Our business with Lord Montague thus concluded and his written authority safely in our possession, Benvolio was detailed to take us off in search of Romeo. At the foot of the stairs he paused to exchange a few words with an old family retainer and I took the opportunity to pull Michael to one side so that we might review our situation.
“So much for staying out of the Montague-Capulet feud,” I muttered glumly. “I don’t see how we’re going to keep out of it whilst playing nursemaid to a lovesick Romeo.”
“I did warn you when we first reached Verona that we were straying into prime tragedy territory,” noted Michael. “And it’s the destiny of tragic characters to be doomed to their fate, no matter how much they might struggle against it.”
“That’s fine but do they really have to drag us down with them?” I complained.
“There’s usually a certain amount of collateral damage in Shakespeare,” observed Michael. “Take Polonius in Hamlet, Banquo in Macbeth, Gloucester in King Lear. Romeo and Juliet is littered with the corpses of those caught up in the crossfire. You’ve got Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris…”
I shuddered. “Well, if there’s any duelling to be done you’ll have to be the one to step up to the plate,” I told him quite frankly.
“You’re the one with experience. You must have fought plenty of stage duels in your time.”
“There’s a big difference between stage fighting and real fighting,” protested Michael. “The blood is fake, for a start…”
“Yeah, but the principles are the same,” I countered. “At least you know how to handle a sword and you must have picked up a few moves along the way. In fact, didn’t I read somewhere that you were quite renowned in your day for the realism of your stage duels?” I added, figuring that where Michael was concerned it never did any harm to throw in a bit of flattery.
“Hmm, I suppose things could get a bit testy at times, particularly when Larry Olivier was involved,” Michael reminisced. “Gielgud always claimed that was down to the fact that Olivier just hated to lose. At the end of Hamlet he was desperate that everyone should understand that he’d just been caught by an unlucky nick and that Laertes hadn’t actually got the better of him in any way.”
“There you are, you see? That’s more than I’ve got,” I said. “The last time I was in a fight was with Richard Buckley in the playground of Applegarth Primary School and I only won that thanks to a bit of sneaky hair pulling and a threat to snap his Batman in two.”
“Well, all’s fair in love and war,” remarked Michael philosophically. “You have to use whatever works best for you.”
“Yeah, but I very much doubt any of the Capulets will actually own a toy Batman, let alone bring it along to a duel,” I pointed out.
By this time Benvolio had finished his chat with the family retainer and so we resumed our search for Romeo. We eventually came upon our quarry in the same orchard where Benvolio had encountered him that morning. Benvolio noted under his breath that Romeo gave every appearance of having been lolling beneath the same tree ever since.
He plastered on a bright smile, nonetheless, and called out loudly as we approached, “Hail to thee cousin! What sweet fortune is this that brings me upon gentle Romeo twice in one day?”
Romeo turned slowly to acknowledge the greeting. His appearance, combining a slight figure with a pale face and a mass of golden curls, had little in common with the robust features of Lord Montague. In fact, he seemed to have inherited so little of either his father’s ruddy looks or hearty disposition that I couldn’t help speculating whether an enquiry into the physical features of the Verona milkman might not prove revealing.
“Ah, good Benvolio.” Romeo heaved out a sigh so heavy that it set the leaves fluttering on the branch above his head. “Thou speaks kindly but I am poor company today. There is but one encounter that could lift my heavy heart but that, I fear…” Another heavy sigh. “…cannot be.”
I exchanged a swift glance with Michael. This was going to be even heavier going than I had feared.
Benvolio, though, was made of sterner stuff. “Come, come, good cousin, thou needst not sound so low,” he heartily insisted. “Whatever thine cares, thou should at least take heart from the simple pleasures of life. Think on the sun that shines so brightly and the trees that bear such succulent fruit…”
“If I am to take heart from the trees my friend,” Romeo abruptly interrupted, “it will be in the prospect that I may yet hang myself from the branches of one and be done with this cruel world.”
Benvolio gulped. “Then let us talk no more of the trees cousin,” he hurriedly suggested. “I have here a couple of fine fellows who would fain make thy acquaintance.”
“I have already told thee, I am not fit company for any fellow, fine or otherwise,” Romeo rather sulkily insisted.
“But it was your father’s own express desire that I should bring you three together,” Benvolio weakly protested.
“Ah, my father,” sighed Romeo, rather in the tone in which one might say ‘Ah, herpes’. It didn’t take a degree in psychoanalysis to sense that Montague Junior might be harbouring one or two parental issues.
Clearly preferring not to dwell upon the father-son angle, Benvolio chose to take this mournful acknowledgement as an invitation to press on. “May I present Master Redgrave and Master Everingham? They are but newly arrived in Verona, yet your father has seen fit, upon such short acquaintance, to take them into his household.”
“An honour to meet you sir,” said Michael with a gracious bow.
“A real pleasure,” I lied.
Romeo acknowledged our presence with the briefest of nods.
