Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Romeo and Juliet at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern

As Valentine’s Day looms, the thoughts of those so inclined naturally turn to one love classic above all, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In this romantic tragedy, young lovers – Juliet is not even 14 years old! –  from feuding families – the Montagues and the Capulets – unite but fail to bring their families together; they die from hate, misunderstanding, and bad timing.

Like many Americans I first encountered Romeo and Juliet in high school, and imagined myself to be on the balcony where “stony limits cannot hold love out.” The thrill was enhanced with exposure to the Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 classic film adaptation with Olivia Hussey. But amid government shut-downs, and from the vantage point of the national capital of the civil rights movement, I confess that these days my thoughts turn more to the feuding Montagues and the Capulets than to the lovers Romeo and Juliet.

The play opens with a sonnet that puts the feud in terms of civil war:

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

I like the way Shakespeare plays “civil” as in citizen (i.e., citizen blood, or blood feud) against “civil” as in civilized or polite (i.e., civil hands) in stating that the feud tarnishes hands that reach out to each other, making good behavior virtually impossible, foretelling Act III Scene I when Romeo tries to befriend Tybalt and ends up killing him in self-defense. In that first scene “Citizens of Verona” enter into the play and condemn fighting between members of the two families, shouting “Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montagues!” The Prince of Verona enters to break up the fight and chastises the families for a series of “three civil brawls.”

Joe Kelly, a professional dancer-turned lawyer-turned Shakespeare scholar in Atlanta, articulates the phrase “civil hands” with a different nuance. “It has less to do with polite,” he said, “than simply the idea of living in community or being able to share in community, as the gospel instructs us to live, which has largely been a failure throughout Christian history. Witness the wars and conflicts, and so I think that’s the other meaning” of civil. Joe is writing a dissertation for his PhD in English at Georgia State University on what he sees as Shakespeare’s response to the Protestant Reformation and the secularizing world in the last five plays. He is also an actor in Atlanta’s Resurgens Theater Company, which performs plays written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern.

The Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse puts on Romeo and Juliet every February. This year’s production, which runs through February 24, features an African-American Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet announcement
Photo from Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse website

I learned from Shakespeare Tavern artistic director Jeff Watkins Antonia LaChé (Juliet) is a former apprentice with the Shakespeare Tavern Apprentice program, a post-education professional training program; she subsequently got her Masters of Fine Arts and returned to be in the professional production. Joshua Goodridge (Romeo) worked in the Tavern’s educational outreach program, which brings kids from 50 counties in 4 states to see shows at the Tavern and also has a touring van to take smaller versions of plays with just 6 actors “out into the boonies.” Jeff notes that such programs that start at an early age can cultivate life-long interest in Shakespeare.

1 - Jeff Watkins
Jeff Watkins, artistic director of Shakespeare Tavern, pre-show, January 31, 2019

Jeff Watkins noted that Romeo and Juliet, while not the most popular, is “the most necessary” of Shakespeare’s plays, as it provides the many high school teachers charged with teaching the play with a live production for their students. Tickets for R&J matinees in February typically fill up in August because so many teachers sign up their classes to attend. The play is also accessible very accessible to people new to Shakespeare. The Tavern’s “barometer readings” of how difficult its plays are to grasp ranks Romeo and Juliet at 2 out of 10.  “Kids come to see this play,” Jeff said. “It’s about them, it’s dirty – when they find that out they love it – there’s violence, and it’s sad, and has some of the most beautiful poetry in the English language. That was the play that turned me on when I was a kid.”

I asked both Joe and Jeff what they thought the relevance of Romeo and Juliet was for Atlantans today. Joe commented that “the relevance would be fairly obvious in an era in which we have such a division. Here you have the division. It goes back to the Hatfields and the McCoys [two feuding Confederate families during the Civil War], people who are feuding, they don’t like each other, they don’t know why, but they’re just not like us, it’s the other. And you have this antagonism to people that are not like you, that are different, that are not of your clan. Tribalism is very big now, if you may have noticed, and that’s exactly what this play is about.”

In contrast, Jeff emphasized the similarity in the two feuding families: “’Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene.’ The point that Shakespeare is making is that this is a perfect match, the Montagues the Capulets, both leading families in the same society, they should be very much together but through some quirk of fate somebody’s grandfather said something to somebody and they’re in a blood feud, which is the height of idiocy. One is not poor, one is not rich, one is not black, one is not white, one is not republican, one is not democrat, it’s the same and there’s no earthly reason why these two people shouldn’t be together except their medieval parents. So that’s the story he’s telling.”

