In the month of June, I had the privilege of attending the book launch for Romeo And/Or Juliet, by the illustrious and towering Ryan North. As I followed that attendance up with actually reading the book, it seems only fit to lie about it now in review form.
Ever an innovator in the field of non-fiction literature, North follows up To Be Or Not To Be, the first chooseable-path philosophy text, with Romeo And/Or Juliet, the first choose-your-own-path biography. The form suits the content aptly: so little is known about the subject that even the most appropriate name for use in the title is best left up to the reader’s discretion.
The figure who is the central topic of the book was a controversial figure in Shakespearean times. Shrouded in myth and contradictory rumour, even the pronouns are subject to the reader’s choice, for reasons which will become apparent.
What is known for certain about Romeo and/or Juliet, as North establishes, is as follows: the individual either was born or died in Italy, but spent considerable time in England, and served for a period of several years, give or take a few, in the same acting troupe as William Shakespeare. It is also believed by most scholars that the subject experienced gender dysphoria sometime between the teen years and middle age, and selected a new name accordingly.
However, this is where the difficulty – and the element of the reader’s choice – comes in. So little is known for certain that no one can say with exactitude whether an individual assigned male and born as Romeo later changed her name to Juliet, or whether the child assigned female and born as Juliet later changed his name to Romeo – or whether she lived and died as Juliet but disguised herself as a man to act in England, or whether he was Romeo all his life, but flirted with the idea of being Juliet merely to escape his debtors.
Thus, rather than show bias toward one historian’s account over another, Ryan North cleverly presents all versions of events as equally true in this ingenious volume, allowing readers to determine for themselves the possible events of the character’s life – and then to read it again, for a different historical reconstruction.
All in all, Romeo And/Or Juliet is a fascinating read, both for the unique object it is, and for the inspiring life story it recounts. I recommend it highly to any fans of historical debate, choosing the gender of the main character in the book one is reading, and infinitely-nested chooseable-path adventure books. Another genius book from Ryan North!