Victoria Everitt as Lord Montague
Much has been written about the relationship between three pairs of fathers and sons in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In all three relationships the father’s death precedes the son’s, but two sons, Hamlet and Laertes, seek personal revenge for their fathers’ murders and are in turn murdered, while another son, Fortinbras, prince of Norway, seeks only to complete his father’s life work (to reclaim land from Denmark) and survives the tragedy. Scholars have long conjectured that the death of Shakespeare’s own father in 1601 may have inspired some of these intense father-son dynamics in Hamlet, which was first performed near the time of John Shakespeare’s death. It does give one food for thought.
When I was cast as Lord Montague in Romeo and Juliet, I chose to focus on the relationship between Lord Montague and his son Romeo as my springboard for characterization. It is evident throughout the play that Juliet has a complex and volatile relationship with both her mother and her father, who are hovering ‘helicopter parents’ in her life, but Romeo’s parents are missing from most of the play. Why?
I believe the answer to this question lies in the male-dominated society of the Renaissance. Unmarried young women were sheltered from the outside world by their parents, by their servants (such as Juliet’s Nurse), and by their religion. The fact that Romeo and Juliet are raised in the same small town but never see one another until the Capulet party attests that Juliet, literally, does not get out much, or, when she did, she would be carefully chaperoned by family and staff. Under a double standard, Romeo and his adolescent pals are free to wander the streets day and night without consequences. In fact, Romeo’s father is well aware that Romeo spends his pre-dawn hours loitering in a local sycamore grove, “with tears augmenting the fresh morning dew,” and Lord Montague even admits that he does not know why. After the Capulet party Romeo does not even return home “to his father’s,” so we can conclude that young men of a certain age were basically independent of parental supervision and control.
But how does Romeo feel about his father? How does Lord Montague feel about him? They never once converse onstage, but careful line analysis suggests that they do love one another a great deal. After the opening brawl in Act I, Romeo’s parents are “right glad…he was not at this fray” and “would as willingly give cure as know” the cause of his melancholy mood, after which Romeo’s third line upon entering onstage is “Was that my father that went hence so fast?” In Act III, after Romeo kills Tybalt for murdering Mercutio, Lord Montague convinces the Prince to commute Romeo’s death sentence to exile, since “his fault concludes but what the law should end, The life of Tybalt,” showing quick thinking on the part of a desperate parent. In Act V, Romeo writes a letter to his father to explain why he “came to this vault to die and lie with Juliet,” and later when Lord Montague discovers Romeo dead, he laments, “O thou untaught! What manners is in this, To press before thy father to a grave?” He grieves that Romeo, his only “son and heir,” did not outlive him, and his universe will never be the same.
To me, Lord Montague’s last words to Romeo are eerily prescient on Shakespeare’s part. Romeo and Juliet was first performed in 1594-1595, only a year or so before the death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, at the age of 11. All too soon would the playwright feel firsthand the anguish of losing his only son and heir, as Lord Montague did.