[Cole outlines the major elements of Romeo and Juliet that have typically generated the most commentary in an attempt to explain both the play's significance and its enduring appeal. The critic discusses the tragedy in relation to Shakespeare's other writings; how the playwright adapted the drama from the sources and traditional dramatic and poetic models available to him; the play's language, structure, and themes; and its adherence to conventional tragic dramaturgy, or theatrical representation. In addition, Cole analyzes three principal thematic readings of Romeo and Juliet —(1) a tragedy of character in which the lovers are punished for their reckless passion; (2) a tragedy of destiny in which fate is responsible for Romeo's and Juliet's deaths; and (3) a tragedy of divine providence in which God sacrifices the lovers to reconcile the feuding families. The critic then asserts that the play presents a synthesis of all three issues in its emphasis on the idea that tragic disaster is an inescapable consequence of the precarious balance between good and evil in the world.]
How does one create an enduring literary myth out of a sentimental romance, a love story already rehearsed in prose and verse in several languages? How does one turn a pair of young lovers into figures of such imaginative stature that they will fire the emotions of audiences for centuries to come and even obscure the competing images of lovers from...
(The entire section is 4782 words.)
Franklin M. Dickey
[Dickey asserts that fate, divine will, and the lovers' passion are inseparably linked in Romeo and Juliet and all of these agents contribute to the catastrophe. According to the critic, the work is "a carefully wrought tragedy which balances hatred against love and which makes fortune the agent of divine justice without absolving anyone from his responsibility for the tragic conclusion." In this sense, Dickey contends, Romeo and Juliet reflects the Elizabethan concept of moral responsibility, a tenet which stressed that all sinners must endure the punishment of God, whose will is carried out through the operation of fate.]
Romeo and Juliet, above everything a play of love, is also a play of hatred and of the mysterious ways of fortune. Although love in the first part of the play amuses us, in the end we pity the unhappy fate of young lovers, a fate which critics find embarrassingly fortuitous or, in the Aristotelian sense, unnecessary, the accident of chance to which all human life is subject. Despite the compelling poetry of the play and Shakespeare's skill at creating the illusion of tragedy, the play is said to succeed "by a trick." Whereas Aristotle demanded a "glimpse into the nature of things" beyond theatrical sensationalism and required of tragedy "an overwhelming sense of inevitability," Romeo and Juliet die, critics often tell us, only as the result of a series of mistakes and misunderstandings. In...
(The entire section is 11071 words.)
Adherence to the Rules of Tragedy
G. H. Durrant
[In the following excerpt, three students (A, B, and C), guided by their teacher (Lecturer or Mr. X), debate whether or not Romeo and Juliet adheres to the guidelines of Aristotelian tragedy; that is, in the instructor's words, "does it show the fall of a good and great man, brought about by a flaw in his own nature, enforced by Destiny or by the law of Nature, and arousing Pity and Terror, and so bringing about a state of tragic purgation?" Students A and B consider the question in light of scholarly essays by H. B. Charlton, A C. Bradley, Edward Dowden, Thomas Marc Parrott, Muriel C. Bradbrook, and G. B. Harrison, who generally agree that Romeo and Juliet is not tragic in the Aristotelian sense of the term because the hero is ordinary and the idea of an all-controlling fate is unconvincing. Student C, however, disagrees with the scholars and offers an impressionistic Aristotelian debate is pointless because Shakespeare was not concerned with sustaining an overall tragic design.]
Lecturer [Mr. X). As I told you, we are today to begin the study of Romeo and Juliet, a play that enjoyed a great popularity both in Shakespeare's own day and throughout the following centuries. But since I have frequently impressed upon you the need to consult the best critical opinion before forming your own judgment, perhaps you will tell me now where you have sought for help in reading the play, and what the result of your researches...
(The entire section is 6524 words.)
