How universal is Romeo and Juliet? Challenging hetronormative assumptions.

Shakespeare is timeless. Romeo and Juliet is a universal love story.

You have probably heard those sentiments expressed before, but are they true? Well, it’s complicated.

Photo by Kyle Cassidy.
A poster for the Curio production of Romeo and Juliet starring Rachel Gluck and Isa St. Clair. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Shakespeare profoundly understood the human condition and his deftness at depicting human nature makes his work inherently relatable—but what most of us don’t have to think about is that for many gay people, a barrier exists between them and Romeo and Juliet.  Love may be universal, but that doesn’t mean that a relationship between two people of the same gender is the same as one between a man and a women.  Gay couples do not enjoy many of the same privileges as straight couples, and straight couples don’t face many of the same obstacles that gay couples do.

We are able to call Romeo and Juliet universal because we are either not including the gay community in whatever universe we are referring to, or we are taking for granted that they will choose to look past not being directly represented in order to relate to the more universal themes.

Curio Theatre Company is currently producing  Romeo and Juliet (full disclosure: I’m playing Romeo) as a same-gender romance between two women.  We’re constantly being asked, “Why are you doing a lesbian Romeo and Juliet?”  There are a lot of reasons, but here’s what I find more interesting—Shakespeare has been dead for almost four-hundred years.  It’s a safe bet that in that time there have been significantly more than four-hundred productions of  Romeo and Juliet. Rarely has anyone been asked, “Why are you doing a heterosexual  Romeo and Juliet?”

Of course, the play was written as a heterosexual romance, so it may seem silly to suggest that one would have to justify being true to the text of the play. However, if a play has been done hundreds or thousands of times, shouldn’t theater companies be asked to justify why they are doing something over and over again the way it has always been done?

Some artists and patrons regard Shakespeare with an almost religious reverence. This is why people feel that significant changes to these plays cannot be justified, but Shakespeare is exclusionary.  Women are also grossly underrepresented. (Exactly zero female actors have asked me why I’m playing Romeo.)  Frankly, if doing Shakespeare with changes to gender and sexual orientation cannot be justified, doing Shakespeare cannot be justified.  Producing Shakespeare in the quantity that it is produced, with its traditional gender roles and sexual relationships, perpetuates exclusivity and inequality.

I hope that anyone who is uncomfortable with Curio’s Romeo and Juliet will consider this:

If you feel that your ability to identify with this love story is hindered by the changes we have made, that is a feeling of removal gay people experience all the time.  After four-hundred years, isn’t it time heterosexuals help preserve the universality and timelessness of this love story by choosing to look past themselves?

Rachel Gluck will appear in ROMEO AND JULIET at Curio Theatre Company October 3-November 2, 2013,

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