Billy Flesch’s “Romeo and Juliet,” by Jack Curley


Brandeis Professor of Literature Billy Flesch, BOLLI’s “go-to guy” for deep reads of literary classics, is a master at making connections, and he wasted no time in doing so during his December lectures on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Billy began the first of five sessions by noting the play’s timeliness during the current epidemic and pointing out that the Bubonic Plague that raged through 16th century London was a plot element in this and others of Shakespeare’s plays. That is perhaps not surprising given that an estimated twenty percent of Stratford’s residents died of the plague during the year of Shakespeare’s birth, with additional outbreaks taking place throughout his lifetime. London theaters would close for one or two years during these times, with Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain Players often taking to the road to perform at plague-free venues throughout England. With Billy’s guidance, course participants soon came to understand that Romeo and Juliet is to some extent a “plague play.”


The play begins with a descriptive prologue that provides the audience with a quite accurate summary of the action to come (“A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life…), though no spoiler alert was needed for Shakespeare’s first audiences, since as with all his plays except The Tempest the plot was not original but already quite well-known in the 16th century. So why was Romeo and Juliet so popular in Shakespeare’s time, and why does it remain so today?

Certain characteristics of drama, such as love, revenge, and jealousy bear up quite well over time. But perhaps even more do unforgettable characters, such as those found in Romeo and Juliet. As no less an authority than Samuel Johnson once wrote: “{Shakespeare’s} characters … are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find.” Among the many memorable characters walking the streets of 16th century Verona were, Mercutio: whose passionate temperament and perhaps homoerotic attraction to Romeo directly contribute to the disaster in the village square; Tybalt, whom Billy called out as “the source of all bad things in the play”; Nurse, Juliet’s caregiver and dysfunctional parental figure, whose quirkiness and poor advice contribute to her young charge’s downfall; and Friar Lawrence, a father figure to Romeo, whose equally poor advice seals the couple’s fate. (Billy: “If only he had told Romeo of the plan!”)

And, of course, Romeo and Juliet themselves, the former believing he is in love with Rosaline when the play opens, though as Billy pointed out, in reality perhaps “more in love with love itself” than with a living, breathing woman. Juliet’s strength and cleverness, on the other hand, make her the play’s strongest and most sympathetic character, an observation which is underscored in the final lines of the play where her name is primary (“For never was a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”) Romeo, on the other hand, does not fare well under Billy’s scrutiny. To wit:  He is an “adolescent drama queen,” “trouble maker,” “in love with love,” and “eager for suicide.” Most importantly, when Romeo enters the tomb seeking the unconscious but still very much alive Juliet, his failure to recognize her signs of viability directly lead to both their deaths.

At the conclusion of the final session Billy took a moment to share memories of time spent with his mentor and close friend, famed literary critic and academic Harold Bloom, whom he met during his freshman year of college. Noting that Professor Bloom took an interest in him at a time when he “was not a devoted student,” Billy remembered him as an intelligent and insightful man who was always available to his students and would “always love you if you loved literature.” His remarks provided a touching and appropriate coda to a week well-spent in the company of fellow lovers of literature under the tutelage of a favorite guide. One feels Professor Bloom would be proud.


A digression about digressions:

A conscientious attendee at Billy Flesch’s lectures will carry two notebooks, one for notes on the subject at hand and the other for keeping track of his many invaluable ponderings and asides. Some examples from the current outing:

– In the movie, His Girl Friday, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at times speak at one hundred words per minute versus the normal conversational speed of sixty.(Shakespeare’s actors are thought to have spoken at closer to 120 words per minute.)

– The engraving on the tomb of famed Shakespearean actor Richard Burbage reads “Exit Burbage.”

– On the legendary recording, Jazz at Massey Hall, saxophonist Charlie Parker’s name is listed as “Charlie Chan.”

– On playwright Tom Stoppard: “He has been called the love child of Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare.”

– Recommendation: the work of illusionist Derren Brown, in particular his advertising/taxidermy video available on YouTube.

2 responses to “Billy Flesch’s “Romeo and Juliet,” by Jack Curley”

  1. Brenda Gleckman says:

    Jack -this is a beautifully written summary of Billy’s course. As eager as I am to get back to in-person learning I have found that Zoom allows me to hear, and see Billy far better than in our gathering space at Turner St.
    Shakespeare must have said something profound about not being able to have it all. Billy would know.

  2. tish upton says:

    thank you for a wonderful summary of a great class…

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