Archive for Romeo + Juliet

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 01: Romeo Plus-Sign Juliet Plus-Sign Baz

Posted in literature, movies with tags , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2016 by drayfish

romeo-plus-juliet

IMAGE: Romeo + Juliet (1996), directed by Baz Luhrmann

On the front of my Penguin edition of Romeo and Juliet there’s a quote from Baz Luhrmann, taken from an interview with the director of Romeo + Juliet (1996) conducted in 1996, that reads:

‘Romeo was your first “rebel without a cause”.’

Which is true. You know, as long as you don’t count the fact that he rebels against his family’s entrenched blood feud. And the casual cynicism of a society that has stopped believing in romantic attachment. And his friend’s misogynistic peer pressure. And his parents. And his faith. And the Bro Code.

But aside from all of those things that he vehemently rebels against on deeply held ideological grounds – yeah, he doesn’t have a cause. Sure.

To be fair though, I sort of get what he’s going for. After all, Romeo is a bit of a loner. A free spirit. Following his own desires. Willing to defy his society. It seems to position him as the origin for a whole character archetype. He’s the ‘rebel‘. He’s James Dean. Han Solo. Fonzie. Maverick from Top Gun. He must have inspired all of them! His ego was writing cheques that his body couldn’t cash! In a way I even understand the impulse of the publishers to slap it on the cover:

‘Hey, that Romeo + Juliet film sure was popular. People love things that aren’t stuffy and old. And ‘rebellion’? Who doesn’t like that? Conformists? Who cares? They’ll buy whatever we tell them to.’

But to me, the play gives a distinctly different, and far more interesting spin on the character. Because contrary to this stereotype, Romeo has many causes. That’s precisely his problem.

Even before he meets Juliet – before he realises that all his hollow romantic simpering can have substance – he has a cause. He’s not just rebelling against ‘whatever you’ve got’ – he believes in stuff. Oftentimes his ideology is undercooked, but it’s real. He believes in capital ‘L’ Love – even if it is just a flimsy, cartoon version of it at first, symbolised by the unseen, swiftly-forgotten Rosaline.

He believes in peace – he sees the meaningless, entrenched blood feud of his friends and family (literally without meaning: no root cause for this conflict is ever revealed) and he rebels against that, later even willing to die in the cause of love when Tybalt threatens him. He sees a world that glorifies hollow displays of masculinity and would rather spend his time moping alone or unburdening himself to a friar (because yeah, the ‘rebel’ is best friends with a friar. Hardcore). For the entire play Romeo’s one defining trait is that despite being annoyingly emo about it, he believes, no matter how unpopular those causes might be.

Probably what Luhrmann meant was that like James Dean’s Jim, Romeo is a character that has rejected the bankrupt ideology of his facile parents. He is a character whose personal convictions allow him to see through the empty redundancy of the status quo, when a cycle of vengeance between two warring families has degenerated into a soul-numbing normality. But again: that’s a cause. Rebelling against a cycle of unceasing violence perpetuated by irrational hatred? That sounds pretty cause-y to me.

So when you unpack this quote, what you end up with is a superficially persuasive sentiment that is substantively all but nonsensical. …Which, now that I get to it, is pretty much my problem with all of Luhrmann’s work.

Because for me, Baz Luhrmann’s films (and this can serve as a pull quote review for every one of his movies) can be encapsulated in two words:

Not. Subtle.

His grand meditation on doomed love, Moulin Rouge, had all the gravitas of a drunken snog at an ill-lit karaoke night, including obnoxious strobe lights firing into your retinas. His Gatsby was gaudy pretention, mawkishly trying to stuff an unjustified tragic love story into what is supposed to be a tale of artifice and pretence. And Australia mimicked only the worst elements of the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood cinema, becoming a bloated, overwrought, and racially condescending grind. To me, every one of his films play as maudlin, schizophrenic pastiches, consistently trading coherency for operatic hysteria.

…So why do I like his Romeo + Juliet so much?

