‘What are you doing?’: Re-Claiming Juliet’s Agency in the YouTube Series Sassy Gay Friend

Par Marlena Tronicke
Publication en ligne le 19 février 2022


This essay considers the Romeo and Juliet-themed episode of the YouTube series Sassy Gay Friend, exploring the ways in which this somewhat unlike source arrives at a nuanced reading of Juliet’s suicide and its link to female agency. As the short adaptation of Juliet’s suicide scene suggests, Shakespeare presents the lovers’ deaths as far from inevitable. In both the play and its adaptations, Juliet’s death in particular is portrayed as the avoidable result of mere teenage folly, a mere re-action to male action. In re-writing Juliet’s suicide scene as well as its outcome, the Sassy Gay Friend not only re-claims the agency that Shakespeare endows her with up to this moment in the play but that has been lost in the cultural myth of tragic inevitability surrounding the text. Also, in line with YouTube’s design as a dialogic platform that enables conversation between users, the series opens up ways of interrogating critical views and exploring how Shakespeare’s texts productively speak to 21st-century concerns – in this case, debates surrounding female agency.

Cette étude décrypte l’épisode dédié à Roméo et Juliette dans la série YouTube appelée Sassy Gay Friend et explore la façon dont le medium, quelque peu improbable dans ce cas, parvient à nuancer la lecture du suicide de Juliette et son lien avec l’autorité féminine. À l’instar de Shakespeare, la courte adaptation de la scène du suicide de Juliette dans la série Youtube présente la mort des amants comme inévitable. Dans la pièce et ses adaptations, la mort de Juliette est dépeinte comme découlant tout particulièrement de la folie adolescente et comme étant une ré-action à l’action masculine. En récrivant la scène du suicide de Juliette, ainsi que son dénouement, Sassy Gay Friend revendique l’autorité que Shakespeare confère à la jeune-fille jusqu’à ce moment de la pièce alors même que l’idée d’un tragique irrémédiable a prédominé dans l’imaginaire collectif jusqu’alors. En outre, dans la logique YouTube dont le dessein est de faciliter l’intéraction entre Youtubers, la série ouvre le champ de la critique en explorant la façon dont les pièces de Shakespeare répondent efficacement aux intérêts du XXIe siècle et, dans ce cas précis, comment elles alimentent les débats sur l’autorité féminine.


Texte intégral

1If, as both the play itself and its critical history tell us, Romeo and Juliet’s love is the greatest and most tragic love story of all time, the underlying concept of love is remarkably ambivalent. On the one hand, their relationship is idealised, conveyed through stylised rhetoric. On the other, from the outset, love and desire are introduced as destructive forces, which subverts an overly romanticised reading of the play. Not least, this can be taken from the title characters’ suicides, which are developed in ways that undercut any notion of high tragedy – sometimes by cynicism, sometimes by moments bordering on the grotesque. The moment right before Juliet plunges the dagger into her heart is adapted by the YouTube series Sassy Gay Friend, created in 2010 by the impro theatre company The Second City.1 In each instalment, the title character visits either a popular literary character or a well-known historical figure – all of whom, like Juliet, at some point make a fatal decision – to prevent them from making that mistake and hence save them from doom.2 The Romeo and Juliet-themed episode opens with Juliet and the dead Romeo in what is supposed to look like the Capulets’ tomb, introduced by a male voice-over: “Meet Juliet from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She is about to take her own life. This fate could have been avoided if she had a Sassy Gay Friend.” On cue, said character, dressed in tight jeans and sweater as well as a peach-coloured scarf, bursts into the tomb behind Juliet and cries out his signature “What are you doing? What, what, what are you doing?” “Look at your life, look at your choices,” he tells her, thus pointing out the fallacy of Juliet’s plan to commit suicide as logical response to her lover’s death and making her reconsider her agency. At the end of the video, Juliet therefore changes her mind and exits the tomb together with the Sassy Gay Friend.

