Despite what Baz Luhrmann did in his film, the party in R&J is not a masked ball.
It was common practice in Renaissance Italy to show up wearing a mask to a party one was not invited to. Which is exactly what the boys are doing. Mercutio is even delighted to don a mask to a party he was invited to (‘A visor for a visor!’), because it’s much more fun to crash a party than to be welcomed.
Why do I know it’s not a masked ball? Because Capulet makes such a big deal out of the boys showing up masked:
Welcome, gentlemen! I have seen the day
That I have worn a visor and could tell
A whispering tale in a fair lady’s ear,
Such as would please: ‘tis gone, ‘tis gone, ‘tis gone:
You are welcome, gentlemen!
More, he remarks how much the boys in masks are going to liven his party, saying, ‘Ah, sirrah, this unlook’d-for sport comes well.’ Unlook’d-for being the important phrase here. This was not a party to which everyone was supposed to come masked. It’s a large party, and only the crashers are masked.
A few lines later he asks a relative when the last time they went masked to a party:
Nay, sit, nay, sit, good cousin Capulet;
For you and I are past our dancing days:
How long is’t now since last yourself and I
Were in a mask?
Which brings us to the first of two references to The Taming Of The Shrew. Second Capulet (sometimes Old Capulet) tells Cap it’s been thirty years since they crashed a party in masks. Cap disagrees:
What, man! ‘tis not so much, ‘tis not so much:
‘Tis since the nuptial of Lucentio,
Come Pentecost as quickly as it will,
Some five and twenty years; and then we mask’d.
So Capulet and Old Capulet were at Lucentio and Bianca’s wedding (which raises its own problem, seeing as those two were wed in secret…).
At the end of the same scene, as the revelers are departing, the Nurse identifies one of them as ‘young Petruchio.’ Thus we have our timeframe – it’s been 25 years since the events of Shrew, and Petruchio has a son. It’s a lovely in-joke for anyone in Shakespeare’s audience who’s seen Shrew, and one that I keep alive in the short story Varnished Faces.
One last note – the last two times I saw the show, I thought the directors were brilliant (confession: one of them was my wife) in how they handled the Capulet Ball. Because it always feels as though the story has to stop so we can all watch a dance. Whereas these directors put the whole party offstage. The scene we see is on the Capulet yard, or garden, or somewhere just outside the party itself. Man, did that help.
Why? Because Shakespeare parties suck. In a cast with fifteen men and four women, it’s always a sausage-fest. In opera you have the bodies, but in most Shakespeare productions you just don’t have extra women to put in dresses for that one scene. Which means everyone is looking at Juliet, and Romeo’s fascination with her is less impressive – of course he noticed her, she’s the only girl his age onstage!
It also neatly deals with the issue of what to do with the party when Romeo grabs Juliet’s hand and begins to talk to her. Do the rest of the revelers freeze? Do they dance in slow-motion? Do the lights dim except for a pin-spot on the lovers as they perform their perfect (and perfectly lovely) sonnet? Doesn’t it make much more sense that Juliet is escaping the unwanted attentions of Paris by retreating to the garden, where Romeo grasps her hand? Doesn’t it make the Nurse’s line, ‘Madam, your mother craves a word with you’ make much more sense, appearing from the house where the party continues. Shakespeare loved offstage scenes – the first conversation between Cassius and Brutus in Caesar is peppered with shouts and clamors from offstage. Why not here?
In both productions the choice to move the party offstage got savaged by critics, because once again people have built up an image of what this show is ‘supposed to be’ rather than what it is. There is no reason for us to see the party, just people going in an out. I cannot tell you how much it helped take the air out of the play, moving it right along.
So, no masks except for the boys, and off-stage dancing. Those are the keys to a good party.