“Master Redgrave and Master Everingham are two most worthy scholars,” Benvolio doggedly continued. “Your father does most heartily commend you to listen to an account of their proposed studies with the hope that you may find the will to assist them in their work for a day or two.”
Romeo’s response to this was a deep scowl. The proposal clearly held very little, if any, appeal but I sensed he was cautious of defying his father outright. There was a long pause before he clarified, “This is my father’s express command?”
“Indeed, it is,” confirmed Benvolio.
“Then I must obey,” Romeo dolefully replied.
“Then I will leave the three of you to your new acquaintance,” declared Benvolio with a distinct sigh of relief. “I’m afraid I have business which calls me elsewhere.” And throwing Michael and I a brief ‘Good luck with that’ glance, he made his escape.
There followed another lengthy pause during which I looked at Michael and he looked at me, neither of us quite knowing where to begin. Eventually Romeo, with an exasperated shrug, peeled himself away from the tree against which he had been leaning and took himself off on a mournful stroll about the orchard. “Come then, tell me about these studies you are making,” he said, beckoning us to accompany him.
“It is the intention of my colleague and I to make a study of the history of Verona,” explained Michael, falling into step alongside Romeo. “Having graciously granted us leave to begin making our enquiries within his estates, your father thought you might be interested in assisting with our research.”
Romeo responded with a short, bitter laugh.
“Is there something funny about that?” I asked, puzzled.
“Historical studies? It would seem that my father knows me better than I thought,” Romeo declared. “For what could be more fitting for a man whose future has been cruelly snatched from him than to take up the study of history?”
Michael and I exchanged an uneasy glance. “Surely you jest,” said Michael lightly. “I’m sure you have a brilliant future ahead of you.”
“What future can there be without love?” complained Romeo. “If the girl that I love cannot share my future then I foresee nothing but darkness and woe up ahead.” And with a melodramatic swish of his curls he flung himself mournfully against the trunk of another tree.
This was the point at which I figured it was time to step in and nip all this moping and wailing in the bud. Whatever else happened, I was quite sure I couldn’t put up with this moody teenager act for the next few days. Adopting a briskly upbeat tone, I announced, “Look, I don’t know what exactly has gone on between you and your girlfriend but I’m sure the situation is not as bad as you think. It might feel like the end of the world right now but, give it time, and you’ll get over it.”
My words did not go down well. “Get over it?” spluttered Romeo. “A man cannot simply ‘get over’ his true love. Love is eternal, immutable, all-consuming. Tell me, hast thou ever been in love?”
I looked at him uncertainly in response.
Now, with hindsight I realise that what I should have done is given him a simple yes or no right away. Answer the question, one way or another, and move on – that’s the only option in a situation like this. But, fatally, I hesitated. And the trouble with a question like that is that once you pause to consider it in full you are liable to disappear down a rabbit hole of contradictions and qualifications.
Could I, after all, honestly say that I had ever truly been ‘in love’? For example, when I was seventeen I was undoubtedly completely nuts about Craig Atkinson but, looking back, that was solely due to the fact that he was in possession of both a Golf GTI and an extensive knowledge of the poetry of John Donne and these two qualities proved insufficient to hold my interest beyond a brief summer of infatuation. And when it comes to my boyfriend Peter, I would have no hesitation in saying that I love him but is that really the same as being ‘in love’ with him? Put it this way, if we split up I’m sure I’d be quite upset but would I be moping around orchards, threatening to hang myself from the nearest tree? I doubt it.
Fortunately, whilst I was still groping around in this chasm of confused speculation, Michael stepped in to respond with a light yet heartfelt, “More times than I care to remember.”
“Well then you must understand that there is nothing that will wound so deeply as a love that is denied,” insisted Romeo. “I can scarce believe that there were days, not so long ago, when I was without a care. But once Cupid had loosed his arrows and my beloved had claimed my heart everything was changed. Now, it is as well that the sun should ne’er shine in the sky if I may ne’er set eyes again on my sweet Rosaline.”
“Well, nobody is saying it’s not…” I had already begun to respond before the final word of Romeo’s last sentence fully landed in my consciousness and I suddenly pulled up short. “Hang on a minute. Who the hell is Rosaline?”
“Who is Rosaline, you ask?” replied Romeo with a longing sigh. “Why, Rosaline is the very sun and moon. She is the stars in the sky and the flowers on the tree…”
Realising that this was likely to go on for a while, I turned to Michael. “Who the hell is Rosaline?”
“Of course, we must be still in the early stage of the story,” exclaimed Michael softly.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“At the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, when the audience first encounter Romeo, he is pining for a girl named Rosaline,” Michael explained in an undertone. “In order to cheer him up Benvolio suggests that they crash a party at the Capulets. There Romeo meets Juliet, they fall in love and, well, you know the rest.”
“Oh, I see,” I said.
“…Rosaline is the gentle breeze that cools the hot summer’s day and the flame that warms the cold winter’s night. In short, Rosaline is mine all,” Romeo finally concluded.