2In addressing the question of how suicide negotiates a character’s agency, Sassy Gay Friend adapts a recurrent Shakespearean theme not exclusively applicable to Juliet’s death only. As I have argued elsewhere, the notion of agency also plays a role with regard to all the other suicides Shakespeare dramatizes, particularly those by female characters. Even though not necessarily indicating defeat, resignation, or even weakness, all of them can be read as responses to the patriarchal structures surrounding them; in other words, they are reactions to male action, albeit connoting varying degrees of self-empowerment.3 Clearly, at no more than one-and-a-half-minute length, the Sassy Gay Friend episode cannot be termed an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at large. Rather, it merely adapts one particular scene, yet a crucial one that affects the overall reading of the play. In her seminal study A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon defines adaptation as “a creative and an interpretive act of appropriation/salvaging” that, if done well, sheds new light on the adapted text and encourages audience to reconsider it from a different point of view.4 As follows, the question arises as to what ‘added value’ or new insights into Shakespeare’s text the series has to offer, particularly since both its broadcasting platform YouTube and the series’s general aesthetics might, at first glance, render it an improbable source to deliver such new interpretative perspectives. However, as Douglas Lanier has shown in Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture, often precisely those texts that are “dismissed as Shakespearian kitsch” prove the most productive when it comes to arriving at new readings, sometimes more so than so-called highbrow cultural forms and expressions such as theatre or indeed academia.5 In this essay, I will therefore explore the ways in which the YouTube adaptation engages with the play’s portrayal of suicide as linked to female agency. As I will show, the short episode establishes one significant message: Romeo’s and Juliet’s suicides do not have to be read as tragically inevitable, nor is this the most likely reading twenty-first-century audiences will arrive at. Instead, the characters’ deaths should be considered the result of hot-headedness and immaturity.

3Before considering how the adaptation engages with the nexus between suicide and female agency in Shakespeare’s text, it is worth taking a look at how YouTube as part of the so-called new media negotiates the concept of user agency.6 Like the term itself, more narrow definitions of ‘new media’ have become problematic, because the new media landscape is constantly shifting and evolving. In its broadest and most common use, however, it refers “to those digital media that are interactive, incorporate two-way communication” and that, unlike the ‘old media,’ enable consumers to become actively involved.7 Media theorist Henry Jenkins has therefore emphasised the ‘participatory culture’ of Web 2.0, pointing out that the new media therein depart from previous forms of supposedly passive media consumption. To address this change of communicative paradigm, he proposes the term ‘convergence culture,’ which he defines as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behaviour of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.”8 Contrary to what the definition implies at first glance, the process or effect of convergence is not located within these different media platforms themselves but produced via the social interaction of their respective users.9 Given its multitude of creative expression, Shakespeare on YouTube is a prime example of convergence, as YouTubers enable literary characters to transcend the page and develop lives of their own on-line. In the case of Sassy Gay Friend, this even works in a twofold way, as the series has in turn been adapted by individual YouTubers, who have filmed their own episodes with new characters.10 As a result, both Shakespeare’s characters and the series’s eponymous title character have freely wandered off into other texts, recognised as cultural objects in their own rights.

4In the same way that the term ‘new media’ sounds increasingly dated, it appears somewhat out of touch with the ever-changing media landscape to apply this label to a platform that has already been established in 2005. On the one hand, in combination with a title such as Sassy Gay Friend in particular, the label ‘new media’ suggests radical and irreverent readings of Shakespeare. On the other, as Stephen O’Neill points out, YouTube Shakespeare still “affirms the cultural and curricular prominence of certain Shakespearean texts over others,”11 and the present example only proves a case in point here. In this context, it is important to note that YouTube functions as an ‘accidental archive’ that is not organised by curators but instead follows a system of user-generated titles and tags.12 That way, the popularity of certain core texts perpetuates itself, and so it is no wonder that the only Shakespeare-themed episodes featured in the Sassy Gay Friend series are Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. Whereas prevalent textual hierarchies are thus reproduced and reaffirmed, the platform’s motto ‘Broadcast Yourself’ simultaneously foregrounds user agency, suggesting exactly the king of dialogic participatory culture that Henry Jenkins refers to. Anyone with access to a computer can come up with their own version of or response to a particular Shakespearean text and send it into the digital cosmos. Stephen O’Neill therefore speaks of YouTube’s “patron-like qualities, which provide both the technology for the distribution of vernacular content, as well as social space, which encourages people towards online expression.”13 Kylie Jarrett furthermore draws attention to the second dimension inherent in the ‘Broadcast Yourself” slogan. Its “involvement in regimes of identity production and reproduction,”14 as she points out, makes YouTube the perfect outlet for its users’ urge to express themselves online and share information about themselves. Videos such as the Sassy Gay Friend series and its spin-offs or adaptations equally take part in these processes of identity (re)production. They, too, not only re-negotiate the identity of established literary texts but also personal responses to and discomfort with these texts, which in turn shapes a text’s critical reception. On the whole, then, the notion of user agency – if ever so slightly illusory, as already a brief glance at the algorithm-driven user interface betrays – are at the heart of YouTube.15 And though not exactly radical in that it always reverts to the ‘usual suspects’ when it comes to Shakespeare, the platform provides audiences with the opportunity to open up on-line conversations about texts, identifying and possibly also re-writing critical views that, in the twenty-first-century, are increasingly difficult to sustain.

