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An Introduction | The Capulets and the Montagues

Red Bull Theater is committed to expanding our repertoire by seeking out and sharing lesser-known texts that stand the test of time. This season, we're celebrating LOPE DE VEGA and his play The Capulets and the Montagues with a series of online events including a reading. Únete al espectáculos! Join the show!!

Get full details about our 2022 Hispanic Golden Age Classics initiative.


Castelvines y Monteses is the sixth comedia I have translated, and my first Lopean adventure—after three Alarcóns, one Tirso, and one Moreto. It was a bracing experience to dip for the first time into the font from which sprang all later comedias. And it was just as bracing to work with material that so closely accorded with that of Shakespeare, who has been the subject of my lifelong fascination and study. And there, of course, lies the first trap that I—and any translator who comes to Lope’s version of the Romeo and Juliet story—must try to avoid. (Which I did not make any easier on myself, I confess, by my determination to use the equivalent Shakespearean proper names in an effort to make the play more appealing to English-speaking producers and audiences.)

One simply must not seek for Shakespeare in the Lope retelling. In fact, just when you may think you’ve got a parallel in text, in treatment, in tone, you can be sure that Lope will veer off and effectively undercut either the romanticism, the fatalism, the tragedy, or the beauty (or any combination of the four) which centuries of Shakespearean tradition have conditioned you to expect. But as Lope clearly did not know the Shakespearean version, it is neither lampoon nor parody, but simply a different take on the story and a different plan for the finished product and different dramaturgical intentions for the audience’s experience.

Effectively, Lope did to the Romeo and Juliet story what Shakespeare would later do to Greene’s Pandosto story in The Winter’s Tale, gave it a happy ending—though not without the death of a young boy, a trip to the countryside (with rustic father and son), an audience pleasing clown, and the supposed death of the leading lady, who, however, “returns from the grave” to sort out the situation, offer forgiveness, and help pair off the requisite marriages. In other words, Lope turned it into a something like a tragicomedy, with strong elements of farce.

Some farce is almost inevitable. The second lead in most Spanish plays is the comic servant (the gracioso; here, Marín), who is inserted even into the scenes we most think of as romantic or tragic in Shakespeare. So, for example, the scene in the tomb is played almost as pure stumbling around in the dark farce. And a major wooing scene in Juliet’s garden is paired with a simultaneously staged mock wooing scene between Marín and Juliet’s comic maid Celia—here taking the place of Shakespeare’s Nurse character.

Other familiar Shakespearean scenes also seem oddly skewed. Some of the same plot points are there: the Capulet party where the lovers meet, the corded ladder and the wooing in the garden, the fight that ends with the Prince’s exile of Romeo, the courting by Paris, Juliet’s refusal (then feigned agreement) to marry Paris, her threatened suicide, her taking of the potion from the Friar, the news of Juliet brought to the banished Romeo, the rush to the tomb, the reconciliation of the warring families. But! Lope’s lovers have almost two months of wedded bliss before—instead of one night after—Romeo kills her cousin in a fight he is trying to break up. The fight that ends in Octavio’s death—he’s the Mercutio character—is oddly over seat cushions in church. And the Octavio character is anything but mercurial; he is instead a rather innocent and awkward mama’s boy who is completely out of his depth with women. And Juliet is no demure innocent either, she’s a terrible flirt and schemer; and Romeo is a bit of a ladies man. Tybalt is older, Capulet’s brother in fact; and after being an initial peacemaker, he is (as in Shakespeare) the one who incites the violence that proves fatal—but to his own son. Juliet takes the potion not knowing what it is, and then—as far as the audience can tell—has an agonizing death scene on stage as the potion works violently on her. Romeo’s attempt to woo another woman (the Rosalind subplot) actually comes after his exile, when he is trying to get back at Juliet for (as he thinks) agreeing to marry Paris. The messenger—Benvolio in my translation—gets to the exiled Romeo in time, but nearly drives the poor boy crazy by insisting on retelling the whole story and stretching Romeo’s patience to the breaking point. Friar Lawrence never appears. Capulet decides, once his only daughter is dead, that he must marry his niece to get himself an heir—a comic turn which is soundly mocked in the second half of the play. And Juliet’s return from the death is (comically) as a ghost who threatens to haunt her father till the day he dies if he does not accept Romeo as a son.