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IMAGE: Moulin Rouge – I mean, The Great Gatsby – I mean, Romeo + Juliet (2006)

Because all that stuff is on display here. All his hammy, melodramatic excesses make an appearance. The ‘comedic’ mugging for the camera (in the hyperkinetic introductory fight scene at the petrol station Jamie Kennedy seems to think he’s playing a cowardly basset hound in a Looney Tunes short). The frenetic smash cut edits. The overwrought, saccharine score. The fast motion. Crazy costuming. The signature Luhrmann set decoration of kitsch, neon-soaked bric-a-brac, like someone hosting a rave party in their grandmother’s attic. The irrational amounts of candles. And of course, it’s here that he discovered the tragic love story archetype he has been mining with diminishing returns in every film since.

But here it all works. Here Luhrmann’s signature style is married perfectly with his subject matter, the quirks and failings that mar his other films this time actually elevating the themes of the original text.

Now, one might be tempted to say that Shakespeare’s tight plotting and characterisation make it near impossible to screw up, but as anyone who has ever sat through a bad production of Shakespeare can attest, it can be done. And Luhrmann’s version certainly has its detractors. Luhrmann makes cuts – controversially drastic cuts, in fact – to the text. It’s estimated that only about forty perfect of the original text survives the adaptation. Arguably essential moments are expunged – such as Romeo’s fight with and murder of Paris, and the ambiguous ending of the parents ‘settling’ their feud. He rearranges scenes; he swaps out lines. He uses the bard’s text as a temp track that he can sample from and remix.* But personally, I think the spirit of the play survives, with much of the cut material resurfacing in the visual imagery.

Romeo and Juliet is, after all, a tale that is meant to be felt. It’s a play about the first burnings of lustful desire. Young love. Stupid, irrational adoration. When it feels like the whole world will burn up if you cannot be together. When it feels like time itself has carved out a little space for you to live inside. It’s about loss. Inconsolable, incomprehensible loss. When it feels like the weight of all human happiness rests on something as inconsequential as a delayed letter. For every teenager who has ever stared a hole in their phone waiting for a text reply from that someone they long for. For all the young lovers who have known the electricity of sneaking around behind their parents’ disapproving backs. For everyone who has been alone in their sorrow, feeling the universe cave into a tomb when their heart was broken. Shakespeare literalises all of it. He not only taps into these fears, he gives them substance and weight.

And for all of his other cinematic bellyflops, here Luhrmann’s operatic hysterics soar. We get locked in the perspective of these overheated teenagers. We feel all their giddy excess and thunderous disappointments as though – like them – feeling all these emotions for the first time.

Their parents become a blur of inconsequential nonsense in the background, blasting in and out of the young lovers’ lives in order to spout contradictory inanities and bark irrational orders. They are loud and hypocritical – just as they should be. The nurse is a loveable doof, all banalities and base cravings. The Montague and Capulet boys are braying thugs, and the friar, in yet another striking performance by Pete Postlethwaite, is all bluster and false hope, condemning Romeo as a horny teen one minute and agreeing to marry him off to a girl he barely knows the next.

Luhrmann’s aesthetics are equally on point. His sand-blasted, decayed urban sprawl nicely captures the stately desiccation of a city wracked by generations of gang violence. It becomes a space in which symbols of divine beauty and grace are emptied of meaning to become gauche decoration; where the image of the Mother Mary engraved on the handle of a gun perfectly encapsulates the play’s central theme of love and war: love perverted by war; war perpetuated by love. You feel the weariness that Shakespeare loaded into his narrative, that these families have been playing out this same tired grudge for so long that it no longer even functions as back story. It is no wonder Luhrmann makes one of the signature locations in the film – the place that Mercutio is killed; where the narrative tilts irreversibly from comedy to tragedy – the crumbling shell of a stage, rotting on the beach.