5In order to argue the case that Sassy Gay Friend offers a surprisingly nuanced interpretation concerning Juliet’s agency, it is necessary to consider what Shakespeare’s text has to say on the matter and to what extent there, as in the YouTube adaptation, Juliet’s agency is inextricably linked to the portrayal of suicide. In addition to the Prologue’s insistence that Romeo and Juliet’s fate is pre-determined because they are “starcrossed lovers” (Prologue, 6),16 however, the question of agency first of all concerns the dissimilar portrayal of the title characters. It is noteworthy that even before her suicide, Juliet appears the stronger of the two, not least because Shakespeare develops her more fully and gives her an unusual amount of backstory. Also, he makes her even younger than she is in Arthur Brooke’s text, and so the contrast between her young age and mature presence is brought to the fore. Within her defiance of parental authority, too, Juliet is more daring than Romeo. She takes the initiative in advancing their relationship, with an eagerness to act on her desire. According to Catherine Belsey, on the spectrum between masculinity and femininity, Romeo and Juliet therefore find themselves in roughly the same position. He is not more masculine than her, and Juliet just about as feminine as Romeo.17 Until the end, their relationship follows the generic formula of romantic love, which is why Juliet never fully leaves her conventional female role. Nonetheless, her unconventionally dominant behaviour conflicts with Renaissance gender norms and patriarchal discourses that require her to be silent and submissive.

6This impression of Juliet being a stronger and more fully developed character than Romeo continues in the play’s depiction of her attitude towards suicide. Even though being desperate after hearing about his banishment, she – unlike Romeo – decides to ask for advice first: “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (3.5.243). Here, she explicitly considers suicide an option, but her reaction is rational rather than impulsive; taking her own life would only be the last resort. Contrary to Juliet, Shakespeare builds up Romeo as suicidal from the outset. At his first entrance, Romeo likens his feelings to “A madness most discreet, / A choking gall and a preserving sweet” before concluding “I have lost myself. I am not here” (1.1.191-192; 195). He thus reveals a self-deprecating delight in his pain which translates into stylised, melancholic, Petrarchan language.18 Moreover, Romeo not only talks about suicide early on in the play but also tries to kill himself before the actual suicide scene, which is why Marilyn L. Williamson aptly names him “more faithful to his commitment to death than he is to any living woman – Rosaline or Juliet.”19 Upon learning about his banishment, he – unlike Juliet – reacts impulsively:

“In what vile part of this anatomy
Doth my name lodge? Tell me, that I may sack
The hateful mansion” (3.3.105–107)

7Whereas neither the Folio nor Q2–Q4 provide any stage directions here, Q1 indicates that after speaking this line Romeo offers to stab himself before the Nurse snatches away the dagger at the last moment.20 Related to the debate of what Romeo’s precipitate suicide attempt communicates – deep feelings for Juliet or simply immaturity – is the question of his motivation for suicide. Initially, he seems primarily troubled by the prospect that “[t]here is no world without Verona walls” (3.3.17); the first reference to Juliet follows some thirteen lines later. That Romeo later decides on actual suicide just as quickly as he previously offers to kill himself also speaks in favour of a general lifeweariness rather than an immediate response to Juliet’s banishment. The first parallel between such a reading and Sassy Gay Friend is that, like Shakespeare, the adaptation presents Romeo’s death as inevitable. At the beginning of the video, he is already dead, and so his fate could not have been avoided – not even if he had a Sassy Gay Friend. The only character able to choose, it is suggested, is Juliet. What is more, his death is reduced to a sidenote, a mere precursor to what forms the actual climax of the video: Juliet’s own imminent suicide, or, rather, her decision not to kill herself after all.

8Romeo and Juliet are the only characters in the Shakespearean canon sharing a suicide scene and, at first glance, the Capulet tomb appears to be the perfect setting for a love-suicide. Romeo can die next to his wife’s carefully arranged body and thereby make it clear to everyone that her death is the reason for his own tragic ending:

Here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chambermaids. O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last;
Arms, take your last embrace, and lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death.
Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide.
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark!
Here’s to my love. [
O true apothecary,
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.
Falls [and dies]. (5.3.108-120)

