Imagine if someone gave you a box for Valentine's Day and wrapped it up in lovely, shiny paper with a big bow.
Imagine you love the way it looks so much, you think the wrapping actually is the present. You don't realize there's a box inside, so you never open it. And nobody else opens it for the next 400 years either.
This is exactly what we've done with William Shakespeare's plays. People look at the beautiful surface of these plays, but never do the work necessary to open them up.
I know this because I used to be satisfied just looking at the pretty package. But then, I looked inside and found it was downright pornographic.
Consider Hollywood's favorite love story, "Romeo and Juliet." Unfortunately, as is the case in life, fictional romance isn't everything it seems on the surface. A moment of critical thinking will reveal how this play is about war, killing and rape.
Look harder, and underneath is a blasphemous – and very obscene – anti-Christian parody. It's understandable why there have been several attempts to ban this play.
Research by Demitra Papadinis (whose "frankly annotated" edition of "Romeo and Juliet" is published by McFarland & Co.) explains what Shakespeare's words really meant in Elizabethan English.
Together with the Dark Lady Players, they have been running workshops to explore whether performing "Romeo and Juliet" with its real meaning is possible in the 21st century.
Firstly, the text clearly shows Romeo as a rapist. The play begins with rape threats about the taking of “maidenheads.”
Juliet and Romeo's wedding night is depicted as having been a rape, since the nightingale and pomegranate tree outside their window symbolically refer to famous rapes in Greek mythology.
In fact, Juliet even compares their wedding night sex to “snow upon a raven's back.” This is significant because the Oxford English Dictionary notes that to "raven" means to "rapine" or “engage in rough and brutal sex.”
Finally, Romeo breaks into the tomb after Juliet's death in order to have anal sex with her dead body. This is why Romeo says he wants to “die." At the time, that meant to have an orgasm.
Romeo goes on to explain Juliet – rather oddly – has a “ring I must use in dear employment.” In Latin, the anus is a "ring" and in Greek, it is literally a finger ring. In Elizabethan English, "use" meant to use sexually, and "employment" meant "copulation."
The bawdy double meanings go on for pages. But why has the playwright changed the traditional story in this way?
The answer lies in the play's use of double allegories, which was a sophisticated Renaissance literary technique. In the religious allegory, various scholars agree Romeo is a Christ-like figure. This is why he is “virtuous” and a “saint.” He's full of “divine perfection” and “the god of my idolatry.”
The tomb scene parodies the gospel account of Christ's empty tomb in the Garden of Gethsemane.
This, for example, is why Paris gets picked up and carried into the tomb. He is called a flower, which refers to the Herb Paris. The botanical name "crux Christi" means the cross of Christ, so being carried around resembles the Stations of the Cross.
This parallel explains, for instance, why both tombs contain bolts of lightning (Matthew 28:3). Juliet, in her white clothing – who was earlier called a “lantern” and “bright angel” – represents the radiant angel in the tomb.
Thanks to these allegorical identities, the rape creates an obscene anti-Christian blasphemy. The playwright was inspired by a 1499 Spanish novella, which contained a similar parody. It was written by a Converso – a Jew who pretended to be Christian, but practiced Judaism – and it provided the model for Juliet's nurse.
More Jewish material appears in the second historical allegory. The Queen Mab speech is based partly on the Talmud (in Hebrew). The nurse's "woe" speech comes from the account of the first century Roman-Jewish war, when Titus Caesar desecrated and burnt the Jerusalem Temple. Jews traditionally regarded this as a kind of rape.
"Romeo" comes from "Romaeus," meaning a "Roman." In fact, he even dreams he is Caesar. In the historical allegory, he is a “damned fiend, tyrant and villain” who rapes Juliet because she represents the Temple (being called both a “shrine” and a “lantern”) while the tomb “burneth.”
Similar religious allegories exist beneath the surface of all the plays.
Why would a covert Catholic from Stratford-upon-Avon risk death to mock Christian beliefs? Perhaps the novelist Jorge Luis Borges was right when he said, “I always feel something Italian, something Jewish about Shakespeare."
The romantic connotations of "Romeo and Juliet" have concealed that secret for 400 years. So, what should be done about it?
John Hudson is the author of Shakespeare's Dark Lady (2014) and director of the Dark Lady Players.