He likewise nicely captures Romeo’s early, insufferable pretentiousness. In the film, Romeo is introduced sitting alone on the beach, smoking, filling a journal with adolescent poetry. I’m not entirely convinced that Luhrmann realises that Romeo’s verses here are meant to be corny (much as Ewan McGreggor’s character in Moulin Rouge thinks that ‘love’ means spouting greeting card clichés to a tune, his Romeo emotes all of this drivel as though it is the pure mana of unfettered truth), but even this works perfectly with the themes of the play. Of course Romeo would pose himself on the beach on a crumbling arch, smoking artfully, watching the sun burn over the horizon, all affectation and theatricality. The guy who keeps yammering on about ‘love’s transgression’, and love as ‘a smoke made of the fume of sighs …. a sea nourished with lover’s tears’ would do exactly that. It’s intended to be pure drivel. Shakespeare is presenting the early, mooning Romeo as an angsty twit, spewing hollow Petrarchan verse. And just as Benvolio waves him away in the play, here in the film he it gets poured into a notebook thankfully no one will have to read.

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IMAGE: If you look close, you may see a subtle crucifix, Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Luhrmann actually manages to use clichés in order to upend their familiar banality. By placing Romeo and Juliet into costumes when they first meet – Romeo the knight in plastic armour; Juliet the pure white angel – we are primed to read them into roles that are almost immediately transcended. Romeo is hardly the chivalric warrior; and Juliet is a profoundly more complex, human rationality and desire than a pair of tiny strap-on wings would imply.

But most important of all, when he made Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann had not yet forgotten how to use stillness. He was willing to de-clutter the screen and allow for moments of meaningful quiet.

Indeed, stillness comes to be a recurring motif throughout the central romance. When we first see Juliet she is in the bath, plunged face first into the sensory tranquillity of an underwater shot. She is at peace in this isolation, the chaos of the family that longs to dress her up and parade her around momentarily reduced to a distant murmur. When she and Romeo first see each other it is a flirtatious stare through a glass fish tank, all darting eyes and teasing smiles, and played, blissfully, without chatter. They awake from their one night together as a wedded couple into one silence; and later, when they meet each other again in Juliet’s tomb, on the last bed they will share together, Luhrmann lets a ghastlier quiet creep in, giving each creak and click of that lonely space sound like a cannon.

Because as Luhrmann’s version shows: the genius of Shakespeare’s original work is its deconstruction of language itself. For a play written by the greatest poet, speech is ironically devoid of meaning in this play. This, famously, is the play in which Juliet questions whether a rose would smell as sweet if it were called by another name:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes,
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself. (II.2.43-9)

Names, she says, are arbitrary, only given meaning in their application, and she invites Romeo to join her in a namelessness free from prejudice and expectation.

And this is consistently Juliet’s role. As a thirteen year old woman growing up in a patriarchal nightmare, she – unlike everyone else around her – can see through the empty rhetoric of her society, calling its accepted ‘truths’ into question. She balks at the vulgarity of being married off like property to a man she does not know; she tries (unsuccessfully) to reason with her parents when they accuse her of ‘disobeying’ them; and she undercuts Paris’ over-familiarity with her. She even chastises Romeo when he starts praising her with empty compliments and hollow professions of love. When he tries to slather her with more of the wet poetry he was wasting on Rosaline, she stops him:

ROMEO: Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit tree tops –

JULIET: O swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest thy love prove likewise variable. (II.2.107-11)

She cuts through all of his crap – his proclamations of love to the stars and the moon – and re-educates him in a truer affection. One that goes unspoken – professed in action, not declaration. An eternal, unspoken, unspeakable love.

It’s why Luhrmann’s willingness to slow his film down, suspending his lovers in a transitory quietude, works so well. His Juliet (the sublime Claire Danes, long before she was trapped in the sloppy, inflammatory fever dream of Homeland) embodies this philosophical serenity, re-educating the overeager Romeo (an energetic Leonardo DiCaprio, long before he was sexually assaulted by a bear), and the solace they find in each other contrasts powerfully with the frenetic hostility everywhere else in the film.

