Yale College Arts

Step aside, Romeo and Juliet—there’s another star-crossed couple in Verona.

On the fringes of a most iconic love story, another hidden romance blooms between the play’s secondary characters, Mercutio and Tybalt, as they struggle and flirt in a gay romance set amidst 14th century Verona. An original play by Lulu Klebanoff ’20, “Tybalt and Mercutio Are Dead” reveals a hypothetical gay romance that occurs offstage of “Romeo and Juliet.” As the audience, we explore love, tragedy and queerness in a traditional Shakespearean setting; the play defies heteronormative expectations in a wonderfully experimental way.

Even a fencing match crackles with romantic tension. Swords whip the air as Mercutio and Tybalt parry and strike within a strangely intimate dance—even in the first scene, when the two are merely fencing partners. Yes, each choreographed thrust is done with fighting intent. The playful banter, however, hints at deeper emotions unbeknownst to even the characters themselves.

Although the piece hinges on the “Romeo and Juliet” setting, Klebanoff directs the “forbidden romance” aspect away from the Capulet-Montague fight. The hidden affection of Tybalt and Mercutio becomes evident as Mercutio designates the Capulet garden as a politics-free zone. Mercutio hints at mutual desire as he reminds Tybalt that they “agreed there’d be no talk of Montagues and Capulets” here. Even when the characters admit honest confusion regarding their gay tendencies, especially in a conservative Verona, they never disregard the relationship as merely a physical tryst, but rather as an honest, emotionally sensitive connection.

Tybalt, the more straight-laced of the two, confesses, “I’ve never felt seen before like that…” when recounting the first time Mercutio saw Tybalt under the moonlight. Klebanoff and the director, Lola Hourihane ’20, work to normalize this type of relationship within the play, giving it the nuance and relatability of young, confused love it deserves.

Within the frame of an already-mythicized love story, the play references the tale of Thisbe and Pyramus within Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and the story of Apollo and Hyacinth, which adds to the lyricism and tragedy of a Shakespearean spin-off. Playing off the playboy Mercutio, a stoic Tybalt reads in Latin for his lover, as he explains famous literary tragedies; however, he does so always in reference to their own relationship. While Klebanoff’s play parallels the forbidden-romance trope of the original work and its referenced myths, the source of “forbidden-ness” is deeply relevant today. No longer is the obstacle some exaggerated family feud or a battle amongst the Greek gods—but rather the same-sex nature of the relationship.

After all, though audience members know that Romeo and Juliet, like Thisbe and Pyramus, eventually kill themselves in the end, Tybalt explains that Apollo, who does not have the option of suicide as a god, is the most tragic.

“The tragedy of forbidden love is living without,” Tybalt smiles sadly, a possible nod to a struggle that some same-sex couples, throughout history, have had to face.

Klebanoff’s writing makes us feel the romantic shyness and confusion of a couple we want to root for, steering away from the dramatics of their famous counterparts, Romeo and Juliet. The piece edges the line between Shakespearean formality and modern-day language, so that the scenes do not feel too anachronistic; however, the experimentation with Shakespeare feels deliberate, never trying too hard to act like more than it is.

Our secondary characters, Benvolio and Lord Capulet, present two possible attitudes toward same-sex romance for audiences to explore within 14th century Verona. However, while Benvolio is cautiously sympathetic and understanding of Mercutio’s emotions toward Tybalt, Lord Capulet never explicitly mentions the relationship, yet somehow forcefully condemns it through a series of vocal implications. Again, it feels like a timeless scene—because this type of condemnation could as easily have taken place today as it does in this constructed 14th-century Verona. On the other hand, Mercutio is surprised by Benvolio’s acceptance as he questions, “I tell you I had a tryst with a man, and you ask if it’s serious?”—another seemingly modern conversation in a Shakespearean landscape.

An LGBTQ twist on a Shakespearean classic, “Tybalt and Mercutio” challenges us to envision a what-if relationship with realer implications than its 400-year-old source material. It asks us to ponder the struggles of a type of forbidden love that many face today.

Allison Chen | allison.chen@yale.edu