All Alike in Dignity: Diversifying the Classics One Event at a Time
By Robin Kello
For “Romeos & Julietas: All Alike in Dignity,” we gathered together virtually with scholars, translators, and actors to discuss the Public Theater’s new bilingual Romeo y Julieta in connection to Lope de Vega’s 17th-century Spanish take on the famous star-crossed lovers and their family feud, Castelvines y Monteses.
Theater scholar Carla Della Gatta began the afternoon by tracing the history of Romeo and Juliet in Spanish translation and exploring more recent stage versions of Shakespeare in Spanish. Comparing the more traditional Castilian translation of Ángel-Luis Pujante with versions by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and UNAM professor Alfredo Michel Modenessi—the latter the source for the Public’s bilingual adaptation—Della Gatta opened up the varied possibilities the translator is faced with when moving from an English source to a Spanish translation.
That framework then led to a discussion of the Public’s production, which moves nonchalantly between Spanish and English, sometimes shifting tongues within a single line of verse. With the Shakespearean English set next to a modern Spanish translation, Della Gatta observed that the play engages not only in the language-shifting common to bilingual communities, but also a sort of “cross-temporal code switching,” creating a unique audio play that helps bring a past text into our modern context.
Actor and translator Dakin Matthews then discussed his new translation of Lope de Vega, which he renders as The Capulets and the Montagues. Matthews elaborated on how the Shakespearean entry point—Romeo and Juliet is a story English audiences already know—offers a prime opportunity for introducing new viewers and readers to traditions of Hispanic Classical Theater. Viewer expectations are spectacularly upended when they expect a mirror of the Shakespearean plot—wait, Romeo is off wooing another woman even after he wooed Juliet, and he and Paris are friends, and the whole thing ends happily?! Lope takes the common source he shares with Shakespeare, a sixteenth-century novella by Matteo Bandello, and turns it into what Matthews calls an “entertainment” rather than a tragedy.
Then came the highlight for the drama lovers, as actors performed short scenes of The Capulets and the Montagues over Zoom. In one scene, the gracioso character undermines all the deep romantic language of the lovers, mocking the idea of love in a version of the play where rivalry is ultimately more important. At the famous party where Romeo and Juliet first meet, she talks with one suitor while secretly courting Romeo, who is behind her and holding her hand at the very same time, setting up a comic moment of dramatic irony at the expense of the suitor who has the misfortune of being, it must be said, no Romeo.
Events such as “Romeos y Julietas: All Alike in Dignity” extend the mission of Diversifying the Classics to explore what lies beyond Shakespeare in early modern drama, even when we use Shakespeare to open up those broader conversations about overlapping theatrical traditions. We are fortunate that these dramas and the discussions they foster remain a rich opportunity for linguistic, dramatic, and social inquiry even today, and there is still much more to say.