Which brings me, finally, to what I think is Luhrmann’s greatest achievement: his balcony scene. Again, we see him playing with cliché, using his audience’s familiarity with the scene to transform it into something more. We see Romeo creeping up the walls, earnestly setting up his most famous metaphor:

‘But Soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon…’ (II.1.44-6)

He is so busy working himself into a poetic state – Juliet is light; Juliet is the dawn of a new day; she’s a life-giving spring – and we are so trained to see this moment as the swelling prologue to Romeo and Juliet’s reunion, that when it is instead the nurse’s head that emerges from the curtains, blowing all that romanticised projection apart, both Romeo and the audience are invited to shake off their presumptions and approach this story fresh.

Here, Juliet is not elevated up on some pedestal, she’s just taken the elevator to the ground; and Romeo is not some dashing beau, he’s tangled himself up in the Christmas lights. We are able to witness their flirtation not as the catalogue of two lovers fated to meet and die to satisfy an ancient blood feud, but as the communion of two alienated souls who speak to each other in a way that their families literally do not yet have the language to comprehend.

They’re not rebels without causes – no matter what Luhrmann was aiming for with that quote. But it is true to say that what they believe in cannot be quantified, or categorised, or contained. It eclipses language and expectations, carving itself out a space beyond the rote familiarity of names and oaths and honour, all of which, both play and movie reveal, have already been debased through meaningless repetition.

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IMAGE: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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Next time, Australia’s Macbeth (2006). Spoiler alert: It’s terrible. But ‘I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more / Returning were as tedious as going o’er’.

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* And it’s hardly as great a crime as David Garrick mangled version of the play (only one in a list of altered versions by other writers), in which Rosaline never existed, all the bawdy humour and sexual references are stripped out, and clumsy, newly written melodramatic dialogue is crammed into the text in its place. In Garrick’s version Juliet awakens just in time to chat with Romeo while he chokes to death on her lap. …But gee, thanks for saving us from all the smut talk, Garrick.)

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Texts Mentioned:

Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann, screenplay by Craig Pearce and Baz Luhrmann, adapted from William Shakespeare (20th Century Fox, 1996)

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and T.J.B. Spencer (Penguin, 2005)

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE: Prologue: A Re-New-View of Shakespeare

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2016 by drayfish

shakespeare by pablo lobato

IMAGE: Shakespeare by Pablo Lobato

Four hundred years ago Shakespeare died.

(Sorry if you’re hearing that for the first time. I should have warned you to sit down first.)

That is to say, on April 23, 1616, the man, William Shakespeare – who had already made his name as a wildly successful actor, poet, playwright, and producer – died.

That Shakespeare – the man – had grown from a glove maker’s son in Stratford-upon-Avon to running an entertainment empire in London. He had won the King as his patron. He owned property across the land. He was a father of three children (apparently with a son-in-law he hated), and had written a will that cryptically only left his wife, Anne Hathaway, their ‘second best’ bed (perhaps he still resented her performance in Bride Wars). That Shakespeare, the man, was buried in Stratford on April 25th.

But there is another William Shakespeare – the one that won’t die. The one that half-glances at us incredulously from that apocryphal black and white portrait on the cover of the First Folio. The one used to sell countless mugs and key chains and trinkets to tourists travelling through London. The one that appears as a zombie on The Simpson’s Halloween special. The one who met Doctor Who, and Blackadder, and who snogged Gwyneth Paltrow in a moustache. The one that is multiform. Eternal. That one is 450 year old and counting, and lives inside everyone who has some affection for his work.

That’s our Shakespeare. Yours. Mine.

Ernst Honigman, in a brief introduction to Shakespeare’s life for The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare makes note of the numerous times that people refer to the playwright as ‘our Shakespeare’. Understandably, Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, used the phrase in their posthumous printing of his plays, the First Folio of 1623. They were attempting to publish a definitive edition of the man’s collected works (at the time theatrical pieces were usually only printed as cheap, unofficial knock-offs), and claimed they were doing so in order to ‘keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare’ (emphasis mine).