Time and Haste
Tom F. Driver
[Driver examines Romeo and Juliet in terms of the necessity of condensing "real" time into stage time in such a way that the audience will believe the events of the play have actually taken place. The critic points out that Shakespeare compressed the action of Romeo and Juliet in two ways: first he considerably shortened the length of the action as it appeared in his source, Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet; second, he used very brief scenes to account for longer periods of time. This compression, Driver asserts, underscores the theme of haste in the play. The critic also notes how Shakespeare varies the rhythm of the drama, slowing down or speeding up the action to match its meaning.]
In Romeo and Juliet the young Shakespeare learned the craft of creating on stage the illusion of passing time. The Prologue is a kind of author's pledge that we are to see something that really happened. At least, and for technique it amounts to the same thing, it could have happened.
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
The story is further summarized, and the Prologue ends with this couplet:
The which if you with patient ears attend,
(The entire section is 4504 words.)
Aspects of Love
Leonora Leet Brodwin
[Brodwin studies Romeo and Juliet in relation to the courtly love tradition in Elizabethan romance. Courtly love is a philosophy that was prominent in chivalric times and had a significant influence on Renaissance literature. Though the precise origins of this tradition are not known, the ideas on which it was based were summarized by Andreas Capellanus at the end of the twelfth century in his The Art of Courtly Love. Capellanus explained the doctrine of courtly love in thirty-one "rules." In essence, it is illicit and sensual and is accompanied by great emotional suffering. The lover, usually a knight, falls in love at first sight and, until his love is reciprocated, agonizes over his situation. Once his affection is returned, he is inspired to perform great deeds. Moreover, the lovers pledge their fidelity to one another and vow to keep their union a secret. The ideas of courtly love, were frequently expressed by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch in his love sonnets. His exaggerated comparisons and oxymora (the pairing of contradictory terms) describing the suffering of the lover and the beauty of the lady have come to be known as "Petrarchan conceits." In the excerpt below, Brodwin details the aspects of Romeo and Juliet that conform to the conventions of courtly love: Romeo and Juliet fall in love at first sight; their love is intensified by the feud that threatens it; they meet secretly; and, although they marry,...
(The entire section is 6902 words.)
Imagery and Language
E. C. Pettet
[Pettet examines how imagery reinforces two of the central concerns of Romeo and Juliet: the role of fate in determining the lovers' tragedy and the feud between the families. The influence of fate, the critic argues, is developed through the use of star imagery, in which stars serve as a metaphor (an implied analogy which imaginatively identifies one object with another) for destiny, and through the "pilot" imagery which is used to describe Romeo's maturation and attempts to control his own destiny. Pettet also demonstrates how the paradox (a statement which while seemingly contradictory or absurd may actually be well-founded and true) of Romeo and Juliet's love arising out of the hatred between the Montagues and the Capulets is accentuated by the repeated references to opposition and contradiction, particularly the contrasts between love and death and between light and darkness.]
With so much emphasis on Fate [in Romeo and Juliet] there is nothing surprising in the fact that Shakespeare makes frequent use of the time-old symbol of the stars in his imagery. Nor, in such a story of romantic love, is it remarkable to find the star-image employed in a second conventional way—as a metaphor for feminine beauty (especially for the eyes of the Lady) and for the attraction of lovers. What is, however, of interest is the way in which Shakespeare subtly fuses these two sorts of star-image; and perhaps the most striking...
(The entire section is 3519 words.)
Romeo and Juliet
[Leech views Romeo and Juliet's love as a maturing experience for the hero and heroine and demonstrates how the development of their language, in particular, marks their entry into adulthood. Although the critic notes several humorous elements in the couple's declarations of love, he points out that they also frequently speak with authority, suggesting the seriousness of their commitment to one another. In Leech's opinion, Juliet's language displays both her inexperience and her newfound maturity as she struggles to find images to express her love for Romeo. Her maturation is more pronounced than Romeo's, the critic asserts: Juliet's language firmly establishes her adult status in Act III, and it is not until Act V that Romeo's language approaches hers in terms of maturity.]
