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Misremembering Shakespeare

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arts and theatre, film and literature

One of my current strands of research in Shakespearean performance is how memory works in relation to the use of quotations. Anyone who has seen Hamlet, for instance, might have encountered the bemusing situation where an actor begins ‘To be…’ and half a dozen audience members begin whispering under their breath ‘… or not to be’. Quotations are designed to be remembered and reproduced, and they evoke memories in their listeners that make sense of their use.

Ben Power’s 2009 play A Tender Thing is full of quotations. In fact, it is made up of them. Almost all of the lines are taken from Romeo and Juliet – one of the most widely performed of Shakespeare’s plays – but reorganised to tell a new story, of an elderly couple (also called Romeo and Juliet) who are dealing with Juliet’s mental and physical decline. The play never diagnoses Juliet’s condition, but her experience is characterised by fading memory, distraction, mood swings and unpredictable behaviour.

A Tender Thing is distressing and moving enough in its representation of Juliet’s condition, but Power’s quotation strategy allows him to go further, evoking the experience of confused memory for the audience through misquotation. He assumes that audiences will remember much of Romeo and Juliet, but puts words into the mouths of the ‘wrong’ characters. For the audience that knows Shakespeare’s play, this creates moments of jarring misrecognition that mirror Juliet’s own attempts to remember.

At one of the play’s most powerful moments, Juliet experiences a moment of dislocation in time, and cries out, pulling away from her husband:

Oh, where’s my daughter? I did bid her come,
And now she is with God.
On Lammas Eve at night then was she born.
That was she, marry, I remember it well.
‘Tis since the earthquake a great many years;
And she was wean’d – I never shall forget it –
Of all the days of the year, upon that day.[1]

The first line here was originally spoken by Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet; the rest by Juliet’s Nurse, whose own child died at the same time as Juliet was born. On one level, we hear an elderly woman forgetting momentarily that she has lost her daughter, which is distressing enough. On another level, as the audience hears these words, they may experience a moment of cognitive dissonance. These words do not ‘belong’ to Juliet, but to other characters.

Juliet’s experience of fading memory is here mimicked by misquotation. If listeners spend even a moment attempting to ‘correct’ their memory and remember whose words these originally were, they are participating in the same process of reaching for a ‘real’ memory that Juliet herself is.

Not all audiences will know Romeo and Juliet well enough to experience this effect. But Power’s misquotations attempt to create empathy for Juliet’s condition by suggesting to an audience what it might be like to find something as familiar as Shakespeare’s lines being not quite right.


[1] Ben Power, A Tender Thing (London: Nick Hern, 2009), p. 30.

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