Published by Dome Press, David Hewson’s Juliet and Romeo is a fascinating new take on what is possibly the most famous of love stories. I’ve watched productions of Shakespeare’s play countless times but have always felt that Juliet’s character, so pivotal to events, often got lost in all the noise and posturing of the other characters. Here, in this novel, all my questions about this brave young woman and her impossible situation are dealt with – I jumped at the chance to read it. I was lucky enough to get hold of a copy and to be able to ask David about his novel.
Hi David. What were the main challenges of offering a modernised version of this story?
One of the big issues you face with adapting drama to book – and I learned this first with The Killing – is that you need to address the internal thoughts of the characters. In drama it’s impossible to know what people are thinking unless they break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. Internal thoughts are part and parcel of narrative fiction. So I had to invent those things from scratch and delineate how those voices differ from character to character.
Your Juliet seems far more assured than Romeo in your story – tell us a little about her character.
For me Juliet is the principal focus of the story. But Shakespeare had this terrible problem – he couldn’t work with women actors. It was illegal for them to appear on stage. So they can be a bit underplayed. When you think about it Juliet is the one most in jeopardy here. Romeo is desperate to be in love, but she’s faced with a forced marriage, a kind of death sentence in her view. So I wanted her to be at the centre of the story, a bright, argumentative, ambitious young woman who’s aware she may be facing a terrible future she doesn’t want and anxious to find any way she can to avoid it.
There are indications in Shakespeare she is rather more assured than some productions allow actually. She makes some very practical objections to Romeo’s more fanciful notions – the moon section of the balcony scene for example. I kind of did a bit of detective work and dug up some of those things and put them back into what I viewed as a more balanced approach to the narrative. Also having been the father of a teenage daughter there were some existing experiences I could channel (better leave that one there…)
You’ve added a few years to Juliet’s age in Shakespeare’s play – why did you make this decision?
I didn’t just go back to Shakespeare for this. I also looked at some of his original Italian sources – this was a folk tale in Italy long before he purloined it. It was Shakespeare who made her thirteen for some reason, not them. I’ve no idea why. It doesn’t work on so many fronts. She’s far too grown-up in the play for that to make sense, and there’s a distinct sexual side to the story too which I just felt didn’t work at that age. But mostly I wanted to go back to the original sources which made them a pair of love-struck, curious teenagers. Of course on stage you’ve seen actors in their thirties and even forties playing these parts… which is equally daft. Their age is a key part of the story because in part this is about the gulf between the young and old. How, as someone says in the story, the young can’t imagine what it’s like to be old and worn down with cares, and the old can’t remember what it’s like to be young.
There’s a real emphasis on the growth of the Renaissance and Juliet’s desire for knowledge here. Did this stem from something you identified in Shakespeare’s play, or was it something you decided you wanted to highlight in your new version?
Shakespeare is a writer of the Renaissance. For him, Italy and the literature that came out of there was the Hollywood of the day – full of inspiration and ideas. I don’t think the play deliberately sets out to be a piece of the Renaissance (not that he’d understand that term of course). But the ideas there do reflect Renaissance principals and I wanted to emphasise them in a way in keeping with the times. For example I really didn’t want Juliet to come across as some sort of proto-feminist from 1499. She’s a young woman who wants the right to define her own future, not have it defined for her by her father, the church or society. But she wants those rights for everyone – Nurse, Romeo too. So she’s more a proto-humanist than anything else.
I also chose 1499 because it was one year short of the Holy Year of 1500 which was rather like the millennium for us – a pivotal point in history where people expected change. There was so much excitement then – Da Vinci, Michelangelo at work, printers in Venice discovering how to mass-produce the equivalent of paperback books for general consumption. And peril too – a Borgia pope in Rome, chaos in Florence with Machiavelli on the scene, threats from the Ottoman empire in the east and Italy divided between groups of rival states. The era was important for me and it just seemed to fit.
How did you set about researching the historical elements of this novel?
I’m an Italy history freak anyway so it wasn’t hard. The Venice portions of the book – Carpaccio’s Ursula cycle – I knew anyway. For the Verona side of things I just rented an apartment and spent a very pleasant couple of weeks researching there visiting lots of the real-life places you’ll find in the book.