9Throughout this soliloquy, Romeo speaks in a Petrarchan voice. He uses a variety of different images, all of which enhance the tragic dimension of his words but at the same time produce an effect of alienation. First, he fashions himself as a victim of fate. Second, he lays emphasis on the physicality of him as a lover, which culminates in a last kiss as the ultimate romantic gesture. The fact that this is also Romeo’s final line in the play highlights this action even further, but this is mainly due to dramatic convention – the kiss is verbalised rather than acted out. It is noteworthy that, in true Petrarchan fashion, all the images of despair throughout the speech refer to himself. In the lines preceding this soliloquy, he has extensively described Juliet’s beauty in the moment of (presumed) death (5.3.91–105), but in his dying moment he no longer talks about her. For this reason, Marilyn Williamson goes so far as to say that “Romeo’s suicide fulfils a pattern to which Juliet is both necessary and accidental: if she had not been the inspiration, there would have been some other.”21 Romeo’s suicide next to or even on top of Juliet’s body is the ultimate Petrarchan gesture, united with yet at the same time eternally separated from his beloved.

10From the outset of the play, as Ruth Nevo points out, “Juliet’s suffering is finely discriminated from Romeo’s as is her suicide and indeed her experience of love,”22 and Juliet’s own suicide soliloquy proves a case in point here:

What’s here? A cup closed in my true love’s hand?
Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.
O churl, drunk all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after? I will kiss thy lips.
Haply some poison yet doth hang on them
To make me die with a restorative. [
Kisses him.] (5.3.161-166)

11Compared to Romeo’s final lines, Juliet’s is a straightforward speech. Not only is it considerably shorter but also not a single word refers to her own suffering. Instead, her language appears so simple and almost matter of fact that one can sense a bitter undertone. The way she phrases it, she kisses Romeo as a means to an end. Her kiss is not a dramatic gesture that expresses her undying love but an attempt to retrieve the remaining poison. Clearly, the brevity of her speech can be explained by the fact that for Juliet, further reflection is not superfluous but altogether impossible; it is her option once she is out of options. Juliet needs to die quickly and so there is simply no time to ponder the question of what would be an appropriate weapon. Still, her choice of weapon is no less symbolic than Romeo’s, whose reverting to poison – a conventionally feminine weapon – supports the way the play presents him as effeminate.23 Prima facie, Juliet’s attempt to poison herself with the remaining drops on Romeo’s lips fits the love suicide perfectly. Like Romeo, she intends to die on a kiss, an endeavour which ironically remains unsuccessful. If one recalls the Apothecary’s words, the poison is strong enough to kill him within an instant, even if he had “the strength / Of twenty men” (5.1.78-79). And yet, it does not seem to be strong enough to kill her. The reason is, of course, that there is not enough poison left. Yet figuratively speaking, the gentler weapon poison may kill the weak Romeo but is not strong enough to kill the stronger Juliet. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that she, without hesitation, draws a dagger when she hears the others approaching: “Yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger! / This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die” (5.3.169170). ‘Happy’ is an ambivalent term which, in addition to its basic denotation of ‘fortunately available,’ both emphasises Juliet’s desire to die and bolsters a reading of her suicide as substitute for sexual intercourse.24

12Particularly with the latter part of this interpretation, the question arises as to whose dagger Juliet uses. René Weis suggests that it is Romeo’s, which is also what Capulet assumes (5.3.203-204) and what seems to be the consensus in criticism.25 The text itself, however, remains inconclusive on the matter and so this is for an individual production’s director to decide. Katherine Duncan-Jones argues against it being Romeo’s dagger because such symbolism would convey a sense of unity at odds with the couple’s increasing estrangement.26 In addition, her reading of the scene envisions Juliet as a much more independent character, because taking her own, rather than Romeo’s, weapon emphasises the autonomy and agency in choosing death. The converse, and obvious Freudian, reading, however, is too poignant to be discarded and provides a fitting counterpoint to the conventionalised rhetoric and imagery surrounding their suicides. By stabbing herself, Juliet chooses a masculine weapon, in terms of both its Roman connotation and the play’s inherent Freudian symbolism. The eagerness with which she awaits the dagger resembles her anticipation of the wedding night. If Romeo cannot penetrate her anymore, his dagger is the next best thing. Far from trivial, the question of whose weapon Juliet uses therefore either renders her suicide a self-determined act or a somewhat melodramatic Liebestod. Either way, though, the play portrays her death as an immediate reaction to Romeo’s death rather than an independent decision in its own right.