Once the decision was made to translate the play into rhyming verse—which is a decision I made rather rashly when I first began to translate comedias ten years earlier—the translator has probably identified the primary challenge he faces. But the second challenge is no less important: it is finding the exact tone of the play, both in the original and for the translation. And tone is not quite the same as genre. The fact of a “happy ending” does not mean it is a comedy; the fact that a relatively innocent young character dies does not make it a tragedy. And “tragicomedy” as a genre is much too spacious a term to indicate a specific tonality. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale—for all its comedic, even farcical elements—maintains a seriousness of tone throughout. Cymbeline, with its jumble of cultural eras and dizzying discoveries and odd resolutions, verges on a parody of the genre. So one looks for other clues than just the label ‘tragicomic.’

I found these clues in enough places in the Lope original to direct me towards what I thought should be the proper tone. Among them:

1. The virtual absence of fatalism or philosophy in the play. No musing from Friar Lawrence on man’s dual nature. No Chorus to stress the star-crossing. No plague to keep the news from reaching Romeo in exile. No burying of the feud in tears and handshakes.

2. A number of incidents with little or no connection to the main thrust of the plot, which seem only to have comic entertainment value:

a. The Lidio episode. Here is a character who is given an early extended scene both with Montague and Marín, and then never returns. The scene seems little more than an opportunity to satirize a hypocritical servant—a fun turn for an actor, perhaps, but little else.

b. The Fernando/Rutilio episode. No new information is contained in this scene, only the news that Romeo may have an obstacle in his attempts at wooing Silvia. Frankly, Romeo is his own best obstacle in a scene that is frankly and finally unnecessary from beginning to end, thought it teases us with the unfulfilled promise of music and swordfighting.

c. The Belardo/Loreto/Tamar scene. Marginally pertinent at best, especially the Belardo/Loreto material. Tamar does serve some satirical purpose in the Capulet marriage subplot and the beginnings of Juliet’s jealousy. But I think it would be making too much of this glimpse of rusticity to suggest that it represents any kind of significant comment on the corruptions and complications of urban society.

3. The mining of important plot points solely for their comic value:

a. The meeting of Juliet and Romeo. Here Lope effectively undercuts any romanticism by emphasizing Juliet’s aggressive and witty flirtatiousness in wooing Romeo while simultaneously fooling Octavio.

b. The deadly fight that turns the story. It’s over seat cushions in a church?! Admittedly, in Shakespeare it does not take much to push Mercutio or Tybalt into a fatal duel, but at least there Tybalt comes looking for blood. And even the most generous reading of pundonor (the Spanish obsession with honor) is challenged by the triviality of the casus belli in the Lope re-telling.

c. The news brought to Romeo in exile. Benvolio’s insistence on telling the story of Juliet’s “death” from the beginning, in full detail, only turns the scene into a joke about delay when speed is of the essence.

4. The strategy of sequencing serious matters in serious verse with parodies of the serious in the same scene:

a. Romeo’s farewell speeches to Juliet mocked by Marín’s farewell speeches to Celia.

b. Paris’s avowal of friendship with Romeo and disinterest in Juliet instantly reversed by the letter from Capulet.

c. Juliet’s formal, classical suicide sonnet followed by an outrageous poisoning scene.

d. The elevated octavas of Paris’s lament and the Prince’s consolation followed by Capulet’s announcement of his engagement to Dorothea and the two men’s barely suppressed incredulity, expressed in the same octavas.

e. The elevated lyric strophes of Juliet in the tomb followed by the farcical stumblings about of Juliet, Romeo, and Marín.

These clues—especially the last type—convinced me that Lope’s tone was intentionally that type of comedy defined by Alexander Pope as “bathos”—the deflating of the serious, through deliberate use of the linguistic and dramaturgical strategy of overinflation being punctured, “hoist on its own petard.” I firmly believe that Lope was writing not a tragedy, nor a comedy, nor even a tragicomedy—though that is the genre it most resembles—but simply an “entertainment.” The surprise twists and detachable comic turns are part of the almost “olio” structure of the play, which often reads as a series of comic skits. And an essential element of his dramaturgical strategy is a meta-theatrical mocking of the very conventions of romance and tragicomedy as he observes them.

This is what accounts for the particular tone I have adopted in my translation. It is one, admittedly, that the gracioso invites by his very presence in the story; but it is also one that is easy to miss, if one is so taken with the romanticism and tragedy of Shakespeare’s version that he cannot see clearly what Lope is up to.

DAKIN MATTHEWS, translator

Get full details about our 2022 Hispanic Golden Age Classics initiative.


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