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Collection Connections: ‘Sweet Sorrow’ by David Nicholls

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Dr. Emma Poltrack shares items she presented on June 3, 2021 as an introduction to Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here


Sweet Sorrow is a touching, funny, and nostalgic look back at Charlie Lewis’s first love—and his first foray into the world of Shakespearean performance. Stumbling on the Full Fathom Five Theatre Cooperative, he falls for their Juliet and suddenly finds himself playing theater games and tackling the role (and iambic pentameter) of Benvolio.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is echoed in many elements of Sweet Sorrow, from schoolyard rivalries to a communication mix-up that leads to dramatic consequences. It also remains one of the English-stage’s most enduring love stories. Popular when it was first performed around 1596, it was printed four times in quarto between 1597 and 1623. After the Interregnum, it had a less-than-triumphant return to the stage in 1662—Samuel Pepys called it “the worst that ever I heard in my life.” Perhaps that’s why Thomas Otway’s 1680 version, which moved the action to ancient Rome and rechristened the central lovers Caius and Lavinia, enjoyed such success through the mid-18th century. Shakespeare’s version returned to the stage in the 1740s, but elements of Otway’s version found their way in, most notably in a very brief reunion for the lovers in the tomb before the poison takes its full effect. Actor-manager David Garrick made further changes, including toning down some of the steamier language and adding an elaborate funeral procession that itself would carry forward in performance for years to come.

Of course, any production of Romeo and Juliet is defined by its central stars, and Robert “Romeo” Coates certainly made an impression. An amateur actor who proclaimed himself the greatest that ever was, Coates was a flamboyant figure in early 19th-century Bath, known for his elaborate, diamond-encrusted fashions and his unusual kettle-shaped carriage. His debut performance as Romeo included ad-libbing, whispering, a mid-balcony-scene snuff break—he was generous enough to offer some to audience members—and a death that was so comical in its fussiness he was pressed to repeat in multiple times, stopping only when the poor actor playing Juliet intervened. He contributed his antics to a number of different performances, all for charity and without relinquishing his amateur title, until audiences grew weary of him and he retired in 1816.

Coates often was heckled from the audiences, but even the most professional actors do not escape feedback. Julia Marlowe’s 1904 performance of Juliet received praise during its run in Illinois, with the New York Times commending the “dramatic breadth and authority” in her delivery and calling the potion scene “the climax of the evening.” When it got to New York, however, that same potion scene caught the attention of Henry Clay Folger. He felt compelled to write to Marlowe with a bit of stage business he thought she should incorporate in the future. Marlowe graciously wrote back that she would “try it some time when I have thought it out more clearly.” (For more on this exchange, visit us on YouTube).

Of course, Romeo and Juliet is not the only thing occupying young Charlie’s thoughts in Sweet Sorrow. Weighing heavily on him is his dad’s battle with depression, which was thought in Shakespeare’s day to be caused in part by an excess of black bile. This was in line with humoral theory, borrowed from the ancient Greeks and dictating that a certain balance or imbalance of substances in the human body governed personality and emotions. Thomas Walkington’s witty, entertaining breakdown of the four humors included how to recognize which category you fell into and directed you how best to navigate its effects.  Robert Burton’s 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy—a lengthy and at times meandering tome exploring melancholy’s causes, cures, and relationship to love—suggested that melancholy could also be caused by the world at large or even an excess of wine.

The variety of the Folger’s holdings offers a wealth of ways to understand elements of our own time. To view all the items shown as part of our Sweet Sorrow discussion, visit the collection on LUNA.


Graphic illustration of stacks of books in purple. aqua, and whiteRegistration for the August 5 session on Julia Drake’s The Last True Poets of the Sea opens Tuesday, July 6. We hope you make a plan to join us!

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