Paradigms,” Romeo and Juliet: Critical Essays, ed. John F. Andrews [NY: Garland, 1993], 124). In the same volume Marianne Novy notes Juliet’s penchant for acting but says the couple’s “extreme purity” defines their tragedy (“Violence, Love and Gender in Romeo and Juliet,” 359, 368).
[iv] Rene Weis, Introduction, Romeo and Juliet Third Series, ed. Rene Weis, The Arden Kindle Edition, Kindle loc. 364.
[v] George Sandys, A Relation of a Journey (London: W. Barrett, 1615), 246.
[vi] Richard Brathwaite, The English Gentlewoman (London, 1631), 34, 35.
[vii] For more on the “enskillment” of boy players, see Evelyn B. Tribble, Early Modern Actors.
[viii] Tiffany Stern, Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 75.
[ix] Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Thomas Hoby (1561), ed. V. Cox (Everyman 1994), 53.