The word “leap” shows up repeatedly in sayings and clichés: leaps and bounds, leap of faith, leap for joy, leap at the opportunity, look before you leap. It has even been used to describe momentous historical moments (“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”). Leaping can also serve as a figure of speech or metaphor—a heart can leap from joy or anxiety, or a mind can leap to a conclusion. In literature, the literal and metaphorical leap are often intertwined. A character’s actual leap might not transport them very far, but it can thrust them into a whole new story.

A character in a story often chooses to leap. In fact, it is hard for a body to leap accidentally. The energy and vigor required to initiate the action distinguishes a leap from, say, a fall. Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet leaps over the orchard wall to be with his love. Prince Arthur from King John, another Shakespeare character, leaps from the castle walls to escape his murderous uncle. The lady in Marie de France’s “Yonec” uses her leap to both escape and find love, forsaking her jealous husband to be with a prince. Their fates in these stories are inextricably linked with, and determined by, the irrevocable act of leaping.

While all these characters decide to make these leaps, they cannot control how they land. In Romeo’s case, while he lands safely at first, his decision to leap into Juliet’s arms leads to both their deaths. Arthur’s body lies lifeless on the stones of the castle courtyard. But the lady’s leap ends with a miracle. She risks everything to change her narrative, and she is successful. The joy of Romeo’s ascent, the tragedy of Arthur’s descent, and the unexpected outcome of the lady’s leap bring these characters together into a trio of dramatic and narrative possibilities. The first two of these leaps can be performed on the stage, to great effect. By engaging with the moment before, after, and during these leaps, this essay looks at how these characters embrace risk and danger for the possibility of a new life, all through the act of leaping.

The first stage of leaping, the ascent, takes the most physical force and energy. Having just departed his first meeting with Juliet, Romeo laments: “Can I go forward when my heart is here? / Turn back, dull earth, and find thy center out.” Romeo despises his forward motion and wishes to return to Juliet, his “heart,” or the “center” of his being. He refers to his own body as “dull earth,” and disdains it as fatuous and foolish, an inanimate piece of clay. With such a negative view of the earth, it is no wonder that in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet are both fixated on the stars.

Romeo leaps the orchard wall to find his heart, but the play’s audience does not actually see him leap. In fact, the stage direction in the second quarto printing (1599) states that “Romeo withdraws from sight” after declaring his desire to find Juliet again. His friend Benvolio then tells us that Romeo “ran this way and leaped this orchard wall.” Later in the scene, Juliet questions Romeo at her window:

JULIET How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?
The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,
And the place death, considering who thou art,
If any of my kinsmen find thee here.

ROMEO With love’s light wings did I o’er-perch these walls
For stony limits cannot hold love out…

Juliet cannot imagine how Romeo has arrived at her window, over high “stony” walls, where death awaits him should he be caught. But Romeo has another method of transport: metaphor. He has wings, supernatural abilities only granted by love. Love has made him able to leap or “o’er-perch” the walls, and land exactly where he wanted to be.

In the 2013 production of Romeo and Juliet at the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) in Staunton, Virginia, Romeo—played by Dylan Paul—took a literal leap. The ASC is a reconstruction of a Jacobean playhouse. The company follows the staging conventions of the early modern theatre, where actors performed on a bare stage with universal lighting. Not only are the actors visible to the audience, but the audience is also visible to the actors (and other audience members). Particularly, the audience members who sit onstage in the “gallant stools,” another early modern playhouse practice, can expect the actors to speak directly to them. While listening to Juliet (Tracie Thomason), Paul as Romeo had playfully jumped onto the low wall behind the people on the stage right gallant stools. On the line about “love’s light wings,” he propelled himself off the wall onto the stage, tumbling into a triumphant pose in the middle of the stage floor.

Dylan Paul leaping in the 2013 production of Romeo and Juliet at the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) in Staunton, Virginia. Photo courtesy of the author.

Judging from this picture of Paul leaping as Romeo, you can see the different reactions from those seated onstage. The three on the left are looking up at his body in the air; the two on the right are looking up at Juliet in the balcony, oblivious; and the one in the middle, with her tilted head and panicked expression, appears to be fearing for her life. Leaping here was a communal act that prompted terror and delight from its unsuspecting audience. In this case, though, Paul was not just making a leap. He was reenacting one that had already occurred. Romeo had already leapt the orchard wall. He had already survived it. But by recreating the leap for the audience, Paul caused a huge reaction. Many gasped, applauded, vocally responded. Heart, breath, and body engaged in one common event. The threat of physical danger, not just to the actor but the audience in front of him, ended in relief, pleasure, and adrenaline when Paul landed on the stage floor. This kind of actor and audience “contact,” while not physical, is an exhilarating and emotional exchange between spectator and performer only possible in this specific theatre. Romeo’s leap, metaphorical on the page and literal on the stage, is a moment of ecstasy, love, playfulness—and a little danger.

While Romeo (and the actor playing him) survives his leap over the Capulets’ wall, some leapers aren’t so lucky. Leaping can also be risky, as the body comes crashing down to earth. Those who seek the adrenaline high of activities like skydiving crave this feeling of danger. But in skydiving, the participants do whatever they can to stay safe. They do not seek a fatal outcome, even if it looks like they are coming close. Training ensures the skydivers’ success, just as Paul must have practiced and developed a specific technique to eliminate risk for himself and the audience members around him. The same cannot always be said for those who leap in order to change the story of their life.

