Playing Shakespeare’s Lovers

by Louis Fantasia (Volume editor)
©2019 Monographs X, 110 Pages


Playing Shakespeare’s Lovers examines Shakespeare’s romantic characters from multiple perspectives. Contributing actors, directors, educators and scholars bring diverse and wide-ranging insights into the motives, context, history and challenges of performing Shakespeare’s "infinite variety" of lovers. The volume begins with an introductory essay, followed by brief essays and interviews, on various characters within the world of Shakespeare’s lovers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Playing Shakespeare’s Lovers: “I know thou wilt say ‘aye’…” (Louis Fantasia)
  • 1. All the Loves of a Dream One Midsummer’s Night (Ellen Geer)
  • 2. Bassanio, or How a Hustler Falls in Love (Charles Duff)
  • 3. Gender Flipping Shrew: Remedy or Band Aid? (Cindy Gold)
  • 4. Caliban in Love (Susan Gayle Todd)
  • 5. Othello: In the Age of Black Lives Matter and DACA (Baron Kelly)
  • 6. Roundtable: Playing at Love in the Age of Tinder (Manon Spadaro and Members of the Chicago Youth Shakespeare Ensemble)
  • 7. Jaques: Shadow and Serpent (Jonathan Litten)
  • 8. What’s Love Got to Do with It? (It’s Complicated) (Allison DeLauer)
  • 9. Speak Low—Shakespeare’s Language of Love (Louis Fantasia)
  • Contributors
  • Series index

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Introduction: Playing Shakespeare’s Lovers: “I know thou wilt say ‘aye’…”


Is there a Shakespeare play that doesn’t have a brace of lovers in it? King John, perhaps? Richard II? Timon of Athens? We may not think of Brutus and Portia initially as “lovers,” or Lear and Cordelia, or even Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, but they are, aren’t they? Weren’t they? Isn’t what Shakespeare shows us, in the vast majority of his plays, the “infinite variety” of love? It is not just Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Beatrice and Benedick, Rosalind and Orlando, for example, who are in love, but also Falstaff and Mistress Quickly, Pericles and Thaisa, Hotspur and Lady Percy, even Hamlet and Ophelia. So playing Shakespeare’s lovers, for me, means going beyond the obvious pairings and thinking about the complex nature of love, its obsessions, pleasures, pains, triumphs and disappointments, not only in Shakespeare’s world, but our own.

A cursory search of the internet quickly reveals how deeply Shakespeare’s lovers, particularly Romeo and Juliet, have penetrated popular culture. From I Love Lucy to The Simpsons, Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers have been reimagined for screens large and small (http://bardfilm.blogspot.com/2015/03/orson-welles-and-lucile-ball-do-romeo.html). Recently, TV commercials have added to the lists of uses for Shakespeare’s lovers. It seems Shakespeare’s skill with narrative is good for business (https://www.rebelinteractivegroup.com/blog/shakespeare-marketing/).

Mobile phone providers seem particularly enamored of the balcony scene, with Nextel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHGWFWpMZyk), and more recently, Apple, leading the list (https://www.ispot.tv/ad/AJhZ/apple-iphone-7-romeo-and-juliet).

In a December 2016 Apple iPhone ad, a young father, in the audience for his elementary school daughter’s play, is filming the balcony scene with his ← 1 | 2 → phone. His daughter, nine or ten at most, is playing Juliet, and young Romeo is having trouble getting over the orchard wall to his beloved. All very cute (if you ignore how rude it might be to be filming during the play) but disquieting upon reflection. Romeo and Juliet spend the night together (remember the “nightingale/lark” conversation?) and of course, both die. Perhaps in this progressive, fictitious elementary school production this might be cut and the ending changed so that Romeo arrives in time, awakens Juliet and both live happily ever after, if separately until the age of consent, in fair Verona.

What does this sort of popular re-imagining tell us—not only about Shakespeare’s lovers, but also about how his plays are layered into our common cultural consciousness? It suggests the underlying assumption that we know who these iconic characters are before we read the plays; and that we know what the plays are about, before we actually study the texts. We think we know Romeo and Juliet (or Hamlet or Shylock), because we’ve seen them in a commercial (or a film version, etc.) before we read the plays they inhabit. This series aims to present a kaleidoscope of sometimes contradictory views that will prod, if not provoke, you to re-think what you think you know about these characters as you prepare to play them, direct them, write about them or study them for class. To begin with, let’s consider two things:

First, Shakespeare’s lovers never exist in the singular. It’s always Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Beatrice and Benedick. Even in the single-named tragedies (Hamlet, Lear, Othello, etc.) the lovers are paired: Hamlet/Ophelia, Othello/Desdemona, and, in my opinion, Lear/Cordelia. Shakespeare, unlike the early classic Greeks and Romans and later French neo-classicists, never sets up the single lover, such as Phaedre, Berenice, or Medea, who longs or lusts for some unobtainable love object, suffers, and dies (often by his or her own hand).

Shakespeare’s romantic duopolies exist because love in Shakespeare is always framed, shaped, contained, and probably managed by the outside world. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Ophelia, Beatrice and Benedick, etc., live and behave within the rules of Verona, Denmark or Messina. If their love is successful, they live happily ever after (in comedies, mostly), even if they have to run into the forest (of Arden, outside Athens, Windsor, etc.) to burn off a little steam. If it is not ultimately successful, they die (in tragedy, usually). In either case, tragedy or comedy, the world around them continues. Montagues and Capulets join hands, the state of Verona reverts back to normal, and so on. The lovers in Shakespeare’s world are part of a complex society that has a lot on its plate. Which leads me to my second point.

Shakespeare’s lovers may die tragically, but they do not—with the exception of Othello/Desdemona (and possibly Antony and Cleopatra) kill each ← 2 | 3 → other. Look at the playwrights just before Shakespeare, such Kyd, Turner, or even Shakespeare’s contemporary John Webster. Plays like The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi, The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Spanish Tragedy run on Senecan revenge and Machiavellian duplicity, where poisons, stabbings, and lustful forced beddings occur within castle walls at the whim of a degenerate duke or rejected suitor, whispering darkly to his evil servant.


X, 110
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 110 pp.

Biographical notes

Louis Fantasia (Volume editor)

Louis Fantasia (M.F.A., California Institute of the Arts) is the director of the Los Angeles Shakespeare Institute, a joint project of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library-UCLA. He has served as director of the Shakespeare teacher institute at the Huntington Library, director of the London Shakespeare Globe Centre's Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance Institute and president of Deep Springs College.


Title: Playing Shakespeare’s Lovers
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121 pages