Romeo and Juliet has proved a problem for Shakespeare critics. Franklin M. Dickey (see excerpt in section on Tragic Design) has seen it as exhibiting a simple moral lesson: to be taken up wholly by one's passion for another human being would, he argues, be seen by an Elizabethan as a moral imperfection, as likely to induce a general disregard of the moral law: so Shakespeare's play, despite its sympathy with the lovers, must be seen in relation to the contemporary idea of moral responsibility. But to argue in this way is to take Romeo and Juliet as Roy Battenhouse has taken [Christopher] Marlowe's Tamburlaine...
(The entire section is 7869 words.)
[Granville-Barker praises the Nurse as a well-conceived, rich, and natural character and compares her with Falstaff (in 1 and 2 Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor), one of Shakespeare's greatest comic creations. Remarking on the consistency of the Nurse's portrait the critic notes that all facets of her personality fall into perspective at III. v. 212-17 when she advises Juliet to marry Paris and forget Romeo.]
The Nurse ... is a triumphant and complete achievement. She stands four-square, and lives and breathes in her own right from the moment she appears, from that very first
Now, by my maiden-head at twelve year old,
I bade her come.
[I. iii. 2-3]
Shakespeare has had her pent up in his imagination; and out she gushes. He will give us nothing completer till he gives us Falstaff [in 1 and 2 Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor]. We mark his confident, delighted knowledge of her by the prompt digression into which he lets her launch; the story may wait. It is not a set piece of fireworks such as Mercutio will touch off in honour of Queen Mab. The matter of it flows spontaneously into verse, the phrases are hers and hers alone, character unfolds with each phrase. You may, indeed, take any sentence the Nurse speaks throughout the play, and only she could speak it. Moreover, it will have no trace of the convention to...
(The entire section is 4743 words.)
Harold C. Goddard
[Goddard declares that Mercutio, like the Nurse, is an extreme sensualist and heathen. The critic concentrates primarily on Mercutio's crude sexual humor, noting that the character's obscene language underscores the purity of Romeo's passion for Juliet. Goddard then addresses the issue of Mercutio's Queen Mab speech (I. iv. 53-103), which several critics have considered out of character because of the beauty of its language. The critic asserts that the speech is in fact representative of Mercutio's style because compared with the imagination and delicacy of the lovers' verse, it appears superficial. According to Goddard, the Queen Mab speech is a device used by Shakespeare to show what constitutes true poetry.]
Mercutio and the Nurse are simply youth and old age of the same type. He is aimed at the same goal she has nearly attained. He would have become the same sort of old man that she is old woman, just as she was undoubtedly the same sort of young girl that he is young man. They both think of nothing but sex—except when they are so busy eating or quarreling that they can think of nothing. (I haven't forgotten Queen Mab; I'll come to her presently.) Mercutio cannot so much as look at the clock without a bawdy thought. So permeated is his language with indecency that most of it passes unnoticed not only by the innocent reader but by all not schooled in Elizabethan smut. Even on our own unsqueamish stage an...
(The entire section is 2422 words.)
[Cardullo focuses on Friar Lawrence's actions to demonstrate that the play's catastrophe results from the rash behavior of several characters. The critic argues that had the priest acted with less haste, the lovers' tragic deaths might have been prevented. Cardullo also contends that Friar Lawrence's rashness is underscored by the Nurse's hesitation in informing Juliet of the arrangements of her secret marriage and of Tybalt's death. Furthermore, the impulsiveness of Romeo, Capulet, and the Friar was bred by the feud, which, according to the critic, accounts for the characters' failure to recognize their flaw.]
"It has been objected," writes Frank Kermode [in his introduction to Romeo and Juliet in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans], "that [Romeo and Juliet] lacks tragic necessity— that the story becomes tragic only by a trick. … [There is a conviction that] Shakespeare offends against his own criteria for tragedy by allowing mere chance to determine the destiny of the hero and heroine." We learn of the "trick" when Friar John, whom Friar Laurence has sent to Mantua with a letter telling Romeo to come and take Juliet away when she awakens from her long sleep, returns and says:
Going to find a barefoot brother out,
One of our order, to associate me,
Here in this city visiting the sick,
And finding him, the searchers of the town,
(The entire section is 3071 words.)