13If the contrast between Romeo’s repeated lapses into the suicidal, Petrarchan stereotype and Juliet’s pragmatic approach towards suicide are not inherently comic, it at least runs counter to the underlying narrative of a tragedy of fate and complicates reading the play as the ultimate love tragedy. It is this friction that forms the premise and point of departure of the Sassy Gay Friend episode on Romeo and Juliet. Juliet’s initial reaction to his confrontational “What are you doing?” is to defend herself by insisting on her love for Romeo, to which the Sassy Gay Friend replies, “You met him Sunday, it’s barely Thursday morning. Slow down, crazy, slow down.” Against the play’s tight sequence of events, her profession of love sounds absurd, as does her claim of being a grown woman and therefore able to know what she is talking about. Although here the creators take some licence rather than paraphrasing Shakespeare’s actual text, it is again the Sassy Gay Friend’s response that puts Juliet’s reaction into perspective and voices what many of today’s readers and audiences of the play may think: “I think you’re fourteen and an idiot.” He then glosses her “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” (2.2.33) as “Desperate, desperate, I am really desperate,” as if the latter were a present-day translation of the former.

14As could be assumed from the clichéd dialogue seeking to imitate teenage slang, the creators ostensibly cater towards younger viewers. However, in another video entitled “TMI-About Relationships,” the Sassy Gay Friend interviews passers-by of various age groups,27 which suggests that the videos are not aimed at a teenage audience after all, at least not exclusively. By extension, it appears that the Romeo and Juliet episode merely uses a false pretence of simplicity, as if to say: “Don’t take this too seriously, this is obviously not designed for a regular Shakespeare audience.” Precisely because of its provocative and pointed phrasing, the Sassy Gay Friend’s interpretation of Juliet’s behaviour seems to chime in with the reading experiences of the video’s viewers. A brief glance at the comments section to the video reveals that many of its viewers are, in fact, high school students, one of whom declares that “‘I think you’re 14 and an idiot’ exactly what I was thinking in English when I read this play.” Another writes, “The problem is not with the play, it is with the way people take it. It is not a fucking romance, IT IS A TRAGEDY. People who think that this play is the symbol of true love, have completely [sic] missed Shakespeare’s point,” which seems exactly the message the video tries to communicate. The ‘red herring’ of a supposed younger target audience is further developed by the Sassy Gay Friend’s congratulating Juliet on having at least slept with Romeo before his death, after which the two leave the setting. Like all the other instalments, the video closes with the Sassy Gay Friend’s verdict “She’s a stupid bitch,” delivered directly into the camera with a considerable amount of eye-rolling and amused exasperation. The creators thereby suggest a reading of Shakespeare’s play that is not, as the video’s style might make us believe, the product of a teenage audience’s limited understanding. Instead, the way the Sassy Gay Friend summarises it (possibly a little too harshly), the catastrophe in Shakespeare’s play is far from inevitable, caused by mere teenage folly. He thus exposes the play’s quintessential tragic moment as absurd and banal rather than tragic, as a grand gesture that may work within the logics and aesthetics of the courtly love tradition but that fails any modern test of tragic plausibility.

15What also addresses Juliet’s agency is that, throughout the video, Romeo’s body is entirely ignored, which is the opposite of what happens in the play. This is Juliet’s scene, not Romeo’s. He is no more than a mere prop, which is especially obvious at the end when the camera frame also captures Romeo awkwardly lying in the foreground while the two others leave. Quite literally, the Sassy Gay Friend adaptation therefore enables Juliet to leave not only the Capulets’ tomb but also the play as such, whereas Romeo remains forever enshrined in Shakespeare’s text and its surrounding myth. Whilst Juliet is eventually defined by her decision to reject the play’s narrative of fate and reclaim the role of an active agent, Romeo remains a dead body, and one brought about by misunderstandings and mishap at that.

16In its over-the-top flamboyance and anticlimactic plot twist, the YouTube video strikes a comic chord that initially seems at odds with the situation at hand, but this too, is an apt reading of the tonal qualities underpinning Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths. In general, Tom McAlindon points out, “Shakespeare’s comic element functions as a safety valve forestalling the kind of inappropriate laughter that scenes of great tension and high passion are likely to provoke.”28 The play’s trajectory of comedy gradually developing into tragedy is widely-acknowledged,29 but the suicide scenes in particularly are likely to produce the audience reaction Tom McAlindon refers to, as they are constructed through various accidents of timing that Martha Tuck Rozett poignantly refers to as “reminiscent of the comic near misses in A Comedy of Errors.”30 To begin with, the audience know that Juliet is not actually dead and the feeling of wanting to stop Romeo from drinking the poison makes them cringe. This note is developed further when, directly after Romeo drops dead, Friar Laurence enters the scene. Juliet rises on cue, only just about a minute too late; the impression of an accident rather than inevitable tragedy prevails.

