What if Romeo and Juliet had not died? What if tragedy had not been written in the stars?
Consider this: what if the apothecary hadn’t sold Romeo poison, but something completely harmless? If Romeo didn’t die, Juliet doesn’t die... so what happens next?
This was the discussion my wife and I had after seeing Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet for our anniversary.
What if tragedy had not been written in the stars?
Verona in Autumn is a sequel of sorts to one of history’s best loved stories, the result of this discussion, hours of research into the history of the period and many more wishing I’d paid better attention when reading the play in school. Shakespeare’s play ended with the houses reconciled by the loss of their children. If life and love are granted instead what is the wider cost for their families and for Verona itself?
Set in the turbulent opening years of the fifteenth century, Verona in Autumn sees an older, wiser couple return to a Verona still divided by feud. Without a shared tragedy, the hatred between the Montagues and Capulets has festered and the city continues to suffer.
Meanwhile, in exile, Romeo and Juliet have lived quietly under the patronage of the powerful duke of Milan; raising their children, Estelle and Mercutio, and fearing the retribution of a grief-maddened Lord Capulet.
When Lord Montague dies, the duke of Milan spots an opportunity to restore Verona’s fortunes for his own ends, using the star-crossed lovers under his protection. However one is officially a fugitive and the other believed dead so secrecy is vital if they are to succeed.
The family return to their home as advisors to the new governor, Francesco Bussone, a young mercenary employed by the duke. A skilled soldier, Francesco is desperate to prove himself as a leader too and must balance the demands of his lord, the city’s factions and his growing love for Estelle.
As old memories are stirred up and violence simmers, Verona’s streets see a tale of revenge, love and second chances play out. Each character must decide for themselves what they are willing to do to achieve a lasting peace for the city they love and for the future of their families.
‘Oh faithless apothecary, thy drugs are false!’
Romeo’s head sinks, the weight of grief too much to bear. The vial tumbles from his hands, empty but for an empty promise, and breaks upon the floor. He slumps against the tomb’s side, exhausted by his unwanted survival.
‘I feel nothing. No embrace of death, no final reunion with my love. I lie here in a cold tomb and yet I live. Juliet is beside me and yet we are apart, separated by God’s judgement or hell’s spite. But wait – I have my dagger still. My love will not be denied.’
With unsteady hands, Romeo draws his knife. Its razor edge carries a wicked gleam in the lantern light, but still he presses it to his lips.
‘A kiss I give you, for your edge is honest. The blacksmith was true though his compatriot cheated me and death itself. Soon my wife and I will be together once more, but before your cold embrace, a kiss for my love. Let that be my last memory of this vale of tears.’
He brushes Juliet’s cheek with reverential fingers. The shock of seeing her this way sends a cold ache through his bones as though the tomb’s chill has taken him. For one moment Romeo wonders if the poison was indeed true. The touch of Juliet’s skin is not so awful to bear now; as though he is already within the shadow of death’s wings.
That small flicker of hope quickens his heart however and stills the notion. Amid the graveyard silence Romeo feels the beat in his chest; strong and regular for all that he would will it to stop. In that moment he knows the poison has truly failed and hope lies only in his hands.
He bends to kiss Juliet but pauses an inch away. So close now, as lovers in the darkest hours should all be. At gentle rest with the tiniest kiss of the other’s breath on their skin. Romeo finds his own caught in his chest, locked in the cage of his body.
Even in fitful moonlight he finds himself transfixed, as he was the first moment he saw her. A beauty only glimpsed but seared into his most vital of organs like the kiss of the sun. He bends low and brushes one errant curl of chestnut hair away before placing the gentlest of kisses on her lips.
Despite the letter he received from his cousin – despite the funeral robes and tomb itself – the truth of Juliet’s death still seems unreal. Her pale skin lacks the spectral hue of the dead, her lips the stiffness of an empty vessel.
‘She could be only sleeping,’ Romeo gasps. ‘Even death cannot rob her of such beauty.’
His hand tightens around the grip of his dagger and grief lends his arm strength.
‘My mind mocks me. I know she is dead these several days, for all it seems a mere moment ago. My heart deceives me. It rails against the truth. My guilt punishes me. For those I have killed I am cursed to imagine those I love still alive. Will I see dear Mercutio look on from the doorway now?’
Romeo looks up as though the ghost of his friend is indeed there, then flinches and touches his fingers to his cheek.
‘Even the wind mocks me,’ he says at last. ‘It caresses my cheek like a lover’s whisper. One last cruel cut of justice. It is not sweet Juliet’s breath though. My madness does not extend so far, for all that this final act will seem more blessing than violence.’
He leans back then stops and blinks. ‘I speak too soon, perhaps I am mad indeed. I would have wagered my life upon her lips parting there.’ Romeo shakes his head and reverses the knife. ‘But it is madness only, of that I’m certain. Come, my only friend, cut this tattered soul free of its pain. Taking this last life will serves the world better than the sum of its deeds ever did.’
Raising the knife high, Romeo turns to behold Juliet in his last breath.
‘I come, my love. Reach out your arms to me.’
There is the faintest of sounds and Romeo hesitates. Madness or not, he heard something more than the lament of the wind. There – again, a sound. A tiny huff of breath, a twitch of the folded cloth on her chest. Romeo gapes and the knife clatters to the ground.
Verona in Autumn - a starting point.
Tuesday, 18 June 2019
Even if you’re so foolish as to think “sure, Shakespeare; I should definitely write something that has people using Shakespeare as the benchmark” you still need to have a plan – a direction to approach it from. BUT Where to start?
I’ve always found that trying to get the whole idea straight from the start just results in a headache. I have to write – something, anything – to find out what the book…
These people are helping to fund Verona In Autumn.