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IMAGE: From the cover of the First Folio (1623)

But that kind of personal identification with the poet playwright didn’t end with those who knew and loved him in life. In the centuries since, his legacy, and the affection with which he is held, has expanded exponentially.

Ben Johnson wrote the poem ‘To The Memory of My Beloved, The Author, William Shakespeare’, becoming quite sentimental about his Shakespeare despite having hated the man’s guts while alive and frequently slagging him off as a talentless hack. (It is believed that Johnson was riddled with envy of Shakespeare’s skill while they were contemporaries, which is understandable, but the turnaround can still give you whiplash.)

It’s why the Romantic poets, a century and a half after his death, felt they had discovered a kindred spirit in his verse. It’s why Stephen Greenblatt’s captivating biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, is quite open about using healthy dollops of imagination to spackle over the gaps in his exacting historical research. Why Germaine Greer’s book, Shakespeare’s Wife, uses even more speculation and presumption (despite being far less honest about it) to argue that Shakespeare’s career was indebted wholly to his wife, Ann Hathaway – a fact, Greer asserts, that has been systemically marginalised by a history of male biographers.

It’s also why people continue to foolishly squabble over Shakespeare’s ‘true’ identity, with conspiracy junkies falling over themselves to insist that their Shakespeare was forced to work in disguise and unrecognised in his time. Snobs would rather believe that their Shakespeare was an aristocrat like the Earl of Oxford rather than some preternaturally talented member of the lower classes; more ambitious guesses cite everyone from the already-dead Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth (who must have had great fun writing Richard II, a play she famously despised and that was used to try and inspire a revolution against her).

The point is, Shakespeare is many things to many people – the greatest dramatist who ever lived; England’s finest poet; a shrewd producer; a pseudonym; an actor; a closeted Catholic; a philosopher; a social critic; a feminist; a misogynist; a lover of cryptic codes; on into infinity – and the reason that he can remain equally as ambiguous as he is treasured is because we largely only have access to him through his plays.

And those plays! Plays that never seem to age. Plays that have been effortlessly restaged and reinvented in every new generation.

And yes, his plays exhibit a breadth of divergent subject matter – tragedy, comedy, romance, Roman, Greek and English history, myth, social satire, farce, fantasy – and a slew of characters from every walk of life – monarchs, maids, and madmen; princes and prostitutes; lords, ladies, and lawmen, soldiers, servants, senators, and soothsayers; tyrants and tweens; washed up drunks, clergymen, criminals, cross dressers, cads, clowns (not scary clowns), and everything in between, but what makes them eternal is their interest in universal human emotions: young lust; regret; unbridled fury; betrayal; the fear that we are not truly loved; hesitation; wonder; jealousy; the impulse to endlessly list things.

His work has endured for centuries not because a bunch of musty scholars declared that these plays were (dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn!!!) IMPORTANT, that society was obliged to inflict them on every student in the western world to warn them how loathsome antiquated puns can be. They are works that insist themselves upon their audience exactly because they remain so fresh, so urgent. We recognise the same impulses and temptation in ourselves, feel as if each work had been written by the author for us at this very moment.

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IMAGE: William Shakespeare’s Plays by John Gilbert (1849)

I’m not sure what Shakespeare is to me. I know that I adore what I’ve experienced of his work. I know that whenever I return to one of his plays I am dumbstruck at how any one person could have constructed something so compassionately human, so lyrical, and so true – even, at times, in its ugliness. I know that he is an astute observer of human behaviour, capable of rendering complex characters with rich interiors. That he sees us for the pathetic, snivelling wretches that we are, but captures the marvel we can be at our best. He can be merciless and silly and mad – sometimes in the same scene – can be thrillingly metatextual, and after four hundred years, and innumerable versions of his work, is still capable of surprise. That ending of King Lear, for example, still gets me every time.

Also, he created Viola, the most marvellous character in all literature. For that you could tell me he was a member of Nickelback and he would still get a free pass.