17As if that were not enough, comic undertones further ensue after the two bodies are found, first in the excessive and stylised rhetoric of the ‘lamentations scene’ in 4.5,31 and second in the Friar’s stale and lengthy account that miraculously ends the families’ feud in an instant. Twice removed from the couple’s suicides, the Prince then draws the myth of Romeo and Juliet to a close by returning to the Prologue’s level of a symbolic tale – there “never was a story of more woe” (5.3.309). Duly, he advises both the characters on stage and the audience to “have more talk of these sad things” (5.3.307) and thus develop this myth further through retelling it. For Clifford Leech, this is “after all, a kind of ‘happy ending’” because the two “have their being enshrined in a famous play […]. Certainly this is a sad affair […]. But we may ask, is it tragic?”32 In introducing a radical plot twist, the Sassy Gay Friend adaptation engages with such incongruences and intervenes in this process of perpetuation. In re-casting the tragic lovers as immature teenagers rather than the victims of fateful cosmic alignments it not only re-writes the Romeo and Juliet myth but also, through its broadcast via YouTube, spreads a final verdict on the play that is diametrically opposed to that of the Prologue.

18While its overall reception, especially amongst on-line communities, has been positive, Sassy Gay Friend has attracted criticism for its clichéd representation of gay men.33 If the format were taking itself seriously, this would certainly be a fair point. Everything about the series, however – from the amateurish set design, make-up, and acting to the generally low production value – suggests that its ‘campness’ is deliberate. As Susan Sontag makes clear, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. […] To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.”34 Both Juliet and the Sassy Gay Friend are types rather than mere characters – he a popular stereotype produced by latent homophobic discourse and she the clichéd victim of tragic love that critical reception has turned Shakespeare’s character into. His presence, in other words, only foregrounds Juliet’s reduction to a type all the more strongly. The much more pertinent question with regard to a questionable perpetuation of 21st-gender ideologies therefore is another: Why does Juliet have to be ‘rescued’ and reminded of her own agency by a man, however much marginalised he might be himself? Even if less entertaining, having another female character intervene would surely be much more empowering here, establishing female bonding as an effective response to patriarchal control.

19While the adaptation therefore falls short of a proper feminist re-writing of Juliet’s suicide scene, what it does succeed in is re-writing the female perspective that is otherwise less strongly developed in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Of course, this re-consideration of Juliet’s agency is not an entirely new phenomenon. As Stephen M. Buhler has argued with regard to pop and post-pop music, the tendency of reading Juliet as an increasingly independent and proactive character can be traced back to the 1960s at least.35 What Sassy Gay Friend adds to this debate, therefore, is a re-evaluation of Juliet’s suicide in the light of such debates on female agency. Making the character of Juliet reconsider her suicide, it turns a mere re-action to male action into an informed decision and proper action in its own right, arriving at a reading that is much more in line with the self-determined character Shakespeare builds up the character at the beginning of the play. In doing so, the adaptation re-claims her agency on two levels – within the realm of the play itself and its discourse of critical reception. Referring back to Linda Hutcheon’s view on successful adaptations, her suggestion that our ‘horizon of expectation’ towards the adapted text will inevitably be altered if we approach it anew,36 Sassy Gay Friend thus proves successful. It encourages viewers to challenge established readings that, in cases like that of Romeo and Juliet, have turned into hardened orthodoxies or indeed cultural myths. As a YouTube series, and hence a vital channel of what Henry Jenkins has termed the convergence culture of Web 2.0, this kind of critical interrogation is not restricted to passive spectatorship but, on the contrary, necessitates audiences to engage with one another. Consequently, they may arrive at readings of Shakespeare’s works that are not only “productively conceptualized as mutable and dialogic,”37 to quote O’Neill again, but also speak to such 21st-century concerns as, in this case, debates on female agency.

20Link to the YouTube Series Sassy Gay Friend: URL.


BELSEY, Catherine, “Gender and Family”, in Claire McEachern (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, Cambridge, CUP, 2002, p. 123-141.

BUHLER, Stephen M., “Reviving Juliet, Repackaging Romeo: Transformations of Character in Pop and Post-Pop Music”, in Richard Burt (ed.), Shakespeare After Mass Media, New York & Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2002, p. 243-264.

DUNCAN-JONES, Katherine, “‘O Happy Dagger:’ The Autonomy of Shakespeare’s Juliet”, Notes and Queries, vol. 45, n°3, 1998, p. 314-316.

HUTCHEON, Linda, A Theory of Adaptation, New York, Routledge, 2013.