You’ve stuck closely to the overall narrative of Shakespeare’s version, but I was intrigued by the way you created the first encounter between your Juliet and Romeo. What was the thinking behind the devising of this scene?
Again it’s the book versus drama issue. On stage Romeo sees Juliet across the room, the two of them meet and exchange sixteen or seventeen lines and that’s it. He’s using the medieval notion of courtly love, a kind of advanced love-at-first sight idea. It just wouldn’t work on the page. I wanted them to feel like real teenagers, not actors playing parts. So Romeo has to follow her out into the garden, try to get her interested, and find she’s really not that bothered until he makes her laugh. I don’t think there’s much laughter in Juliet’s life at that moment so that is what makes the difference.
Also I don’t think the notion of courtly love works much for a modern audience. I wanted to explore the strange and indefinable cocktail that love involves – attraction, amusement, need, support, friendship, comfort, and for Juliet after a while guilt too that she’s got Romeo into this predicament perhaps because she sought an escape route from the marriage to Paris. People in books are necessarily more complex than they appear on stage and I wanted to reflect that. In fact I’m not sure how much their relationship is based on ‘love’ as much as ‘need’ – Romeo’s craving for a partner, Juliet’s opposition to the wedding with Paris.
I really enjoyed the fact that the female characters are more rounded than we’ve so far seen when faced with versions of this story. Was this an important aspect of modernising the tale?
I’ve always loved writing female characters. When I was asked to adapt The Killing the publisher cited the work I’d done in that area as one reason they’d picked me. The female characters in the play are fantastic but underwritten somewhat for the reasons I’ve outlined.
Juliet I’ve covered already. But Nurse – a working class woman who loves her, but has no illusions about her own status in society and in the end has her own interests more at heart. Juliet’s mother, a decent woman but definitely not of the Renaissance because when push comes to shove she is always going to side with Juliet’s father over her daughter. I also invented a stroppy cook in the kitchen to mirror Shakespeare’s use of argumentative working class characters who sometimes point out the stupidity of their betters. I didn’t set out to round them out deliberately – it just seemed a necessary part of the job.
In terms of your characters’ speech, you’ve retained some of Shakespeare’s lines – I loved seeing familiar lines being said afresh. How did you decide which lines and phrases you would use in your own writing?
Shakespeare’s language is a funny subject. So much of it has entered everyday speech. Yet when you read the play – and it’s meant to be performed not read, of course – it can be very difficult to understand, especially the early scenes with Romeo where the language is incredibly cryptic at times. And the most famous line in the play – Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo – is one of the most misunderstood too. She’s not, of course, asking where he’s hiding in the garden.
So I wanted to get some of the more apposite lines in there, but in modern language. And I wanted them to be there naturally too. Hopefully they don’t feel forced but fit in with the general scheme of things well enough that they don’t stand out for people who know them. Oh, and there’s an Easter egg too – a spot of Shakespeare that isn’t from Romeo and Juliet at all. No clues to that one…
Hmm – intriguing! Finally, would you tackle another of Shakespeare’s plays and, if so, which would you pick?
I’d love to write a revisionary version of Richard III one day. Especially if I could persuade Richard Armitage to perform it the brilliant way he did this…
Two young people meet: Romeo, desperate for love before being sent away to study, and Juliet facing a forced marriage to a nobleman she doesn’t know. Fate and circumstance bring them together in a desperate attempt to thwart their parents with a secret marriage. But in a single fateful week, their intricate scheming falls terribly apart.
Shakespeare’s most well-known and well-loved play has been turned in to a gripping romantic thriller with a modern twist. Rich with the sights and sounds of medieval Italy, peopled with a vibrant cast of characters who spring from the page, this is Shakespeare as you’ve never read it before.
My thanks to Emily Glenister at Dome Press for my review copy.
David Hewson is the author of more than 20 published novels including the Pieter Vos series set in Amsterdam and the Nic Costa books set in Rome.
His acclaimed book adaptations of The Killing television series were published around the world. His audio adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet with A.J. Hartley, narrated by Alan Cumming and Richard Armitage respectively, were both shortlisted for Audie Awards.
A former journalist with the Sunday Times, Independent and The Times he lives in Kent.
His first book with The Dome Press, Juliet and Romeo, will be published in May 2018.