“So, what exactly happened with you and this Rosaline?” I asked.
Romeo shuffled his feet. “A sad misunderstanding is what happened,” he somewhat evasively replied. “Some harsh words were spoken and true love was torn asunder.”
“Well, a few harsh words shouldn’t necessarily be the end of everything,” I told him. “Have you tried to patch things up with her?”
“If only I could!” wailed Romeo. “Alas, in the wake of our quarrel, my love withdrew to a convent and I have not seen her since.”
“Can’t you go visit her at the convent?” I asked.
“The sisters of Santa Maria della Scala are of a strict order,” explained Romeo. “No man may penetrate within the convent walls.”
“Alright, so that sounds like a bit of a problem,” I mused. “But I’m sure if we put our heads together…”
“Would you excuse us for just a moment, Romeo?” Michael suddenly interrupted. “If you don’t mind, I just need to have a quick word in confidence with my colleague.”
Romeo, mildly surprised, waved us away. “Be my guest.”
Michael hurriedly pulled me to one side. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded as soon as we were out of earshot.
“Trying to patch things up between Romeo and Rosaline,” I answered in surprise. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Didn’t we just say that we would make every effort to stay out of the business of Romeo’s love life?” demanded Michael. “And here you are, presenting yourself as chief matchmaker!”
“It’s got to be better than having him moping around for the next two days,” I countered.
“Do I need to remind you about the rules of tragedy?” complained Michael. “This is not a romance that is destined to end well.”
“No, the romance between Romeo and Juliet is not destined to end well,” I retorted. “But who’s to say things can’t work out alright for Romeo and Rosaline?”
“Shakespeare, that’s who! That’s just not how the story goes.”
“Then maybe we need to re-jig the story a bit.”
“You want to re-write Shakespeare?”
“Why not? Everybody does.”
Michael looked at me incredulously.
“Look, if there’s one thing I learned from ‘A’ level English Literature it’s that one of the reasons Shakespeare has been so popular for so long is that he can be endlessly reinterpreted,” I explained. “Think about it. Do you play Shylock as villain or victim? Is The Taming of the Shrew pure misogyny or a feminist tract? The list goes on.”
“So, you think Romeo and Juliet would work better if Romeo never met Juliet?” said Michael with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, not as a piece of drama perhaps,” I admitted. “But you can’t deny it might well be better for the couple themselves. They might get to live beyond their teenage years, for one thing.”
“But they would never get to meet their true love,” objected Michael.
“True love, my arse!” I retorted. “You’ve seen the way Romeo mopes after Rosaline and yet, as soon as he claps eyes on Juliet, he’s gonna forget all about her. The boy’s clearly a bit of a tart. I’ll bet if it wasn’t for that mix-up with the potions then Shakespeare would have been obliged to write a sixth act in which Romeo dumps Juliet for some fresh bint who’s caught his eye.”
“You’re such a romantic,” Michael noted wryly. “I suppose you think it would be simpler all round if Antony had never met Cleopatra, if Tristan never met Isolde, if Cathy never met Heathcliff.”
“Pah, don’t get me started on Wuthering Heights!”
“What have you got against Wuthering Heights?” demanded Michael. “I thought it would have been right up the street of a Yorkshire lass like yourself.”
“Oh please. I refuse to believe that anyone from Yorkshire ever got away with behaving like that without being told to bloody well get over themselves,” I harrumphed.
Michael couldn’t help but laugh. “Fair point,” he acknowledged. “But I’m still not sure about this Romeo and Rosaline affair. We’re putting ourselves up against the forces of tragedy. Happy endings will be in fairly short supply in this corner of the landscape.”
“But what’s the alternative?” I objected. “We just leave Romeo to his fate? That’s not really a fate I’d wish on anyone, not even a moody pain in the arse like him.”
Michael acknowledged the point with a thoughtful tilt of his head.
“And I can’t see Lord Montague’s goodwill lasting very long once he finds out we let his son get mixed up with a Capulet,” I pointed out. “And it seems to me that the best way to keep Romeo from getting mixed up with Juliet is to keep him involved with Rosaline.”
Michael considered the matter for a moment longer before finally giving in with a light shrug. “Alright then, let’s see if we can’t fix things up for Romeo and Rosaline.”
Together we stepped back over to where Romeo was waiting for us. He watched us approach with a curious air. “Is something wrong?” he asked. “You seemed to be locked in most serious discourse.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” I replied. “In fact, we were just discussing whether on not we could see a way to helping you patch things up with Rosaline.”
Romeo’s eyes opened wide in hopeful anticipation. “Oh, that is my dearest wish!” he declared. “Do you really suppose such a thing could e’er be possible?”
“There’s always a chance,” Michael responded noncommittally. “Why don’t we head across to the tavern and talk it through over a jug of wine?”
Romeo clapped his hands together spontaneously. “Let us do just that!” he eagerly agreed. “Lead on good sirs. For my heart doth leap at this hopeful sign, that all might yet be well with Rosaline.”
To be continued…