Along with millions of other viewers, we were gripped by the recent BBC drama Bodyguard. So our interest was well and truly piqued when we heard that a Shakespeare-influenced fan theory had emerged, which claims the series contains numerous references to Romeo and Juliet…

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We love a mystery (and a Shakespearean challenge), so we decided to see if we could piece together the entire theory based on just the few tweets and headlines we’d already seen…

So here goes. We understand that the theory is based on the fact that the co-lead character in Bodyguard is named Julia Montague. But first…

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Bodyguard is written/created by Jed Mercurio. Does he have a thing about Romeo and Juliet? Well, interestingly his name is almost exactly the same as Mercutio – Romeo’s best friend.

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Mercurio and Mercutio are both Italian names, both derived from the Roman god Mercury. This is also where we get the word ‘mercurial’, meaning ‘unpredictable’. Shakespeare’s Mercutio is certainly that.

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Mercutio’s legendary death-scene line: “A plague a’ both your houses”. There is certainly the suggestion in Bodyguard that both sides – indeed all the squabbling factions – are totally corrupt, and happy to let innocent people suffer and die.

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Romeo is a Montague, Juliet is a Capulet. They marry (and die) very young, causing the reconciliation of their warring families. In Bodyguard, Julia Montague is the Home Secretary, a mature and highly-successful woman.

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Is Julia Montague the writer’s idea of how Juliet might have turned out if she lived in our era?

(In the way that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was supposedly a grown-up, modern-day version of Pippi Longstocking)

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Okay, so if Julia is Juliet, who’s Romeo? Not her conniving Chief Whip ex-husband Roger Penhaligon*, that’s for sure.

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(*By the way, famous Cornish actress Susan Penhaligon got her first break playing – you guessed it – Juliet)

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We forgot to mention that Julia Montague is played by the marvellous Keeley Hawes! We don’t know if she’s ever played Juliet, but here she is as Shakespeare’s Elizabeth Woodville in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.

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The obvious candidate for Romeo is the Bodyguard himself, David Budd, played by Richard Madden.

Incidentally, Richard played Romeo on the stage a couple of years ago – and was even featured on the cover of Shakespeare Magazine.

And, of course, David Budd. As in Rose Bud. As in Juliet’s famous musing on Romeo: “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet…”

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As we hinted before, every Romeo needs a Mercutio. Just like Mercutio, David’s friend Andy is a loose cannon and a cryptic truth-teller. And as with Romeo and Mercutio, David is ultimately responsible for Andy’s death.

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David Westhead, who plays the Prime Minister in Bodyguard, appeared in the 2007 Doctor Who story The Shakespeare Code as “Will Kempe”. We know for a fact that famed clown Kempe (or Kemp) appeared in the ORIGINAL production of Romeo and Juliet – he’s named in the stage directions.

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The one thing everyone knows about Romeo and Juliet: THEY DIE. And the hospital staff affirm that Julia Montague did indeed shuffle off her mortal coil – after injuries sustained in the mysterious explosion that interrupted her controversial speech.

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But Shakespeare’s not that simple. Juliet, advised by a friar, takes a potion that simulates death. Unaware of the plan, Romeo kills himself. Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo dead, and in turn kills herself.

This doesn’t sound a lot like Bodyguard.

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This is why fans reckon that Julia (like Juliet) may not actually be dead. Will she return in the final episode? Also, David (like Romeo) did try to kill himself after learning of Julia’s demise. But someone put a blank round in his gun, so he survived.

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One of the most popular characters in Romeo and Juliet is Juliet’s Nurse. And there is a nurse in Bodyguard (albeit of the medical variety) in the form of David’s estranged wife Vicky, played by Sophie Rundle – who looks rather like traditional depictions of Juliet.

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And from among the other characters, here’s top cop Ann Sampson, played by Gina McKee. The first line in Romeo and Juliet is spoken by Sampson of the Capulets, who then bites his thumb at the Montagues to start a brawl.

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To conclude, yes, Bodyguard does seem to have quite a few Romeo and Juliet references. But essentially it’s a political/terrorism drama, so we don’t think it really qualifies as a remake or reimagining of Shakespeare’s play.

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Crucially, Romeo and Juliet are young. They’re star-cross’d lovers whose families are at war. They confide in Friar Lawrence and he marries them in secret. David and Julia are mature adults who embark on a clandestine affair. It’s very different.

And, lest we forget, Romeo and Juliet contains some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful poetry in the English language.

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Bodyguard isn’t in quite the same league.

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Heck of a thriller, though. Even if we didn’t get the stupendously Shakespearean showdown were hoping for in the final episode…

Here endeth our take on “Bodyguard – the Romeo and Juliet Connection”. Do let us know if you spot any Shakespearean references or themes we’ve missed!

“Why I always watch Shakespeare with the subtitles on – And I invite you to do the same.” Shakespeare Magazine Editor Pat Reid is convinced that subtitles are good for the brain, and can greatly enhance our enjoyment and appreciation of Shakespeare.

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When my son was a baby, I mentioned to my brother that I was always anxious while watching television at night. If I was enjoying a programme downstairs and I turned up the volume, there was a danger I might not hear the baby crying in his upstairs bedroom. My brother, who already had two children, told me he’d acquired the habit of watching TV with the volume turned down low and the subtitles on. So I started doing this too, and I soon discovered that what I was missing in sound, I was more than making up for in the amount of information I was taking in.