In Shakespeare’s King John, young Prince Arthur is the rightful heir to the throne, imprisoned by his uncle the king. He knows that he is in danger, for his prison-keeper, Hubert, has already made an attempt on his life. Prince Arthur stands on the top of a castle wall and speaks these words:

The wall is high, and yet will I leap down:
Good ground, be pitiful and hurt me not!
…I am afraid; and yet I’ll venture it.
If I get down, and do not break my limbs,
I’ll find a thousand shifts to get away:
As good to die and go, as die and stay.

He appeals to the “good ground” (much kinder than Romeo’s dull earth) to take pity on him. He is fearful, but ready for adventure, for a chance at a new beginning where he might “get away” from his cruel relatives. Arthur’s speech here lingers in the moment of possibility. He is about to leap. But when he does, he falls to the ground, utters two more lines, and dies. It is a pretty much unstageable moment in the theatre, especially today, where audiences might expect a realistic approach. In modern productions of King John, the actors playing Arthur might leap to their death offstage onto a safety mat, or fall by some other illusion. Their bodies might disappear and be replaced by dummies.

But Shakespeare’s text does not give us that way out. Arthur speaks these final words, “O me! My uncle’s spirit is in these stones: / Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!” after his deadly leap. By invoking his “uncle’s spirit,” Arthur gestures backwards to his deceased uncle Richard the Lionheart, as well as forwards to the soon-to-be dead Uncle John. The final rhyming pair, stones/bones, emphasizes the mineral material that Jane Bennett reminds us that humans and rocks share. By the end of the scene, Arthur has become a kind of “fossil”—a relic of England’s royal family and referred to as “beauteous clay.” Observers onstage remark that Hubert “take[s] all England up” when he gently lifts the dead child and carries him away. Arthur chooses to make this fatal escape, not knowing the outcome. He never asks for a miracle. Instead, his simple logic is chilling: “As good to die and go, as die and stay.” Arthur embraces this likelihood of death, just as the stones embrace his body. While Romeo uses metaphor to propel his ascent, it is Arthur’s descent that engages metaphorical language, constructing his body as a material metonym for England itself.

As Romeo and Arthur illustrate, a leap’s ascendance shows ability, force, and energy, whereas the descent is full of risk and fatal danger. Both Arthur, and Romeo later, learn that leaping is ultimately linked to falling. But falling can still yield a similar outcome to leaping. Adam and Eve fell, and a new world was born. Alice fell into Wonderland to discover another world. The lady in Marie de France’s “Yonec” is a character who wishes to fall, and by a fall—or is it really a leap?—her life begins anew.

Marie de France’s lay is full of falling, at least in Dorothy Gilbert’s translation of the poem. The unnamed female protagonist longs for the “adventures” that “fell to folk” in the old stories of knights and ladies to happen to her. When Muldumarec, the magical prince turned hawk, flies into her chamber, he literalizes Romeo’s metaphor of “love’s wings.” The lady and Muldumarec’s love affair, like that of Romeo and Juliet, is doomed, in this case because she is already married. Her husband, suspicious of his wife’s secret meetings, places iron prongs in the window that cut Muldumarec open as he flies inside. Blood leaping out of his chest, he bids farewell to his love and leaves through the window, where, suddenly:

She followed. Dreadfully she cried,
Tore through the window, leaped and fell.
…Truly it was a miracle
She was not killed; it was a leap
Of twenty feet, down from the keep.

Marie de France gives us an avalanche of action in these lines. The lady follows; she cries; she tears; she leaps; and she falls. The leap here is separate from the fall, showing her deliberate choice swiftly followed by the inevitable pull of gravity. The lady, unlike Arthur, does not die in this moment. By miracle (and no other explanation), she is not hurt. Instead, she begins a new journey. The leap, and by extension the fall, was her means of regaining control. Like Eve or Alice, the lady’s fall is just the beginning of her story. Her falling initiates adventure; falling is not something that just happens to people (like the stories she once heard), but rather something that she can control by embracing risk. When adventure does not fall to her, she must leap into it.

Leaps, both literal and metaphorical, contain dramatic narratives of change and possibility. Romeo leaps over a wall, and Arthur leaps down from the wall. The lady in “Yonec” leaps and falls from her tower. The first of these two leaps have tragic ends, fated in the stars and remembered in the stones, but the lady rises, ready to begin a new life. The decision to leap can take a character, and an audience, by surprise, as it changes the course of a character’s life for the better or worse. That moment of leaping, the suspension so beautifully captured in the photograph of Romeo soaring above the stage, is always full of the most exciting possibility. While a leap is over in the blink of an eye, its consequences reverberate forever.

Emily MacLeod is a PhD student in English at the George Washington University and a theatre practitioner all over the place. Her research interests include Shakespeare, performance, embodiment, and repertory. Her writing on props and actor physicality can be found on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s blog The Collation. This essay was inspired by the collection Veer Ecology, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert (2017).

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