So this year – this four-hundredth anniversary of the man’s death – I’m going to try to better know the evolving myth that can be gleaned through his work. I’m going to watch as many different productions of Shakespeare as I can manage over the coming twelve months (and, let’s face it, almost certainly beyond, because when have I ever been punctual?) I’ll read each play – some with which I am unfamiliar, others I don’t know at all – and then experience a modern production of it, be it on film, or radio, or animation (I know there are graphic novels out there, maybe I’ll try one of those). Afterwards I’ll attempt to unpack my feeling about play and production. What I felt worked; what failed; what I thought the text was primarily about; whether Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, or Derek Jacobi was in it (there’s a law: you have to have one of them).

Mostly I’m just going to try and explore, for my own amusement, the myriad ways in which this extraordinary, multifaceted, writer’s work continues to be refracted through our modern preoccupations; to see what new dimensions are revealed from these endlessly malleable works of art.

I’ll be watching and listening to some fantastic stuff (I’m not always a fan of Kenneth Branagh’s take on the Bard’s material, but his Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is a delight; and anyone who loves Game of Thrones would be blown away by the BBC’s 2012 Hollow Crown production of the underrated Richard II), but I’ll also be exploring some problematic pieces (what’s that? Sicilian actor Al Pacino playing the ‘Jew of Malta’ in Shakespeare’s controversial, possibly-horrifyingly-racist Merchant of Venice (2004)? …okay… and why is Helen Mirren being wasted in a rote production of The Tempest (2010) that does exactly nothing with its exciting gender-flip conceit?).

I’ll also, no doubt, be watching some crap (I’m looking right at you, Australian Macbeth (2006)). After all, just because Shakespeare’s batting average is so astonishingly high doesn’t mean that he didn’t have his shakier plays; and it certainly doesn’t inoculate directors and actors from indulging all their laziest impulses in translating his work.

I may even tackle a few eclectic pieces just to mix it up a bit. Again, ‘Shakespeare’ has appeared in Doctor Who and romance films and that comically asinine Roland Emmerich film Anonymous (2011); and although clearly none of these addendums to his career are canon, they are worth considering for the way in which they reflect his legacy and enduring cultural cache.

But I will not watch She’s The Man (2006).

I don’t care if it’s a ‘retelling’ of Twelfth Night. I don’t care if it has Channing Tatum in it. I will not do it and you cannot make me and shut up.

How dare you.

Obviously this won’t be of interest to everyone (and I’ll be posting other stuff throughout the months for those who aren’t), but Shakespeare’s work is a heady, diverse mix. There’s murder and intrigue, frivolity and play, romance, sorrow, war, scheming, charming antiheroes, and some of the most compelling depictions of inexpressible emotion ever rendered.

So join me, won’t you, on this half-baked windmill tilt that I will almost certainly give up on in a couple of months, as I scoff at Keanu Reeves attempting to express more than one emotion playing Don John, instantly forgive Michelle Pfeiffer’s overacting as Titania because she’s so stunning I can barely hear what she’s saying, and try to disentangle the Gordian knot of crazy that is Mel Gibson playing Hamlet. …Or maybe I’ll leave that one alone.*

Join me on a journey I am calling ‘The Year of Speare’ (TM). Because apparently I have no shame.

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IMAGE: ‘The Shakespeare Code’, Doctor Who (2007)

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If you would like to follow along with me, the first film up for inspection be the controversial but fascinating Baz Luhrmann directed Romeo + Juliet (1996).

Yeah. That’s a plus sign. Because that’s what the kids like, yo. Radical.

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* And how could I not watch Fred and Wesley get the happy ending they deserve in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012)?

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Texts Mentioned:

Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer (Bloomsbury, 2007)
‘Shakespeare’s Life’ by Ernst Honigmann (The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare, ed. by Margeta de Grazia and Stanley Wells, 2001, pp.1-12)
Will In The World by Stephen Greenblatt (Bodley Head, 2014)

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