During his toddler years, my son started watching CBeebies, the BBC children’s channel. We were a little concerned at first, because his interest was so intense. But it gave us, his parents, a break, and the programmes were suitably nourishing, so we decided it was all right.

Then we noticed a surprising side effect. Like all parents, we monitored our child’s developmental milestones. He seemed to be a little behind with some of them. But there was one area where he seemingly raced ahead, and that was learning to read.

One day we were watching CBeebies together, and I realised that as we had permanently left the subtitles on, every TV programme our son watched was effectively a reading lesson. A character or presenter would say a simple phrase, the subtitles would correspond with it, and our son was making the connection. He was learning a crucial skill – and, like some Holy Grail of education, it was both effortless and fun.

When he started school at four, our boy was one of the younger children in his class, but one of the most advanced readers. I’m sure that other factors played a part, but CBeebies and subtitles definitely helped.

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But what, you may ask, does this have to do with Shakespeare? Well, I was busy planning and launching Shakespeare Magazine during this time, and I was watching a lot of Shakespeare DVDs. Again, I had the volume down low and the subtitles on. And I began to notice that I was understanding the plays better, and enjoying them more.

How so? Well, often when we watch TV programmes or films, we don’t actually hear everything that’s being said. Sometimes actors can mumble or have their voices drowned out by other sounds. Hollywood films have been like this for decades, but in more recent years a spate of British television dramas have drawn complaints from viewers who can’t properly hear the dialogue. Some viewers in the US have resorted to the subtitles because they can’t understand the new Doctor Who’s accent.

It’s not the end of the world, of course. Usually, our brain goes to work trying to fill in the gaps, and we come away with a good sense of what’s going on. But films and TV shows often leave us with a sense of dissatisfaction and incompletion. I do wonder if that’s a subconscious feeling of being shortchanged when we can’t hear the words.

With Shakespeare productions, I noticed some big differences when I used subtitles. When I saw the 2015 Macbeth film at the cinema, I was initially disappointed. The soundtrack music seemed to be mixed very high, while the male actors all affected the same guttural, clenched-buttock delivery. This was a play I knew very well, and yet I could hardly understand a word that was being said.

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When Macbeth was released for home viewing, I watched it again – this time on my iPad, with the subtitles on. I enjoyed it a lot more, and the mumblecore approach didn’t bug me to the same extent.

A complete contrast was the 2012 BBC production The Hollow Crown, which struck me as being particularly beautiful in terms of sound. I watched this on a rattly portable DVD player (late at night, while working on a laborious email campaign), and even with the volume on the very lowest level, I could still hear pretty much everything. The subtitles did the rest. I was especially struck by the scenes with Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston as Henry IV and Prince Hal – they sounded like a couple of lions purring at one other.

Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 Coriolanus, which I also watched on the portable DVD player, was different again. It’s a first-rate example of a modern-day Shakespeare film, but the sound levels seemed to be all over the place. I suppose this captured the chaos and confusion of war, but it was also likely to wake up my sleeping family, so I turned it right down and largely relied on the subtitles. 

It was a similar story with the 2016 BBC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I watched this one on our (relatively) big-screen TV, and the problem was I had to keep turning it up because I couldn’t hear the dialogue, but then the soundtrack music would come crashing in (several notches higher than the dialogue) and I had to turn it down again, which meant I couldn’t hear the dialogue, which… You get the picture. At times like this the subtitles are a godsend.

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As it was CBeebies that started all this for me, I’m delighted to say that their two Shakespeare productions, 2016’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and 2018’s The Tempest, have very good sound. But these are lively, exuberant productions with a lot going on, so the subtitles can certainly help to keep track of it all.

So we’ve established that I firmly believe Shakespearean subtitles are good for us. But how does this actually work? My guess is that because we’re seeing it, hearing it AND reading it, this means that more of it goes in – and more of it stays there.

I have to admit that some of my readers have reacted angrily – even viscerally – to my periodic urging to switch on the subtitles. I’m not quite sure why this idea is so offensive to some. I think some people were taught in school that Shakespeare’s plays were “supposed to be heard”, and therefore experiencing them any other way is wrong. It’s an interesting position to take, but I can’t find it within myself to agree.

In my opinion, reading Shakespeare’s works is brilliant, because it gets us nearer to the experience of being Shakespeare’s original actors. In fact, it gets us closer to the experience of actually being Shakespeare.

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I know from my years as a cinema journalist that a lot of people do have an instinctive dislike of subtitles. With the exception of Amélie (way, way back in 2001) very few subtitled films have succeeded at the UK box office. But using subtitles is something that anyone can easily train themselves to do. After all, if you can read a tweet or a text message, or a picture caption, a subtitle doesn’t exactly present a challenge.

Now, before you ask, no, I don’t know if there are any studies or books on this subject, and frankly I don’t care. I KNOW that it works for me. It’s helped my son learn to read, and it’s given me a better understanding of Shakespeare’s texts. And the chances are it’ll work for you as well. So what are you waiting for? Whack on the subtitles, and get stuck into some Shakespeare.