JARRETT, Kylie, “Beyond Broadcast Yourself™: The Future of YouTube”, Media International Australia, vol. 126, 2008, p. 132-144.

JENKINS, Henry, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York & London, New York UP, 2006.

LANIER, Douglas, Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture, Oxford & New York, OUP, (2002) 2006.

LEECH, Clifford, “The Moral Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet”, in Joseph A. Porter (ed.), Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, New York, Hall, 1997, p. 7-22.

LOGAN, Robert K, Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan, New York, Peter Lang, 2010.

MCALINDON, Tom, “What is a Shakespearean Tragedy?”, in Claire McEachern (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, Cambridge, CUP, 2002, p. 1-22.

MOISAN, Thomas, “Rhetoric and the Rehearsal of Death: The ‘Lamentations’ Scene in Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 34, n°4, 1983, p. 389-404.

NEVO, Ruth, “Tragic Form in Romeo and Juliet,” SEL, vol. 9, 1969, p. 241-258.

O’NEILL, Stephen, Shakespeare and YouTube: New Media Forms of the Bard, London, Arden Shakespeare, 2014.

POLLARD, Tanya, “‘A Thing Like Death:’ Sleeping Potions and Poisons in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra”, Renaissance Drama, vol. 32, 2003, p. 95-121.

SHAKESPEARE, William, Romeo and Juliet, ed. René Weis, London, Bloomsbury, “The Arden Shakespeare” (Third Series), 2012.

SONTAG, Susan, Notes on ‘Camp’, London et. al, Penguin, 2018.

SNYDER, Susan, “Romeo and Juliet: Comedy into Tragedy”, Essays in Criticism, vol. 20 1970, p. 391-402.

THE SECOND CITY, “Sassy Gay Friend – Romeo and Juliet”, YouTube, 8 March 2010, URL, accessed 15 December 2018.

THE SECOND CITY, “Sassy Gay Friend – TMI About Relationships”, YouTube, 11 May 2011, URL, accessed 20 December 2018.

TRONICKE, Marlena, Shakespeare’s Suicides: Dead Bodies that Matter, New York & London, Routledge, 2018.

TUCK ROZETT, Martha, “The Comic Structures of Tragic Endings: The Suicide Scenes in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra”, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 36, n°2, 1985, p. 152-164.

WELLS, Robin Headlam, “Neo-Petrarchan Kitsch in Romeo and Juliet”, Modern Language Review, vol. 93, n°4, 1998, p. 913-933.

WELLS, Stanley, Shakespeare, Sex, and Love, Oxford, OUP, 2010.

WILLIAMSON, Marilyn L., “Romeo and Death”, Shakespeare Studies, vol. 14, 1981), p. 129-137.


1 All references to the YouTube video are to the following source: The Second City, “Sassy Gay Friend – Romeo and Juliet,” YouTube, 8 March 2010, URL, accessed 15 December 2018. As of that date, the video had 188,966 hits.

2 Other videos feature the characters Ophelia, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Great Expectations’s Miss Havisham, Black Swan, Henry VIII, Cyrano de Bergerac, Odysseus, as well as the eponymous character from Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s book The Giving Tree.

3 Marlena Tronicke, Shakespeare’s Suicides: Dead Bodies That Matter, New York & London, Routledge, 2018. On suicide in Romeo and Juliet, see particularly p. 34-51. Individual passages of this article’s argument are based on the Romeo and Juliet-themed chapter of this monograph and are here republished by permission.

4 Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, New York, Routledge, 2013, p. 8.

5 Douglas Lanier, Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture, Oxford & New York, OUP, 2006, p. 3-4.

6 On a more extensive discussion on user agency, particularly with regard to YouTube’s increasing dependence on marketing, see Kylie Jarrett, “Beyond Broadcast Yourself™: The Future of YouTube”, Media International Australia, vol. 126, 2008, p. 132-144.

7 Robert K. Logan, Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan, New York, Peter Lang, 2010, p. 4.

8 Ibid., p. 2.

9 Ibid., p. 3.

10 Such adaptations of the series by YouTube channels other than that of The Second City feature, for instance, Cordelia, Titanic’s Rose, Les Misérables’s Éponine, as well as numerous re-enactments of the original Sassy Gay Friend videos.

11 Stephen O’Neill, Shakespeare and YouTube: New Media Forms of the Bard, London, Arden Shakespeare, 2014, p. 2.

12 Ibid., p. 2.

13 Ibid., p. 12.

14 Kylie Jarrett, “Beyond Broadcast Yourself™: The Future of YouTube”, Media International Australia, vol. 126, 2008, p. 134.