2 - Theater
Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, pre-show, January 31, 2019

The Shakespeare Tavern, which Jeff started in 1990, is dedicated to original practice productions, or “the play you’re reading is what you’re seeing on stage.” He does not set Shakespeare productions in different times and places, though he does bring diverse permutations of actors to the roles including cross gender casting. “It’s about the original intent. Shakespeare is right there [points to a representation of Shakespeare on the wall of the theater]. He should be looking down on this stage and he should recognize this as his own. He shouldn’t be going, ‘What the heck are they doing this week?’”

In this production directed by Andrew Houchins, Mary Ruth Ralson plays Tybalt. Jeff introduced Mary Ruth to me as a “choreographer, director, designer, singer, dancer, acrobat, and a nice person, a musician who plays the violin – she’s the most versatile actor I’ve ever met!” Mary Ruth teaches sword fighting to apprentices following the choreography by David Sterritt. She calls it dance. I was treated to the fight warm-up on the stage before the audience arrived.

5 - Tybalt 2
Mary Ruth Ralston as the belligerent Tybalt

After the warmup and before the show I met Joe Kelly to make a sound recording. Patrons were gathering in the lobby, where Bo Gaiason was playing classical guitar. Jeff let us use an adjacent space that was recently acquired and is under construction to become a pre-function space, the “Shakespeare Academy.” Eventually the theater hopes to raise $27 million over time to create a theater in the round.

Model 2
Model for the dreamed-of Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse inside the entrance to the current theater

Entering the Shakespeare Academy construction space, Joe set up shop on a pile of lumber, remarking that the acoustics were probably similar to those in Friar Lawrence’s cell.

4 - Joe Kelly preparing to read
Joe Kelly preparing to read Romeo passage, in space of the future Shakespeare Academy, January 31, 2019

Joe read Romeo’s lament on hearing from Friar Lawrence that he has been banished for killing Tybalt, so soon after marrying Juliet. Friar Lawrence argues that it was a merciful sentence and far better than execution. Romeo disagrees in the following sound clip (available on lit-alive.com):

Back in the theater, we dined on soup, salad, and ale, at theater side tables and settled in for an evening of poetry, sword-fighting, and blood-letting.

It takes tragedy to end the blood feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, when words could have been enough. There are signs that characters are open to a path of reconciliation. Lord Capulet, for example, argues with Tybalt that Romeo should be allowed to stay at his party, even though Romeo crashed it uninvited in masquerade, because Romeo has a reputation for being a nice young man. It’s just that Tybalt doesn’t want to hear.  When it comes down to love and connection, the English language itself is certainly one binding force. This is Jeff Watkins view, who explained that Shakespeare “gave us modern English, and that is the basis for how we perceive ourselves as modern human beings. So he’s that fundamental to who we are. That’s true for African Americans, that’s true for Filipino kids who are here, it’s true for anybody who is functioning in the world through the English language. The one thing that we all have in common is this English language” and in Shakespeare, “Every problem is solved and articulated through language, every aspiration is articulated and achieved through language. Without language you’re pretty much just a glute with a stick, and we have enough of that. To be able to transmit that power and pass it on to keep it alive, I mean, it’s everything.”

You can see Romeo and Juliet at the Shakespeare Tavern until February 23. You can see Jeff Watkins star in William Luce’s Barrymore, a play about the celebrated Shakespeare actor in the 1920s and 30s, from March 28 to April 7, 2019 at the Shakespeare Tavern. Now is also the time for aspiring young actors to sign up for the Apprentice Company with auditions to be held March 16, 17, or 20. You can see Joe Kelly in Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s “celebrated tale of sudden death and shameless debauchery” The Changeling for one remaining night on February 23, 2019, at 11 p.m.

For those wanting to tap into the abundance of common English phrases that come from Shakespeare, Jeff points us to Bernard Lavin’s famous paragraph in his book Enthusiasms (1983). Robin Bates helpfully links these expressions online to the source plays.

6 - Tavern outside at night
Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, at the intersection of 499 Peachtree St NE and Renaissance Parkway NE in Midtown Atlanta

Published by

Ann Vandenberg

I have a PhD from The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University. I live in Atlanta.

3 thoughts on “Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean”

    1. Thanks! To hear the sound clips (one on each blog) you have to go to the website: lit-alive.com. I had a hunch that the email subscribers might not realize there were sound clips, so I decided to add the word “sound clip” in to the text, to prompt them to go to the website to listen in.

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