15 On a more extensive discussion on user agency, particularly with regard to YouTube’s increasing dependence on marketing, see ibid., p. 132-144.

16 William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. René Weis, London, Bloomsbury, “The Arden Shakespeare” (Third Series), 2012. All references to Romeo and Juliet are to this edition.

17 Catherine Belsey, “Gender and Family”, in Claire McEachern (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, Cambridge, CUP, 2002, p. 130.

18 On Romeo’s Petrarchism, see also Robin Headlam Wells, “Neo-Petrarchan Kitsch in Romeo and Juliet”, Modern Language Review, vol. 93, n°4, 1998, p. 913-933.

19 Marilyn L. Williamson, “Romeo and Death”, Shakespeare Studies, vol. 14, 1981, p. 129.

20 Textual note to 3.3.107 in the Arden Shakespeare (Third Series).

21 Marilyn Williamson, op. cit., p. 132.

22 Ruth Nevo, “Tragic Form in Romeo and Juliet”, SEL, vol. 9, 1969, p. 255.

23 On Romeo’s choice of weapon see Tanya Pollard, “‘A Thing Like Death:’ Sleeping Potions and Poisons in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra”, Renaissance Drama, vol. 32, 2003, p. 95-121.

24 Stanley Wells, Shakespeare, Sex, and Love, Oxford, OUP, 2010, p. 167.

25 See René Weis’s note to line 5.3.169 in the Arden Third Series. The SD reads “Takes Romeo’s dagger” and the note to l. 170 says “[t]he dagger is probably Romeo’s.” As points of reference Weis mentions Capulet’s reaction as well as Brooke’s source story. For an overview of the debate see Katherine Duncan Jones, “‘O Happy Dagger:’ The Autonomy of Shakespeare’s Juliet”, Notes and Queries, vol. 45, n°3, 1998, p. 314 -316.

26 Catherine Duncan-Jones, op. cit., p. 315.

27 “Sassy Gay Friend – TMI About Relationships”, YouTube, 11 May 2011, URL, accessed 20 December 2018.

28 Tom McAlindon, “What is a Shakespearean Tragedy?”, in Claire McEachern (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, Cambridge, CUP, 2002, p. 5-6.

29 As Susan Snyder has shown, “Romeo and Juliet is different from Shakespeare’s other tragedies in that it becomes, rather than is, tragic,” “Romeo and Juliet: Comedy into Tragedy”, Essays in Criticism, vol. 20, 1970, p. 391.

30 Martha Tuck Rozett, “The Comic Structures of Tragic Endings: The Suicide Scenes in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra,” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 36, n°2, 1985, p. 155.

31 For a detailed analysis see Thomas Moisan, “Rhetoric and the Rehearsal of Death: The ‘Lamentations’ Scene in Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 34, n°4, 1983, p. 389-404.

32 Clifford Leech, “The Moral Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet”, in Joseph A. Porter (ed.), Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, New York, Hall, 1997, p. 15-16.

33 Most of this debate has happened via private blogs and websites such as Troy Farah’s column “Why The Sassy Gay Friend Isn’t Progressive”, litreactor, 16 September 2013, URL, accessed 18 December 2018.

34 Susan Sontag, Notes on ‘Camp’, London et. al, Penguin, 2018, p. 9-10.

35 Stephen M Buhler, “Reviving Juliet, Repackaging Romeo: Transformations of Character in Pop and PostPop Music”, in Richard Burt (ed.), Shakespeare After Mass Media, New York & Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2002, p. 243-264.

36 Linda Hutcheon, op. cit., p. 121.

37 Stephen O’Neill, op. cit., p. 5.

Pour citer ce document

Par Marlena Tronicke, «‘What are you doing?’: Re-Claiming Juliet’s Agency in the YouTube Series Sassy Gay Friend », Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], IV. Arts graphiques et nouveaux media, N°14 - 2019, Shakespeare en devenir, mis à jour le : 19/02/2022, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=1806.

Quelques mots à propos de :  Marlena Tronicke

Dr Marlena Tronicke is Assistant Professor of British literary and cultural studies at the University of Münster, Germany. Her areas of research and teaching include early modern drama, Victorian and neo-Victorian literature, adaptation, and contemporary British theatre. Her first monograph, Shakespeare’s Suicides: Dead Bodies That Matter, was published by Routledge in 2018. Besides a number of Shakespeare-related articles, she has edited textual editions of Romeo and Juliet and Othello for high ...

Droits d'auteur

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License CC BY-NC 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/fr/) / Article distribué selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons CC BY-NC.3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/fr/)